All posts by Andre Salles

It’s No Bull
But Say Zuzu's Every Mile Ain't Bad

Well, this was supposed to be the first Tuesday Morning column in about six weeks that was actually delivered and posted on a date that resembles the one atop the column, but no such luck. This week I battled valiantly against a hacking, wheezing, snotty sort of illness that set up shop in my throat and proceeded to sell huge amounts of gooey green liquid to all takers within my skull. I went to work all mopey and leaky, hoping to spread my viral infection to the most deserving asswipe of an assistant editor ever visited upon the journalism industry, but otherwise stayed unconscious. We’ll see next week if it was all worth it, if Huggybear the Grim (as we’ve come to call him) collapses, his lungs aflame and his head dissolving to liquid. Such thoughts keep a smile on my face.

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I need to mention the Oscars for a second, simply because it will annoy Josh Rogers, and I haven’t heard from him in a while, and this should incite him to write me a hateful e-mail about stupid awards shows, which I will enjoy reading. So, the Oscars.

I’m overall happy with the selections this year, even though A Beautiful Mind is going to mercilessly sweep through the top awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay are all but in the bag. It’s a shame, really, because two much more deserving films are nominated (In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge), but that seems to be the case every year, and why should this one provide that glimmer of faint hope that would sustain millions of moviegoers’ faith in the Academy? Screw that, give it to Russell Crowe again.

But beyond that, I need to mention the most egregious snub of the lot (besides the single solitary major nomination for Memento, which deserved much more than Best Screenplay – I mean, jeez, not recognizing Guy Pearce, at least, is just silly). How can the voters nominate Moulin Rouge for Best Picture without recognizing Baz Luhrmann for Best Director? If any film this year stands as the very image of its director’s singular vision, it’s this one. No one else alive could have made this film, and granting nominations to Robert Altman for directing Masterpiece Theater…er, I mean, Gosford Park, and to David Lynch for coming up with yet another masturbatory chunk of obscure whimsy is simply insane. Luhrmann is one of a handful of modern directors willing to commit completely to a style, a scope and a worldview that is utterly his own. He already won the prize in my head, so to not see his name on the list was a surprise.

Enough of that. And don’t even get me started on the damn Grammys…

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How Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Say Zuzu haven’t ridden the alt-country wave to a major label contract is beyond me. There are a number of fabulous bands in northern New England, but Say Zuzu comes in at pretty near the top of the heap. They’ve been around for a decade, perfecting and plying their brand of vaguely twangy rock ‘n’ roll to a depressingly small audience. In 1998 they released their masterpiece of a fourth album, the one they’d been building towards since their inception, and they called it Bull. It’s the kind of record that you put on to listen to alone, and instantly wish you had 500 friends who could come over and listen to it with you. In my Face Magazine column of that year, I called it “the best alt-country album released since the breakup of Uncle Tupelo,” and each time I listen to it, I decide that I wasn’t exaggerating.

Say Zuzu is fronted by a couple of top-notch singers and songwriters in Cliff Murphy and Jon Nolan, kind of the Lennon and McCartney of the band. Even though he signed my copy of Say Zuzu’s new album “Yours in rock,” I’ve always kind of preferred Nolan’s work, but over the years both have grown considerably. It’s sad, then, that very little of that growth is in evidence on Every Mile, their just-released fifth album. The songs and tones stay within pretty strict confines, and none of the wild experimentalism of Bull shows up for the party. It’s almost like listening to a different band.

And, in fact, that’s what’s happened. Murphy and Nolan remain the only original members, having welcomed bassist Jon Pistey and drummer Tim Nylander to the band. If Bull was the sound of one unit spreading its wings, Every Mile is the sound of four guys feeling each other out musically. The songs are straightforward, and the record hardly ever deviates from the guitars-bass-drums format.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s often fascinating to hear this new Say Zuzu coming to terms with itself, and Every Mile is a satisfyingly raw, messy album that documents the process nicely. It also contains some great tunes, the best of which surprisingly sprung from Murphy. “Good Girl” is a sad, slow wonder, and “Don’t Leave” makes its pleading case well. Nolan’s “Postcard” is quite good, and the closing acoustic number, “Still,” is also well done, if not haunting.

Still and all, though, one can’t help comparing this album to the Say Zuzu of old, and it comes up a bit short. The banjo part on the tentative “Sugarbowl” only brings to mind the superior (nay, stunning) “Maylee” on Bull, and rockers like “Doldrums,” fine as they are, recall older, less confident albums. Nolan and Murphy still sing like mud-splattered angels, and their guitar tone, though a bit thicker than on past releases, remains a fine mix of thud and twang. All the ingredients are there, we just need to let this mixture bake a bit longer.

Don’t get me wrong – Say Zuzu are still one of the best bands from the northeast, and Every Mile is worth your purchase. (You can get all their records at For fans who followed them from their early days into one of the best bands in their field, though, it’s kind of depressing that we may have to repeat that process. It’s the paradox of the modern music fan – we want this incarnation of the band to be just as good as the last one, if not better, and we want it right now. Given time, this new Say Zuzu will likely ascend to the heights of their predecessor. That they’re not there yet is cause for anticipation, not alarm.

Next week, too many options. Who can tell?

See you in line Tuesday morning.

A Guitar, a Voice and a Heartbreak
The Sad, Sweet, Unchanging World of Chris Isaak

Previously on Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

My computer remains broken, shattered, in several pieces and awaiting the assistance of a pot-addled man named Dave. However, despite all the trauma that these weekend columns have visited upon my life (yeah, trauma – wanna make something of it?), I still managed to give good reviews to Dream Theater and the Chemical Brothers. Check the archive, I’m not lying.

Also, my twin brother slept with my twin half-sister before chopping her into several pieces, feeding those pieces to her dog, and then tossing her dog down a deep well. Despite all this, my disgustingly rich uncle (who may also be my father, and who owns half the quaint seaside town we all live in) has hatched plans to kill her again should she somehow return, with a new face and a new name and a long-lost daughter we never knew existed. Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly suspicious that my half-brother has been spying on the sly dalliance I’ve been having with his mother, and may be plotting to use his occult knowledge to summon some form of vengeance from beyond. I should watch out for that.

So, just another day.

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On today’s episode of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

I’ve always said that, if forced at gunpoint to have sex with a man of my choosing, I’d have sex with Chris Isaak. I mean, look at the guy. Who wouldn’t have sex with Chris Isaak?

Apparently, almost everyone, if you’re to believe the lyrics of his songs. Isaak has long been the master of the ’50s-inspired sad-sack heartthrob pose, the teen idol with the great hair that’s constantly getting his heart stomped on by one woman after another. I was half-hoping that, given the success of his Showtime series The Chris Isaak Show, he’d title his new album As Seen on TV, but upon further reflection, that sort of postmodern self-referentialism doesn’t suit Isaak at all. He’s a genuine throwback, a glimmer of an earlier time when a guitar and a heartbreak made a pop star irresistible.

The title he chose for his first album in four years is Always Got Tonight, and that fits right in with the rest of his collection. Isaak has never changed, thank God. He’s always been content to sing the same sad songs the same way, running over the same broken-heart cliches and making them sound like genuine pain. He’s an old-time crooner who just happens to have one of the finest sad-song voices ever granted to a model-handsome hunk. It’s no secret why his records don’t sell – he’s playing to Elvis Presley’s audience, and they’re all busy looking for their King in outlet malls and convenience stores.

Those that get Isaak, though, are in for more of the same with Always Got Tonight, and they should be quite pleased with it. The song titles say it all: “Let Me Down Easy,” “Worked it Out Wrong,” “Life Will Go On,” “Nothing to Say,” and on an on. You’d think he’d get tired of singing about love gone wrong, and more to the point, you’d think that after eight albums, his fans might get tired of it as well. Not gonna happen, for a whole bunch of reasons.

First, there’s that voice. Isaak bends his vocals around his ringing, melancholy guitars and your heart breaks right along with his. He sends it soaring into a flawless falsetto on “Worked It Out Wrong” (for one) and you can’t help the chills that run up and down your spine. He’s a wonderful vocalist, no matter what he’s singing (as his collection of acoustic beach songs, Baja Sessions, proved), but he’s stunningly effective when delivering what otherwise might be a hackneyed weeper.

Second, though the songs remain the same, the trappings often change from album to album, and this one’s no exception. Isaak started out playing minimalist, reverbed guitar-pop, moved to acoustic country-rock and has ended up in platinum-produced rockabilly land, without altering the basic appeal of his simple, direct songs. Always Got Tonight shines in the production department, with bendy electric guitars adding touches of melancholy to “Courthouse,” a string section on “Worked It Out Wrong” and a basic sheen that straddles the too-slick, too-raw line quite well.

Ah, but the music and the production are all just trappings for that voice, and that’s what people respond to. Isaak has always been able to wrap a pop music fan around his little finger with just a few well-placed notes, and the new album is further proof of that. No matter what efforts he makes to convince us that he’s just a regular “American Boy” (the title song to his show, included here), as long as he keeps using that voice, he’ll be anything but typical. Always Got Tonight is another collection of sad, sad songs from Isaak, and if you’ve fallen under his inexplicable spell before, you likely will again.

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Coming up on Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

February’s half over? How the hell did that happen?

Anyway, there are some interesting musical distractions coming your way in the next few months, and while none of them smack of Top 10 List quality, they should be worth a listen. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

On February 26, Neil Finn makes his latest stateside gambit with the first of his one-two Nettwerk Records punch, the 17-track live album Seven Worlds Collide. Also, Alanis Morissette angsts her way back onto record store shelves with Under Rug Swept, featuring the worst single in her short history, “Hands Clean.” I mean, yikes. This is a bad song. Let’s hope the record transcends it, but from early reviews I’ve been reading, it sadly falls short.

March 12 is a big, big music week. First, there’s the new Eels, called Souljacker. These guys have made some of the coolest quirk-pop of the last few years, and the new album contains a song called “World of Shit,” so it can’t be all bad. Also, the Indigo Girls return with Become You, their eighth album. Bob Mould (formerly of Husker Du and Sugar) launches the first album in a trilogy with Modulate. Me’Shell NdegeoCello returns to her funky roots on Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. The Corrs, who remain highly underrated, give us their first live album, and Jars of Clay release their first self-produced effort, The Eleventh Hour.

Coming in April are two new albums from Tom Waits, called Alice and The Red Drum. Apparently these mark a surprising shift in direction for America’s favorite crazed, growling, freaky genius. Phish puts out the next six volumes of their LivePhish series, and before they do, I promise to post my reviews of the first six. Elvis Costello gives us another cynical rocker (and about damn time) with When I Was Cruel, Wilco finally releases the “too musically adventurous” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Weezer gives us another half an hour of joy with Maladroit.

Obviously, no Say ZuZu this week – maybe next week? Tune in to find out.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Let Me Take You Down ‘Cause I’m Going Soon
The Chemical Brothers Invite You to Come With Us

A quick computer update first.

So I finally get in touch with Dave, our friendly neighborhood computer technician, who always sounds like he’s just downed a big fat bag of weed. Dave isn’t much on interpersonal communication, but he knows his shit, or so I’ve been assured. Thus, with all the positive thinking I can muster, I hand Dave the broken old hard drive like a ritual sacrifice and say, “Do your thing.”

Hours later, Dave is still kneeled over the scattered carcass of my computer, muttering to himself. Occasionally I can make out phrases, none of them comforting: “I was afraid of that,” or, “This isn’t too good.” I start pacing like an expectant father, until finally, Dave looks up and, with a sad voice, proclaims the computer “broken.” Dave then proceeds to call technical support, which doesn’t fill me with all the confidence in the world.

Long story short, we’re going to try replacing the mother board and see if that works. Then we’re going to attack the old computer with a sledge hammer and just buy another one. Either way, it looks like Sunday columns for a while yet. Stifle your cries of dismay, faithful readers. Neither Dave nor I want to hear them.

* * * * *

Some upcoming items of interest:

New Hampshire’s best band, the superb Say ZuZu, has a new album out called Every Mile. With any luck, it will be the subject of next week’s review. If you’ve never heard this band, your first stop on should be to purchase their terrific fourth album, Bull. To my ears, it’s the best alternative country album since Uncle Tupelo broke up. If Every Mile is as good, I’ll be thrilled, and you’ll read it here first.

Speaking of alt-country, and of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy’s band Wilco has finally secured a U.S. release date for their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. As you may have heard, the album was rejected by Reprise Records for being “too musically adventurous,” whatever the hell that means. Advance reports are calling it alternately a masterpiece and a pile of cow puckey, with some pundits proclaiming that it will kill their career. For music fans that enjoy risky works, this news is thrilling beyond measure. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will be out on Nonesuch Records on April 23.

Finally, Mark Eitzel, the saddest man in music, returns on April 9 with an album called Courage and Confidence. Before you start to think that he’s taken those patented Robert Smith happy pills, you should know that it’s a covers album. It’s so Mark Eitzel to only be able to find courage and confidence in other people’s songs. More on this soon.

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The Chemical Brothers are an odd case. They hit huge in 1996 with Dig Your Own Hole, and then rapidly proceeded to take their album title’s advice, producing work that veered sharply away from the club-happy beats of their first couple of albums. They’re known primarily as an electronica act, and if I can pause for one second, I’d express how much I vehemently despise that appellation. We’re so concerned with putting music in compact little boxes that we lump everyone who uses programmed synthesizers into one category. The sub-categories (jungle, house, trance, etc.) are not any better, either.

That’s why the Chemical Brothers are to be treasured. They have complete disdain for those little boxes, breaking them down as often as possible. Dig Your Own Hole was praised for its single-minded sonic warping, but also for its willingness to add live vocals, guitars and violins to an otherwise computerized mix. To my mind, the Chems are no more an electronica group than the Beastie Boys are a rap outfit. It’s all about tearing down myopic boundaries.

The sad fact is that the further the Brothers move away from the repetitive thudding of their roots, the fewer albums they sell. Case in point: In 1999, the Brothers released Surrender, the culmination of a bunch of melodic paths they’d been taking for years. It was the first ’60s-influenced psychedelic dance album, simply drowned in backwards soundscapes and heavenly guitar. It was a pulsating wonderland, and it sold for shit. The legions of fans who came aboard with “Block Rockin’ Beats” dove overboard and swam for shore as if there were sharks on their tails.

Undaunted, the Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, totally unrelated) have pressed on and released the second ’60s-influenced psychedelic dance album with Come With Us. God bless ’em, because this disc is more of the same ecstatic boundary-pushing that they’ve been doing all along, and it probably won’t make a blip on the sales charts.

That’s not important, though. What is important is that once you get through the opening trilogy (a somewhat loose assemblage of beats and samples that recalls their early work), the remainder of Come With Us is a mind-altering psychosphere of joy. Blissful synths sit alongside trumpets, guitars and enough backwards tape looping to drive John Lennon’s ghost mad, and it all works. Call it flower power trance dance absurdica, or whatever you like. No one in this field is making records quite like this.

Come With Us offers the Chems’ fourth collaboration with the amazing Beth Orton, on “The State We’re In,” a melancholy and atmospheric piece. They also close the record with “The Test,” a rambling, overjoyed set piece for The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft that has some fans up in arms. Those same fans, however, decried similar collaborations with Noel Gallagher (“Setting Sun”) and Johnny Marr (“Out of Control”), and have been resistant to any hint of change.

Well, the hell with them. The Chemical Brothers know that music has to change. They’re in the vanguard of artists that, for the majority of the ’90s, have been smashing the boundaries that marketing and demographic research has placed on music. Yeah, Come With Us can be seen as just another Chemical Brothers album, only building slightly on the last one, but in truth, they’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to their expansive vision. They want you along for the ride, not watching from the side of the road. Why else would they have called the album Come With Us?

Next week, hopefully Say ZuZu.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Pretty Regret Machine
NIN's Live Album, And All That Could Have Been

Got my car back.

There is no sweeter feeling than unhindered mobility, especially after you’ve been traveling solely on the kindness of strangers for a while. Trust me. The car looks brand new, and so naturally I’m petrified to drive the thing, lest I smash it up again. It’s almost too shiny and perfect for me to be comfortable behind the wheel. I know, the depths of my neuroses know no bounds…

As for the computer, well, that’s another story. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably have to endure one more of these ultra-late Sunday columns before I get back on track. I figure there are two big new releases next week (Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and the Chemical Brothers’ Come With Us), so I should be able to do one on Sunday and one on Wednesday on my fully healed word cruncher. I believe that saying things out loud helps them to come true, so I include this tentative schedule in this week’s missive in the hopes that the universe gets the hint.

Thanks for your patience. With any luck, you’ll be getting Tuesday Morning on Wednesday evening again before long. (Only in my world does that make a reassuring amount of sense.)

* * * * *

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is so far ahead of the curve he’s caught up with his own backlash. It’s so fashionable to hate him that the bleeding-edge alternative critics have gone back to praising him again as if megahit “Closer” had never happened. The people who approach Reznor from a musical standpoint, meaning those who aren’t looking for someone in black fishnets to define their vague alienation for them, have never stopped praising his work, however. Reznor remains one of our most talented sonic architects, and thanks to a few MTV hits, he’s also our only fully-funded one.

Here are the facts. In 1989, Reznor, with a little album called Pretty Hate Machine, popularized a certain computer-driven sound that had become known as industrial. That record has always sounded cheap and clangy, but it influenced the creation of mainstream industrial acts the same way the first Velvet Underground album influenced garage rock. Almost every idiot with a sequencer who heard this record started a band, or rather, a “band,” clogging the airwaves with barely musical depresso-montages. Reznor himself has never done another album like it.

In 1992, the reclusive Reznor returned with Broken, a six-song EP that introduced layered, noisy guitars to the equation. Broken is a merciless 25-minute burst of rage that, again, influenced hundreds of less talented hacks like Gravity Kills to start screaming and overloading their tracks with noisy mayhem. Broken retains an artfulness that still sets it far above the oceans of imitators, even though, again, Reznor has never done another album like it.

Instead, he embarked on a quirky and satisfying artistic journey with 1994’s The Downward Spiral, a diseased look inside the mind of a violent criminal. Rarely has such a difficult and uncompromising work yielded such a popular hit single, but “Closer” really put Reznor on the map, which naturally fueled cries of sell-out. How anyone can listen to The Downward Spiral and hear sell-out is beyond me. It’s a deeply emotional and complex album, filled with off-kilter sonic constructions that constantly threaten to collapse upon themselves. From a purely musical standpoint, it’s a modern masterpiece.

1999’s double-disc follow-up, The Fragile, was even better – a sprawling, thematically linked stunner that sounded like the culmination of all of Reznor’s disparate musical threads. In this age of downloadable hit singles, it’s impressive enough that such a high-profile artist decided to release a 100-minute work that cannot be successfully separated or broken down. The Fragile is an all-or-not-at-all proposition, and it rewards complete listens like few albums from the ’90s do.

All of which is a lengthy way of stating that Reznor deserves every ounce of respect he’s given. His journey has been an utterly fascinating one so far, and he’s one of a handful of modern artists who reveals more of himself with each subsequent release. Just when you think he’s through surprising you, he jolts you again with something utterly unexpected.

Which brings us to his new two-disc set, And All That Could Have Been. It’s a strange, yet oddly fitting title for an overview of older material that brings new emotions into focus. As advertised, And All That Could Have Been contains a live album, Reznor’s first, and it provides a terrific sampling of material from all four albums. The live band hasn’t changed in 10 years – it’s still Reznor, Charlie Clouser, Robin Finck, Jerome Dillon and Danny Lohner. What has changed from that disastrous first Lollapalooza tour is the volume of emotion NIN brings to the material.

The live album documents last year’s Fragility 2.0 tour, voted by many music publications as the best tour of the year. Yes, the band plays with programmed backing beats, but you’d be surprised just how difficult that is to pull off, especially since the arrangements often deconstruct the songs in surprising new ways. The blips and beats are treated as the songs’ essential skeletons, over which Reznor and company build new beasts. Most effective is the extended ending to “The Day the World Went Away,” a slowly cascading powerhouse of simplicity.

Reznor has always excelled at giving cold mechanical backdrops a flesh and blood treatment, and on stage he’s just as good as in the studio. The live disc brings the rage, as Reznor screams his way through “Terrible Lie,” “Wish,” “Gave Up,” “Head Like a Hole,” rare b-side “Suck” and “Starfuckers Inc.” like an unhinged demon. Surprisingly, though, he also carries off quieter, more orchestrated material like “The Great Below” with grace. Closing track “Hurt” (also the closer on Spiral) is just as effective live as on disc. Far from the studied precision of his studio works, And All That Could Have Been gives us a raw, fully human Reznor we’ve never heard before.

If you’re going to buy this thing, though, you need to get the two-disc version, because the second album here is the biggest and most pleasant surprise. It’s called Still, and it’s 43 minutes of stripped-down, piano-centric reflection. Reznor steps out from behind the curtain here and invites us to gaze at him, cracked and broken, with nowhere to hide. It’s the most affecting work he’s ever released, and the most effective deconstruction of his signature sound.

Still opens with a piano-and-vocal take on “Something I Can Never Have” that sets the tone – sparse instrumentation and naked vocals that crack and falter with emotion. Similar takes on “The Fragile” and “The Day the World Went Away” work just as well, and even when he adds pitter-pattering drums and synths to “The Becoming,” the tone remains somber. Still contains five new songs, four of which are gorgeous instrumentals that explore the territory Reznor mined with The Fragile‘s mood pieces. It’s capped off with new song “And All That Could Have Been,” a worthy addition.

Thematically, Still revisits every phase of the NIN trip so far with the kind of reflective hindsight that comes with age and distance. If Reznor has indeed been writing a strange form of autobiography, then Still is him looking back with regret. It’s tinged with a sadness that’s only hinted at in previous works, and it sustains that mood throughout. Closing track “Leaving Hope” may be the most emotional piece of instrumental music you’re likely to hear. That and the rest of Still serve as a perfect capstone to what hopefully is only the first chapter. The live album is just the bow on top. Still is the prize, another grand surprise in a grand and surprising career.

Next week, Dream Theater.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In a New York Minute
Everything Can Turn to Crap

I had a freak-out in New York last weekend.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve experienced one of those – a genuine, synapse-collapsing meltdown. I was meant to have been visiting a friend, with whom I’ve recently reconnected after seven years. Everything was set – on my way to Maryland, I would stop in for a few days, staying at her apartment on First Avenue. I had decent directions (given to me by a nifty individual who doubles as a Presbyterian minister and a sex therapist), I had a plan, and I thought I had control over my biggest fear.

You see, the only thing in the world I’m really afraid of is other people. I’m not scared to fly, I’m just frightened of the other people on the plane. Likewise, I have no fear of driving, but I’m terrified of the other people on the road. This phobia has mutated over time to provide me with a pathological fear of cities. I just hate them. I especially hate driving in them – so many other drivers, all with divergent destinations, and none of them give two rat’s shits whether you make it to yours alive.

Of all the cities I’ve driven through, New York City is the worst. At any given time, there are millions of people trying to navigate roads that are only wide enough to accommodate two horse-driven carriages. The streets themselves seem to harbor a dislike of drivers, particularly those unfamiliar with the city. They appear to twist in upon themselves, providing only one-way outlets going the opposite way one wishes to proceed. It’s impossible to retrace your steps in New York, as I discovered on Saturday.

One thing you need to understand about me for this story to make sense – I don’t have a cell phone. I hate those things, too. I find them inherently annoying whenever I encounter them, and consider them only useful in emergency situations. Despite my tendency to find myself in emergency situations in which a cell phone could be extremely useful, I haven’t broken down and bought one yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. So don’t email me asking why I didn’t just call someone. That’s why.

So, okay, I arrive in New York at about 3:30 in the afternoon, only about three and a half hours later than I intended in the first place. (Late night, oversleeping, late start in the morning, etc.) My first destination is the Triboro Bridge, a teeming disaster area of semi-mobile vehicles, crammed into five tiny lanes. I entered, by necessity, on the left side of the bridge, and had to somehow maneuver my way through three lanes of backed-up traffic to get to the right lane, which turned into my exit in roughly a quarter-mile. To top that off, everyone else on the bridge seemingly needed to get over into whatever lane I was inhabiting at the time as well, and most of them just turned towards my vehicle without a second thought.

I think I almost died four times.

Still and all, I got over the bridge and onto FDR Drive. My directions then specified that I was to look for an exit sign with no number or street name – one just marked “Exit.” That’s the kind of city New York is. Needless to say, about an hour later, I was completely lost, with no idea of how I’d managed to get where I was, or how to get back. (See previous comments re: retracing one’s steps.) Depressingly, there appeared no place to park, either – all the spaces were taken, sometimes twice, and traffic wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. Plus, given my fear of other people, I wasn’t about to leave my car anywhere unattended.

At one point, I asked a friendly police officer (who was risking his life directing traffic) how to get to First Avenue. He told me to “take a left on Centre Street and then a right on HOW-ston.” At least, that’s how it sounded to me, so I asked him to repeat that last street name, and he said it again: “HOW-ston.” When I asked him to spell it, he looked at me as if I had just crawled up from the evolutionary muck. “It’s spelled ‘Houston,'” he grunted. “Well then,” I thought, “why in fuck’s name didn’t you just SAY ‘Houston’ in the first place.” I didn’t say that, however.

No, I was just about in the throes of my freak-out, which came on full force when I took that right onto HOW-ston and found that it didn’t quite lead me where I wanted to go. The next hour or so is a blur of sharp turns, near-misses and hyperventilation, and when I stumbled upon the way out – blessed Route 495, which must lead to Route 95 – I jumped at it. I even pulled into a gas station and asked the fine gentleman behind the counter which 495 (east or west) would get me back to Route 95.

“East,” he said.

“Right-o,” I replied.

Half an hour later, I was screaming at my mental picture of that fine gentleman, calling him a filthy cocksucking liar. I kept thinking that the road would loop around, perhaps, or connect in some way south of the city, but no. I ended up pulling off into another gas station, and meeting the nicest New Yorker ever, who gave me a map and directed me to the Cross Island Expressway, which hooks up with 95 after the Verrazzano Bridge. I thanked him and hurried back, thinking I might give the city another shot.

Of course, the Expressway was backed up for miles and miles, so I didn’t reach 95 until 8:30 p.m. The decision to just go south to Maryland was a pretty easy one – I really couldn’t spend another minute in that city. By the time I hit the highway, I was a twittering, shaking, sweaty mess. I know I’m going to have to get over this at some point, but my fear of cities is so great that I can barely breathe when I’m in one. I don’t think I’m afraid of other people individually so much as in nameless, faceless groups – which extends to religions and political organizations as well. They scare the shit out of me.

Naturally, my friend was frightened out of her gourd that I might have died along the way, and I didn’t catch up with her until about 11 p.m. If the fear and anger in her voice wasn’t enough convince me that I need a cell phone, I don’t think anything will be. Over the last few days, I have found myself glancing with interest at Verizon Wireless stores as I walk past, so we shall see.

As a hopeful epilogue to this stupid little tale, however, I made my first tentative drives into Baltimore this week, and they didn’t go as badly as I expected. Baltimore is like a slightly larger Portland, Maine, in that people seem to all be going the same direction most of the time. Plus, it has the biggest freaking Barnes and Noble I have ever seen, and I’m really looking forward to driving back in and checking it out.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to find a job, which is why this column contains nothing of substance. Plus, this week saw a complete absence of noteworthy new music, which will hopefully be rectified by next week, when Jeff Tweedy’s Loose Fur project hits, as well as Billy Corgan’s debut with his new band, Zwan. In the meantime, drive safe, and try to think about the other drivers now and again. Especially if you live in a big city.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Death and Rebirth
And Changing to a Butterfly Jones

So I was going to start this column with a justification for its lateness and a giant rant against technology, both of which were precipitated by my computer dying on me. My two-year-old typewriter-with-a-TV has decided, all on its own, that the hard drive upon which I’ve placed everything I’ve written since 1999 (including every one of these columns) doesn’t actually exist. I can’t convince it otherwise. It’s probably something small and stupid, like a loose wire or a broken needle, but my Circuit City service contract only covers replacements. Hence, an all-new hard drive will be on its way to me in a day or two, I hope.

So yeah, I was going to start in about how everything breaks and dies just when you’ve become dependent on it. And then a real person died, and that sort of put things into perspective.

The biggest problem with being a comic book fan (which I am) is that no one’s ever heard of the art form’s best and brightest. Being the most famous and influential comic book artist is like being the world’s greatest tile grouter. In tile grouting circles, you’re a superstar. To the rest of the world, you’re kind of weird for thinking that tile grouting is a big deal.

All of which is a way of saying that when a great comic book artist, a true architect of the modern form, passes on, no one but the fans really notices. John Buscema was one of those, though – a true architect of the modern form. He worked with Stan Lee to bring Marvel Comics its heart and soul, especially on a title called Silver Surfer that was epic and small at the same time, mostly because of Buscema’s art. Every comic book artist who’s ever tried to depict the massive and world-spanning on a human scale has used Buscema as a guideline, and they’ll all tell you so.

I don’t want to eulogize the guy too much, because I didn’t know him. He did, however, have a lasting impact on my childhood, whether I knew it or not at the time. I also figured that since no major news organizations were going to memorialize him, I’d better say something before another superb artist passed into the ether without notice.

Rest in peace, John.

* * * * *

I’m playing catch-up this week with a brief review of an album I never got around to last year. I say ‘brief” because my lack of computer is forcing me to type this at the office, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do non-newspaper work for very long while my bosses are roaming about. By the time they read this, if they do, I hope it’ll be too late.

I first heard dada the same way most people did, I’m sure. I caught their novelty hit “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio in ’92 and laughed my throat raw. If you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘Dizz Knee Land” is a clever send-up of those Disney World commercials that ran in the early ’90s. (You know the ones: “Jeffrey Dahmer, you’ve just carved up three innocent people and ate them, what are you going to do next?” ‘I’m going to Disney World!”) “Dizz Knee Land” was full of anti-social behavior (“I just robbed a grocery store, I just flipped off President George, I’m going to Dizz Knee Land…”), but it broke the first rule of career longevity: never lead with a novelty song.

True to the rule, dada never had another hit. They did, however, produce four albums that ranged in quality from very good to superb, without another novelty tune in the bunch. Guitarist Michael Gurley in particular established himself as a singular talent, one of only a handful of modern guitarists with his own signature sound. You can always tell a Gurley tune from the guitar tone. Try saying that about the guy from Godsmack.

If any one thing characterized dada, it was their unwillingness to be pigeonholed. They tried everything, from three-chord jams to complex Beatlesque pop to haunting blues-influenced showcases. The trio (also including bassist Joie Calo and drummer Phil Leavitt) was always best, however, when they relied on nothing but their chemistry as a unit, stripping down to three instruments and a voice and somehow filling the room with a huge yet minimalist sound.

As you’ve probably gathered by the frequent use of past tense verbs in this column, dada broke up a while ago. Well-researched readers have probably also surmised that the CD I didn’t get to last year is the debut from Gurley’s new band, Butterfly Jones. This album has sold like wool sweaters to sheep, which is to say not very well, and that’s not unexpected, but unfortunate. Butterfly Jones’ Napalm Springs (love that title) is, at the very least, a better-than-average dada album, and ought to be doing better than it is.

Alas, the American public seems to be allergic to smart, well-constructed pop music, which is what Napalm Springs offers in spades. Gurley’s guitar tone remains enticingly original, and drummer Leavitt is in Butterfly Jones as well, so it’s almost a dada reunion. Instead of the minimalist approach his former band took, though, Gurley has widened the sound here without oversaturating it, making room for strings and horns and the sampled sounds of Soul Coughing keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni. It’s a mainstreaming move, to be sure, but it works well with the material.

And the material is almost entirely musically excellent. To name three, “Suicide Bridge” is another hit that will never be, “Blue Roses” is sweet and subtle, and “Alright” recasts Gurley’s lead guitar in a similar setting to “Dorina,” off of dada’s debut, and lets him loose. Throughout, Gurley’s voice floats atop these tunes, and even though Joie Calo isn’t around to harmonize with him, the result is pretty close to dada’s most melodic work.

The weak point here, as always with Gurley, is the lyrics. On Napalm Springs they jump from witty to wretched fairly often, a weakness that also marred the final dada album. “Wonder” is almost laughable, with its “where did we come from, where are we going to” pseudo-metaphysics. “When People Are Mean” also suffers from its kindergarten-level moralization: “When people are mean, when people are bad, it usually means that somewhere inside they are sad…”

But then Gurley whomps you with “The Systematic Dumbing Down of Terry Constance Jones,” a smirking depiction of pop culture marketing’s effect on the American female. This tune’s a serious prize, one of the several instances on Napalm Springs where the lyrics rise to the challenge of the music. Another is ‘It’s Cool Dude,” which could have been a throwaway and ends up surprisingly affecting.

Gurley is obviously fishing for a hit with this album, but he hasn’t watered himself down to attain chart status. He’s just sent his considerable songwriting skill into more acoustic and melodic waters. While Napalm Springs may not please every dada fan, especially those looking for more of their three-piece rock band sound, those who miss Michael Gurley’s voice and guitar would be well advised to seek it out. If you’ve never heard the man outside of “Dizz Knee Land” before, he’s created a good starting point here. Butterfly Jones is, in many ways, dada for the masses.

You lucky masses.

Next time, probably a round-up of several year-end hip-hop releases. After that, new stuff. Yaaaay!

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Don’t Call It a Comeback
Post-Hiatus Phish Disappoints With Round Room

It’s fitting that as I embark upon my first column about the mighty Phish, the band lands in the news here in Massachusetts.

Maybe you heard about it. At a recent show up here, the band brought out a man they introduced as Tom Hanks, the final punchline in a lengthy gag regarding their song “Wilson.” (You can probably figure it out.) Obviously, it wasn’t Tom Hanks, but rather a similar-looking relative of one of the band members, but the local media seized upon the story, touting Hanks’ appearance with typical celebrity-hungry fervor. The retractions the next day were funny, and it struck me that such a ruse is right out of the Frank Zappa Screw-With-Your-Audience Handbook.

I’m not sure what level of Phish fandom I can rightfully claim. As of this writing, I’ve never seen them live. I have all the albums, of course, and all of the officially released live recordings, but except for a few gifts from friends hooked up to the tape-trading circuit, I’ve never been into their bootleg network. And I’ve always admired them for what they took from Frank Zappa as opposed to what they got from the Grateful Dead, meaning I’m more into their arrangement and technical skills than their improvisation and sense of community.

Make no mistake, what Phish didn’t get from the Dead they got from Zappa – the jazz-rock tendencies, the nonsensical lyrics uttered in a low voice that dances all around the pitch, the prolific and diverse nature of their catalog. Which is the bigger influence is an argument for another time, but one that would certainly have its share of evidence on both sides. F’rinstance, Zappa played and recorded several songs from his 1984 rock opera Thing-Fish long before unveiling the whole thing. Likewise, Phish have Gamehendge, a lengthy and fantastical rock opera that they’ve never recorded, but have played pieces of in concert for as long as they’ve been a band. (“Wilson,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Punch You In the Eye,” to name a few.)

There is one thing, however, that they took from the Dead that elevates them above most bands playing today. It’s not the quality of the musicians – Zappa’s bands had some of the most technically amazing players you will ever be fortunate enough to hear, but they were lorded over by Frank himself, conducting and dictating the sound and style according to his own compositional ear. Plus, as Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s side project Oysterhead (with Primus’ Les Claypool and The Police’s Stewart Copeland) showed, you can put the best musicians together and still not achieve that spark that turns them into a band.

Phish is a band. In fact, they’ve often gone beyond band, playing like some 16-limbed, four-throated, 800-pound monstrosity. Like the core members of the Dead, the four Phish guys have spent so many years listening to each other play that they’ve turned it into a form of mind-meld. In their best moments, the four musicians not only anticipate what each other will do next, but challenge each other to reach further into new directions.

This bold exploration is fascinating if you’re a musician, but can be understandably tiresome if you’re not one. I think Phish recognizes this as well, which is why their studio and live outputs have been so different of late. Critics and fans have harped upon every release since Hoist for not capturing the sound of the band live, but that hasn’t been the point for many years. The last four studio releases have been small affairs, consisting of 12 or so short, melodic songs without much of the grand spectacle of the live shows. (Naturally, there’s the LivePhish series and the Hampton Comes Alive box set, which provide all the live spectacle one could need.)

Which is why Phish’s return to the studio is so surprising. The foursome took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording to pursue side projects, most of them fruitful – Anastasio had a solo album and tour, keyboardist Page McConnell led the jazzy Vida Blue, and bassist Mike Gordon recorded with guitar hero Leo Kottke. When they reconvened this summer to rehearse for their first tour since 2000, they liked their new material so much that they pressed the record button, and four days later emerged with Round Room, their new album.

What’s surprising is that Round Room seems to go against the philosophy of the recent studio direction. At 78 minutes, it’s their longest album since their debut, the epic Junta, and if it does nothing else, the album certainly captures the sound of Phish playing live. It all but shuns the finessed sheen of their last album, Farmhouse, in favor of rough edges and extended jams.

So why am I so disappointed with it? I suppose it’s because I’ve been spoiled by the LivePhish series, especially the recent round of Halloween shows (vols. 13-16). This series selectively showcases only the best nights of the Phish experience, and as any fan of improvisational live music can tell you, there’s never any guarantee that you’ll be seeing the band on one of their best nights. By recording Round Room live in four days, Phish rolled the dice, trusting that these four days would find them completely in tune with each other. As you may have guessed, they didn’t, at least not entirely.

There are four extended jams on Round Room, each approaching or breaking the 10-minute mark, and while I like them fine, I don’t consider them the best examples of what this band can do. Opener “Pebbles and Marbles” starts with a swing beat, then escalates masterfully over its 11 minutes to become the most successful of the longer tunes. Also excellent is “Walls of the Cave,” although neither of those songs has the spark of, for instance, the version of “Chalk Dust Torture” on LivePhish Vol. 2. Less successful is “Waves,” the pseudo-epic closer, which actually finds McConnell fumbling for notes.

It’s the remainder of the record, however, which could have used the most editing. As usual, the shorter numbers reach for simplicity, and often end up with banality. Of the shorter numbers, “Anything But Me” stands out as a winner. It’s soft and emotional, in the same vein as “Fast Enough for You” from Rift, still my favorite Phish record. Unfortunately, we also get drivel like “Mexican Cousin,” which I never have to hear again as long as I live.

Anastasio may not be the best singer on the planet, but he sounds like Jeff Buckley when compared with Gordon, who gets two songs all to himself. It doesn’t help that his round robin title track doesn’t really go anywhere after the first 30 seconds or so. But it hardly matters who’s singing some of these songs, since they weren’t given time to gestate beyond the sketch stage. “46 Days,” for example, made for a nifty three minutes on Saturday Night Live, but doesn’t really evolve beyond the repetitive chorus phrase (“46 days and the coal ran out”) and the one-chord stomp of the main riff.

I know I’m asking a lot of a bunch of songs that weren’t road-tested first, but Phish’s return should have been better than this. The best of the band’s live material starts in the stratosphere and gradually ascends into orbit. Most of Round Room never even gets off the ground. It would be an interesting experiment to hear the band re-record this album after bringing the songs out on tour to watch them grow up, but for now, the album is a mixed bag that feels too rushed and too rough. Much of Zappa’s later material suffered from the same maladies, and I hope Phish has enough sense not to emulate their hero that closely.

Next week, Prince, I hope.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I May Have Killed Bambi
Oh, and Here's the Next Two Months of New Music

I spent New Year’s Eve with someone I’d never met, in a place I’d never been.

If you live in Sturgis, Michigan, I’m sorry. I’m apologizing in the same way that I would apologize to a casual acquaintance that I happened to see at his or her worst – vomiting his or her guts out, let’s say, or shaking his or her booty to Prince songs well past his or her bedtime. Well, I caught you doing the Prince thing, Sturgis, and perhaps the vomiting thing, though I didn’t actually see it, but might have if I looked hard enough. Point is, I’d bet I’ve seen you at your most embarrassing worst, Sturgis, Michigan, and for that, I’m sorry.

The whole night was surreal, in the best way, actually. If you’ve ever shouted theology back and forth with a stranger in a crowded bowling alley-slash-bar on New Year’s Eve, then you know what I mean. You’ve been there. It was one of those end-of-the-year things that leads people to believe that the coming 12 months are just full of possibility, and that anything can happen.

Three or so hours after midnight, it did. I sideswiped Bambi with my car.

There were three of them, all right, and I missed the first two (full-grown adult deer) and couldn’t avoid the last one (a smaller, more frightened baby deer). Happily, the little guy got up and hobbled away seconds after I struck it, but my car remains a frightful mess. So there I am, at three in the morning, by the side of the road, thinking all sorts of thoughts about karmic retribution, and entertaining the notion that for this to have happened three hours into the new year isn’t exactly a sunny omen for 2002. And suddenly, this big, wide grin appears on my face and I laugh myself sick at the absurdity of the whole thing.

So far, it’s been that kinda year.


But enough with the looking back. Onward, I say.

Last year, the tone-setters for the year’s musical quality were set early. This column’s choice for number one, in fact, Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon, came out in February, preceded by Jonatha Brooke’s top 10 entry Steady Pull. By mid-March, I just knew it was going to be a good year.

If 2002 follows the same path, then the relative excellence or suckiness of January and February’s releases should give us some idea if subtle art will reign, or if Eminem has a shot at the top spot again. The slate isn’t too full, but it isn’t too bad, either. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

First out of the gate this year is Michael Roe, the 77s guitarist, who’s releasing an instrumental disc called Orbis on January 10 or so. I say “or so” because it’s only available through his website ( and they’re sometimes fast and loose with release dates over there. Regardless, this is the second installment in Roe’s ambient series, begun years ago with the just-re-released Daydream. Should be interesting to hear him play guitar in an unfamiliar musical setting.

By the way, the 77s Christmas EP, Happy Chrimbo, was wonderful. Probably the best rendition of “Blue Christmas” I’ve ever heard.

On January 22, Bad Religion storms back with an album called The Process of Belief. It had better be better than their last one, The New America, which was all but ruined by an ill-fitting collaboration with producer Todd Rundgren. This one’s been getting some nice notices, but I’ll reserve judgment until it hits stores.

Also on the 22nd is a double CD from New England’s best and most original band, Cerberus Shoal. Before their legendary six-man lineup split in 2000, the group made a trilogy of spooky, lush and mostly instrumental albums. The first two (Homb and Crash My Moon Yacht) are all but indescribable, floating on waves of ornate instrumentation and surprising melodies. With the band having completely restructured itself, I had given up hope of ever hearing the two-disc finale, Mr. Boy Dog, but lo and behold, North East Indie Records is finally releasing it. If it’s anything like the first two installments, it will be bizarre and beautiful.

The following week, January 29, sees another double-disc record, this time from Dream Theater. Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence features a 43-minute title track that takes up all of disc two. Undoubtedly, the album will be chock full of more physically exhausting music that no other band on the planet can play, just like the rest of their catalog. Reportedly, it’s more melodic than they’ve been in the past, too.

The Chemical Brothers also return on the 29th with Come With Us, an unpromising title for what promises to be another evolution in this electronic rock duo’s sound. The Brothers have never stood still, and no two of their discs sound the same. Looking forward to this one.

February 12 sees a new one from Chris Isaak, which is sadly not titled As Seen On TV, like I was hoping, but Always Got Tonight. VH-1 has just started re-broadcasting The Chris Isaak Show, minus the nudity and swearing, of course. If you don’t get Showtime, though, it’s at least an opportunity to see this thing. Hopefully this album will revive Isaak’s flagging music career, but if not, he’s always got his day job.

Me’Shell Ndegeocello has titled her fourth album Cookie: The Antropological Mix Tape. Apparently, it brings the funk, something some people thought was missing from her last one, Bitter. I wasn’t one of those people, so we’ll see if Cookie leaves me cold on February 12.

Believe it or not, Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House fame, has had a successful solo career across the pond, especially in his native New Zealand. He’s released two solo discs (one of which, Try Whistling This, barely made a dent over here) and a live record to much acclaim. Well, Nettwerk Records has stepped up and is releasing both the live album (called Seven Worlds Collide) and the second solo disc (called One Nil) in the States. Seven Worlds hits on February 26, and One Nil comes your way in April. This guy is a vastly underappreciated songwriter, and it would be nice, however unlikely, if he got his due in America.

Finally, the singer we love to hate to love, Alanis Morissette, returns on February 26 with album number three, Under Rug Swept. The big twist this time? No Glen Ballard. Morissette went out on her own, and we’ll see next month what she came up with.

I’ve got some catching up to do (still haven’t heard that Wu-Tang album), so the next two weeks should be filled with 2001 releases I just didn’t get around to. Thanks to everyone who wrote me regarding the Top 10 List. I’m still interested in your thoughts on the year that was, so send ‘em on in.

Year two – here we go.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The 2001 Year-End Top 10 list
Magic and Loss and 10 Works of Art

Art is cyclical, and it reflects the times. It’s interesting to note that while 2001 was perhaps the worst year socially, politically, emotionally and economically in recent memory, it really held up well artistically. Music – and I mean real, honest, powerful music – made a serious comeback in 2001, especially after the cultural wasteland that was the year 2000. This was one of those years that made you grateful for the spiritual uplift that the best music provides. Thankfully, it was abundant this year, and though it wasn’t possible, this year’s art did everything it could to fill the empty spaces left by two gleaming towers and thousands of lives.

Considering how much music (and all art) is a reaction to the times it exists within, 2002 should be a year to watch. September 11 was one of the worst tragedies ever visited on Americans, so vast that it affected every corner of the globe. Tragic times, whether they be personal or national, quite often produce outstanding artistic statements about them. How we survive is in how we react, and musicians can only react with the truth and skill of their emotional outpourings. Once the insipid tributes have faded from memory, the real artists will start to speak. If 2001 was the year we woke up, then 2002 will be the year we start facing the world with our eyes wide open.

But we still have to finish talking about 2001. And so, I present to you my annual Year-End Top 10 List, the best one I’ve compiled in quite some time.

As with any list that its author takes way, way, way too seriously, there are rules that apply to the Year-End Top 10 List. First, only new studio albums are eligible. No live records, no covers albums, no previously released titles, and no greatest hits-type things. Only original artistic statements released between January and December need apply.

Second, my whole readership needs to be able to find and purchase every entrant. That means only national releases count – if you can get it through your local record store or, it passes muster. Albums released only through artists’ web sites are ineligible. That leads directly into regulation number three, which is that I try to hear everything eligible within a given year, as much as my finances will allow. Of course, this rule is impossible to follow to the letter, but I do try, and I hardly ever feel, at the end of a given year, that I’ve shortchanged anyone. At the very least, I’m much better at keeping track of the onslaught of new releases than the voting members of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are.

I need to make this note here, though, because it concerns an act that got an honorable mention last year: I have not yet heard the new Wu-Tang Clan album, Iron Flag. I own it – I’m looking at it right now – but I haven’t been able to devote the time to spinning the damn thing yet. Should my thoughts on the album impact the list you’re about to read, I’ll let you know. I have serious doubts, considering said list’s overall quality, but you never know…

While last year’s list was largely a product of elimination by default, resulting in a number one choice that would have been six or seven slots down in any other year, 2001 offered me the opportunity to play favorites. The content of the top five was determined by the quality of the albums, but the order in which they appear on the list is totally subjective. I spent the last few weeks listening to my top five, just to make sure they were all as good as I thought they were (they are), and when it came time to assign slots to them, I had to go with the ones that affected me the most deeply. Truth be told, there isn’t an album in my Top 10 this year that I don’t think is a treasure.

Just to illustrate how tough a competition it was this year, I have 13 honorable mentions. Some of these also-rans actually appeared on early drafts of this list as recently as last month. Just about all of them would leave last year’s list in the dust.

My rules don’t allow me to recognize three of this year’s great records in the list proper, but here are recommendations for them anyway. Two are live albums, and both Sting’s All This Time and Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong take serious chances and successfully reinvent the studio material. Too many live albums are mere recitations of studio material with crowd noise. Sting pulled together a masterful group of jazz musicians to recast some of his strongest songs in reflective new lights. And as for Radiohead, their brief eight-song live disc lends energy and inventiveness to the studied, repetitive Kid A/Amnesiac material, and should be used as a template for their next studio project.

The third non-competitor is Tori Amos, whose covers album Strange Little Girls is more successful than it has any right to be. More enjoyable, heartfelt and affecting than her last two studio albums combined, Strange Little Girls would have at least rated an honorable mention if Amos had written the songs. Her version of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” is by itself worth the price of admission.

The honorables this year are all over the map. There’s the pure, perfect pop of Weezer, whose third self-titled album was exactly what it should have been. There’s the eccentric metal of System of a Down’s Toxicity, which refuses to be nailed down for longer than 20 seconds. Then there’s the rumbling, ominous slab of seething fury that is Tool’s Lateralus, a continuation of the longest, most inaccessible statement of vision that any band is releasing these days.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the frothy pop of Garbage’s third album, beautifulgarbage. There’s the proto-rock sounds of the 77s, whose A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows outshone virtually every band their age. Speaking of rock and roll, there’s the Black Crowes, who made their sixth great album with Lions. And then there’s Starflyer 59, whose sparkling, ambient Leave Here a Stranger grows deeper with every listen.

I’m surprised now when I reread my review of Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines. I dismissed it as typical alt-rock, which it is, but the searching melodies have really grown on me. I listen to this one more often than my original review would lead one to believe, making it another example of a record that takes time to sink in. There’s nothing at all wrong with it, and I admit my mistake and take it back.

Now we get into the discs that could have easily shown up on this list, and in fact did show up on recent drafts. Built to Spill made a great little album with Ancient Melodies of the Future, hearkening back to their early days as one of the most winsome pop bands in the country. Also great for different reasons was Mark Eitzel’s The Invisible Man, a group of seriously depressed yet oddly uplifting tunes produced to off-kilter perfection. Upon reflection, this is most certainly Eitzel’s best work.

Prince made a comeback and a half with The Rainbow Children, a jazz-inflected spiritual manifesto that shows, once again, that he’s one of the most talented musicians around. At the other end of the longevity spectrum is Ours, whose debut album Distorted Lullabies is the musical find of the year. Johnny Gnecco sounds so much like Jeff Buckley it’s uncanny, and he wrote a dozen superb, dramatic songs to accompany that unearthly voice. No one’s made a debut this strong in a long, long time.

If you’re counting, we’ve reached 12, which leaves only the album that came closest to the list. That would be Roland Orzabal’s wonderful Tomcats Screaming Outside, which could easily sit at number 10 (or even number nine). Excluding Orzabal from the top of the heap was a difficult decision, because his album is very nearly perfect. Had his original U.S. distribution deal gone through last year, he’d have handily walked away with the 2000 number one spot. This year, he has to settle for number 11, but that doesn’t mean his album is any less brilliant for it.

Okay, without further ado (and because I’m almost at 1500 words already), here’s the 2001 Year-End Top 10 List:

#10. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.

Coming off of 10 Cent Wings, one of the finest pop albums of the last 10 years, one could certainly expect a sharp drop in quality from Jonatha Brooke’s follow-up. That she self-financed and self-released Steady Pull on her own Bad Dog Records wouldn’t seem to bode all that well for it, either. Surprise, though – Brooke pulled off a heavier, more melodic and all-around better album than her last one. It’s missing that one perfect song (like “Because I Told You So” on Wings) to put it over the top, but the 12 numbers here exhibit Brooke’s overall growth as a songwriter. Find me a statement of independence as sweet as “I’ll Take It From Here,” or a windy pop epic as nuanced as “Walking.” Go on. I dare you. Steady Pull is a triumph for this unjustly unknown artist, and a good omen for her continuing career.

#9. Sloan, Pretty Together.

After a brief absence from this list, Canada’s Sloan reclaim their spot with their most ambitious and successful album to date. Pretty Together takes the band’s ‘70s-inspired sound into new directions, which is nothing new for the foursome. What is new is the refreshing sense of purpose the album exhibits from first note to last. It’s an adventurous, risky, finely crafted record, and it’s also the first one since One Chord to Another that feels like a true band effort. If you haven’t discovered this band yet, Pretty Together is a great place to start.

#8. Glen Phillips, Abulum.

Phillips, formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket, turned in the finest set of lyrics I heard this year. Considering the wordsmith that sits at number five on this list, that’s an impressive feat. Phillips’ tales of joyful homelessness, gender wars and killing the neighbor’s dog practically radiate with the spark of honesty and cleverness, two great tastes that most often don’t taste great together. He pulls it off brilliantly, and his instantly likeable voice and soft-spoken melodies complement the lyrics well. There are songs on Abulum that you’ll never forget once you hear them, particularly “Men Just Leave” and “Drive By.” It’s a great start to what will hopefully be a long and productive solo career.

#7. Aphex Twin, Drukqs.

If this list were based solely on musical skill, Drukqs would have number one all wrapped up. At more than 100 minutes, it represents the most complex and comprehensive Aphex Twin album, a study in the relationships between disparate tones and moods. There’s a palpable tension to the best pieces on Drukqs, a kind of emotional hold that’s not normally ascribed to instrumental electronic music. But then, Richard James is not your normal instrumental electronic musician. He’s in a class by himself, as this exhausting and exhilarating album ably demonstrates.

#6. Daniel Amos, Mr. Buechner’s Dream.

Nearly rendered ineligible when the band’s first distribution deal for this, its 13th studio album, fell through, which would have been a damn shame. Mr. Buechner’s Dream is a sweeping double-disc encapsulation of everything that’s been great about Daniel Amos for 25 years. Much attention is paid to artists like Wilco and Whiskeytown who draw on ‘70s rock and American musical traditions to inform their sound. No attention was paid to MBD, a true American classic in every sense of the word. For those of you lucky enough to have heard it, MBD offered up 33 straightforward rock songs without a bum track in the bunch, and infused them with a spirituality and a passion hardly seen in the modern music world. It’s the crowning achievement of a long, undignified career that’s left them no closer to the acclaim and status they deserve.

#5. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.

Speaking of crowning achievements, Ani D. turned in her most ambitious and enthralling work to date on this double-disc wonderama. The jazz influences have crept into even the darkest corners here, especially on the more sedate Reckoning. This album feels like the culmination of a decade-long journey, and for most of the album’s 120-minute running time, Ani seems content, as if she’s finally arrived. Fans of her early work will miss the anger that’s all but absent here. For those of us who have been gladly following her through the various stages of her evolution, though, this album is the equivalent of reaching the summit, especially since she arrived at this sound with no label interference whatsoever. The best part is, at times on Revelling/Reckoning, you can hear Ani searching for another 10-year mountain to start climbing.

#4. R.E.M., Reveal.

The title of this album is a spectacular irony, since it obscures nearly everything, from Michael Stipe’s voice to the true character of the lyrics, behind waves of bright, lush production. Even without the layers of sound, though, Reveal would represent the best set of songs the Athens foursome have written in nearly a decade. The blissful sound of this recording is the band taking hold of the melodies they’ve crafted and holding on. Too often R.E.M. has a great album in its grasp and lets it get away. Reveal is one of the rare instances in which they managed to maintain their grip all the way through. It joins Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People as their fourth truly great album.

#3. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs.

Poor Ben Folds. For the fourth time in a row, Folds has crafted an album that deserves the top spot, only to see it stolen away from him by one or two slightly superior efforts. This is one of those instances where personal preference definitely came into play, as Rockin’ the Suburbs is every bit as good as the two albums ahead of it. It’s witty, it’s heartfelt, it’s delightfully idiosyncratic, and it’s extremely well put together. In addition to his trademark genius on the piano, Folds acquits himself surprisingly well on drums, bass, guitar, and a bevy of other instruments – nearly everything on the record, in fact. Top that off with a wonderful set of biting, soaring lyrics and you have a pop album that’s just this side of perfect. It’s not Folds’ fault that he’s only number three. Better luck next time, Ben.

#2. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.

If you thought his classically-influenced debut was something, check out Wainwright’s measurably more accomplished sophomore effort. No one’s doing this sort of twisty, catchy baroque pop, and even if they were, Wainwright would be doing it better. Poses is remarkably self-assured, perfectly composed and performed, and just flat-out one of the best records I’ve ever heard. If Wainwright has as lengthy a career as his father’s ahead of him, he’s really thrown down the gauntlet for himself with this breathtaking album. Here’s hoping he tops this one as handily as he bested his fantastic debut.

Which brings us to the top of the heap:

#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.

This album came out before any of the others on this list – February, in fact – and it took hold of the top spot and refused to let go. For the second year in a row, I feel compelled to defend my selection for album of the year, since most everyone else has dismissed Phantom Moon as a pleasant distraction at best. To me, it’s a lot more than that. How do I love this album? Let me count the ways:

First, it’s a clear triumph of art over commerce. Sheik’s previous two albums found him tempering his considerable skills for commercial concerns, balancing the art and the product capably, but frustratingly. Phantom Moon is pure art, a glorious leap for Sheik as a melodicist and a player. The album is almost entirely acoustic, it contains no hit singles and was designed to be heard as a complete work. This is Duncan Sheik’s mission statement, a true outpouring of his soul.

Beyond that, though, it’s simply and completely beautiful. Every song unfolds like elegantly spun wisps of cloudy skies and rainy window panes. This album brings a chill into every room in which it’s played. It never argues its own case, but rather sits quietly in a darkened corner on a knotty wooden chair, quietly humming beautiful tunes to itself and anyone who cares to listen. It’s a chronicle of pure, undiluted creation, so intimate at times that it’s frightening.

No album this year provoked such a reaction from me. If Sheik never does anything like this again, it won’t matter, because for 53 minutes of music, he found that place that most artists search their whole lives for, he lived in it for a while, and he remembered to write down everything he saw and heard. Phantom Moon is nothing short of perfect, especially when it dares to be imperfect in all the right ways. I said repeatedly that this list is subjective, and nowhere more than here at its apex. Though no one else may ever feel the way I feel about it, Phantom Moon delivered everything I look for in music wrapped up in one beautiful package.

As always, e-mail me your lists. I’d love to take a gander at ‘em.

This column wraps up my year, the first full calendar year of TM3AM. I’m taking next week off, but I’ll be back and ready to go on January 2, 2002. Thanks again for reading throughout Year One, and I hope you’ll join me for Year Two. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and remember, if you love life, life will love you back.

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

It’s a Very Good Life
Richard Julian Makes a Grand Comeback

Quick and dirty this week. I was going to do a year-end roundup of all the stuff I didn’t get to, including De La Soul and Butterfly Jones, but the hell with that. I’m running on fumes, my head is killing me, and I have the beginnings of a monster of a sore throat. There’s an ocean of dead space in January when nothing, and I mean nothing, hits record stores, so we’ll play catch-up then. I have just enough energy tonight to review one disc, and this one’s something special, so let’s get to it, ‘kay?



I discovered Richard Julian by accident, which is always the best way.

As most regular readers know, I worked for a music magazine for the second half of the ‘90s, and at that job I got literally hundreds of free CDs a year from bands and artists I’d never previously heard of. I made it a point to listen to all of them, and not just because it was my job. I knew that somewhere in that pile of low-budget dreck I would find an artist or two to cherish, one I might never discover if I let the opportunity slip away.

Late in 1997, after spending countless hours of my life that I can’t get back sifting through one badly recorded grunge rip-off after another, I found one. Blackbird Records, which I think has subsequently gone out of business, sent me a nondescript self-titled record by a guy named Richard Julian, and from the first horn-driven strains of “Sick Sick Love,” I was sold. The rest of the album was even better . To name a few, “Living With Ramona” is a twisty slice of life with wit and heart, “You and the Roaches and Me” is one of the coolest acoustic rave-ups I’ve ever heard, “Siberia” shimmies and shakes on Julian’s accomplished falsetto, “Bottom of the Sea” is a windy pop epic, and “Charlie Lewis” hurts like the most honest songs always do, cutting to the core of everything you are with simplicity and raw strength.

Richard Julian is a rarity – a perfectly produced acoustic troubadour album with not one bad song. I shudder to think how much money Julian lost on it, and how much more he lost on the spectacular follow-up, Smash Palace, the next year. Smash Palace is a huge production, littered with electronic-sounding beats and strange percussion, all in service of 16 great songs. “The Restless Sea” glides along on a percolating wave of clang and clatter, “Pussycat” is a jazzy romp, “Sleepin’ In’ is simply gorgeous, and “Old Lovers” builds its winsome melody to a pair of fabulous climaxes. Moreover, songs like “Broken Watch” and “Love Is the Only War” revealed a wrist-breaking fury not heard on the debut. While it takes time to sink in, Smash Palace is ultimately a better album than the first one.

So it seemed Julian was on a roll, and then… he disappeared. No website, no record company, no nothing. Still, even the perennially unproductive Marc Cohn managed a third album, so I held out hope.

I came across Richard Julian’s third album much the same way I came across his first: by accident. I stumbled onto his website one afternoon, and it was like getting a letter from a friend you had thought long dead. I should point out that Julian’s website is hilarious – on one page, there’s a picture of his cat Brownie, with a pleading message beneath it, to the effect of: “Please buy a CD so that Richard can feed me.” Well, I’m a sucker for hungry animals, so I did.

Good Life, Richard Julian’s third disc, is as remarkably different from his second as his second was from his first. While Smash Palace constructed intricate sound puzzles, Good Life is as intimate as a living room concert performed just for you. The focus is squarely on Julian’s acoustic guitar and voice this time, and the range of moods he traverses with little accompaniment is diverse and impressive. Good Life is a stripped-sown singer/songwriter album in the best senses of that term.

For the first time, Julian opens with a gentle number, albeit one with a subtle bite. “Please Rene, Not Now” is a sweet portrait of tough love, set to a lovely acoustic melody. It sets the tone for the album, which often disguises its sarcastic, jaded viewpoint in lilting instrumentation. No less than Randy Newman – Randy Fucking Newman – has called Julian “one of the best songwriters and record makers I’ve heard in a long time,” and you can hear Newman’s influence in quietly angry songs like “Your Friend John” and deeply ironic jaunts like the title track.

Julian has grown as a songwriter here by leaps and bounds. “So Damn Beautiful” is a delightful portrayal of lovers who can’t help but be together, “The Wrong Bus” is a captivating bit of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and “Everything’s Cool” is nostalgic pop personified. “Amy” treads into Elliott Smith territory with its falsetto vocals and windy melody, and he pulls it off effortlessly.

The most striking thing about Good Life is the real self-deprecating bite some of the lyrics possess. “Trick Candle” ends with the following couplet: “A real man would have stayed in bed/Good thing you called me instead.” “Ragged Point” is all about a car crash, and its chorus reads, “If it should happen suddenly, it might as well,” set to a hummable pop melody. (It’s the kind of sweetly disguised fatalism that lightweights like Freedy Johnston can only dream about.) “Florida” seems like a dig at Jimmy Buffett, and it is, but it’s also a shifty-eyed portrait of a traveling musician “caught in the bungle of a promising career.” Most effectively, the mostly-spoken piece “Your Friend John” finds Julian shifting genders to play a nagging, jealous girlfriend. This song has an arresting turnabout of an ending that would make Randy Newman even prouder.

Good Life will hopefully see a national release on Julian’s own My Good Man Records in 2002. For now, though, you can log onto and buy all three of his records. The money, of course, goes directly to Julian when you do that, and assuming he’s not overstating the financial desperation of his website, such a gesture would likely be appreciated. How Fred Durst can rake in billions for repeatedly coming up with minor variations on “I’m pissed off” while an honest, lyrical songwriter like Richard Julian can remain an unknown is beyond me. If it’s true that it’s the music that matters, though, then Good Life matters as much as any record I’ve heard this year.

Next week, the best Year-End Top 10 List in many a moon.

See you in line Tuesday Morning.