Stepping Out
Brittany Howard and Liam Gallagher Fly Solo

Usually when an artist goes solo, there’s a sense of uncertainty.

You know the questions. Will this person be able to capture the magic of his/her band on her/his own? What if the other members of the band were really bringing the magic? How different will this solo music be from the music this person made with his/her band? Will it be too different? Will it be too much the same? When is the band getting back together?

Absolutely none of these questions have been asked about Brittany Howard, leader of the Alabama Shakes, on the occasion of her first solo record. That’s because if any artist in recent memory seemed to have the right to take the band name on as her own, it was Howard. For most people – and no offense intended to her three bandmates, though I just had to Google to see how many were in the band – she is Alabama Shakes. Her voice, her guitar playing and her jaw-dropping presence are the three main reasons to listen to her band.

In many ways, then, Jaime is the least risky solo bow I have ever seen. I think everyone assumed Jaime would be just what it is: a solid, soulful, strange and striking piece of work that centers Howard’s voice and further cements her as an artist to watch. It’s not surprising that this album is pretty great. It would have been surprising, in fact, if it were not.

But let’s be clear: Jaime doesn’t sound like Alabama Shakes. It’s a much quieter affair, with a lot on its mind and a real sense of dynamics and versatility. The album is named after and dedicated to Howard’s sister, who died as a teenager, and when she shouts “We are all brothers and sisters” on the wild dirge “13th Century Metal,” it feels both universal and personal. This album is remarkably weird, as if Howard knew exactly how far she could push her well-earned creative freedom, but it’s leavened with beautiful numbers like “Stay High” and the deeply soulful “Baby.”

“History Repeats,” the opener and first single, masters that universal personal thing right away. It’s both romantic and political, and when she sings “History repeats and we defeat ourselves” over and over, she makes her point beautifully. “Goat Head” is one of the most striking, with keyboards from Robert Glasper and a lyric about herself as a child trying to make sense of the racist south. “Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back,” she sings with (and this is remarkable) a tone of jaded innocence. But she juxtaposes that with a beautiful oasis of contentment on “Presence.” The whole record is like this, stabbing you and then kissing the wound.

Like that second Alabama Shakes album, Jaime may not seem to hang together at first, but every part of it is meticulously crafted and arranged. It has taken a few listens to really piece it together, but now that it’s flowing for me, I think it’s pretty terrific. Like most people, I assume, I never had any doubt that it would be, but Howard threw more than one curve ball here, especially for fans of her band, and it’s impressive how well she navigates this jazz-soul-hip-hop blend she delivers. I have no idea if Alabama Shakes will ever be a thing again, but it hardly matters: in or out of the band, she’s swell, and Jaime is another winner.

I can’t imagine a similar truckload of confidence greeting Liam Gallagher, the erstwhile singer of Oasis. He suffers from the classic lead singer dilemma: Liam’s brother Noel is widely credited with writing the songs that made Oasis what they were, and without him, there’s no real way to know what level he’ll be able to reach. He has one of the most recognizable voices to emerge from the Britpop boom of the ‘90s, but those questions above certainly applied to him, and the mediocre nature of Beady Eye, his post-Oasis band, didn’t help answer them.

It’s a truly pleasant surprise, then, how enjoyable Gallagher’s solo albums have been. 2017’s As You Were gave us a solid set of songs, particularly the mea culpa “For What It’s Worth,” and now the cheekily titled Why Me? Why Not takes another good-sized step forward. While Noel is busy issuing dance-rock singles, Liam connected with pop craftsmen like Greg Kurstin (of The Bird and the Bee) and Andrew Wyatt (of Miike Snow) and, for the second time, assembled a catchy, memorable group of short, well-written tunes.

And make no mistake, each of the 14 songs on Why Me is a potential single. The roaring guitars of “Shockwave,” the opener, have already delivered Liam his most successful solo track, and there are so many others lying in wait here that Radio One may not know what hit it. The barrelhouse piano and thunderous drums of “Halo,” for instance, are pretty terrific, as is the melody and gentle sweetness of “Now That I’ve Found You.” Kurstin and Wyatt produced, and every song sounds crisp and ready for mass consumption.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is some crassly commercial effort, though of course it is designed to become as popular as possible. It truly is a well-honed set of songs, all of which fit Gallagher’s voice quite well. It’s a more polished effort than the last few Oasis albums and miles better than Beady Eye, which makes this my favorite Liam Gallagher record in something like 20 years. That may sound like faint praise, but I mean it as a true blue compliment. Why Me? Why Not is a thoroughly enjoyable record, and I hope Liam can keep this streak going.

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So some of you may have noticed that I skipped the second quarter report this year. I took an entire month off for the first time in this silly music column’s long history, and that month happened to be June, and so I never compiled my halfway-through-the-year list. It’s time now for the third quarter report, and I hope it’s no surprise that it doesn’t resemble the one I assembled in March at all, except for the top spot. I mean, what a lousy year it would have been if it did.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back in my weekly groove, and glad to have a third quarter report to share with you. Here’s what my top 10 list in progress looks like right now.

10. Devin Townsend, Empath.
9. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.
8. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix.
7. David Mead, Cobra Pumps.
6. Coyote Kid, The Skeleton Man.
5. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.
4. Bryan Scary, Birds.
3. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You.
2. Keane, Cause and Effect.
1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.

 That album at number six will get a review shortly, I promise. There are also a few I wish I could include, like The Bird and the Bee’s amazing Van Halen tribute record. And there’s a new Marillion, With Friends From the Orchestra, on its way later this month, but it will be ineligible since it consists of new versions of older songs. But with strings! I am very much looking forward to hearing it.

That will do it for this week. Probably Wilco and Sturgill Simpson on tap for next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

New Golden Age
Keane's Sad, Glorious Return

I didn’t realize how much I would miss Keane until they were gone.

I can still remember just about everything about my first listen through Hopes and Fears, Keane’s 2004 debut album (and still their most commercially successful effort). I don’t recall a lot of first listens, especially to first records, but this one captivated me from first note to last. At the time Keane was a trio – singer Tom Chaplin, pianist Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes – and their elegant, unfailingly melodic pop hit me exactly right.

As always with me, it was the songs I loved, from “Bend and Break” to “Everybody’s Changing” to “Sunshine” to the amazing “Bedshaped.” Sometimes when I listen to Hopes and Fears, I can still capture that initial rush of delight at finding something so beautifully realized, and at discovering a band that I knew I would follow for the rest of my days. And for the next eight years, I did just that – every two years or so, Keane would give me something new, and I would devour it. 2006’s Under the Iron Sea remains my favorite for its raw emotions and dark soundscapes, but Keane never made a record I didn’t like.

And then, after 2012’s more laid-back Strangeland, they went away. I should mention that I’d seen them live on every tour, thrilling at the fact that Chaplin can really sing like that on stage and admiring how seamlessly they integrated guitarist Jesse Quin for the Perfect Symmetry shows. Keane had been part of the fabric of my life for long enough that it truly hurt to see them fade away. It hurt even more to know that there had been more than the usual musical differences – Chaplin was working through some painful addictions that required an extended time away from music, as he detailed on his gorgeous solo album, The Wave.

I know I shouldn’t admit to loving this band quite as much as I do, but a world without Keane did take some getting used to for me. I get why people don’t like them – they’re straightforwardly and nakedly emotional, sometimes in ways that are even too much for me, and they’re the furthest thing from edgy. But to me Keane is a band constantly in search of the most beautiful thing they can create together, and part of that search is an unflinching honesty. Under the Iron Sea, for example, is made up of songs Rice-Oxley wrote about his frustrations and dark feelings toward Chaplin and his addictions, and Chaplin sings them. Any band that can survive something like that is, to me, worth championing, and worth much closer listens than most people offer them.

So of course I am over the moon that I no longer have to live in a world without Keane, and I’m absolutely in love with their fifth album, Cause and Effect. For a longtime fan like me, this album is revelatory – it is the most grown-up, world-weary record they have made, and you can feel the changes in their lives over the past seven years. It’s more than just the way Chaplin’s voice has matured, though there’s a new clear-eyed sense to his remarkably pure tone. It’s the way the band has become less adventurous, and at the same time more confident and complete. This is the most beautiful record these four guys could have made at this point in their lives, and while it’s more muted than their early work, it’s also exactly what it should be.

I’m not sure it was a choice, but Cause and Effect is almost entirely about Rice-Oxley’s 2012 divorce and its aftermath, and there’s a walk-through-the-world-alone sadness to the best material here. Some bands might have been self-conscious about leaving for seven years and returning with a sad record full of dark admissions and life lessons, but there’s no doubt every note and line here has been lived in. The wide-eyed innocence of “Somewhere Only We Know” is nowhere in evidence, but they’re the same band that wrote that song, and you can hear its echoes.

Basically, from the first electric piano notes of “You’re Not Home,” this record had me. The song is about the immediate aftermath of separation, when the person you loved is still all around you. “The click of the front door, your clothes left on the floor, bike wheels still turning where you left them on the back lawn…” Chaplin, of course, sings the hell out of this, and I can’t even tell you how grateful I am to have 11 new songs (13 with the bonus tracks) featuring his voice.

The band gets the radio singles out of the way early – both “Love Too Much” and “The Way I Feel” have that bright-music-sad-lyrics thing Keane does so well. “The Way I Feel” sounds like the Killers, as better critics than me have pointed out, and I like it, but I adore “Love Too Much.” “The purest dreams, they make us feel so high, when you’re falling down is when you feel most alive,” Chaplin sings over a lovely synth-and-piano foundation. This song is a latter-day-Keane classic, one of the best examples of their newfound clarity.

The rest of Cause and Effect slows down and aims for the heart. “Strange Room” hurts the way “Hamburg Song” hurt all those years ago. It digs deep into Rice-Oxley’s desolation: “For a moment I was dreaming we were just beginning, thought ‘finally I’ve come home, finally I’ve come home…’” It details his 2015 drunk driving arrest, and he includes a moment of lovely self-awareness as he talks to the officer: “I know what it looks like, a rich kid with a good life.” This one stays low-key, almost mantra-like, and though it builds, it never breaks open. It just breaks your heart.

“Stupid Things” is similar, full of details about Rice-Oxley’s relationship as he dissects it in his mind. “And now it’s little lies and alibis and the second phone, can’t make it home, I’m working late, you know I hate to miss the kids’ bedtime again…” This is the barest admission of his own wrongdoing, and it must be so strange for him to hear Chaplin sing it. “And I know that you know and we both just play along, just one more stupid thing that I have done…”

To me, the three-song stretch from “I’m Not Leaving” to “Chase the Night Away” is the heart of this record, and can stand with Keane’s best material. The lyrics are desperate and sad and lovely, from the dark chorus of the former (“Hold my hand, just like you used to do, I’m not leaving, throw it up, baby you’re all mixed up…”) to the brokenness of the latter, in which Rice-Oxley looks forward to a time when he can stop trying to rebuild.

But it’s “Thread” that has stayed with me the longest, and is perhaps the most honest of these songs. “All my life I won’t forget the pain in your eyes, I’m still scrubbing at the pain of this mess, wish you could understand the madness that grabbed at my throat and clung to my hands…” Of course the song itself is pretty and fragile, with a subtle string line, and Chaplin sings it like an angel. For some that will be its downfall – the songs on Cause and Effect are so lovely that they mask the anguish that pulses through them. To me that makes them sadder. Keane has moved me like few other bands, and on “Thread” they do it again. “Remember that I’m a good man, just not good enough…”

With all of this context, closer “I Need Your Love” seems more agonizing than romantic. Whether this is written to his ex-wife or to a new love, it comes across as yearning for fulfillment that Rice-Oxley will never find. “Let riches rain upon my head, these golden drugs, they’re not enough, I need your love,” Chaplin sings in his soaring voice, and if the pain of other songs here is disguised by their arrangements, this one is the epitome. It’s going to play like a Romeo and Juliet moment, a boy pleading with a girl to love him, and while it is that, it’s something more complex than that as well. It’s essentially the perfect closing song, cliched chorus and all.

In typical Keane fashion, the bonus songs are great too. “New Golden Age” should have been on the album proper. It sounds like picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, and it has one of the record’s best and most indelible choruses. “Difficult Year” isn’t quite as successful, but it as well makes for a fine conclusion: “It’s been a difficult year, I just wish we’d been together to face it…”

Yeah, this record hurts, but it also fills me with joy. I’m so glad to have this band back, especially if this is the type of honest, beautiful record their second act will bring us. In so many ways, Cause and Effect is exactly the right record for Keane to have made right now. It’s no one’s idea of a comeback record – it doesn’t storm the gates, announcing itself with bravado. Rather it patiently lets you into its darkest corners, offering up a difficult yet liberating look at brokenness. Keane’s best work has always done this, which is one reason it’s so good to hear from them again. I’m in love with Cause and Effect, and I think I will be for a long, long time.

That’s it for this week. This is my 950th column, and I’m glad I got to spend it writing about one of my favorite bands. Next week Brittany Howard’s solo debut, and a few other things. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

A Bad Week for the ’80s
Farewell to Ric Ocasek and Eddie Money

It’s been a bad week for fans of the ‘80s.

On Friday we lost Eddie Money. His real name was Edward Mahoney, and he changed it early in his career to sarcastically reflect the fact that he was always broke. But his cash flow troubles didn’t last long. His first big hit, “Two Tickets to Paradise,” led off his debut album, released in 1977. I know, I know, it sounds like an ‘80s song, and it gets played on ‘80s radio. But trust me. 1977.

His biggest hit was a proper ‘80s anthem: “Take Me Home Tonight,” a duet with Ronnie Spector released in 1986. He had plenty of other hits, of course, but this is the one people will remember him for. Like a lot of ‘80s stars, he had some rough luck in the decades that followed, but always kept in the game, writing songs for TV and movies. He was set to release a new album, Brand New Day, this year, but he ultimately lost his battle with esophageal cancer at age 70.

And then on Sunday we said goodbye to Ric Ocasek. I was flying to San Francisco for a work trip when the news broke, and it was one of the first things I read when I got off the plane. It was like a punch in the gut. I have been an Ocasek fan for nearly as long as I can remember – I loved the Cars since first hearing “Just What I Needed” on the radio, probably when I was all of four or five. I am sure I had no idea who the Cars were at the time, but I definitely remember hearing that tune at a young age.

I vividly remember the Heartbeat City era, though, because everyone around my age does. “Magic.” “You Might Think.” “Hello Again.” The late Benjamin Orr’s wonderful “Drive.” This album and its quirky videos were absolutely everywhere in 1984, and even though I was only ten, I know I knew who the Cars were at that time. Door to Door, which contains the hit “You Are the Girl,” was the first Cars album I owned on cassette – I was 13 when it came out. I have, of course, subsequently bought every Cars album, most of them more than once.

Granted, I was at the right age to be bowled over by catchy synth-driven pop music. But I will never outgrow that particular love, either. The Cars created some of the most succinct, perfectly crafted pop of the ‘80s, and Ocasek continued that trend on his solo records, which I definitely did not hear until much later. By that time Ocasek was famous for another reason: he was a tremendous producer, working with some of the best in the business. (I love that he produced a Bad Brains record, and will always love him for working on the first Nada Surf album.)

And the production for which he is best known is, of course, Weezer’s Blue Album. In a lot of ways, Rivers Cuomo picked up the baton of short, sharp, goofy pop from Ocasek, and it’s the Cars-ness of Weezer’s most hummable work that I like best about it. Ocasek also produced the Green Album and the massive Everything Will Be Alright in the End, almost universally praised as a return to form for the band.

The last Cars album was Move Like This, in 2011, which featured Ocasek’s last great song, “Blue Tip.” Ocasek died at age 75 while recovering from surgery. He leaves behind an impressive legacy, songs that I’ll be humming for the rest of my life. May he rest in peace.

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This is one of those weeks when I don’t have a lot else to report. I’ve been extremely busy and haven’t had time to dig back through my archive of purchased-but-unlistened-to music. I can’t, for instance, tell you how the new Hold Steady is, because I haven’t heard it yet. I also don’t have a lot to say about the ones I have heard. The new Josh Garrels, Chrysaline, is very pretty, for example, but its straightforward worship lyrics don’t give me a lot to hang on to. His voice remains amazing, his songs this time are kind of there, not leaving much of an impression with me.

I have heard the new Death Cab for Cutie EP once through, and I enjoyed it. Death Cab have been on an upswing lately, with last year’s Thank You for Today album mostly working for me, and the five songs on the Blue EP are all nice. It’s a consistent 22 minutes, and that’s probably the best you can ask for from Death Cab these days.

If there’s one new thing I’ve heard that I am digging more than anything else lately, it’s Circle of Dolls, the third album from KXM. They’re a supergroup in my mind, bringing together Dug Pinnick from King’s X, George Lynch from Lynch Mob (and before that, Dokken) and Ray Luzier from Korn. They play tight, loud, heavy rock, Pinnick singing his heart out and Lynch showing why he is still in demand as a guitarist.

“War of Words” kicks things off with a bang, but Circle of Dolls never flags. I’m a big fan of “Time Flies,” a better King’s X song than King’s X has given us in a long time. But seriously, we’re expecting the first new King’s X album in 11 or 12 years (depending on when it comes out) very soon, and my only hope for it is that it’s as good as KXM. If not, I may have to start thinking of this as Pinnick’s main band.

That’s about all I have for this week. Next week the floodgates open, though, with the return of Keane and the first solo album from Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard leading the way. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Brought to You by the Letter B
Bon Iver and Bat for Lashes Come Back With Winners

Bon Iver albums always take me a while.

Well, I say always, but really just since the delightful left turn this former folkie took with his second (and self-titled) effort. In 39 minutes, Justin Vernon dispensed with all that cabin-in-the-Wisconsin-woods mythology that had surrounded For Emma, Forever Ago and emerged as a fascinating artist with a command of the studio. I wasn’t sure what to make of Bon Iver at first, especially the ‘80s soundtrack ballad that closes it out, but now I absolutely love it.

Since then it’s become clear that Vernon has more interest in making Peter Gabriel-esque sonic journeys than he does in returning to anyone’s idea of what he should be or sound like. It takes him a while to make Bon Iver records – only two have surfaced since 2011 – so it makes sense that it should take a while to absorb them. He certainly doesn’t make it easy, adorning these songs with obscure, often nonsensical poetry and then saddling them with symbols or single letters for titles. He’s essentially removed some of the easiest ways in, which is why his work tends to need some time to settle before I truly feel it.

I say all that to warn you that I have only heard the fourth Bon Iver album, i,i, twice. It has not had time to work its magic. But so far, I like it quite a bit. In some ways it is less experimental than its predecessor, while still maintaining that patchwork sonic quality – there’s a new surprise every few seconds on this thing, and I always respond well to that. I’m not sure if any of these songs would work as well outside of this multicolored production, and I don’t remember any melody lines yet, but for now, Vernon’s layered vocals and inspired sense of shape and place carry me through.

This is the first time Vernon has used the same basic band two albums in a row, and that lends i,i some familiarity – quite a lot of this clearly spung from the same brains that made 22, A Million. The guest list is noteworthy: to name a few, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak provides vocals, Rob Moose writes some lovely string arrangements, and Bruce Hornsby crops up on “U (Man Like),” returning the favor for Vernon’s appearance on Absolute Zero. Hornsby is another interesting touchstone here – some of these songs, and some of Vernon’s vocals, remind me of Bruce’s work, and both artists have proven to be remarkably restless.

Speaking of restless, just the first song, “iMi,” will leave your head spinning. There are 11 credited writers (for a thing that lasts 3:16), James Blake plays keyboards, there are tons of strings and horns, and Vernon’s voice is processed and chopped to bits. The quieter parts are quickly overwhelmed with sound, and when the Vernon Overdub Choir sings “how much longer,” it’s a pretty wonderful moment. Similarly great is the ending, in which the horns drown out everything in exultation. This is kind of folksy, kind of electronic, kind of jazzy, and kind of radio-pop, but it never stays any of those things for long.

The record as a whole follows suit. “Naeem” brings in a gospel influence, and a refrain (“I can hear, I can hear crying”) that stands as one of the record’s most memorable, over a musical bed that builds and builds magnificently. “Jelmore” is an off-kilter omnichord dream, its fragile underpinning threatening to fray and fall apart at any second. “Marion” is the closest Vernon has come to his For Emma sound since then, all acoustic guitars and harmonies, while “Salem” might be my favorite thing here: there’s a potentially cheesy ‘80s-ness to it that really works for me.

Again, these are all first impressions, and a record as dense and well-built as i,i will need some time to sink in. But I am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m on my third listen, and the extended saxophone solo on “Sh’Diah” is filling my soul right now. I’m looking forward to truly knowing this record, and discovering its pleasures over time.

Bat for Lashes, on the other hand, has always been immediate. From the first strains of “Daniel,” the first song of hers I heard, Natasha Khan had me in the palm of her hand. I love her sense of atmosphere and her affinity for Kate Bush-style ‘80s art-pop. I’ve never felt let down by any of her records, though Two Suns remains a favorite. She dove deep into her cinematic tendencies with 2016’s The Bride, a concept record about a woman whose husband dies on the way to their wedding. It was dark and yet superbly beautiful by the end.

Her new one, Lost Girls, is no less cinematic. The title is a direct reference to The Lost Boys, and the music began life as the score to a film about bikers in an ‘80s Los Angeles ravaged by vampires. As you might expect, this is Khan’s most ‘80s record, through and through. From the synth tones to the thin funk guitars to the bongos-in-a-box percussion, much of this sounds like it stepped right out of MTV in 1986.

It’s also awesome. It steps well beyond pastiche into full-blooded artistic statement – this is a love letter to the washed-out movie landscape of the me decade, particularly those made-for-teens fantasy movies that captivated my generation. Some of these songs conjured up images of those movies in my mind. Hell, there’s an instrumental called “Vampires” that sounds all but intended to bring forth the spirit of Corey Feldman. This is the kind of record that you know will include a blaring saxophone at one point, and there it is.

Khan has written some of her most immediate songs here to match the production. Something like “So Good” could be a more menacing Cyndi Lauper song, and could easily make its home on ‘80s radio. “The Hunger” is a powerhouse, its ringing organ setting the stage for a pulsing synth bass right out of Depeche Mode. (I’m not absolutely sure that it’s about vampires, but come on, it’s about vampires.) The optimistic “Safe Tonight” has traces of Yazoo in its DNA, but really it’s just a very good Bat for Lashes tune. And “Mountains” is a bit of a masterpiece, the emotional heart of this album and a song I will be singing for a long time.

It’s hard to predict what will inspire artists. I certainly didn’t expect much from Khan’s vampire movie album, but it turns out that Kiefer Sutherland with a mullet is exactly the kind of kickstart she needed. Lost Girls leaps to life, and it serves as a thesis statement on the artistic validity of an era and a genre that is often critically dismissed. If it wasn’t obvious from her previous work, Khan loves this music, and if she decides from here on to devote herself to this style, I won’t complain. I’ll just be huddled up, crying and listening to “Mountains” and watching out the window for the undead.

That’s it for this week. Not absolutely sure what I will write about next week. Let’s find out together. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

It’s Tool Time
The Titans Return After 13 Years with Fear Inoculum

I have been trying not to eulogize people very often in this column. My goal has been to reserve my memorial pieces for people not being remembered elsewhere, by others with far more eloquence. If I talk about a recent death here, it will be someone who was important to me, but not necessarily famous to most of the outside world.

That said, we lost Terrance Dicks this week, and I’m quite sad about it. I’m sure most of you know I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who my whole life. I started watching when I was six years old, catching the U.S. broadcasts of the Tom Baker years (and later the Peter Davison era) on WGBH, Boston’s public television station. Some of my earliest Who memories, then, are associated with Terrance Dicks. The giant robot in Baker’s debut story. The creepy (and yet hilarious) Frankenstein creature in The Brain of Morbius. The horrific cat-and-mouse game that makes up most of Horror of Fang Rock. Every single minute of The Five Doctors.

Dicks was one of the most important figures in Doctor Who history. He first made his mark co-writing Patrick Troughton’s swan song, the epic The War Games. He then script-edited the entire Jon Pertwee era, one of the most consistent in the show’s long run. He wrote some of my favorite Tom Baker-era scripts, and returned for the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, which I love with all my heart. Dicks also novelized many of the classic series stories for Target Books and wrote several of his own Doctor Who novels. It’s no exaggeration to say that without his work, Who would have faded away decades ago.

Terrance Dicks died Friday after a short illness. He was 84 years old. Honestly, his importance to this little show I love cannot be overstated, and I just wanted to thank him for all the ways he enriched my life. So, thank you, Terrance.

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I’ve been known to express some dismay at the state of our singles-driven download Soundcloud pop landscape, because I am old and curmudgeonly. But I have to say, the fact that the most hyped album of 2019 (and the one most likely to topple Taylor Swift from the number one spot this week) is an 86-minute prog-metal monster with songs stretching to 15 minutes, recorded by a band who debuted more than a decade before Facebook was even a thing, has planted a big grin on my grumpy, ancient face.

That band is Tool, of course, and as I’m sure you have heard by now, they’ve returned after 13 years in the wilderness with Fear Inoculum, what is astoundingly only their fifth album. It’s almost hard for me to believe that people have been this excited about Tool, but they have been. The ten-minute title track from this record, released a couple weeks in advance, has more than 12 million views right now on a platform (YouTube) that barely existed last time Tool released an album.

Fear Inoculum (and that is not a title that screams “advance hype”) is the first Tool album of the social media age, if you think about it. Twitter, which seems so ubiquitous now as to be ageless, was founded a mere two months before Tool’s last record, 10,000 Days, hit stores. There was no Instagram. Download and streaming culture had barely begun – iTunes was only four years old, and Spotify had just emerged, blinking, into the sun. But there’s no denying how instrumental social media has been in building up anticipation for this album.

And sure, Tool’s absence over the last dozen-plus years certainly helped in that regard too. The fact that even after leaving a Tool-shaped vacuum for all that time, no other act has risen up to fill the void is sort of amazing – they’re still the only band in the world like them. I think there are two main reasons for that: what Tool is able to play, and what they choose to play.

Honestly, I think they could play anything – all three musicians are aces at their instruments, and Maynard James Keenan has a stunning voice that sends chills up my spine. They’re so far ahead of so many of their contemporaries in sheer chops that it’s almost unfair. And what they choose to do with that talent is to write epic, punishing prog-metal that sticks with only a few notes and slowly unwinds, hopping time signatures like lily pads while building in intensity. I once described it as sounding like being crushed by a slow-motion steamroller, and while I stand by that, there’s a lot more math involved too.

There are six main songs on Fear Inoculum, and they all pull off the same trick. Each one is a minimum of 10 minutes long (with standout “7empest” stretching to 15), and they all begin atmospherically and then slowly, methodically build up into powerhouses. They find some interesting detours along the way – “Invincible” has this whole Blade Runner sequence with fat analog synthesizers, and it’s awesome – but essentially they do the same thing six times. But man, not only do they do this one thing better than anyone else, there really isn’t anyone else doing it at all.

What amazes me about Tool is that, for a band often called pretentious, they’re remarkably ego-free players. There are no spotlight-hogging moments, no hubristic wankery extending the song lengths. When they get together, the members of Tool are a single-minded machine, playing this complex music as one mind and letting it speak for itself. I could individually praise the three players, I guess – this is the best work ever from guitarist Adam Jones, and drummer Danny Carey is just jaw-droppingly good throughout. (He gets his own solo piece in “Chocolate Chip Trip” and it’s much more of a sculpture than a solo.) But that misses the point.

The point is that the only way Tool’s trick works – the only way they can build up these songs convincingly through sections in 11/8 and whole minutes of instrumental interplay – is by simulating a hive mind. You could replace one or more of them with players who are just as good, if you can find them, but you can’t replace the four-man telepathy that they seem to have developed. “Pneuma” is just an incredible piece of music, rising and falling over 12 minutes in who-knows-what time signature, and if all of them – even, and sometimes especially, Maynard – are not in perfect sync, it doesn’t work.

All of these songs work. “Descending” is perhaps the only one that doesn’t quite deserve its mammoth length, but it’s still pretty amazing. This record builds on the more atmospheric sections of 10,000 Days, and it’s the most patient music the band has made. There’s no “Stinkfist” or “Vicarious” to jump-start things – this time the band trusts its listeners to follow them as they wind their way through these compositions, making no concessions at all to a wider audience. This is Tool without any interference, answering to no one, making exactly the music they want to make, and they don’t seem to care if you like it.

I really like it, of course. As great as I think songs like “Invincible” and “Culling Voices” are, the highlight of Fear Inoculum for me is its finale, “7empest.” This is the only one on the album that sounds to me like Aenima-era Tool, loud and crashing and crazy. For much of its runtime it’s basically a jam session, but one that is just as clockwork-complex as anything else here. Jones, Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor achieve orbit here, circling around one another like feral dogs. Their telepathy has rarely been this unchained.

If I have a complaint about Fear Inoculum, it’s that while it’s clear the band worked hard on each song, they didn’t put as much work into cohering those songs into an album. Previous Tool records like Lateralus and 10,000 Days took their macro structure seriously, treating the album-length experience with the same care as the song-length one. Here it sounds to me like they finished six songs and four interludes and threw them together. The record doesn’t climax as much as it ends, and while it’s an engaging and invigorating listen, I don’t feel like I’ve been somewhere by the end of it.

That’s not even getting into the differences between the CD version and the download version. This is the first Tool album released into a world where more people will download it than buy the physical product, and the band certainly played to that – the 10-track download version includes three interludes excised from the 79-minute CD version, and they help unify the listening experience somewhat. They’re not essential, especially the closing “Mockingbeat,” but they do help give the impression that there’s an order to these songs and a method to their sequence.

I bought the CD version, of course, which means I paid $47 for the only physical package that was available. It’s incredible – it comes complete with a video screen loaded with a lengthy animation, with sound, and a charging cord in case the battery runs dry. The oversized booklet is fantastic, filled with illustrations and embossing effects, and the package is gorgeous to look at. It’s also gone – I don’t know how many the band made, but they sold out in a day or so, and I only snagged one by the grace of my wonderful record store. So the download edition is now the only one.

However you get this record, though – and you can certainly pay $160 or more for the physical edition if you want to – it’s worth getting. I’m astounded at the attention being paid to such a challenging, time-consuming work, but it’s gratifying to see. In some ways Fear Inoculum feels like six complete experiences sold together with some bonus material, but six complete Tool experiences are more than worth your money and time. There’s no other band like them, and I hope it won’t be another 13 years before we hear from them again.

Next week, Bat for Lashes and Bon Iver. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Beauty in the Darkness
Iamthemorning and Brad Mehldau Find Inspiration in Timeless Despair

Next week we’re going to talk about Tool’s first album in 13 years. Yes, I’m excited about it. The single is pretty amazing, in that Tool way in which it doesn’t seem to do much, but builds and builds almost imperceptibly until it’s raging by the end. I don’t know of another band who does this quite this well, outside of the realm of post-rock, and if they can sustain that over 86 minutes, they’ll win me over.

But that’s next week. This week I thought we’d talk about music that is kind of the polar opposite of Tool’s work. I think some people underestimate how serious I am when I say I listen to everything. I literally listen to everything I can get my hands on. My musical brain needs a lot of different kinds of stimulation, so going from Sinatra to Mesghuggah doesn’t seem that odd to me. I like ugliness as well as beauty, about the same.

Where bands like Tool are often going for the ugliest beauty they can create, the two artists we have on tap today are aiming for a sort of beautiful ugliness. Both of them are telling difficult stories, some as old as time but as relevant as the daily news, and making the prettiest and most engaging music they can as backdrop for them. And while one of them is right in their wheelhouse, the other has stepped so far outside it as to be unrecognizable.

We’ll start with the former. Iamthemorning is a duo from Russia, consisting of vocalist Marjana Semkina and pianist Gleb Kolyadin. Together they create dramatic, classical-influenced music that sounds, for good and ill, like the work of trained musicians. That means it can come off a little mannered, like Kolyadin and Semkina are reading and reciting these pieces, not living them. But if you can deal with that – and if you’re a fan of orchestral music, you pretty much have to deal with that regularly – their work is truly enjoyable.

The fourth Iamthemorning album is called The Bell, and its authors consider it a song cycle in two parts. I like that you can gaze at the artwork that adorns this record, listen to the whole thing and come away thinking that it’s pretty and bright. You have to dig into the lyrics to really understand how bleak it all is, and you need to read about the cover painting to know that it depicts a coffin bell, attached by a string to the inside of a coffin in case of live burial. It’s a metaphor, Semkina says, for knowing that you can call for help if you need to.

The album itself is about (near as I can tell) a woman who is buried alive in the ocean, dies and comes back to haunt her killers. Its lyrics are remarkably dark and hopeless, particularly on tracks like “Blue Sea,” in which our protagonist drowns. The music is unfailingly gorgeous, in total contrast with the anguish of the words. “Sleeping Beauty” is lovely, and it’s only if you dig deeper that you realize it’s about being trapped in a glass coffin. “Lilies” seems particularly influenced by classical piano pieces, Kolyadin pounding out some complex runs while Semkina sings of metaphorical drowning: “The water’s embrace is the same no matter how fast its pace…”

Some of The Bell reminds me of Kate Bush (and, by extension, Tori Amos), particularly the climactic “Salute,” but Iamthemorning have established their own sound by this point, and no one else is doing it. The Bell may be inspired by 19th century stories of cruelty, it feels like a response to the current state of the world as well. It feels like an expression of the helplessness we all feel in the face of things, filtered through this duo’s singular sensibilities. It would be hard for me to say that I enjoyed The Bell, but I definitely came away from it impressed.

By this point you kind of know what you’re going to get with Iamthemorning. Not so Brad Mehldau, as anyone who picked up his new album Finding Gabriel expecting his trademark jazz piano playing can attest. I hope those people weren’t too disappointed, since Mehldau has delivered a bit of a masterpiece here.

Finding Gabriel is a mostly instrumental record of vast scope, employing electronics and rock beats and strings and an array of musicians and vocalists. It was recorded over an 18-month period as Mehldau dedicated himself to a close reading of the Bible, and it serves as a rumination on the promises (both joyful and dreadful) contained within. Most tracks here are accompanied by a Bible verse, all of them from the Old Testament, in which God is jealous and angry and unmoved by suffering. This is rich ground to draw musical inspiration from, and Mehldau uses that foundation to cast his eye on the world, and the rising tide of fascism that seems to be claiming it. This is an album that shouts “deliver us, O Lord,” in nearly every note.

On several of these tracks, Mehldau plays everything. “O Ephraim,” which draws from the book of Hosea, finds him layering his nimble piano playing over a thick bed of synthesizers and drums, all of which he performed. But in equal measure here are songs like “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night,” a stunning piece of music that incorporates a string trio, electronic pitter-pat drums and the voice of Becca Stevens, singing wordlessly. This song takes so many twists and turns, ending up in a completely different place than it began in.

“The Prophet is a Fool” is one of the more aggressive numbers. It’s a scathing indictment of Donald Trump’s America, and leaves no doubt about it. (“Build that wall,” a crowd chants, while a voice tells us that listening to Trump makes people feel stronger, when in fact it makes them weaker.) Joel Frahm lays down some impressive tenor sax soloing while Mehldau provides a morphing synth bass part that lends a queasiness to the whole piece. It’s the darkest thing here, and it’s remarkable stuff.

In contrast, “Make It All Go Away” is a synth-cloud plea for peace, with Kurt Elling lending his inimitable voice to the track’s rising, yearning sound. That gives way to “Deep Water,” a beautiful song that feels like hands rising up to the sky. It’s taken from Psalms: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck… I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.” It sounds like this, Stevens returning to add yearning vocals over the track’s strange treated strings. We finally get to Job on “Proverb of Ashes,” and it’s a workout, with another swell Elling performance.

This whole record is a jaw-dropping surprise from Mehldau, far removed from the paths he usually treads. But he’s found a way to make a record based in ancient scriptures that sounds like now, that draws a straight line from Job and David and Hosea to us, crying out for deliverance. It’s further proof that Mehldau is a treasure, whatever he decides to do. He’s a deeply thoughtful artist with extraordinary chops, and Finding Gabriel is a deeply considered piece of work that will resonate for years to come.

Next week, Tool, of course. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

To Be Frank
Is It the Story or the Storyteller That Counts?

I’ve been struggling with how to write about Frank Turner’s new album.

I should start by saying that I’m a fan of Frank’s work. A good friend introduced me to him around the Love, Ire and Song days, and that was at a point in my life when a song like “Photosynthesis” struck a deep chord. Frank writes fist-pumping folk-punk anthems with rapid-fire lyrics about staying true to yourself and remembering where you’re from. For my money he’s never been better than England Keep My Bones, but Positive Songs for Negative People comes very close.

There’s always been something sort of awkward about him too, though, like he’s putting on a show, and the more I listened to last year’s topical Be More Kind, the more I felt a bit of that awkwardness. It was a record that seemed unaware of the both-sides position it was taking, and the privilege it was reveling in when taking it. Don’t get me wrong, I like Be More Kind, but it was at times a case of a white guy lecturing people who are facing threats each day he will never understand.

I was able to put most of that aside and enjoy Be More Kind for what it was: an embrace of love as the cure for our social ills. But I’m having more trouble with the awkwardness of his new one, No Man’s Land. First of all, that’s a title that only an oblivious man would give to this set of tunes, and I’ll be shaking my head at it each time I type it out. No Man’s Land, you see, is a collection of songs about women throughout history, women that Turner apparently feels have not been sung about enough. (Get it? No Man’s Land? Ugh.)

In some cases, he’s right. “The Lioness,” for example, is about Huda Sha’arawi, the founder of the Arab Feminist Union, and she’s certainly someone who should have a folk-rock song written about her. “Silent Key” is about Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who, along with six other astronauts, died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. I was 12 at the time, and from New England, and to have a song like “Silent Key” dedicated to memorializing her is like marking a moment in my life as well.

I can even understand Turner wanting to write songs about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, too, or Mata Hari, since they’re fascinating figures, even if they’re very well known. These songs find Turner in full Billy Bragg mode, spinning stories, some of them in first person, some as if he is a troubadour telling tales for coins. I can feel his good intentions in each of these songs, too. For instance, I expect he thinks of “I Believed You, William Blake” as a tribute to Catherine Blake, who lived in the shadow of her famous poet husband. Of course, the song is about William through Catherine’s eyes, which illustrates the issue.

And that issue, frankly, is that Frank Turner isn’t the person to write or sing these songs, despite his skill and intentions. He really tries to get beyond his own maleness here, hiring an (almost) entirely female band to bring these songs to life, but it still feels like a man explaining women’s history in a way that is, alas, inescapable. It’s hard to think of this as anything but an ill-advised project from the start, no matter how strong it is or how much I like it.

And I do like it. Turner has grown into a much subtler songwriter, and the best songs here are really strong ones. I question whether serial killer Nannie Doss should be here alongside women like Sha’arawi, but her song, “A Perfect Wife,” gets into her mind in a clever and disturbing way. “The Death of Dora Hand” sounds like an ancient folk number, memorializing a singer killed by accident in Dodge City in 1878. “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” is about a cemetery in Southwark where forgotten victims of the sex trade were buried, sung from the point of view of one of those women.

In the end, though, this isn’t an album about celebrating unheralded women from history as much as it is a collection of stories Turner found interesting. (Which explains both “A Perfect Wife” and “I Believed You, William Blake.”) One of the most interesting is “Rescue Annie,” the story of an unidentified woman who died in the river Seine in the 1880s, and whose face was used as the template for the first CPR doll. Turner is fascinated, as any good writer would be, in the dramatic possibilities of a virgin suicide becoming perhaps the most kissed face in history, and on the surface, that works. (“Rescue Annie from the river, with every kiss she is delivered, from the depths and we forgive her for falling in…”)

But this really is a story about a male doctor who stole a dead woman’s face without her permission, which wrecks the metaphor and the poetry completely. I still like the song, but Frank seems unaware that it’s kind of a problematic story, especially on an album he’s dedicated to forgotten women.

That’s kind of what you get on No Man’s Land, though there is one song that really works: the closer, “Rosemary Jane,” about Turner’s mother. It’s a sweet ode, though it is entirely about him and his memories of her. It’s the best thing here, but also further proof that the old maxim – it’s the singer, not the song – is what trips this record up. I still like it, and I still like Frank, and I hope his next batch of songs are purposefully and deliberately all about him and how he sees the world. It’s his best subject and I hope he gets back to it.

* * * * *

That was a lot of words to say “women should tell their own stories,” and with full knowledge of the irony of a man talking about women telling their own stories, here are a couple reviews that prove the point.

Start with the Regrettes, which is one of the best band names I have ever heard. That name bought them at least one record with me, and it was their debut Feel Your Feelings, Fool, and I enjoyed it enough to buy their second. It’s called How Do You Love, and it’s better than the first. Frontwoman Lydia Night is all of 18 years old, and there are certainly some youthful miscalculations here, like the spoken intro. But mostly she and her band impress with the quality of these quick, catchy tunes.

The Regrettes are in the mold of the Runaways, playing simple punky guitar-pop with a witty snarl and an open heart. “Coloring Book” is a song you only write when you’re young, and I have no doubt it’s resonating with people Night’s age all over the country. (“I can be your baby if you want to be mine, I’ll color in the picture if you just draw the lines…”) It convincingly builds from an intimate strum to a big electric crash, and it’s one of my favorite things here.

But I have a lot of favorites here. How Do You Love is a joyous romantic delight. I’d put the likes of “Fog” and “Dead Wrong” up against the best pop of the year, and the Regrettes confidently straddle the line between their pop leanings and their identity as a live, raucous rock band. This second album says loud and proud that the Regrettes are here to stay, and given how young they are, we could be in for decades of good stuff from them.

Of course, all things must come to an end, which is at least some of the story of the new Sleater-Kinney album The Center Won’t Hold. This is the last S-K album that will feature longtime drummer Janet Weiss, who has been with the band since 1996. It’s the end of an era, and it’s fitting that her swan song is this strange, abrasive album about things falling apart.

As you’ve probably heard, The Center Won’t Hold was produced by St. Vincent, and if you picture in your head what that combination might sound like, I think you’ll be pretty close. Annie Clark’s fingerprints are all over this, but it’s still defiantly a Sleater-Kinney record. It still rocks, but in a new, more synth-y way that somehow doesn’t give up the intensity that this band is known for. The chorus of “Reach Out” floats on harmonies and lead guitar, leaning into its pop song qualities, and this is new for S-K, but they make it their own.

“Can I Go On” feels like the heart of this record, a lament for our current society with a shoutalong chorus that feels equal parts Sleater-Kinney and Clark. It’s about the state of the world and the ways it eats at you each day, making it harder to keep going. (“Maybe I’m not sure I want to go on…”) The album is full of difficult sentiments like this: “Never have I felt so goddamned lost and alone,” Corin Tucker wails on “The Future is Here,” and on album closer “Broken” she admits she’s “breaking in two, I’m broken inside.” And man, do I feel all of that.

It’s to the band’s credit that The Center Won’t Hold is the furthest thing from a downer. Its songs end up as singalongs more often than not, and the overriding sense this leaves me with is that we’re all feeling this way, and we need each other. Things fall apart, the center doesn’t hold, and we’re left to deal with it. But we’re not alone. If that seems like a lot to convey in 36 minutes, trust that Sleater-Kinney can do it. They’re a band with nothing more to prove, but they prove it anyway on this record, and it’s a treat.

Next week, some weirder ones. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Pocket Full of Soul
Surprises from Marc Cohn and Bear Rinehart

I don’t know about your house, but in mine, every Marc Cohn album release is an event.

They don’t come around often. The last one, in fact, was nine years ago, and consisted of covers of songs released in 1970. Seven years after that he gifted us with a collection of lost songs and rarities that is simply amazing, but we haven’t heard a new Marc Cohn record since 2007, and the world has been a poorer place for it.

If you know Cohn, you probably know him for “Walking in Memphis,” his most enduring tune. I have often wondered how gratifying it must feel to have written a song that is instantly recognizable by millions of people within a couple notes. “Walking in Memphis” is one of those. It’s one of those songs that is more famous than its author, by a long, long way. It’s one of those songs that has passed so far into the cultural consciousness that some might say it belongs to all of us now. I’d dispute that – it’s still Marc Cohn’s song – but I get the sentiment.

If that is the only Cohn song you know, well, you are missing out. He’s such an accomplished and striking songwriter that the fact that we only have four records of his compositions is a shame. A couple years ago I pledged for an upcoming fifth album, but that never came to be. (My money was refunded when Cohn realized he wasn’t even close to ready to record something new.) He works slowly, and that’s fine, but it has left us with only a handful of songs to mark his time here.

But they’re great songs. “Silver Thunderbird.” “Dig Down Deep.” “Rest for the Weary.” “She’s Becoming Gold.” “Lost You in the Canyon.” “Dance Back from the Grave.” “The Things We’ve Handed Down.” The wedding favorite “True Companion.” Just listing the song titles had me humming along. Marc Cohn has written music that has enriched my life for nearly 30 years.

And he’s still doing it. Work to Do, Cohn’s recently released collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, is easily one of my favorite albums of 2019. I’ve heard it probably 15 times since it came out last Friday, and I can’t stop listening to it. My joy was only amplified by the fact that it was a surprise to me – I heard about it only a week or two before it came out, so the fact of its existence and the beauty of the music it contains were part of the same burst of euphoria for me.

That means I also missed the fact that Cohn and the Blind Boys have been touring together. Had I heard about this, I would have moved heaven and earth to be there for one of the shows. Cohn and the Blind Boys is one of those pairings that clicked in my head as soon as I heard about it. I knew what Work to Do would sound like before I heard it, and I was pretty much right, much to my delight. The Blind Boys accentuate the gospel elements of Cohn’s music and provide a gorgeous, earthy texture to his soulful folk-pop. They’re a remarkable combination.

Work to Do begins with three studio tracks, including the first two new Marc Cohn originals in years. I like “Talk Back Mic,” about the voice of God, and I think Cohn and the Boys spun gold on the old spiritual “Walk in Jerusalem.” But it’s the title track that owns my heart. It’s at once a breakup song and a keepin’-on song, and there’s a resigned hopefulness to it, a mix of emotions that only a master storyteller and songwriter could balance out. It’s also a superb song melodically, and the Blind Boys give it that boost into transcendence. If this turns out to be the last gift we get from Marc Cohn, it’s a generous one.

The rest of the album is live, and it’s stunning. Here is “Ghost Train,” given just that hint of ethereal wonder. Here is “Baby King,” and if you know this song, you’re probably hearing the Blind Boys sing it in your head right now. Here is “Listening to Levon,” an underrated classic from his last full album. Best of all, here is a 10-minute “Silver Thunderbird” that digs down into the corners of the song and finds treasure hidden there.

And yes, here is “Walking in Memphis,” because it must be here. But this rendition is lovely – Cohn never plays this song as if he is sick of it, but you can tell the Blind Boys have renewed his interest in it. To my mind he’s written far better songs than this one (and many of them are featured here), but I can’t deny how much I enjoy hearing how much Cohn enjoys it here. The record ends with “One Safe Place,” a simple tune that has found a home in several movies and TV shows. Here it sounds like a soul-filling benediction, and it takes its rightful place next to his best songs.

Back in 2005, Cohn survived a gunshot wound to the head after an attempted carjacking in Denver. That he continues to walk the earth (in Memphis and otherwise) is one of the closest things to a miracle I can think of. I’m thankful he’s still with us, and still making music. Maybe, as his song says, he’s still got work to do. This new record certainly makes that case.

* * * * *

How about another pleasant surprise to round out the week?

I resisted Needtobreathe for a long time. I found a lot of their early work reminiscent of Kings of Leon and the like: average rock that failed to do much to interest me. But the more I listened, the more I liked what the brothers Rinehart were bringing to the table. Their last two records, Rivers in the Wasteland and the diverse Hard Love, made me a fan. Well, that and seeing them live a couple times, where they shine.

I’m not sure anything Needtobreathe have done could have quite prepared me for Wilder Woods, the debut solo project of singer Bear Rinehart. (His real name is William, but Bear is such a cool name that we’ll let him get away with it.) In some ways the more Motown-influenced material here is a logical step from the poppier parts of Hard Love. But in some ways, this is a new sound for Rinehart, and he makes the most of it.

If I’ve had issues with Needtobreathe in the past, Rinehart’s voice has never been one of them. It’s front and center here, leading the quiet acoustics of “Someday Soon” and the elastic soul of “Supply and Demand,” neither of which sound like Rinehart’s home band. “Supply and Demand,” in particular, feels like it’s right out of 1960s Detroit, so well has Rinehart replicated the Motown sound. One song later he’s offering an electronic beat and a pop hook on “Electric Woman.” Two songs after that he’s doing John Legend on “Mary, You’re Wrong.”

Most of Wilder Woods is concerned with romantic love, but those who have suspected that NTB’s spiritual side might have fallen away lately will have more to talk about with the closing track, “Religion.” It’s a fascinating, possibly metaphorical waltz built around these lines: “I was born in the shadows of preachers and saints, I was raised in a house of God, but the blood on my lips and the dirt on my face is the only religion I’ve got.”

It’s just one surprise on an album full of them. Bear Rinehart’s work here might be the most interesting he’s ever done, and I hope he can carry some of these new sounds back to his home base. Even if he doesn’t, though, Wilder Woods is an effective and successful drive down new avenues toward new destinations. It’s worth checking out even if you’ve never been a Needtobreathe fan.

OK, that’ll do it for this week. Next week, probably Frank Turner and one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Actually, I Think I Am Talking ‘Bout Love
The Bird and the Bee Take on Van Halen for a Delightful Tribute Album

If asked to write a list of bands that have been formatively important to me over my lifetime, I would probably not immediately name Van Halen. But in thinking about it this week, I’ve realized they really do deserve a mention.

If you didn’t live through the early ‘80s, it’ll be impossible to explain why Van Halen was such a huge band. I’m not a guitar player, but even I could tell, listening to Eddie Van Halen play, that there was something new happening. My bet is that my first Eddie Van Halen guitar solo resided within Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit “Beat It,” a song that took the world by storm. I was all of eight years old when “Beat It” hit (and all of nine when Weird Al’s glorious parody, “Eat It,” cemented my love for it), so perhaps my critical faculties were not as developed as they became later. (Hush, all of you.) But I thought it was great.

I was ten when 1984 dropped, and Eddie started playing keyboards. I think I’d already gravitated toward the piano/keys as my instrument of choice, but if I hadn’t, “Jump” certainly would have made that an easier decision. “Jump” is one of the greatest stupid songs ever written, marshalling an iconic synth part in service of a universal truth: you might as well jump. Go ahead and jump. I think I was a few years older when I finally heard the whole record, but I cannot separate “Jump” from my memories of being a ten-year-old already in love with music.

I remember hearing “The Best of Both Worlds” on the radio when I was 12. I vividly remember the videos for the singles off of OU812, a title I probably didn’t get at the time, and I think that was my first new Van Halen record. I started making my own money at 15 and soon had the band’s entire catalog on cassette. And from there I stuck with them, long after most people gave up on them. I never minded Van Hagar, though the David Lee Roth years are, of course, the better ones. I even enjoyed Van Halen III, the one with Gary Cherone. I was 24 when that one came out, so I no longer had the excuse of youth.

For most of my life Van Halen has been one of those bands that won’t let me go. My sister used “Love Walks In” as her entrance song at her wedding, for instance. And now I find myself thinking about them again and revisiting parts of their oeuvre for the first time in a while, thanks to Greg Kurstin and Inara George. Together the two of them are known as The Bird and the Bee, and they marry George’s lush voice with Kurstin’s electronic production to create something of an updated lounge-pop sound.

With this sound fully intact, The Bird and the Bee has just released a full-album tribute to Van Halen. And it’s one of my favorite records of 2019.

In some ways, we could have seen this coming. The first Bird and the Bee song I heard was their single “Diamond Dave,” an ode to none other than David Lee Roth himself. It came out in 2009, shortly after Roth rejoined Van Halen for what turned out to be a brief time, and includes lyrics like this: “When you left the band I couldn’t understand it, but I’ve forgiven you now that you’ve recommitted.” Charming isn’t even the word for this song. It’s a delight, and much of what Kurstin and George have released since is similarly delightful.

In other ways, though, this new album is a complete shock. It’s the second volume of their cheekily titled Interpreting the Masters series (the first was dedicated to Hall and Oates), and it recasts nine early Van Halen tunes in electro-pop guises, performed entirely without guitars. If you ever wondered what “Panama” would sound like as a blue-eyed soul tune with funk-slap bass – and who hasn’t? – well, it’s just fantastic. The whole record is.

I certainly have some favorites here, like “Eruption” (yes) played on piano, and “Jamie’s Cryin’” re-arranged for synthesizers, but retaining that perfect tom fill. “Hot for Teacher” is here in all its glory, Kurstin’s nimble piano sitting in for Van Halen’s guitars (and dig that amazing jazz piano solo) and Beck, of all people, imitating Roth’s banter. (Beck is the one element of the record that doesn’t work as well as it should, honestly.) “Jump” uses George’s voice to augment the famous synth line, while “Unchained” barrels ahead convincingly, taking its place as the fine, fine pop song it is.

The best thing here, though, is “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” which in its original form sports one of Eddie’s rawest and raunchiest guitar lines. That melody is here, but it’s played entirely on thick ‘80s synthesizers. It’s now perfect for night driving, George’s cooing voice somehow embodying the danger Roth brought to the original. It’s utterly fantastic, one of the best covers I’ve heard in years. It does set a tone the second half can’t quite match – the record peters out with a cover of a cover (the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” reinterpreted by Van Halen on their debut) and a new, loungier version of “Diamond Dave.”

But overall, Interpreting the Masters Volume 2 is one of the finest surprises of my year. I think what I like best about it is that it takes these testosterone-fueled whammy-bar “real rock” tunes completely out of their milieu, stripping away the guitars and putting a female voice front and center. And they still work, beautifully.

Nothing about this is a joke, either – this is a loving tribute to early Van Halen, with so many nuances that only fans of this music would know to include. Speaking as one of those fans, if this had been a halfway effort, it would have been easy to tell. But Kurstin and George truly know this material and obviously love it. If you do too, I can’t recommend this highly enough. I have no idea who The Bird and the Bee will choose as the subject of the third volume in this series, but I can’t wait to find out.

That’s it for this week. Next week, Marc Cohn returns and Bear Rinehart steps out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Stranger Things
Thom Yorke and the Flaming Lips Try to Weird Us Out

I still have problems with Kid A.

I know, I know. It’s been 19 years, and I should probably move on and stop trying to enjoy a record I am clearly not going to get. But it’s considered such a masterpiece by, well, everybody that I keep picking at it, hoping that I can free whatever I have been missing so I can drink it in. And yet it eludes me. I quite like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “How to Disappear Completely,” and the tricky time signatures of “Morning Bell” work for me, but most of this record just kind of happens while I am listening to it, without moving me in the slightest.

It’s been the same for nearly two decades, and while I have come to grips with the band Radiohead is now – I rather enjoyed both The King of Limbs and the more traditional and organic A Moon Shaped Pool – I still struggle with the first big step they took down this path. After the complex brilliance of OK Computer, Kid A sounded (and still sounds) like formless atmospheres, disregarding melody for sound.

The thing is, I like music that disregards melody for sound, and I enjoy formless atmosphere. For me, it’s never been that the music on Kid A is too weird. It’s always been the hard right turn that Radiohead took in making it, because I truly love their previous material. The disappointment I felt listening to Kid A in 2000 has been a stumbling block for me since – I still cannot help feeling underwhelmed by it to this day.

That disappointment lingered for a good long time, and I think Thom Yorke took the brunt of it. His solo material has felt the most Kid A-ish to me, with its immersion in synthesizer sounds and its near-total lack of any memorable melody. So no one is more surprised than me at how much I have been able to roll with Anima, Yorke’s decidedly strange third solo album.

I’m surprised because Anima is everything I dislike about Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work. It is almost entirely synthesizer-based, it regularly evaporates into formlessness, and I can’t remember a single one of these songs outside of the variations in mood and feel. I’d have a hard time calling most of these songs at all, so loose are their structures. “Traffic” has a refrain, sort of, but this mainly feels like a collection of experiments that found their way onto Yorke’s hard drive late at night.

But damn if it doesn’t work. For decades now Yorke and his comrades have been trying to capture the sounds of hopelessness and decay, with intermittent success. Anima feels like he got there. The whole album feels constricted, paranoid, haunted, and while Yorke’s solo material has certainly flirted with these emotions before, this one feels like a full immersion. Listening to it feels like falling down a bottomless hole, with no visible way out.

It’s hard for me to pick out particular songs to discuss here, since it’s all of a piece. I like the shift halfway through the tick-ticking “Twist,” when the piano chords that make up the rest of the song come in. I like the backing vocals on the comparatively slinky “I Am a Very Rude Person.” I like how long it takes “The Axe” to actually do anything, and that when it does do something, it includes big drums by Joey Waronker. I love the guitars and strings that open the closer, “Runwayaway.”

But mostly, I like how it all hangs together and leaves me with a dark and empty feeling. Some might find this to be an undesirable effect, but I am all in for music that makes me feel anything. Yorke has been trying to leave me with exactly this sensation for years now, I think, and with Anima, he did it. This isn’t materially different from a lot of the work he’s given us over the past two decades, but for some reason this one has clicked with me, and I can’t stop listening to it.

There has always been a self-consciousness to Yorke’s weirdness, though, whereas I have always found the Flaming Lips to be just naturally weird. The fact that these guys have any hits at all, and that they have spent the majority of their career on a major label, is bizarre. That they convinced that major label to distribute records like Zaireeka and Embryonic is some kind of sorcery.

Warner Bros. is also behind the Lips’ new one – their 15th – called King’s Mouth: Music and Songs. And I don’t expect to hear a weirder major label release this year. Just the background on this thing should tell you what you’re in for: it serves as an accompanying score for an art exhibit (also called King’s Mouth) by frontman Wayne Coyne, and it tells the story of a village and its king, a giant, who sacrifices himself to save the villagers from an avalanche. As tribute, the villagers cut off the king’s head, dip it in steel and put it on display.

Oh, did I mention that there is linking narration by Mick Jones of the Clash? Because there is.

Given all that, this is one of the most accessible records the band has made in years. Songs like “Giant Baby” and “How Many Times” recall the strummy emotionalism of The Soft Bulletin, still among this band’s most beloved records. Many of the Lips’ trademark sounds are here – big low-end synthesizers, acoustic guitars that peek out from behind the din, Coyne’s high, pleading voice – but rather than feel too familiar, they help guide you through this delightfully odd little story.

The king’s death in “All For the Life of the City” works because the band refuses to sentimentalize it – the song is a jaunty trot, only Jones’ narration truly striking at the heart of things. The rest of the album is about the villagers’ attempts to memorialize their giant monarch, and Coyne ties it all together with the closing song, “How Can a Head,” about the multitudes living inside all of us that cannot be captured by a monument, no matter how beautiful. It’s an anthem that can stand alongside their best.

King’s Mouth is, make no mistake, a strange album. But if you’re familiar with the Flaming Lips, nothing here will throw you. In fact, this one may hit home more than some of their recent dives into esoterica – it is certainly closer to classic Lips than, say, Peace Sword. Even at their most crowd-pleasing, though, the Lips have an aesthetic all their own, and it’s in full flower here. I don’t know another band like them, but as long as we have this one, I don’t need to.

As Mick Jones says in the final seconds, that’s the end of our story. Bye! Next week, the Bird and the Bee cover Van Halen and I am here for it. (And probably one or two other things as well.) Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles