Music for Working from Home
How to Soundtrack a Quarantine

How is everyone’s lockdown going?

I know not everyone is locked down, but given the rapid spread of this thing, I imagine we all will be before long. Despite my love of my own company and my surplus of music and books, I’m starting to go a tiny bit stir crazy. It turns out being told to stay home is not the same thing, psychologically, as choosing to stay home. Who knew? I miss the people I used to see regularly, although we have worked out virtual ways to still connect.

As some of you know, I also started a new job recently, and I was in the office for six days before being told to pack up my desk and go work from home for the foreseeable future. I’ve been doing that now for almost a month, and it’s quite strange, especially since I didn’t get to know any of my colleagues before being banished to my house. All of our meetings are virtual now, and since everything was done electronically in the first place, this isn’t a lot different. But I do miss seeing co-workers in person.

The best part about this situation is that I can play whatever music I like, as loud as I like. I am certainly taking advantage of the extra music time to delve into records I have bought but not heard. Which makes up a surprising percentage of my collection, to my shame. For my own work process, it’s better for me if the music is familiar, or if it has no lyrics to distract the wordsmithing part of my brain. So when I need motivation lately, I’ve been turning to old favorites like Marillion and (believe it or not) Def Leppard.

Thankfully there have been a couple releases lately that fit the “without words” mold very well. I’ve been very much enjoying one in particular: Aporia, by Sufjan Stevens and Lowell Brams. Sufjan’s collaborator here is his stepfather, the Lowell of Carrie and Lowell, and Aporia is an album they made by swapping files back and forth over the internet. I have absolutely no idea which parts of this are Stevens and which parts are Brams – or, for that matter, which belong to their bevy of collaborators, including James McAlister and Steve Moore. But it’s not worth trying to puzzle it out.

Instead, just put Aporia on and get sucked in by it. This is a deep forest of synthesizer goodness, each track its own landscape. Some of them are fully developed, like the delightful “Agathon,” while others feel like sketches, like the 57-second “Matronymic.” But when Stevens and Lowell hit upon something magnificent, like the dark and pulsing “The Red Forest” or the sole track with vocals, “The Runaround,” this record feels alive. It’s definitely a patchwork product made in isolation, but in a lot of ways that makes it the perfect soundtrack for our current moment.

An aporia, in philosophical terms, is an expression of doubt, an acknowledgement of contradiction. This album feels uneasy in a lot of respects, like it can’t quite piece together what it sees around it, but it’s doing its best to describe it. There are very few drums, but there is always a sense of forward movement – this is not a record that lingers in one place for any length of time. There are 21 tracks and the whole thing is over in just more than 40 minutes. It doesn’t seem to come to any conclusion, either – final tracks “Eudaimonia” and the minute-long “The Lydian Ring” are just like the others, synthscapes that drop you somewhere new and are over before you’re acclimated.

As this is kind of how I feel about our new world – we’ve been dropped in and are still trying to find our footing – I am finding Aporia oddly comforting. There are some truly excellent moments here, and while I might wish that Stevens and Brams had cooked a few of these tracks a little more thoroughly, I’m fascinated by it. It also plays as a sweet coda to Carrie and Lowell, with Stevens finding artistic connections to strengthen the bond he spoke of so nakedly on that album. I’m not in love with this odd artifact, but I am in pretty deep like with it, and it is soundtracking my days nicely.

Stevens gets accused of excess a lot, but on that score he has nothing on Trent Reznor. Here’s a guy who never stops working – in addition to his three recent Nine Inch Nails projects, he’s scored everything in existence, working tirelessly with longtime collaborator Atticus Ross to bring his signature sonic sculptures to movies like Bird Box and TV shows like Black Mirror and Watchmen.

And somewhere in there, the pair found time to record two and a half hours of new instrumental music, which they have just released for free. Billed as a continuation of 2008’s fantastic Ghosts I-IV, these two new collections are wider in scope and ambition, filtering Reznor’s film work back through his NIN template. Unlike Aporia, these two albums don’t sound like hard drive clearing houses. They each feel of a piece, as if they were composed and recorded in this intended order.

The two albums are very different from one another as well. Ghosts V: Together, the shorter of the two at 70 minutes, is softer and prettier, arrangements unfolding from melodies. It’s not exactly hopeful material, but it is calm and peaceful most of the time. Unlike the ones on the first four Ghosts volumes, these songs have titles, and they seem to offer insight into Reznor and Ross’s intentions: “With Faith,” “Your Touch,” “Hope We Can Again,” “Still Right Here.” This is music, at least on some level, meant to reassure.

So we get lots of quiet pianos and hushed background drones. The title track is ten minutes of slowly building shimmer, the pianos eventually buried beneath clouds of sound and a lovely Robert Smith-style guitar. There’s definitely some tension building across this record – just listen to the spine-tingling low-voice choir on “With Faith,” underpinning everything – but even something called “Apart” is 13 minutes of calm ambience. Like all of Reznor and Ross’s work, this stuff is detailed – listening carefully will bring out so many layers, so many small nuances, and many of those serve to needle the calmer atmosphere with a sense of dread.

That dread comes to the fore on Ghosts VI: Locusts, and honestly, I have to say this: if you’re having a hard time dealing with the ongoing pandemic and the tidal wave of anxiety it has created, listening to this may not be the best idea. Locusts is 83 minutes long, and I found absorbing it all the way through to be physically unsettling. There’s no reprieve – this is the sound of the world quietly collapsing around you while you slowly go mad trying to survive. If you think you couldn’t handle that right now, you’re probably right.

Locusts is no louder than Together, but it’s a lot more menacing. We still get the pianos, but they’re playing dissonant figures now, and the soundscapes behind them are more abrasive. The Miles Davis-esque trumpet in “Around Every Corner” and “The Worriment Waltz” is the perfect touch, lending this repetitive piece a sense of otherworldly desolation. While no song on the original Ghosts broke six minutes, the first three tracks of Locusts last about half an hour, like a slowly rising tide of death from which there is no escape.

A piece like “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)” makes my flesh crawl – its unnerving hammered dulcimer foundation is attacked on all sides by darker textures, and it sounds like hordes of insects swarming to attack. There are calmer pieces, like “A Really Bad Night,” but most of this is like the clockwork dread of “Your New Normal,” twisting your nerves into knots. The 13 minutes of “Turn This Off Please” do to me what watching the end of Requiem for a Dream does – just sheer anguish and hopelessness. Even a song called “Almost Dawn” only lets a few shafts of light in before the song devours them.

Locusts is a dark, dark ride, and while it certainly serves as an appropriate response to our new nightmare, it will not serve those with anxiety issues well. What’s amazing to me is that Reznor and Ross recorded these two albums over the last few years, they work well as a reaction to the current world situation. I know a global pandemic could not have been on their minds when they created this music, but in the context of now, it sure sounds like it was. And while I have heard Locusts only the one time, and probably will not go back to it for a while, Together has been a fine companion these past few days.

You can get both Ghosts V and Ghosts VI for free right here .

* * * * *

So it’s finally the end of March, the month that has felt like a million years. (Can you believe it was only January when we lost Neil Peart? That feels like a lifetime ago.) It’s time for my First Quarter Report, and more than usual, this is a list you can just ignore. The final top ten in December will look nothing like this, I am certain. It’s been a strange and random year, and here is the strange and random list-in-progress to reflect that.

10. Kesha, High Road.
9. The Men, Mercy.
8. Field Music, Making a New World.
7. Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling.
6. Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V and VI.
5. Pearl Jam, Gigaton.
4. The Innocence Mission, See You Tomorrow.
3. Derek Webb, Targets.
2. Nada Surf, Never Not Together.
1. Matt Wilson and His Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.

I genuinely love the top records on this list, but I don’t expect them to be the best of 2020. I know there’s an album here I haven’t reviewed, too, but I will get to that. Next week, in fact. Join me then!

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Giant Steps Through the Dark
Love in the Time of COVID-19

As of this writing, I haven’t left my house for more than a few minutes in eight days.

I like to think that I’ve been training for something like this my whole life. I’ve always been content with my own company, even as a child. Give me a good book or a good album and I’m set. Give me the literally hundreds of seasons of television on Netflix and Disney Plus and I should be able to ride out a global pandemic. I can go days without talking to another human being and feel OK about it.

But in more other ways than I can count, no one is prepared for what lies ahead of us. This new virus has spread through our population quickly enough that our only defense against it is what experts are calling social distancing, and over a much longer term than I think people have been suggesting. There’s no doubt that any concert or other gathering you had in mind for April and May will be canceled. Now I’m seeing events in June join the list. The only one on my calendar was AudioFeed in Champaign in July, and I have no doubt whatsoever that it will not happen this year.

It’s all for the good, of course – I am one hundred percent behind efforts to slow the spread of this virus, and I’ve been forcefully preaching the Gospel of Stay the Hell Home for a couple weeks now. We’re too late to prevent hundreds of deaths, but I hope we are not too late to prevent thousands, if not millions, in the coming months. It’s a scary thing, to know that just by leaving your house or forgetting to wash your hands you could contract something that spreads so quickly from person to person. I remember reading The Stand for the first time in middle school and wondering what it would be like to live through something like it. And here we are.

And I think we’ll be here for a while. Some of the estimates I have seen have us housebound and social distancing for five months at a minimum. I have no idea how the U.S. economy survives that, and I imagine we will come out the other side of it a changed nation. (Maybe one that values its front-line workers more, and considers health care a basic human right?) But it’s the only way we have to save millions of lives around the world.

There is hope. There is always hope. I personally know some of the scientists working on characterizing the structure of this new virus, in order to design some kind of blocking agent as a treatment. In some areas of the world, like South Korea, the curve has already been flattened, the virus more under control. It can be done. It will be a long and lonely slog for most of us to get to the point where there is a vaccine, there is a treatment, and it’s our job to make sure the hospitals and medical facilities are not overwhelmed with cases before then.

In a lot of ways, it feels like a sacred duty. One of the recurring themes of The Good Place, a show I feel beyond fortunate to have lived to see, is the notion of what we owe to each other. This is exactly the kind of crisis that brings that concept out of the abstract. And what I see right now is billions of people, all around the world, sacrificing so that others may live. My staying home is not out of fear for my own safety. It’s out of love and concern for people I don’t even know, people I may unknowingly infect by going about my daily routine.

It’s an act of worldwide empathy, and I think that’s beautiful.

The world feels strange and new now. It’s like humanity has drawn in a deep breath and is holding it. Eventually we’ll have to let that breath out, but for now it’s quieter, it’s more still. The things we thought mattered a month ago don’t seem so important. The people we know and love, that’s what matters. I’ve had people I haven’t spoken to in years reach out to me over the past two weeks, and it’s been lovely to reconnect, even as distanced as we are right now. It’s a time of deep reflection for everyone, I think.

As always, music is getting me through even the darker and more lonely moments. I’m hearing songs in different ways now, with different layers of meaning. (Jellyfish’s “I Wanna Stay Home” is a particular favorite at the moment.) I’ve had a lot of time to think about which music brings me the most hope, shines the brightest light into the darkened tunnel ahead. I’ve been asked a couple times on Facebook to contribute to playlists of inspirational songs, and have given those a lot of thought. I’d like to share one song now that has long been my “anything is possible” anthem, and I hope I can explain why.

It’s “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane.

Whenever I have trouble thinking about how I will manage to do some daunting task, it helps me to remember that in 1959, four guys made this, live. This music sounds impossible to my ears. It was unlike any jazz that had been recorded to that point – Coltrane built “Giant Steps” around a chord pattern that modulates constantly between three keys, and the notes that work in one of those keys won’t work in another, so you have to keep those changes in your head constantly. This is made far more difficult by how quickly the thing moves – the changes come at you like 100-mile-an-hour fastballs, and you have to be prepared.

Coltrane is absolutely on fire here, from the first moment to the last. By the time of this session, he’d had months to work out how he wanted to play “Giant Steps,” and it shows – he’s confident, playing at blistering speed without missing any of the tricky key changes. He’s inspired, and he inspires his bandmates too. Listen to Paul Chambers – that isn’t a bassline, it’s a 100-yard dash in musical form. Art Taylor’s drum part sounds simple, but it’s deceptive, and it’s really fast. This is basically a speed metal tempo, the song carrying the quartet along in its current.

But it’s pianist Tommy Flanagan I most want to talk about here. To set the scene: at this point in his young career, Flanagan was one of the hottest session pianists in jazz. He’d played with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald, and he’d led his own trio with celebrated results. He was one of the most reliable musicians you could tap for your recording, which is why it’s so strange to hear what happens to him on “Giant Steps.”

The simple truth is that Flanagan had never seen anything quite like the chart for “Giant Steps.” He’d practiced it, of course, but at a much slower tempo, so when Coltrane called for the one you hear on the recording, it caught him off guard. You can practically hear him learning how to play “Giant Steps” as the tape rolls, and when the time comes for him to solo – as if anyone could match Coltrane’s intensity – he starts and stops, falters and picks back up, uncertain of the changes as they come one by one.

It’s not bad work, mind you. It’s certainly better than any piano solo I’ve ever played. I think the important thing to remember about it, though, is that Flanagan got through it. He was blindsided by the material, unsure of how to navigate it, but he did it. I find that inspirational. Even more so, to me, than the courage to change jazz as an art form in four minutes the way Coltrane did here. Coltrane changed the world, but for Flanagan, the world changed around him, and he still made his way through.

This new world we find ourselves in is going to feel a lot like that. The changes will come quickly, and we won’t always know when to expect them. Very few of us will be like Coltrane, anticipating and skipping over the top of them with grace. Most of us will be like Tommy Flanagan when life calls a tempo we are not expecting. But we’ll find our way. Like any good jazz ensemble, we’ll help each other along, until our tentative strides toward the light become giant steps.

We can do this. Stay home, stay safe, stay connected. Love one another.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Welcome Return of Matt Wilson
And Other Random March Records

Trip Shakespeare was a band I just kinda missed.

I certainly was aware and paying attention to music when Across the Universe came out in 1990. That was the band’s third album, but their first to receive major-label national distribution, so it’s the first one I could reasonably have been expected to hear as a high school student in New England. But I have no memory of it or its follow-ups at all. I was already turning my attention to Seattle, and aside from a certain purple-frocked genius, I think I missed Minneapolis completely.

No, I should be ashamed of this, but the first I became aware of the Wilson brothers – Matt and Dan – was when I heard “Closing Time,” the worldwide smash hit from Dan’s band Semisonic. I frankly loved Semisonic. That is not the part about which I feel ashamed, by the way – Dan Wilson is a legend in my house, and even his most overplayed material still makes me smile. It’s the fact that it took one of the Wilsons hitting it big to turn me on to their first project together.

I got over it, though. Trip Shakespeare was a strange, beautiful band, and Matt Wilson was often the equal of his younger brother as a songwriter. Lulu is a forgotten gem of the era, an album that any fan of ornate, well-written guitar-pop should hear. It was also the band’s last. Since the breakup, Dan’s star has ascended while Matt still toils in obscurity. Even here – I’ve written a ton about Dan Wilson, songwriter to the stars, and virtually nothing about his brother.

That ends now, because Matt Wilson has just released my favorite album of 2020 so far.

His new project is called Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, and while it doesn’t quite live up to that lofty promise, the lineup is unique. Wilson has enlisted Quillan Roe of the Roe Family Singers to play banjo, Phala Tracy to play harp and Jacques Wait to play bass. The result is somewhere between bluegrass and baroque, and these arrangements not only complement Wilson’s new songs, they elevate them.

Not that these songs needed elevating. Wilson’s first album with his orchestra is called When I Was a Writer, and the title song, about his more fertile songwriting period in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is typically self-effacing. These 10 tracks prove he’s still a writer, and a great one. Just “Decent Guy,” all by itself, makes the case: it’s an unfailingly melodic ride through dark alleys of self-loathing, narrated by someone who wants to be seen as decent but knows it’s out of his reach. This is just a great, great song, one worthy of writers like Aimee Mann.

The album never gets worse. The piano-led “Come to Nothing” has been stuck in my head for days, the orchestra’s harmonies sweet and organic. The album does have drums and percussion, but they’re light (and I have no idea who played them). The focus is on the sparse acoustic interplay of Wilson’s guitar with the banjo and harp. That interplay is never better here than on “Real Life,” the album’s highlight. This song is masterful, and it would have been fine even without the incredible bridge that culminates in Wilson’s flawless falsetto, but it’s there anyway, taking things to new heights.

Wilson’s voice is certainly not what it was – it’s older and more weathered, creakier and more strained. But even that works beautifully with these folksier arrangements. There’s an authenticity to When I Was a Writer that instantly makes this my favorite of Wilson’s many projects. I’ve only had this record for a week or so, and these songs are already like old friends. I initially questioned Wilson’s decision to end things with “Mental Patients,” but now I think it’s the perfect closer – this is a record about Wilson’s inner turmoil, and here at the end he extends that gaze outward, concluding that we’re all mental patients, living in a world of blues.

I predict this will be the sleeper album of 2020, and it’ll be the one most everyone sleeps on. I found it almost entirely by accident, thanks to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. I’ve thought more than once about how this lovely little gem of a thing nearly passed me by. Don’t let that happen to you. Even if you’ve never heard of Trip Shakespeare and your favorite Wilson is a volleyball, try this album out. It’s a wonder.

You can hear and buy Matt Wilson and his Orchestra here: https://www.minneapolismatt.com.

* * * * *

Aside from this clear standout, it’s been a weird, random year for music. We’re still waiting for the end of the month for some of the bigger guns to come out, like Pearl Jam and Sufjan Stevens. But in the meantime, here are a couple good examples of what we’ve had to deal with.

I can’t say I was overly excited for Citizens of Boomtown, the first Boomtown Rats album in 36 years. Bob Geldof has never been my favorite singer or songwriter, and much of the classic Boomtown material is pretty basic stuff. I respect Geldof greatly – he was one of the few musicians in the ‘80s who used his platform to do some real good in the world. I think it’s completely possible to hold the man in high regard and still not much like his band.

And I definitely didn’t like Citizens of Boomtown very much. I’m not even sure what convinced 68-year-old Geldof to put this thing together, but it wasn’t a surplus of great songs. Most of these, like “Trash Glam Baby” and “She Said No,” sound like any band you could hear in any bar in any city in the world. And those are in the good half. When Geldof and the Rats embrace awkward rap on “K.I.S.S.” and house music on “Get a Grip,” it’s cringe-worthy. A song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ye Ye” really lives down to that title.

Is there a bright spot? Absolutely. “Passing Through,” at track five, is the record’s one sober, lovely moment. Buoyed by a circular piano figure, the song – about being visited by ghosts of the past – builds to a sweet and hopeful chorus: “We will not break, we will not bend, we’ll take these rented souls and render them immune to loss or pain, we’ll pretend it’s all the same…” This song by itself doesn’t justify the rest of Citizens of Boomtown, but it is worth hearing. You can take or leave the rest.

Faring better is the Flaming Lips, a band that I guess I will follow down any rabbit hole they choose to dive. I’ve rolled with their Beatles cover albums, their 24-hour song and their collaboration with Miley Cyrus. Most recently the band issued King’s Mouth, a collection of music written for a bizarre art exhibit by frontman Wayne Coyne, and it was one of their best sets in years. Had I gotten off the train at Miley’s dead petz, I would never have heard it. So I’m on board.

Which means I picked up Deap Lips, a full-length collaboration with badass guitar-drums duo Deap Vally. In truth this isn’t the full Flaming Lips, just Coyne and Stephen Drozd working with guitarist Lindsey Troy and drummer Julie Edwards. In a lot of ways, this is like a new band, combining elements of both and coming up with something new. Deap Lips is written and arranged like a single song, with the raucous vocals and guitars of Troy and Edwards and the synth-y ambience of Coyne and Drozd in equal measure.

How is it as a piece of music? Weird in all the best ways. From the start, as the relatively straightforward “Home Thru Hell” segues into the Tron-like instrumental “One Thousand Sisters With Aluminum Foil Calculators,” this thing wants to take you on a journey. The folksy “Hope Hell High” is like Neko Case surrounded by cloudy keyboards, the shouty “Motherfuckers Got to Go” is a hilarious interlude, and the centerpiece of the album, the seven-minute “Love is Mind Control,” really works. It all feels like a single thought, though maybe one that suffers from a bit of attention deficit disorder.

This album is without a doubt the strangest thing Deap Vally has contributed to, but it’s par for the course for the Flaming Lips, a band that has always and forever only done what they want. They’ll work with anyone, they’ll try anything, and most of the time, it’ll stick. This isn’t a masterpiece by any means, and it won’t make my best-of-2020 list (at least, I hope it won’t), but it’s another fascinating piece of work, and I’m thankful for it.

Next week, who knows? I started working from home today, and I expect we’ll be under a stay-at-home order before long. Scary times. We’ll see what seven days brings.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Passion Dance
McCoy Tyner, 1938-2020

I play piano.

I definitely would not describe myself as a piano player. I never took lessons – I taught myself, with some initial help and encouragement from my grandmother, a concert pianist. I know what I’m doing behind a keyboard, but I’m nothing special, and my technique is terrible. The one time my parents did take me in for piano lessons, after years of learning on my own, I was told that I’d have to forget everything and start from scratch. So I quit.

Basically, I know enough about playing piano to know that I’m not particularly good at playing piano. I know enough to recognize great playing when I hear it, to recognize that sweet spot between talent and hard work that produces some of the very best ivory-ticklers in the world. I have a running list of those people in my head, my piano-playing idols. These are the folks I listen to when I want to feel simultaneously awed and dismayed.

McCoy Tyner was definitely on that list.

Tyner should be on any short list of extraordinary jazz pianists, up there with Monk and Evans. I first heard him as a member of John Coltrane’s epic 1960s quartet, and I know there will be plenty of remembrances of Tyner that begin and end with this period of his career. It’s hard to fault people for that – the albums Tyner recorded with Coltrane, including My Favorite Things, Live at the Village Vanguard and the immortal A Love Supreme, are among the best ever made.

And Tyner’s playing on them is magical. A Love Supreme is one of my favorite albums, a perfect synthesis of pieces and players, and perhaps the most complete distillation of Coltrane’s genius on wax. There’s a lyrical complexity to Tyner’s playing that I can barely describe – it’s so knotted, and yet flows so effortlessly. If you can, seek out the one extant live recording, laid down in July of 1965. (It’s on the deluxe reissue of the album.) That’s where you get to hear just how on-fire this whole band is. You can really hear Tyner’s energy and force, especially on “Part II – Resolution.”

I completely understand if your familiarity with McCoy Tyner begins and ends with this quartet, or even with this record. It’s a masterpiece, and it belongs in every home. But Tyner had a long solo career before, during and after playing in Trane’s band, and I love much of that material equally. He was a softer-touch player before his stint with Trane, but when he released The Real McCoy in 1967, he emerged transformed. That album is amazing, from “Passion Dance” on down, and sparked a run of dozens of very good records.

I keep coming back, in fact, to the last one he made. Tyner recorded Solo: Live from San Francisco in 2007, and released it in 2009. He was 69 years old when he sat down at the piano at the Herbst Theatre, but was still clearly capable of spinning up a whole world just by himself. His signature heavy left hand was in full force, smashing down those bass notes and chords, and his superhuman dexterity had not lost a note. Most of all, this performance sounds like McCoy Tyner, and like no one else. It’s incredible.

On Friday, March 6, McCoy Tyner became the last of Coltrane’s great quartet to pass on. He was 81. I don’t suppose I will ever grow tired of listening to him play. He still fills me with that mix of awe and dismay, mixed with a little bit of disbelief. May it always be so. Rest in peace, McCoy.

* * * * *

I suppose I could end this with a look at some of the albums I’m excited about in the coming months. This has been the strangest year so far, and with the global pandemic breathing down our necks, it’s about to get even stranger. Tours are being canceled, and albums are probably next. But given what we know right now, here’s the best stuff that I think the next few months will bring us.

March doesn’t really take flight until its last week, but it’s a good one. New things from Pearl Jam, Sufjan Stevens (with his stepfather Lowell Brams), Brian Fallon, Waxahatchee, Vanessa Carlton and the debut of Coriky, which brings Ian McKaye and Joe Lally together for the first time since Fugazi. In April we’ll see a new Rufus Wainwright and new things from Lady Gaga, the Strokes, the Watkins Family Hour, Haim, Pure Reason Revolution and – and I swear I am not making this up – something called Danzig Sings Elvis.

May holds new ones from Alanis Morissette, the Psychedelic Furs, Built to Spill (playing the songs of Daniel Johnston), Jason Isbell, Sparks, the Magnetic Fields, Weezer and the Killers, along with the long-awaited return of Phantom Planet. Beyond that we will get new Steven Wilson, the fourth Husky album and a new record from the Choir, which they are taking pledges for right now. Oh, and a near-Jellyfish reunion with the new band The Lickerish Quartet.

It’s pretty random, right? So far there are no big-deal announcements, no huge records that will bring everyone out of their homes to listen. Which, given the pandemic, might be a good thing.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Next week, some more random March records.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Marching Forth
A Month of Random Records Begins

Ozzy Osbourne has never been scary.

I say this as a massive fan of Black Sabbath, particularly the early albums. Sabbath is one of the few bands I can name who actually created their own genre, and every doom metal band that came after them, from Sleep to Bell Witch and all points in between, owes them a massive debt. The first five Sabbath albums are unimpeachable, and the lock-step slow-death grooves laid down by Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are legendary.

But Ozzy? Ozzy was always kind of funny to me. From the very beginning, when he rhymed “masses” with “masses,” he struck me as just some bloke up front, not so much leading the band as being led by it. Theatrically scary became Ozzy’s go-to as he left Sabbath and began his solo career, but he was never as convincing at it as Alice Cooper was. And when he agreed to star in The Osbournes, all pretense was gone. Ozzy has always been an ordinary man.

So I wasn’t too surprised when, at age 71, he titled his 12th solo album Ordinary Man. He does appear on the cover in a “scary” costume with black wings, but turn the record over and you’ll see a photo of him in regular clothes taking a leak in his back yard. That’s the real Ozzy, and this decent effort does a lot to put the focus on him. And really, there’s no way it couldn’t, as Osbourne’s voice is a wavery shadow of the strong instrument it once was.

But this ordinary man has an impressive contacts list, so we get a bevy of superstars playing on this thing. Most of it was made with Guns ‘n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, with guitar work from Slash and Tom Morello, in addition to producer Andrew Watt. (Yep, the guy who made Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy.) The instrumentation is full and solid, with strings on a couple of tracks and loads of keyboards.

And yes, the two big guest stars have rightfully taken up a lot of the ink this record has received. Sir Elton John plays piano and sings on the strikingly autobiographical title track, on which Ozzy sings “Don’t know why I’m still alive, the truth is I don’t want to die an ordinary man…” At the other end of the spectrum is rapper Post Malone, who appears twice here. “It’s a Raid” is one of the heaviest things here, while the bonus track “Take What You Want” is pulled right from Malone’s album and definitely doesn’t fit here.

With all this, Ordinary Man is best when Ozzy is just being Ozzy. “Eat Me” is just as carefree and stupid as you think it will be – he takes the title literally, and asks the listener to “bite ‘til I’m dead.” “Scary Little Green Men” is about aliens that are not as cute and cuddly as we’ve been led to expect. Opener “Straight to Hell” is Sabbath-lite, his spooky narrator promising to “make you defecate.” It’s all silly fun, and it all rocks with competence.

Truth be told, you’ve already heard the best song: the single, “Under the Graveyard,” makes the best use of Ozzy’s swooping voice and gives us the most convincing riff of the lot. The lyrics are so dark that I hope they’re not genuine. It’s a remarkably fatalistic song, from “we’re all rotting bones” to “we all die alone,” but if you’re looking for a classic – and one could argue that these lyrics about death only contribute to its classic status – this is your best bet.

As Ozzy ages, each new album could end up being his swan song. Ordinary Man is a pretty good one, with some deeply personal touches that elevate it from the muck he gave us in the 2000s. If this is his last, he went out just being Ozzy, and that’s all one could ask for.

* * * * *

At the exact other end of the musical mood spectrum, we have Best Coast.

I have long thought of Best Coast as the indie-rock equivalent of Rush of Blood-era Coldplay. The duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno write simple, catchy songs with lyrics that are so simplistic that they can’t be anything but genuine. This pair has given their albums such straightforward names as Crazy for You and The Only Place and California Nights, and now here they are with their fourth, Always Tomorrow. The songs are exactly what you think they will be from that title.

That’s not to say this isn’t enjoyable stuff, though. The songs are driving and full of verve – this is Cosentino’s healing record, and its pivotal song, “Everything Has Changed,” has an appealing Joan Jett feel to it that sets the tone. “Everything has changed, I like it this way,” she sings, and I can’t deny the little smile the simple chorus brings to my face. Single “For the First Time” feels like an old-school Bangles tune, Cosentino claiming she feels like herself again for the first time.

This is another 41 minutes of catchy, easy rock, with some gems (“Wreckage,” “Master of My Own Mind”) hidden among the pretty good tunes. It’s nearly impossible to dislike this, a quality it shares with every previous Best Coast record. They’re a fun, unexceptional band, and Always Tomorrow is a fun, unexceptional record.

* * * * *

I have yet to talk about The Men in this space, which is odd. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of this band, but I’m definitely an admirer, and they deserve some attention from me.

When I say I’m an admirer, I’m mainly talking about the artistic evolution this Brooklyn quartet has undergone since crashing onto the punk scene in 2009. Their first two albums were abrasive, cheap noise-punk efforts, but since joining Sacred Bones Records in 2011, the Men have dabbled in all kinds of things, stretching their wings while retaining their original scrappiness.

Their eighth album, Mercy, continues along this path, and all told, I think it’s their finest. My favorite thing here is the swampy 10-minute organ-fueled jam “Wading in Dirty Water,” which rides a groove you’d never expect from these guys and takes it into the stratosphere. Sequencing this second on the album is a perverse act – the opener, the breezy “Cool Water,” is soon forgotten among the waves of this monster, and everything after it pales in comparison.

That’s not to say Mercy peters out from there. Taken on their own terms, the five remaining songs are all worthy, from the minimal piano sketch “Fallin’ Thru” (which feels like eavesdropping on a rehearsal) to the big ‘80s guitars of “Children All Over the World” to the thrashing “Breeze” to the haunting title track. Nothing here is slick or even particularly well-made, but it’s all appealing, and the many different moods the Men stack next to each other turn this brief record into a journey.

I’m not at all sure what convinced me to try this band out in the first place, but I’m glad I did. Over eight albums and an EP they have evolved considerably while still retaining their core identity, and while I can’t say I think any of those eight albums are masterpieces, they all work for me, both individually and together. The Men are one of a kind, and I’m glad to know them.

* * * * *

Next week, no idea. March isn’t all that promising, so I’d look forward to more columns like this one, about records that are fine but not amazing. Hoping to be surprised.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Nothing Special
Four Albums That Are, You Know, Fine

Last week I praised the return of Levellers, one of the best political-minded bands I know of. Well, when hope falls from the sky, it keeps on falling. Just this week it was announced that a reunited Midnight Oil, one of the most important bands in the world, will be releasing not one but two new records this year.

The first of them, The Makarrata Project, is due in the summer. It finds the Oils working alongside indigenous Australian musicians and singing about the rights of indigenous peoples the world over. Near the end of the year we should also get a new Oils album, a broad-ranging rock record dealing with the state of the world. As we lurch ever closer to a second Trump term, I need bands like Midnight Oil to channel my rage and disappointment. I’m very much looking forward to both of these releases.

It’s great to have something to look forward to, because 2020 isn’t shaping up to be particularly amazing yet. There are like three records I am anticipating – not breathlessly anticipating, but at least looking forward to – through April. The next one I cannot wait for is Rufus Wainwright’s Unbreak the Rules, out on April 24. I would love to feel something more for the records we’re getting until then, but I just don’t.

So in the meantime, here’s a few sentences about four records that are, you know, fine.

* * * * *

I would love to hear what everyone else seems to hear in Tame Impala.

It’s not that I dislike Kevin Parker or his work. It’s just that every Tame Impala record comes with such an outpouring of hype now that it’s hard to distance what he actually does from what people seem to hear in what he does. Nothing about Parker’s previous three one-man projects were magical, and I can now say the same about his fourth, The Slow Rush. It’s pretty good. It won’t set your world on fire, though.

In fact, more than any other Tame Impala record, this one feels designed to underwhelm. It’s a more patient, thoughtful thing, still living and dying by its banks of vintage-sounding synthesizers, but less showy. Songs here sometimes take a while to get anywhere (and some, like the six-minute “Posthumous Forgiveness,” take a while to get nowhere), and Parker counts on your willingness to go with him as he sets moods and atmospheres.

That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that approach, if your audience has already bought in. I found The Slow Rush to be an album that demanded repeat listens, but did not inspire them. I’m still a big fan of the groovy “Lost in Yesterday,” with its shimmy right out of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

I like a few others here too, but most of it gets lost in a sort of mush in my memory. I’m sure further listens would help untangle it, but I have so many other albums demanding my attention that I don’t know when I’ll be back to this one.

* * * * *

I mean no disrespect when I say that Huey Lewis and the News are the world’s luckiest wedding band.

Because they’re a pretty damn good wedding band, honestly. I’d dance at a wedding they were playing. I’ve liked Huey and his cohorts for nearly as long as I have been alive – their biggest record, Sports, came out when I was nine years old, and I remember hearing “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “I Want a New Drug” and “If This is It” on the radio at that age. I also remember Huey’s charming music videos, which I think did as much as anything to make him a superstar.

We haven’t heard much from Huey and the News for the past two decades. Their new one, Weather, is only their third since 2001. And now I hear that Lewis is suffering so much hearing damage that he may never tour again, and this may be the band’s final studio outing. That Weather itself is only seven songs and 26 minutes indicates to me that these were the songs the band finished while Lewis could work.

It’s a shame, too, because while this is not vintage Huey Lewis, it’s pretty good. “While We’re Young,” the leadoff song and single, combines a synthesized studio groove with the band’s trademark horns and Jonny Colla’s smooth guitar. “Her Love is Killin’ Me” is a bluesy romp with Huey picking up the harp again, “Remind Me Why I Love You Again” gets James-Brown-in-the-‘80s funky, and “Pretty Girls Everywhere” indulges the band’s love of ‘50s rock. The last track, “One of the Boys,” is pure old-school country, and Lewis’ voice straddles irony here, as it often does.

I wish there were not so many drum loops here, but that’s my main complaint. Weather is a nice final visit with Huey Lewis and the News, and if it turns out to be their last record, it touches on a lot of what made them cultural icons. In spite of myself, I will miss this band. They meant a lot to me growing up, and still do.

* * * * *

Don’t be alarmed, but Sepultura has slowly become good again.

I know the conventional wisdom is that as soon as everyone named Cavalera headed out for greener pastures, the band would fizzle out. But that simply hasn’t happened. In fact, Brazil’s strongest metal band has only grown stronger, and the new lineup – with two longtime members, a new drummer and second singer Derrick Green – has now fully gelled.

2017’s Machine Messiah was the best Sepultura album in many a moon, its songs longer and more complex than the ragers the band had been cranking out previously. And now Quadra, the band’s 15th long-player, follows that up with another winner. The band is tight, the production is elaborate when it needs to be (Strings! Choirs!) and raw when it wants to bite your face off, and the songs are killer. Drummer Eloy Casangrande co-wrote most of these tracks, so the percussive elements are top notch.

Really, there isn’t a weak moment here, and although this doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the band’s heyday, I’d say Sepultura is well worth paying attention to, still.

* * * * *

And finally, we have the Innocence Mission. And I lied above when I said these records would just be fine, because on further listen, this one is pretty terrific.

The Innocence Mission, built around married couple Don and Karen Peris, has been gifting us with lovely melodic folk music for 30 years. It’s hard to even fathom that, but it’s true – their first album came out in 1989. Their new one, See You Tomorrow, is their 11th, not counting a bevy of EPs, and after several sparser records, this one fills out the sound with pianos and melodicas and electric guitars and tympanis and other lovely accoutrements.

This means that the sound is richer, but the songs are just as pretty as they’ve always been, and Karen Peris’ voice as haunting and fragile. I would point out highlights – like the delightful opener, “The Brothers Williams Said,” or the brief “At Lake Maureen,” or the absolutely gorgeous “Stars That Fall Away From Us” – but honestly the entire thing is a highlight. It’s their best in years, and I look forward to sinking into it many more times in the coming months.

Listen and buy here.

* * * * *

That will do it for this week. More random records next week!

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Target
Derek Webb Returns with a Fiery New Record

I’ve never been a big fan of boxes.

The number one question I get from well-meaning people who discover my obsession is this one: “What kind of music do you like?” There’s just no answering that question. I wish there were. It would make my life that much easier if I could rattle off a couple categories and encapsulate my experience with music. There’s just no way. I usually end up saying something trite like “Oh, I enjoy all kinds of music,” and leave it up to interpretation. Whatever people think I mean is likely included in what I actually mean.

But if I could answer that the way I want to, I’d say that music is bigger than the boxes we try to put it in. We slap marketing terms on it so we can subdivide the iTunes store page, but music – the basic, core idea of music – cannot be subdivided. It cannot be stamped, folded, spindled or mutilated. The best thing about music is that anyone is able to make any music they like, whether they’ve been shoved into a box before or not. The boxes mean nothing. Music is music. It’s the most freeing thing in the world.

I suppose this goes without saying, but people are like that too. We try to label people as Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, lazy or hard-working, believers or non-believers, on and on. And people are far more complex than all that. I’m constantly having discussions with people about my faith, and the overarching theme of those conversations is a belief in something that does not fit the typical boxes we try to shove it in. People are complicated. God even more so.

Despite that, we still want something as personal and labyrinthine as faith to have an on-off switch, to be a binary. And we often don’t want to listen to people we perceive as on the other side of that binary. I’m talking now, of course, about Derek Webb, who spent half his life making thoughtful Christian music before upending his marriage and deconstructing his faith in a pretty public way. In 2017 Webb made an album called Fingers Crossed that is one of the most harrowing, difficult and beautiful works in the post-faith genre I have ever heard. (It was my number one album of that year.)

The first song on Fingers Crossed was called “Stop Listening,” and many in his former fanbase took that title to heart. But I think it’s important for people of all walks of life to listen to thoughtful discourse on issues like faith and religion and the harm churches do to their members – we can learn so much from people who have different experiences from us. (Full disclosure: I have always had a testy relationship with church, only recently coming back around to the idea. I went through a lot of the questions people like Webb and David Bazan have about faith a long time ago, so I resonate deeply with art that tackles those questions.)

One thing that made Fingers Crossed such a difficult listen was its sense of isolation. Webb had made one-man band records before, but he’d never made one that sounded so alone, so haunted. A spare and slow effort, Fingers Crossed dissected each of its hard emotions carefully, and kept you locked into them. It was an album about grief, and for its follow-up, Webb has decided that the time for grief is over. That’s literally the tagline of his new album, the blistering and joyous Targets.

You’ll hear the difference right away. Targets is a rock record, made with a full band. The guitars are all Webb, and here they snarl and spit and shout in exultation. The junky snare that propels the title track is killer, Webb letting loose with a riff that leaves no doubt where his head is at this time. Hearing this right after “Goodbye for Now,” the painful closer of its predecessor, is like throwing the drapes open on a sunny day. That mood continues through the single “All of Me is Here” and the ‘70s-drenched “The Safest Place.” You can be halfway done with this thing before you catch your breath.

Targets is short – a mere 37 minutes, almost half an hour shorter than Fingers Crossed – but it packs quite a punch. True to its marketing, this album is a celebration of freedom. Webb sounds like he’s done wrestling with a lot of the things that weighed him down last time, and has accepted where he has landed. “All of Me is Here” contains the most headline-grabbing material, as far as his former fanbase is concerned: “Do you remember when we used to sing about Ba’al and Zeus? See, we’re all atheists, I just go one god further than you,” he sings in the opening lines, later adding this about the church and its original sin doctrine: “You don’t need debt relief unless someone convinces you that you’re broke…”

That song positively rocks, and a lot of Webb’s observations and provocations here glide by a lot more charmingly backed by such driving music. “Good Grief” is a masterpiece, a slower song about how worthwhile it is to mourn who you were and what you believed. “It wasn’t wasted time, not a wasted dime or a tear, it’s such a sweet relief, such a good good grief to get here…” Similarly, “Death With Benefits” is a legitimately sad song for an element of his faith he no longer subscribes to: “I miss the myth of death with benefits,” he sings, his newfound uncertainty unbalancing him.

But see? Complex. “Death With Benefits” is a song that only someone who once truly, deeply believed in life after death could or would write, and it shivers with that authenticity. It doesn’t quite fit the box that others will put him in, and neither does the fact that he is now married to Abbie Parker, lead singer of Christian band I Am They. Half of this album consists of love songs, clearly inspired by Parker – my favorite is the jaunty “Plain Sight” – and it’s gratifying to hear Webb so elated with life again. I’m not saying I know anything about their relationship, just that it doesn’t fit the idea of the sad, angry atheist that some try to claim he is.

In fact, none of Targets fits that idea. This is like the more celebratory moments of Quiet Company’s grand We Are All Where We Belong, finding freedom in the choice not to believe. Closer “Come Home To Your Body” is in the same vein as Taylor Muse’s (ahem) musings on belonging to the earth – this life is all we are, this life is all we have, and that’s OK, Webb is saying. Embrace it. Learn to love it. “Finally found a place to live and finally found a place to die.”

Whether or not I agree with his conclusions on Targets is immaterial. I am enjoying every minute of this journey he is on, and I feel grateful to be allowed such an intimate window into it. Targets is a stomper, a barnburner, a rollicking good time, an album about Webb leaving grief behind and appreciating where he is right now. It’s not the final stop on this journey, not by a long shot, but after the pain of deconstruction, it’s lovely to hear him so contented. In many ways this is the opposite of Fingers Crossed – it’s a record full of love, full of community, full of joy. Whatever it took to get here, it wasn’t wasted time.

Check out Targets and other Webb records at www.derekwebb.com.

Next week, a bunch of random records.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Coping Mechanisms
Three Records, Three Ways to Deal with the World Outside

It’s funny how some bands show up right when you need them.

This has been a tough, tough week here in America, as we seem to be testing just how far our democracy can stretch before it breaks. I don’t like being political in here, because that’s really not what this silly music column is about, but when the anxiety of simply living in a place where the rule of law gets trampled and cruelty gets to gloat and take revenge gets so high that I can’t ignore it, it’ll inevitably spill out into this space. I’m having a very difficult time with the events of the past few days, as I’m sure many are.

So I was pretty happy, then, to receive word that after an eight-year absence, one of my favorite politically aware bands would be roaring back. (No, no, not Rage Against the Machine.) I’ve been a Levellers fan since the early ‘90s, when my good friend Chris played me “The Game” off of their amazing second record, Levelling the Land. Named after a political movement during the English Civil War, the Levellers are probably best described as a folk-punk band, but that doesn’t quite do them justice to me. Imagine the Waterboys with the fury of the Alarm, or Fairport Convention with a kick. I dunno. They’re just the Levellers.

The new Levellers album is called Peace, and it will be out in August. Here is the first single, “Food Roof Family,” and it’s classic Levellers. I didn’t know how much I needed this band until they were back. Their music has often helped me make sense of strange political times – their terrific 2008 record, Letters from the Underground, was a summation of and reaction to the Bush-Blair era – and I’m hopeful they can help me again.

I’ve found for me that there are only a few ways of dealing with the reality of our current era, and music is one of them. More generally speaking, though, I think there are a few ways to respond to the crushing anxiety of everyday life now, and lo and behold, I have musical examples to illustrate each one. I’m not saying these are the only ways of coping, but they’re the three options that most often present themselves to me, or that others recommend. So here goes.

  1. Take a break.

Obviously this is easier said than done, and doesn’t do anything to fix things. But sometimes you need to disengage, take a break, turn off the noise and stop thinking about it. If you’re privileged enough to be able to do this, it’s a valid response. Just don’t stay away too long.

Green Day has done exactly that on their new record, Father of All Motherfuckers. (Yep, these guys are pushing 50 and have named their new album Father of All Motherfuckers.) Green Day has always been a socially conscious band, and saw their greatest success with American Idiot, which took aim at the Bush years. Their most recent album, Revolution Radio, had a lot to say about persevering through troubled times, and its release just a month before Trump’s election was well timed.

Father of All doesn’t do any of those things. It’s a quick record that only wants to get you out on the dance floor. It spans an astonishingly short 26 minutes, and only two of its 10 songs top three minutes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this record is largely uninspired and insipid, so the short running time turns out to be a blessing. The singles are probably the worst, so if you made it through the Joan-Jett-cover-of-Gary Glitter-sampling “Oh Yeah,” you can probably handle the rest. (BTW, the band is donating their royalties from that song to organizations that help victims of sexual assault and rape, since Glitter is a convicted sex offender.)

That said, if all you want is half an hour of fun, and you don’t think about how generic songs like “I Was a Teenage Teenager” are, Father of All provides. It flies by in a blur, barely registering if you’re not paying attention, and its one-four-five chord progressions feel like wallpaper to me. But it definitely accomplishes its goal of being a turn-off-your-brain affair. If this whole thing took them more than a weekend, I would be surprised. But as a small vacation from weightier things, it works.

  1. Get angry.

I hesitate to admit that this is generally my default lately. I am trying to channel the anger into productivity, but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I just sit and seethe. And when that happens, I need angry music to channel those emotions. Often I will reach for metal – the new Sepultura is pretty excellent, for example – but for the past few days the album that has been doing it for me was a total surprise.

It’s The Unraveling, the topical and terrific new album from Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood and his co-conspirators have always had a lot to say, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them so pissed off before. The music is the same gritty country-rock they’ve always delivered (and that former member Jason Isbell does so well), but the lyrics are more specific and more explosive than they’ve been.

The Neil Young-ish “Thoughts and Prayers” is a great example. It is, of course, about school shootings, and about how our politicians are bought and paid into silence and inaction. Here’s a key verse:

“When my children’s eyes look at me and ask me to explain,
It hurts me that I have to look away
The powers that be are in for shame and comeuppance
When Generation Lockdown has their day
They’ll throw the bums out and drain the swamp for real
Perp walk them down the Capitol steps and show them how it feels
Tramp the dirt down, Jesus, you can pray the rod they’ll spare
Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers…”

Damn, right? This same razor-sharp fury fuels songs like “21st Century USA” and “Babies in Cages” and “Grievance Merchants,” each one targeting a different aspect of our current hellscape. “Are we so divided that we can’t at least agree that this ain’t the country that our granddads fought for us to be,” Hood sings, and I can only hope that he’s right.

The Unraveling ends with the glorious eight-minute “Awaiting Resurrection,” on which Hood asks if there’s an evil in this world, and then names it: “Guns and ammunition, babies in a cage, they say nothing can be done but they’ll tell us how they prayed, in the end we’re just standing watching greatness fade…” This is a record that swims through the injustices playing out every day and pulls them out into the light, and I am here for it. If you’re angry about the same things I am, The Unraveling is an album for you.

  1. Stay positive, be loving.

This is, bar none, the most difficult reaction, because it’s not natural. It’s something you have to make yourself do, something you have to learn. It’s a shifting of one’s priorities, a swallowing of one’s first reactions. I’m not great at it. I try my best, but often I need to be reminded of what I am putting out into the world, and how much more loving I could be.

And when I need those reminders this year, I expect I will turn to the beautiful new album from Nada Surf, Never Not Together. If you haven’t been paying attention to Nada Surf since “Popular,” you have missed one of the finest artistic evolutions I can name. They’ve become a wonderful band, giving us tuneful guitar-pop of the highest order on album after album. And now they’ve done it again.

Never Not Together is the band’s ninth album, and their most uplifting and hopeful. Just the act of listening to it makes me feel lighter, like the thick atmosphere of the world has lifted from my chest. Nada Surf has often been a source of positivity and resilience – just listen to The Weight is a Gift – but they’ve never been this giddy, this clearly in love with life, over an entire record. This of course means that the lyrics here are easy to make fun of – song titles include “So Much Love,” “Live Learn and Forget” and “Just Wait” – but Mathew Caws believes in them. When he says “you’re gonna be just fine, it may take some time,” he means it, and the band surrounds him with gentle and gorgeous music.

Never Not Together is a delightful thing. I’m even OK with the return of Caws’ sing-speaking, a la “Popular,” in the bouncy “Something I Should Do.” His rant this time is about empathy, and it works. The whole album works. In my darkest days, this record provides exactly the encouragement I need: stay alive, stay engaged, stay loving. Take a break if you need to, get angry if you must, but react with love as much and as often as you can. We will get through this.

Next week, Derek Webb takes aim on Targets.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Taking the High Road
Kesha Follows the Rainbow and Goes Everywhere at Once

The Good Place came to an end last week.

I haven’t talked too much about this show – which has manifestly been my favorite thing on television for the past four years – because I was afraid. I’ve certainly been guilty before of pumping up shows that failed to stick their endings. The Good Place is a show that, as it went along, became more and more dependent on that ending to clarify its message, and I was worried that it wouldn’t.

I should have had more faith. The Good Place was created by Parks and Recreation mastermind Michael Schur, and it’s clear now that he had a coherent and well-thought-out plan for what he was trying to say with his show. If you’ve never watched, I can only describe the first of many premises: Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, who wakes up to find herself in the afterlife. She’s told (by Ted Danson as heavenly architect Michael) that she’s in the good place, because she lived such a selfless and extraordinary life.

There’s only one problem: she didn’t, and she knows she didn’t. She quickly susses out the fact that she’s in the good place by accident, and has to learn how to be a good person in order to stay. After that, there are twists upon twists – the show in season three did not resemble the show in season one at all – but the theme remained the same: people can get better. Progress is slow, but people can improve, and we can all help each other become the best versions of ourselves.

The show took some narrative turns in its fourth and final season that made me even more nervous, but the ending was absolutely marvelous. It was, in fact, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television. It managed to be entirely about these six characters we have come to love, while also nailing the themes that the show has been forwarding for four years. I am so happy to have been privileged enough to experience this show. It turned out to be the most optimistic, gorgeous thing, a show that champions incremental progress and the value of community. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as close as TV gets, and while I am glad it went out on its own terms, I’m going to miss it very much.

I say this with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: take it sleazy, Good Place.

* * * * *

You know when something just isn’t your thing? Like, you have nothing against it or the people who enjoy it, but it just isn’t for you?

I will readily admit that for most of her career, Kesha just hasn’t been my thing. I know people who swear by her first two grimy pop records, Animal and Warrior, and I’ve never liked either one of them. “Tik Tok,” as a song, makes me want to die a little bit. Kesha’s whole persona on those albums, combined with the plastic pop production, kills any desire I might have to listen to them. I’ve gone back a couple times to see if I can get into them, and I just can’t.

Why would I try so hard to like these records? One word: Rainbow. Kesha’s third album, released in 2017 after years of public struggle with her producer/abuser Dr. Luke, was an absolute revelation. Rainbow is just awesome, a hard-hitting song cycle about perseverance, forgiveness and being the better person, and it reintroduced Kesha as an artist worth paying attention to. The songs range from punk-ish kiss-offs to lovely balladry to a duet with Dolly Freaking Parton, and I was simply blown away by the whole thing.

So of course, I was in for whatever she chose to do next. I may not like where she’s come from, but I’m jazzed to see where she’s going. I’m a little sad to report that I’m conflicted about Kesha’s fourth album, High Road – there’s a lot to like about it, but it doesn’t move me nearly as much as its predecessor. High Road was billed as a return to the carefree party-girl Kesha, and I’m thrilled to hear her moving on and getting past some of the emotional turmoil that fueled Rainbow. High Road is about flushing one’s life of negativity and focusing on feeling good, and that’s a fine place for Kesha to find herself. I’m happy for her.

But that return to her own happiness has also brought back some of the musical tics I dislike from her earlier work. The sweet piano chords that open “Tonight” drew me in – her full-throated singing voice is, as always, spectacular – but my spirits fell through the floor as soon as the “bitch, we going out tonight” nonsense began. The first four songs on High Road all hearken back to the radio-pop days, and while “Tonight” is the only one that’s truly awful – I quite like “Raising Hell,” in fact – the tone is set.

Things get better from there, and they also get weirder, which I love. Rainbow was about Kesha learning to trust her own instincts, and in the back half of High Road they largely steer her right. She’s still delightfully vulgar, even in her most delicate moments – the ballad “Shadow” includes a whole verse about the fact that she loves singing “fuck” in all of her songs – but it’s those delicate moments I like best here. “Cowboy Blues” is a tender acoustic lament, in which Kesha asks “did I fuck my whole life up?” “Resentment,” right after that, brings in Sturgill Simpson and a basically inaudible Brian Wilson for a lullaby of bitterness.

I love that Kesha seems to do whatever she wants, from the bouncy ‘60s pop of “Little Bit of Love” to the chiptune horniness of “Birthday Suit.” Her most left-field number here is “The Potato Song,” with its Cabaret-like arrangement, complete with tubas. Her voice adapts to fit each of these artistic swerves, and it’s remarkable that her musical identity can encompass all of this – hell, “The Potato Song” has a kazoo interlude, and it sounds natural.

It’s easy for me to forgive some of the album’s early missteps by the time we hit the emotional final third. “BFF” is a sweet ‘80s-style duet with her songwriting partner, Stephen Wrabel, while the wrenching “Father Daughter Dance” finds her opening up about her absent father – “He’s nothing, he’s no one, a stranger.” It’s a powerful song, and I hope she finds it within herself to write more like it, because she nails it. Closer “Chasing Thunder” is a big folk-pop song, but it sets the right wide-open-spaces note for this album to end on.

That Kesha manages all of this in 45 minutes is both High Road’s strength and weakness. She covers a lot of ground, from the blippy pop of the first songs to the organic beauty of the last ones, and sacrifices consistency to do it. But in its best moments, High Roadcatches the spark that made Rainbow such a wonder. There’s no one else I can think of who would have made this record this way, and there’s no doubt that it’s exactly what she wanted it to be. Kesha is still evolving as an artist, still finding out who she wants to be, and if High Road sounds like she wants to be everything all at once, she still proves that her journey is worth listening to.

Next week, Green Day and a few others.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Flash! Ah Ah!
When Showy Skill Is Not Enough

This week I finally caught up with BT’s two new albums from the end of last year.

For those who don’t know, BT is Brian Transeau, producer and multi-instrumentalist, and he’s a bit of a genius. I’ve been following his career since his trance-heavy early days, and his artistic evolution has been something to behold. From the glitch-heavy pop of Emotional Technology to the beautiful ambience of If the Stars Are Eternal So Are You and I to the blissful, dance-heavy A Song Across Wires, there’s no containing BT to any one genre.

He’s also frighteningly prolific – his two new records come hot on the heels of the double-disc debut from BT’s ‘80s-inspired band All Hail the Silence. The new ones are instrumental and expansive. Between Here and You is an ambient album, full of drones and atmospheres, while the awesomely titled Everything You’re Searching For is On the Other Side of Fear mixes low-key electronic styles with orchestral elements. Both of them are beautiful things, and strong additions to an already excellent catalog.

I wanted to mention these albums because they are, by and large, pretty simple things. BT is an extraordinary musician, capable of the most complex pieces – just check out his untitled record from 2017, with its multi-part suites and extended instrumental compositions. There’s no question about what BT can play, but he often chooses to devote himself to subtler work that doesn’t emphasize his chops. It’s because he knows that skill is not the be-all and end-all. True artistry requires taste, requires making choices that serve the song and the album.

That’s a clumsy segue into talking about two artists that are all technique. The relative outputs of both serve to prove that you can be among the greatest in the world at something and still not make great art with all that talent. There was a time in my life when I thought differently, when I considered mastering an instrument or one’s vocal cords the height of artistry. The two albums I’m talking about this week probably would have resonated much more deeply with me at that time in my life.

As proof of that, I used to love Eminem. I even named The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, based largely on its satirical intent and Mathers’ tongue-twisting lyrical flash. I probably would not do the same now, but I don’t think there’s any doubting Eminem’s ability. His tracks are a blur of internal rhymes and breathtaking speed, and he can set a scene and deliver a point of view like few others. In the early days, of course, that point of view was about cultural irresponsibility, about pushing the envelope with murder fantasies and multiple personalities that, I thought, hid something a lot more complex and calculating.

But if Em once had something to say, he’s long since buried it under a mountain of bad taste and self-pity. Every album since 2004’s Encore has been, in part, about the poor reaction to the previous one, and while he’s still the king of rapid-fire verses, they’ve been empty ones for a while now. I’m the guy who liked Recovery and the political material on Revival because it sounded honest, like Mathers finding purpose for his power. But neither of them were good albums, and lesser works like Kamikaze obscure them like dark clouds.

So it goes on Eminem’s frustrating 11th album, Music to be Murdered By. It’s another surprise drop, appearing unannounced two Fridays ago, and it’s a more substantial piece of work than Kamikaze for certain. Its title and design are based on an album of scary themes released in 1958 by Alfred Hitchcock. The famed director appears on his cover with an axe and a gun to his head, much like Em does here, and Hitchcock’s interludes are sampled throughout. It’s a good conceit for a guy who made his name creating mini-horror films in song.

And there’s some good stuff here, certainly, some tracks on which Eminem shows a confidence and vision he hasn’t displayed in a long time. “Darkness” is the absolute highlight of this thing. It finds Em stepping into the shoes of Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter. It makes full use of the album’s chief metaphor: rappers referring to their words as weapons and their tracks as murdering the beat. Em uses this as misdirection here, as it slowly becomes clear that he’s preparing for actual murder. The track ends with news footage from various mass shootings, and by the end Mathers has done something remarkable: given us another perspective on a national epidemic of violence.

Alas, it’s the only one like it here. The rest of this record is about Eminem himself, as usual. When it opens with a track that takes Rolling Stone to task for giving Revival two and a half stars, you’d be forgiven for strapping in for a long and tedious ride. Music to Be Murdered By is better than you may expect based on that – I like “Leaving Heaven” a lot, with its unflinching look at Eminem’s childhood, and “Stepdad” is a murder fantasy that hearkens back to his more classic period. “Little Engine” is kind of awesome too. But there’s an ocean of misogyny and tastelessness to wade through (“Marsh,” “Those Kinda Nights,” etc.), and the good stuff isn’t quite worth it.

That isn’t to say Eminem isn’t still a marvel to listen to. Just try “Godzilla,” featuring the recently departed Juice WRLD. It has a basic, minimalist beat over which Mathers again proclaims himself the best in the game, but he does it at near light speed. The final verses are a feat of annunciation, Mathers switching to full auto and firing out words with amazing skill. There’s no doubting how good he is, and Music to Be Murdered By is his best in a while. But I wish he would find a focus for all this talent, the way someone like Kendrick Lamar has. Eminem needs a mission, a reason to get behind the mic. Without it he’ll keep pumping out empty records like this one.

Speaking of empty records, here’s Sons of Apollo with their second record, MMXX. (Yes, it’s named after the year in which it came out.) Sons of Apollo, you may remember, is a prog-metal supergroup consisting of Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, Mr. Big’s Billy Sheehan, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and former Yngwie Malmsteen singer Jeff Scott Soto. If you know those names, you know exactly what this record sounds like.

In fact, if you bought the last Sons of Apollo album, Psychotic Symphony, you have pretty much heard this one too. Like Dream Theater, this band exists to show off the instrumental chops of its members. The band is led by Portnoy, and I think it’s fitting that I get to talk about him so soon after Neil Peart’s death. Portnoy is what Peart’s detractors think he was – overly flashy, busy for no reason, showing off when he could be serving the song. Peart never did any of that. He was a complex player, but his parts served the whole. Portnoy’s entire style screams “look at me” at maximum volume.

And man, I will absolutely cop to loving that sort of thing from time to time. When Dream Theater hit in the early ‘90s, they were one of my favorite bands, fusing the prog of Yes and Genesis with the explosive technical metal of Megadeth. Over time their sound has become wearying, and Portnoy brought that sound with him when he left the band in 2010. He’s been the drummer for Neal Morse’s prog projects, including Transatlantic and Flying Colors, but with Sons of Apollo he gets to set the tone. And the tone is very Dream Theater.

Within the opening minutes of MMXX, you know what you’re in for. Again, there’s no question about what these guys can play, only what they choose to, and here they deliver standard prog-metal. It’s muscular, driven by Portnoy’s energetic playing and Soto’s sorta-cheesy-but-still-impressive voice, and it makes plenty of room for Thal and Sherinian to dazzle us with their lightning-fast leads. The songs are complicated not because the songs call for complexity, but because they are showcases for the players.

There are two tracks worth mentioning, for different reasons. “Desolate July” was written in memory of David Z., a friend of the band who passed away recently. It’s a slow ballad, the kind that Dream Theater occasionally pulls out, but Soto isn’t even the lyricist James LaBrie is, and this song – heartfelt as it may be – traffics in every “no chance to say goodbye, we’re left wondering why” cliché you’ve ever heard. It’s hard to get through.

And then there is the closer, “New World Today,” which stands out for being a 15-minute five-part epic. This sort of thing is de rigueur for a band like Sons of Apollo, but if you’re in this for the flailing guitar solos and odd tempos and stop-time sections, this song contains the band’s best work. A piece like “New World Today” is the very reason a band like this one exists, and if you like 15-minute prog-metal suites, you will like this one. If you like prog-metal in general, in fact, you will enjoy this album.

I just find it surprisingly tiring. I feel like I’ve heard it all before – MMXX contains no new tricks, no new insights. It’s music played with remarkable precision and showiness, its only point being to prove again that these five guys are good at what they do. They are good at it, certainly, but sometimes just being good isn’t enough. Sheer skill rarely moves me, and more often than not these days, I am looking to be moved, not just awed. You can give me all the sound and fury in the world, but if it signifies nothing, I’m gonna be bored.

Next week, Kesha’s return and a few other things. And I’ll probably talk a bit about the Good Place finale.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles