Next Door to the World
Local Songwriter Greg Boerner and the Biggest Band on Earth

I’m going to start this week with my friend Greg Boerner.

I usually make my friends in the local Aurora, Illinois music scene scroll past the more widely anticipated reviews to get to their own, but this is sort of a special case, as you’ll see. I’ve known Greg for about 10 years now – he was one of the first local musicians I met, and he’s still the only one I know who makes his living by playing gigs and selling CDs. I wrote a profile piece about Greg for the local paper on the occasion of the release of his third album, World So Blue, and we’ve been friends ever since.

That’s not to say we always agree, especially about music. Greg likes what he likes – mainly guitar-driven blues, rock and soul from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. My efforts to get him to listen to modern music without those roots have largely been in vain. If he likes something I recommend, it’s usually because it draws from the same well of inspiration he does. The man has an encyclopedic knowledge of the formative years of blues and rock, and you can hear that in his own music, which wears its influences proudly.

Over four previous records, Boerner has delivered foot-stomping (literally, if you see him live) acoustic music that hearkens back to the blues, folk and rock he loves, with his own original twist. His fourth, 2011’s Prophetstown, was a lot like his third, which was a lot like his second, etc. Greg’s such a fixture around here that I fully expected I’d keep buying similar-sounding records from him and palling around at Kiss the Sky, our favorite record store, for the next several decades.

I love it when people surprise me, and Greg threw two surprises at me recently. The first is that he’s moving to Nashville in January – he’s found love, and he’s going after it with all he has. The second is his fifth record, Solid Sender, which rips up his formula and finds new ground to stand on. It’s still a loving tribute to the roots music he holds dear, but this time he’s opened the production wide, welcoming drums and electric piano and upright bass and lots of studio magic, and strapping on an electric guitar for most of the running time. Even with all this, Solid Sender is still a Greg Boerner record, only more so.

This new effort was produced with Patrick Moynihan at his local studio, Waveform, and you can hear Moynihan’s influence right away. That’s him on the Fender Rhodes on the opening title track, with Boerner laying down a slinky electric vibe. “Price You Pay” is a blues song at its core, but the production is marvelous – Boerner plays an electric with heavy tremolo over Ed Breckenfeld’s drums and Moynihan’s bass and electric piano, while he duets with Mary Lou O’Brien, one of the finest singers in the Aurora area. Their voices intertwine beautifully on this traditional, yet thoroughly enjoyable tune.

Already he’s flipped his own script, which is why “Faith,” a classic-Coke Boerner solo acoustic tune, is a welcome addition early in the record. The rest of Solid Sender revels in its own diversity, and in the new possibilities of its full-band studio setting. I’m a fan of “Restless Sleep,” a minor-key shuffle on which Boerner lists off all the things that keep him up at night, in a slightly unsettling doubled vocal. The interplay between his guitar and Moynihan’s piano light up the instrumental passages on this record, and it’s clear that great thought went into how to catch the listener’s ear every few seconds.

O’Brien shines on the country-swing ballad “Don’t Do This to Me,” and on the whimsical cover of “Two to Tango.” But that’s not the cover that will make you take notice. Boerner’s spare, haunting rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Sick and Die” might be the best thing here. He sticks to minimal acoustic and voice for the first part of the tune, so when an army of mouth percussion and O’Brien’s soulful vocals come in, it’s a full-on wide-grin moment.

Another comes with the next track, a genuine surprise. “Allman Joy” is an instrumental, and as the title suggests, it is a tribute to the twin-guitar jams of the Allman Brothers Band. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard from Boerner, and it makes me smile. As does the final track, a love song called “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” that was written for a family wedding, but took on new significance as Boerner reconnected with the woman he’s about to move across the country for. It’s a sweet, emotional way to close out a record that is all about taking chances, changing things up, rolling the dice and seeing where they land.

Solid Sender feels like a new chapter, both in Greg’s music and his life. As much as I would have enjoyed running into Greg and seeing him play locally for the next however many years, I’m thrilled that he’s going after whatever lies ahead for him. And I’m thrilled that he made my favorite of his records before he did, and I got to tell him to his face how much I liked it. Solid Sender is the work of a confident man willing to take a risk and hope it pays off. I’ve no doubt that it will, as much as the risks he took on this record have paid off.

I’ll miss you around here, Greg. Here’s to your next chapter.

You can check out Greg Boerner’s work at his new website: https://www.gregboerner.com.

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What else do I have to talk about? Oh, yeah, only one of the year’s most anticipated albums, and one of its biggest letdowns.

I’ve listed U2’s Songs of Experience in no fewer than three of my looking-ahead-to-the-new-year columns. It’s taken them an unbelievable three years to finish off the companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, not counting the amount of time they worked on these songs before Innocence came out. For a band with a tendency to overcook their records, this was not a good sign.

Still, I held out hope, for a couple different reasons. First, there was Songs of Innocence, easily the band’s best collection in 20 years. I know it’s trendy to dislike this record, mainly because of its spontaneous appearance in iTunes accounts across the world, an act of generosity that was met with such hostility you’d think the band had personally punched people in the face. I appreciated the gesture, and even went on to buy a copy when it was officially released, because this album recaptured a fire they had forgotten. (You see what I did there?)

And second, I’m a U2 fan. It hasn’t always been easy – this is a band that tries to shoot itself in the foot over and over again, as a challenge. But I love their earnest openness, which was even evident during their ironic Zoo TV years. Bono takes a lot of grief for using his platform as one of the world’s most recognizable rock stars to improve the world, and I don’t really understand that. U2 has always tried to be a force for good, putting both their fame and their money where their mouths are. It would be hard for me not to support a band like that.

So please know that when I say Songs of Experience is perhaps their worst album, and whole songs here make me want to throw the CD in the trash, I’m saying these things as a U2 fan. I wanted to like this, more than I can tell you. I feel the motivation behind it, and I understand why Bono and company would want to create something so nakedly positive and hopeful during these turbulent times. I know that Bono approached these songs as letters to his loved ones, paring down his thoughts to only the essential things he needed to say. I get all that.

I just wish the record were better. The hopefulness that suffuses it ends up sounding as deep as a motivational poster, or a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Some of these lyrics are downright embarrassing. You’ve heard some of the worst offenders already – “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – but some of the deeper cuts are just as mortifying. “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way” is a real song title here. And it’s not that I don’t agree. Love really is bigger than anything in its way. As art, though, it’s a surface-deep observation, not worth building a U2 song around.

Honestly, none of this would bother me as much as it does if the music were as tight and powerful as I know this band can still be. But it isn’t. Songs of Experience somehow required nine producers, and on sheer musical grounds, I would probably have junked all but three or four of these songs. Instead, they over-baked them, aiming for radio play and worldwide hits. The impulse to remain the most famous band in the world has been ever-present in their work since The Joshua Tree, but here it takes over, leaving us with quite a few lame stabs at relevance that aren’t worthy of the band.

I’d really prefer to focus on what I like about Songs of Experience, rather than spend time ripping apart a goofy waste of time like “The Showman,” so I will. There are two tremendous songs here – so good, they sound like holdovers from the Songs of Innocence sessions. “Summer of Love” is a shimmering stunner, The Edge spinning beautiful webs of clean guitar while Bono sings about the plight of refugees. And “Red Flag Day” could have fit on War, so insistent and captivating is its classic U2 vibe. When Bono hits the “no, no, no” part of the bridge, it makes my heart soar. Here is the band I love, in full glory. Also, Adam Clayton really steps out on this album, and never more than on this song. This one’s alive, amazing, powerful. It’s everything I love about U2.

There are a few others I enjoy, too. “The Blackout” has ridiculous lyrics (“Earthquakes always happen when you’re in bed, Fred, the house shakes, maybe it was something I said, Ned…”), but musically it’s a knockout, hampered only by a production that mutes its force. “Lights of Home” features Haim on backing vocals, and it’s winsome. I’m more fond of the strings version included as a bonus track. I was dreading “The Little Things that Give You Away” after its live debut, but the version here is a slow build, kind of like a lesser “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

I’m conflicted on the band’s decision to reuse material from Innocence, which they do liberally here. “American Soul” might be the worst offender – it began as a tiny bit from “Volcano,” morphed into parts of “XXX,” their collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, and now they have tried to stretch it into its own song. (Lamar shows up here as well, intoning a quick monologue that could have been delivered by anyone.) But on the other hand, I do like “13 (There Is a Light),” a rewrite of “Song for Someone” that doubles down on its spare beauty. The recycling does unite the two albums, but it also diminishes Experience as a set of songs.

Over all of this is Bono, singing his little heart out, and I want to love his work this time, but I just don’t. I’m conflicted here too, because the world does need more hope and straight-up love, but I find myself cringing more often than not when Bono voices these things. He’s right about so much here – love is all we have left, we’re in our own way, there is a light, we are rock ‘n’ roll. (Well, maybe not that last one.) I get that he wanted to be heard this time, not puzzled out. But had these words been penned by Chris Martin of Coldplay, you wouldn’t be seeing so many five-star reviews. I expect this kind of thing from Martin. Bono has proven to be deeper and more interesting, so his work this time feels surface level.

This whole record feels surface level, and that’s a shame. Songs of Innocence felt to me like a burst of energy, an explosion of ideas that hearkened back to their early days. Songs of Experience feels tired. It feels like one of the world’s best bands grasping for relevance, instead of just being who they are. I’ve been looking forward to it for three years. I wanted to like it so badly. It hurts me that I don’t.

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A couple quick takes before I put this very long column to bed.

If you’ve been reading for a couple years now, you know how much I love The Dear Hunter. Casey Crescenzo’s project is like nothing else I know of, particularly its centerpiece experiment, a six-act story in progress. But the band has also done sterling work outside of the Acts, including the nine-EP Color Spectrum collection and their one non-Acts album, Migrant.

So now here is All Is as All Should Be, a new six-song EP that caps off an incredible run of music from Crescenzo over the last three years. As with most things he does, this one has a concept: he connected with six Dear Hunter fans, asked them what they wanted to hear him write songs about, and then decamped to each of those fans’ homes to record those songs. It’s an above-and-beyond bit of fan service that resulted in a typically excellent record.

In fact, if you’re new to the Dear Hunter, I’d recommend checking this bite-sized morsel out first. The opening two tracks (“The Right Wrong” and “Blame Paradise”) will give you a good idea of them in full-throttle mode, while the rest of the songs show off their diversity. I’m particularly fond of the deliriously poppy “Shake Me (Awake),” which rhymes “ordinary” with “mortuary,” and the grand title track. If you enjoy the scale and scope of these tunes, you will find innumerable pleasures in the Acts. Check it out.

As a final grace note, I will recommend the new four-song EP from the Innocence Mission. This long-running husband-and-wife combo has been plying their delicate, beautiful trade since the 1980s, and The Snow on Pi Day is merely the latest. These four songs are almost inhumanly pretty, with the gossamer voice of Karin Peris floating above them, and the chiming guitars of her husband Don wrapping them in snowy winds. If you know the Innocence Mission, nothing here will be a surprise. If you don’t, well, you really should.

That will definitely do it. Next week, Christmas music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Bjork and the Brothers
New Ones From a Brilliant Lady and Two Rowdy Lads

I never quite know what to say about Bjork.

Musicians often talk about getting their inspiration from some other plane of existence, and acting as messengers for some otherworldly force that creates the music through them. While I have never heard Bjork say anything of the sort, she’s one of the few I would believe without question. Everything she does sounds like the product of some alien civilization trying to approximate our pop music, and ending up with something bizarre and beautiful that sounds like nothing else on the planet.

On the one hand, Bjork is a stunningly creative artist, a genius sonic manipulator and a one-of-a-kind musical force. She’s never done anything halfway, committing completely to an uncompromising vision. (I mean, just look at her album covers.) It should be easy to lavish her work with praise. But on the other hand, that vision is so uncompromising that it’s almost impenetrable. Bjork makes music for an audience of one – herself – and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out just what she was going for, let alone whether she succeeded.

That was especially true during the years after her breathtaking third album, Homogenic, when she drifted more into tone poems and electronic meanders, with a stop-over in a cappella land. I can barely tell you anything about Volta or Biophilia, despite hearing them multiple times. But all that changed in 2015 with Vulnicura, easily her most human work in more than 15 years. Over thick, sad strings, Bjork detailed the dissolution of a long relationship in heart-rending terms, and the result was powerful. Still otherworldly and unique, but powerful.

It was also the beginning of her artistic partnership with Venezuelan musician Arca, which she continues on her new album Utopia. It’s a relationship that seems to spark the best in her. Utopia is her longest album at 71 minutes, and it’s overflowing with inspiration. Structurally it seems similar to Vulnicura – its musical foundation is built on strings and woodwinds, with electronic touches – but its mood couldn’t be more different. Utopia is a joyous record about love, rendered in major keys and light. Even Bjork’s trademark full-throated singing voice sounds sweeter here.

That’s not to say it’s sickly or sappy. This is still a Bjork album, still light years away from Justin Timberlake country. Everything is still delightfully alien, as the watery keyboards, boots-stomping-through-ice drums, harps and overlapping voices of the first song, “Arisen My Senses,” will attest. But Bjork has never sung so much about kissing, about longing, about simple emotions like missing someone with all of one’s body and mind. Some of this record is remarkably specific: “Is all of this excessive texting a blessing or just two music nerds obsessing,” she asks in the lovely “Blissing Me,” and she opens “Features Creatures” this way: “When I spot someone who is same height as you, and goes to same record stores, I literally think I am five minutes away from love.”

There are darker moments, of course. “Sue Me” (about the man who inspired Vulnicura) is as angry as its arrangement of skittering drums and flute sounds will allow, and the lyrics of “Tabula Rasa” – which seem to be about a cheating father and his effect on his children – belie the song’s almost cloud-like arrangement. But these are the minority. Most of the record is full of love. “The Gate” is a menacing-sounding near-ambient thing, but it’s about letting love flow though you, caring for others and being cared for in return. “Saint” makes the most use of the birdsong that connects this album together, spinning a delicate flute melody for a tale of the healing power of music. And closer “Future Forever” returns to that sparse sound from “The Gate” as Bjork exhorts you to “imagine a future and be in it.”

It’s great to hear her so blissful again, after the heartache of Vulnicura. If this is what a sexy album of love songs sounds like to Bjork, then more power to her. It may not sound anything like our earthling love ballads, but it’s beautiful, striking, grand and wholly unique. I’d expect nothing less from Bjork, and I’m looking forward to further puzzling this record out.

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I don’t know if this counts as a secret confession, but I always liked Oasis.

I don’t just mean from the start, because everybody loved them in the Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory days. I mean I enjoyed Heathen Chemistry and Don’t Believe the Truth and Dig Out Your Soul, records even the Gallagher brothers probably don’t remember much about. They were never as good as they thought they were, but when they got about the business of just being a Beatles-inspired rock band, Oasis were pretty great.

Of course, a significant part of that greatness grew from the tension between Liam and Noel Gallagher, who always hated each other a little bit. Their relationship has now completely imploded – the two reportedly don’t even speak, and they are always sniping at each other in the press. An Oasis reunion looks increasingly unlikely. The good news is that both Gallaghers have gone on to lead new projects. The bad news is that neither of those projects – Liam’s Beady Eye and Noel’s High Flying Birds – comes close to matching the band the brothers once fronted together.

Both have now released their third post-Oasis records, and it’s fair to say we’re seeing the new normal. Given that, it might be a surprise just how good Liam Gallagher’s first album under his name, As You Were, turns out to be. This record came out in October (yes, I held it so I could review it with Noel’s new one, which was just released) to some startlingly good notices, and it lives up to them. Liam has always been the more charismatic, with the more immediately appealing voice, but he’s never been the songwriter his brother is. As You Were works hard to change that impression, delivering a catchy set of 12 tunes with some genuine emotional underpinning.

I’ll admit to some surprise at the relative quality of these songs. “Wall of Glass” gets things off to an Oasis-y start, chiming guitars underpinning a big chorus with some catchy harmonica and gospel-style backing vocals. “Bold” gets into a shimmying acoustic groove, augmented by subtle strings, where “Greedy Soul” brings the bluesy rock. So far so-so, but “For What It’s Worth” kicks this album up several notches. A memorable mea culpa that somehow still remains defiant, this is probably the most thoughtful song Liam Gallagher has written. “Let’s leave the past behind with all our sorrows, I’ll build a bridge between us and I’ll swallow my pride…”

Much of the rest of As You Were is similarly thoughtful, in an everyman kind of way. “When I’m in Need” is a sweet waltz about love. “I Get By” lays down a Led Zeppelin-esque bedrock for a tune about moving on from a bad relationship. Closer “I’ve All I Need” is an amiable anthem of contentment, one that manages to get a George Harrison reference into the chorus. (They’ll always be the guys from Oasis, after all.) Overall I’m impressed at this rough-and-tumble little record. It outpaces his work with Beady Eye and marks Liam as a solo artist worth watching.

I’m similarly surprised at how much Noel struggles to keep up, given that his High Flying Birds has been the better of the two projects, by and large. Who Built the Moon, the Birds’ third album, is certainly not bad, but there’s a lack of inspiration you can hear from the start. Noel himself has lauded “Holy Mountain,” the first single, as a powerhouse, and it’s… you know, fine. It’s a standard blues-rock stomp with some nice saxophones and no melody to speak of. Much of Moon is built on groove and mood more than memorable songs, and while that groove is often awesome – check out the electric piano shimmy of “Keep On Reaching” – I found myself yearning for tunes I could sing along with.

Much of this album sounds like it grew from jam sessions, and if I had this group of musicians – including Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner on bass – I’d want to jam with them too. I like the looping chorus of “It’s a Beautiful World,” and appreciate the “Tomorrow Never Knows” psychedelic touches throughout, but found the songs oddly plodding. “She Taught Me How to Fly,” just as an example, is so bargain-basement blues-rock that I lost interest a couple minutes in. I enjoy the slinky bass-and-acoustic vibe of “Be Careful What You Wish For,” but ended up wishing for a chorus.

As a mood piece, Who Built the Moon is pretty good. The instrumental interludes fit in nicely, and carry the feel of the record forward. But for all of the sonic frippery and atmosphere, I think I enjoyed the bonus track best. It’s just Noel, his acoustic guitar and a piano player, live in the studio, singing what may be the album’s best song, “Dead in the Water.” It’s unfussed, unhurried and quite beautiful. I wanted more like this, more open emotion and simple, good songwriting. I know Noel has it in him. Here’s hoping for more of it next time out.

I’m definitely planning to keep up with both brothers as they move down their separate paths. I hesitate to make any Beatles comparisons, but so far their solo careers have been similar to those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – decent, solid stuff, without coming anywhere near the heights they achieved together. I expect them to continue doing exactly that until they are old and grey. And I hold out hope that they will surprise me along the way.

That’s all for this week. Next week, U2, the Dear Hunter and my friend Greg Boerner. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Final Flight of Miss Sharon Jones
Saying Goodbye to a Soul Icon

Remember last year, when the grim reaper saved up many of its deepest cuts for the final months?

In the last weeks of 2016, we lost (among others) George Michael, Carrie Fisher and her mom Debbie Reynolds. It was like the year was saving up some of its biggest wallops, delivering them on the way out the door. I have a terrible feeling that we’re headed for the same thing this year, if the increasing rate of notable deaths is anything to go by.

The two most related to the topic of this column this week were Malcolm Young and Mel Tillis. We’ll start with Young, the mastermind behind some of the most iconic rock and roll riffs of all time. With his brother Angus, Malcolm Young formed AC/DC in 1973, and shepherded the band through the next 40 years. Though Angus was always the more flashy and visible Young brother, it was Malcolm who truly led the group, writing or co-writing all of AC/DC’s iconic stompers.

I have always liked AC/DC, even if they’re the poster children for finding one thing and doing it over and over again. Their one thing was sleazy, ballsy rock and roll, and they perfected it. They’re responsible for some of the most famous ringing guitar lines of all time, including the stutter-stop awesome of “Back in Black,” the thunderous “For Those About to Rock,” and of course the nimble “Thunderstruck.” They’re one of the few bands I can name whose hits are 100 percent representative – the deeper cuts and catalog numbers are more of the same. There’s something to be said for that, especially when you know that’s what you’re doing. Malcolm Young staked out his territory and did it very well for decades.

Young took a leave of absence from the band in 2014, suffering from dementia, and died on Nov. 18 at the age of 64.

While Malcolm Young spent most of his career happily ceding the spotlight to the flashier members of his band, Mel Tillis was always front and center. The country legend began his career in the ‘50s, writing songs for the likes of Webb Pierce and Brenda Lee and recording his own albums. He had a string of hits in the 1970s cemented his place in the country music pantheon, including “I Ain’t Never” and “Good Woman Blues.”

Tillis remained popular through the ‘80s, both on his own and as a songwriter for Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs, among others. In his later years he joined with Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Jerry Reed in the Old Dogs, a hilarious supergroup that sang Shel Silverstein songs about growing old. He was inducted into the Grand Old Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year, 2007.

Tillis had been battling various illnesses for more than a year. He died on Nov. 19 at the age of 85.

I’d also like to mention Della Reese here. The venerated actress did have a long-running singing career, scoring a hit in 1959 and Grammy nominations later in life. (She made 28 albums! I had no idea before looking her up.) But I know her from her various roles in film and television, particularly Touched by an Angel, that weird quasi-religious ‘90s sensation. Reese was a long-running presence on television, and I was always interested when her name would pop up. Heck, she was B.A. Baracus’ mother in an episode of The A-Team that I still remember pretty vividly. I always enjoyed her work.

Reese died on Nov. 19 as well, at the age of 86.

* * * * *

Of course, all that is a lead-in for talking about another well-respected black woman singer, Miss Sharon Jones.

I can’t even explain how sad I was to learn of Sharon Jones’ death. It was almost exactly a year ago that we lost her to cancer and a related stroke. One of the great regrets of my last 10 years is never getting to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings live. I became aware of them only about seven years ago, thanks to my friend Jeff Elbel, who played their great 100 Days 100 Nights album for me. Here was a truly authentic old-school horn-driven soul outfit, and at its center, a voice that could shake mountains.

Naturally, I bought everything I could find. Hers is a discography without any weak points, and that remained true straight to the end. Last year’s Christmas record, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, is a treat, and now, a year after she left us, we have the final Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album, Soul of a Woman. I’m beyond pleased to report that it’s just as good as anything she’s done.

The band, of course, is hot as always. The Dap-Kings are just a great soul band, and here they are joined by a veritable army of horn and string players. You might be worried that with all those players jockeying for the spotlight, Jones might be drowned out. Nothing could be further from the truth, thankfully. The record opens with a one-two punch – the civil rights anthem “Matter of Time” and the shimmying not-quite-reunion song “Sail On” – and they’re both awesome. Jones nails the swagger of “Sail On,” easily dominating the proceedings, her voice soaring alongside the vintage-sounding trumpets.

Much of the rest of Soul, true to its title, is made up of slow, soulful ballads, and Jones shines on this material. The strummy ‘70s goodness of “Come and Be a Winner” is an absolute delight, and the tricky time signature of “Pass Me By” allows Jones to sway with the melody. “Searching for a New Day” is hopeful and fun, while “These Tears” is pensive and heartbreaking. “Girl (You Got to Forgive Him)” is a massive production, full of horns and strings and tympanis, but Jones is in full control of it.

And on the last song on her last record, she branches out into new territory, enlisting the Universal Church of God Choir for a plaintive gospel song she wrote herself, titled “Call on God.” It seems like it would be out of her wheelhouse, but she’s awesome on it, pouring deep feeling into every line. Every time I listen to this, I miss her more. Her loss leaves a deep hole in the music world, and in my world as well. Having one last visit with her is a treat, particularly one that captures everything that was so great about her in one tidy package.

Goodnight, Miss Jones. And thanks for everything.

* * * * *

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, Bjork and the Gallagher Brothers. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Pledging for Beauty
Robert Deeble and Sara Groves Deliver

This week I was going to talk about the avalanche of live albums and remasters and box sets that pummel your local record store at this time every year. It’s a topic I revisit seemingly every fall, and I never have anything new to say about it. The record companies like money, they want your money, so they offer lavish sets to commemorate records they know, through market research, that you will want to buy or give as gifts.

It’s really that simple, and yet each year I devote lots of words to these sets, many of which I buy just to buy. Last week, for instance, I picked up multi-disc remasters of Metallica’s Master of Puppets and R.E.M.’s phenomenal Automatic for the People. But there isn’t much I haven’t already said about these records. I could talk about the first time I heard them – Master at 14 as I was truly launching my teenage metalhead phase, Automatic my freshman year in college – and what they mean to me. That would certainly fill my quota for the week.

But I’m not listening to either one of them. I think it’s partially because I have them memoried. Master of Puppets is carved onto my soul – it’s possibly the best metal album ever made, dark and progressive and socially relevant. And Automatic for the People might be my favorite album from the Athens superstars, the culmination of their search for beauty in the ‘90s. (Have they ever written a prettier song than “Find the River”?) I love these records, and I’m very happy to have them in shiny new versions. But I’m not eager to listen to them right away.

Similarly, I’ve not really dug into the live albums I’ve picked up recently. Spock’s Beard reunited to perform all of Snow, their final album with Neal Morse, and I had to have it, and I’m sure it’s great. But it hasn’t captured my attention. Same with live documents from Pearl Jam, the Pineapple Thief and Kansas. I’m sure it will be the same for Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and ELO, which I will buy this week. I’ll get to them, but I’m not in any hurry. The one that has inched up my list is A-Ha’s new unplugged effort, but it hasn’t broken through yet.

So what have I been listening to? Well, in addition to my Doctor Who audio stories (I’m years behind) and Chopin’s complete Nocturnes (a long story involving work), my attention has been consumed with a pair of albums I paid for months ago, but just received. I talk a lot about Kickstarter here, but it’s not the only crowdfunding platform bands and artists use, and I supported both of these new albums on PledgeMusic, which basically provides a storefront for a project and manages pre-orders. In concept, it’s similar to Kickstarter, and it offers the same service – it helps bring into the world works of art that may not see the light of day otherwise.

Many of the artists who use PledgeMusic are under the radar, connecting with a small-ish audience to create personal works that probably wouldn’t thrive in the mainstream, but that hit the spot for the people who pony up. Robert Deeble certainly fits that bill. I discovered Deeble at AudioFeed a couple years ago – he played a set on his own, and then one with Choir drummer Steve Hindalong. He’s an unconventional guitar player who writes in an ambient folk style – stripped back yet lush, sparse and airy yet as full as it needs to be. He’s been making records since the late ‘90s, but I jumped aboard with 2013’s delightful Heart Like Feathers.

Beloved is Deeble’s first album since then. A hundred forty-nine of us pledged to bring it to life, and it’s everything I hoped it would be. Beloved is a deeply intimate record, telling the story of his journey as a new father, first fostering his daughter and then fully adopting her. As you might guess, it’s a very pretty set of songs, led by Deeble’s whisper of a voice. It opens with a sweet arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine,” and moves in that vein from there. It’s 42 minutes of a father’s love, which he felt from the first moment he met her (as he details in “Coal Miner”), and it’s guaranteed to leave you with a warm glow.

Deeble enlisted a pretty large number of collaborators for this record, including singers and string players, but he’s retained that open, airy feel of his previous work. “Uncertain” and “Coal Miner” are bigger tunes, the latter ending with a singalong refrain of “it’s gonna be all right” that might be the most massive thing Deeble’s ever done. But still, this feels small and intimate, like reading his diary. The fragile lullaby “To Find You” details his reunion with his daughter after a year apart (she was in the care of her birth mother), determined to come to some arrangement that would protect this little girl he had come to love. “And I’ll take all I can get to give all I can for you,” he sings, and you know he means it.

“Even Now” crackles, even though the instruments in it are barely moving. Somehow the drums on Deeble’s records tend to snap in a way few others I’ve heard manage, especially when the rest of the instrumentation is so subtle. It’s a song of sorrow, but as he says, sorrow that bonded him and his wife together with his daughter’s birth parents, so there is hope.

The final few songs of Beloved are guaranteed to move you. The title track relates the night he and his wife picked up their daughter and drove home as a family for the first time: “And we’ve cried, and we’ve cried for such a long time, and it feels like for the first time it’s going to be all right…” “Sleep” is truly lovely – you can imagine him rocking his baby girl back and forth as you listen – and the untitled interlude uses her actual voice, singing “doo doo doo” along with a fun beat. The final track, “Recovery,” is a sweet instrumental, a loving and lovely way to end.

Without AudioFeed, I don’t know that I would ever have found Robert Deeble. Without PledgeMusic, I don’t know if Beloved would have been made. My musical life would have been poorer for it. I’m enamored with this little record, this love letter in song. In a world that makes me want to hang my head daily, it’s a joy to have something this precious, this full of heart. Beloved makes me want to keep going. I’m glad it exists. You can check it out at Robert’s Bandcamp page.

Sara Groves is more well-known than Deeble is, but her new record is similarly personal. Groves has made her home in the Christian marketplace, but has always been more thoughtful and artful than most of her contemporaries. She tells stories of life through the prism of faith, admitting that sometimes life is harder than she knows how to deal with, and it is that faith that gets her through. Two years ago she made a great record called Floodplain that dealt with depression and day-to-day hardship with poetry and grace.

In some ways, it’s a bit of a shame that her new album, Abide with Me, is entirely arrangements of old hymns, but only in that I always want to hear more Sara Groves songs. There is no doubt, listening to it, that these songs mean so much to Groves. As an artist, she always makes me feel what she feels, even if I don’t always believe what she believes. That’s all I ask of anyone. These songs, she says, were with her during the hard times that informed Floodplain, and as a companion piece, it’s a beautiful thing.

And I love old hymns. Some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed were written in the service of prayer and worship. I grew up in a church that sang nothing but these often centuries-old pieces, and I always respond to them. I knew about half of the songs on Abide with Me, and grew up singing several of them. This album was recorded in a church in Minnesota that Groves and her husband have adapted into a performance venue and community center (the original building is on the cover), and just as they updated the space with reverence, they do the same for the songs.

The arrangements here are breathtakingly beautiful. Groves has, without fail, chosen songs of comfort here, songs that believers hold close in their darkest hours. The instrumentation is similarly comforting – pianos, guitars, some subtle embellishments, extremely subtle percussion. She sings these songs like an angel, but more than that, like someone who holds them dear. I mentioned in my Derek Webb review that the music I tend to respond to most is about the ways we connect with whatever is beyond us. Abide with Me is, at its core, about how Groves connects with the divine, and is drawn closer to it.

I’ll probably have a tough time mentioning highlights, because I love it all so much. “What a Friend” is a song I used to sing in church, but I’ve never felt anything like I feel for it now, in Groves’ hands. The brief “Song of Blessing” is glorious, as is the title song. I love what she’s done with “To the Dawn,” a re-working of “There’s a Light Upon the Mountains.” “And the hearts of man are stirring,” she sings, and stirs mine.

But I will make special mention of the closing song, “He’s Always Been Faithful,” because it’s my favorite. Oddly enough, it’s the only original song here – it first appeared on Groves’ album Conversations, from 2001. Performed just on piano, with a smattering of upright bass and clarinet, it’s a song about God being with us in our pain, in our sorrow, on our worst days. Songs like this have always, always gotten to me, particularly if they’re so clearly personal and honest, and Groves, as she always does, makes me feel what she feels. I like that she added one of her own songs to this, and that it fits right in. Hymns are being written all the time, as people work through and wrestle with their connection with the infinite.

I’m still working through and wrestling with mine, and music has been one of the most helpful ways I do that. Sara Groves has been with me through much of that journey, and her authenticity and genuine artistry has been deeply valuable. Abide with Me is a record of solace in a world of turmoil, and even though its songs are hundreds of years old, documenting hundreds of years of man’s yearning for comfort from above, they feel brand new in the hands of Sara Groves. I can’t stop listening to this. Once again, I am glad it exists.

Next week, who knows. Be here and find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Year Goes Down
A January Album Lights a Dark Winter

Dudley Simpson died on Saturday at the age of 95.

I’m sure most of you reading this right now have no idea who I’m talking about, but the music of Dudley Simpson has been imprinted on my life since I was six years old. As the resident composer for Doctor Who throughout the ‘70s, Simpson created the music that accompanied pretty much all of my favorite Tom Baker stories.

Music has always been a gateway to my soul, and it’s usually what I remember first about any film or television show. I know this has always been the case, because I vividly remember watching The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death and the whole Key to Time season when I was young, and I can still remember the music that goes along with those stories. Simpson’s orchestral scores were oddly reassuring at times, brighter than the stories they accompanied, but they still scared me as a kid. Tom Baker-era Doctor Who to me is splashy horns and lumbering percussion and, of course, that incredible walking-around-Paris theme from City of Death.

Of course, he did a lot more than just score Doctor Who in his long life. His list of television credits is enormous. But I hope he forgives me for remembering him most fondly for helping to open the door of imagination for a wide-eyed kid entranced by his work on his favorite goofy sci-fi show. Thanks, Dudley, for everything. Rest in peace.

* * * * *

I’m coming around to the sad realization that the new U2 album is going to suck.

We’ve heard three songs now, and of them, only “The Blackout” moves with any conviction. “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is embarrassing, and it sounds like they just went with Bono’s first draft of the lyrics, too: “The best thing to ever happen a boy” isn’t even English. And now they’ve given us “Get Out of Your Own Way,” a sappy, repetitive bore-fest that proves that they can’t even take their own advice.

This is disheartening, since I loved (LOVED) Songs of Innocence. Its counterpart, Songs of Experience, was one of the few records I was holding out hope for in the waning months of this year, but it sounds like it’s going to be dismal. That leaves the new Dear Hunter EP, All Is as All Should Be, as the main bright light for the rest of the year, and because it’s an EP, it’s ineligible for my top 10 list. I feel like I could write up that list right now and nothing coming out over the next seven weeks will change it.

That’s not to say that music hasn’t been or won’t be coming out regularly. It sure will. My big score this week was the first album by Lost Horizons, the new project of Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde. It features vocals by the likes of Karen Peris (of the Innocence Mission), Marissa Nadler and Tim Smith (of Midlake), and it’s sweet and pretty and full of atmosphere and I just don’t have much to say about it. I also bought the new Blitzen Trapper and the new Lunatic Soul, but haven’t found time or ambition to listen to them.

‘Tis the season for live albums and box sets, too, and I’ll certainly be talking about a few of them next week, including the anniversary reissue of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. For new records in November, though, we have Quicksand and the Corrs and Four Tet and, um… Thankfully Bjork just announced her new one, Utoipa, for Nov. 24 or it would be a vast wasteland. (I welcome your suggestions for upcoming records I’ve missed. And don’t say Barenaked Ladies, because everything I’ve heard from that one has been miserable.)

Luckily, I do have something that has been capturing my musical attention this week. It’s new, as in it came out this year, but it’s not new in that it hit in January and I completely missed it. I don’t know how, but it fell through the cracks for me. I absolutely love Brian Transeau, better known as BT, and yet somehow he gave us a 92-minute record of glorious ambience and I completely spaced on it.

I have it now, though, and it’s magnificent. Transeau has charted a unique path through the world of electronic music, moving from the danceable trance of his first releases to an intricate, skittering hybrid of EDM and pop on the still-great Emotional Technology. From there he’s jumped from the soundscapes of This Binary Universe to the quiet atmospheres of If the Stars Are Eternal Then So Are You and I to the explosive guitar-driven pop of These Hopeful Machines to the all-out dance party of A Song Across Wires. Each album feels extraordinarily involved – each one clearly took years of work hunched over a console, editing sounds and sections – and yet each feels deeply emotional at the same time.

That certainly applies to his untitled new monstrosity. I say untitled – it officially has no title, but many streaming services don’t allow untitled albums, so he’s given it the unofficial designation _. That’s right, the underscore symbol. The lack of title adds to the air of mystery around this thing, which apparently shipped in a limited edition box with a USB stick containing all nine songs with nine corresponding videos. I will never get this box, and that’s OK. I’ve downloaded the album (yes, I paid for air) and that’s enough.

It’s more than enough, actually, because _ is massive. It’s a lot to absorb on first (or even tenth) listen. This is an instrumental electronic album, one more concerned with setting moods and feelings than entrancing with melodies. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to This Binary Universe – long soundscapes give way to stuttering beats that feel like taking off in fog and floating over technicolor vistas below. It has an interesting structure – four short songs, three multi-part suites and two long pieces – but it all works as a whole, and leaves you feeling like you’ve been somewhere special.

The three suites are the centerpiece of this record, and each flows so seamlessly that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re not subdivided at all. They’re intricate, clockwork things, particularly “Omega,” the final one – it shifts restlessly for its first five minutes, then settles into a gorgeous and subtle groove. “Artifacture” develops its individual pieces more thoroughly, but again gives us the most complete bit last, a morphing synthetic cloud that drifts up and up. The final two tracks make up the last half-hour of the album, and they are among the most beautiful 3-D ambient music BT has made. “Chromatophore” ends with whole minutes of rain sounds, and “Five Hundred and Eighty Two” is based on tightly controlled feedback that feels otherworldly. It’s so easy to get lost in this.

I’m not sure how I missed _ when it first came out, but I’m overjoyed to have it now. I’ll take anything from BT, but my favorite things in his catalog are these deeply felt instrumental records, and _ may well be the best one. I won’t be able to adequately describe the experience of listening to it, but I recommend it highly. Once again he has spun magic, bottled it and delivered it as music.

Next week, probably some of those box sets and live records I’ve been picking up lately. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Look Around, Leaves Are Brown
From Summer to Winter with Weezer and Julien Baker

Today is Halloween, and the weather is appropriately cold and grey.

There are hints of rain, and enough of a chill in the air that stepping outside without a coat is a guaranteed one-way ticket to sniffleville. Two weeks ago the weather was scorching – between 90 and 100 degrees, sun beating down oppressively, making the case for climate change all by itself. But now it’s the dead of winter, weather that could justifiably be called miserable.

We didn’t get an autumn this year, is what I’m saying. We jumped straight from a summer that lasted through mid-October into a shivery winter, its icy tendrils already prophesying the coming snow. (In fact, some reports say we’re getting snow next week.) It’s been a shock to the system, and I know I’m not alone in feeling cheated. I grew up in New England, where fall lasts two months or so. Two months of lovely red and yellow and brown leaves decorating the trees, of pumpkin patches and apple cider. It may be my favorite season, and we’ve been robbed of it.

If we’d been granted an autumn, Weezer’s new album might not seem so strange. But it is into this frigid wasteland of an early winter that Rivers Cuomo has seen fit to release Pacific Daydream, the band’s twelfth album (if you count Death to False Metal, which I certainly do). As you can probably tell from the title, this record takes the summery vibe of last year’s White Album even further. This is 30 minutes of cruising-with-the-top-down pop, more appropriate for palm trees and beach parties than the scarf-and-mittens weather into which it’s been dropped.

Let’s be real, though: this doesn’t even crack the top ten weirdest choices Weezer has made. I love that we’re 23 years into their career and they remain not only prolific, but unpredictable. For Pacific Daydream the band worked with Butch Walker, who also produced their silly yet wonderful Raditude. The tone here is not dissimilar – if you’re one of those people who remains emotionally invested in Pinkerton and hates it when Cuomo lets his ridiculous pop instincts take center stage, well, sorry. You’re gonna hate this.

I love it. Weezer’s been on a hot streak for a while with me, and Pacific Daydream is their third album in a row that I would rank among my favorites. It’s glossier than the White Album, more intricately produced, more crafted for immediate pleasure. The lyrics are all effervescent and lighter than air. The first song, “Mexican Fender,” hangs on the line “my summer love, oo-ee-oo,” and the third song is called “Feels Like Summer.” It is exactly the kind of record you think it is. It goes down smooth and easy, and is only interested in making you feel good for half an hour.

Which sounds like something I’d hate, but for the fact that Cuomo is so very, very good at this kind of thing. These songs are so hummable, so delightful that I can’t help singing along, and even doing little dances. Cuomo’s ode to the “Beach Boys” is a lovely thing, incorporating some Wilson-esque harmonies. “Turn it up, it’s the Beach Boys, singing out in a sweet voice…” “Weekend Woman” is a sweet tale of love with “no time for poetry” but plenty of time for a wonderful bridge, and “Happy Hour” is encouraging and sweet: “I need happy hour on sad days.” The band is typically anonymous, disappearing behind these bite-sized morsels, playing exactly what Cuomo’s tunes need.

Sure, if you grew up with “The Sweater Song” and “Tired of Sex,” these tunes might seem lightweight. But they’re lightweight on purpose, and beautifully so. I would love it if Brian Wilson’s modern music sounded this much like Brian Wilson at his best – I can totally see his band killing “QB Blitz,” a harmony-drenched bit of sun-dappled yearning, and “Sweet Mary” takes on that Jeff Lynne quality. I just love these classic pop songs, and I love what Weezer and Walker have done with them. Pacific Daydream is another little winner, and a fun reminder of the summer we just bid farewell.

But there’s no denying that the blissful feel of Pacific Daydream doesn’t match the world outside our window. The sudden winter is a much more appropriate backdrop for Turn Out the Lights, the second album by songwriter Julien Baker. This 22-year-old is everywhere right now, playing her desperately sad songs on CBS Sunday Morning and A Prairie Home Companion. They fit the lonely chill of nights to come perfectly – in fact, they might be too sad to listen to alone.

Baker seemingly appeared out of nowhere two years ago, releasing one of the most critically acclaimed albums I can remember, Sprained Ankle. Containing literally nothing but Baker’s guitar and voice, the record ached like a living thing, laying bare its author’s pain and promise. Turn Out the Lights, blessedly, is almost the same – the jump to Matador Records has only resulted in a slightly wider palette, a slightly more ambitious scope. The new songs are just as devastating, and perhaps more, since they crescendo more effectively, ebb and flow more convincingly.

Baker is only 22, which seems impossible, given the depth of feeling in every minute of this album. Its opening piano and strings quickly give way to her signature electric guitar and her forlorn, aching voice on “Appointments,” and within moments, you’re wrapped up in Baker’s spell. It’s almost oppressive – for 40 minutes, no light gets in, no joy. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” she sings, a sentiment that sets the tone for the record.

But it’s amazing that someone so young can weave a spell this effective, and sustain it. Her lyrics will resonate with anyone battling loneliness and trying to quiet the voice that tells them they’re no good, not worth it. The title track brings that battle to the fore: “I’d never do it, but it’s not a joke, I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone… when I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.” Her passionate shouts come from the depths of her soul.

Baker has said that while some of Turn Out the Lights is autobiographical, some of it relates the stories of people she knows. “Sour Breath” takes on mental illness and how difficult it is to remain afloat: “The harder I swim the faster I sink,” she repeats. Several songs, like “Televangelist,” find her playing piano, but not sacrificing an ounce of emotion to do so. “Televangelist” is one of several songs to address Baker’s complex thoughts about religion and guilt: “Am I a masochist, screaming televangelist clutching my crucifix of white noise and static, all my prayers are apologies, hold out a flare until you come for me…”

The stunning “Everything to Help You Sleep” opens up that box even more, Baker singing about the Holy Ghost speaking in Morse code and blaming herself for God’s silence: “If I scream a little louder I know you would have heard.” The chorus is amazing: “Lord, Lord, Lord is there some way to make it stop, nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off, and everything supposed to help me sleep at night doesn’t help me sleep at night anymore…” She dreams of rewiring her brain and wonders if God made a mistake on “Happy to Be Here,” and when she sings “I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why not me,” it breaks my heart.

But the album doesn’t kill me until “Hurt Less,” my vote for the best song Baker has yet written. It’s the one song on which she makes progress – she begins by singing about why she doesn’t wear seatbelts: she hopes to feel her body and soul float through the air after crashing through the windshield. And then she finds someone to talk to, someone to share with, and goddamn, I cry each time she gets to the concluding verse: “This year I started wearing safety belts when I’m driving, because when I’m with you I don’t have to think about myself, and it hurts less…” (And just when your heart can’t hold anymore, the strings. The strings!)

No other record so far this year hurts like this one hurts, and that emotional connection is Baker’s greatest strength. As I mentioned, she’s only 22, so she’ll only get better – her songs have a sameness to them that I hope she’ll outgrow. But when it comes to capturing true feeling, few do it as well as she does. As someone who has lived with depression for his entire life, a song like “Claws in Your Back” gets it down on tape with surprising accuracy, and heart-rending candor. Turn Out the Lights is a tough listen, and a powerful one, and a necessary one. In sharing her darkest hours, she helps us talk about ours, and that’s an incredible gift. I’m in awe of the way she uses it here, and how from the depths of winter she assures us that summer is possible.

That’s it for this week. Next week, who knows? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Where’s Our Rocket Packs?
Scandroid Makes a Return Trip to the '80s

We lost Gord Downie this week.

I can’t pretend to be the greatest fan of the Tragically Hip. I first heard them in college, intrigued by a poster for their third album, Fully Completely. I bought Day for Night and Trouble at the Henhouse and Phantom Power and enjoyed them all, but didn’t carry them in my heart the way so many other people did. I found out only years later how legendary the band was in their native Canada, and how revered Downie was in his home country.

And to be fair, he’s revered here, by many, many people. When he announced in May of last year that he had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, the outpouring of support and love was extraordinary. The band’s farewell tour and final show were events, even bringing out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself a devoted fan of the Hip. It was something to see.

Downie kept working straight to the end. His final album, a double-CD song cycle called Introduce Yerself, will be released this week. Sadly, Downie did not live to see it. He died last Tuesday at age 53. If you want some idea of how important his passing was to Canadians, consider this: Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement eulogizing him. “When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian,” it reads, in part. “Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest – like Gord himself.”

Rest in peace, Gord.

* * * * *

Stranger Things is back this weekend, and I am absurdly excited.

If you somehow missed Netflix’s runaway hit last year, just know that it’s a perfect pastiche of Stephen King and ‘80s movies, like if The Goonies were about not only a plucky band of kids but also about a telekinetic teenager who could kill at a moment’s notice. It’s a perfect nostalgic cocktail – it isn’t particularly deep, but it is a lot of fun, and decidedly creepy in all the right places. I’m very much looking forward to the second season, which lands on Friday.

One element that sets Stranger Things apart is its music. In addition to a bevy of ‘80s hits, the score is crafted by members of the band S U R V I V E, who create synthwave instrumentals on vintage instruments. Their work is a little bit Vangelis, a little bit Wendy Carlos, and all neon-dappled dispatches from the Me Decade. It’s exactly right for a slice of Spielbergian cinema like Stranger Things.

Now, one might think it cynical to note that multi-talented musician Klayton scheduled his second album as Scandroid, his ‘80s-inspired synthwave project, to land one week before Stranger Things 2. But I don’t think it is. Klayton’s a shrewd marketer, and he knows people will be in the mood this weekend for what Scandroid has to offer. He couldn’t have timed it better, actually.

Who the hell is Klayton and what the hell is Scandroid, you ask? Klayton is the mastermind behind the electro-rock-metal-whatever project Celldweller, the industrial metal outfit Circle of Dust, the synth-driven soundscape machine FreqGen, and Scandroid, his love letter to the retro-futurism of the 1980s. Klayton has been producing his own work for his own label FiXT since 1999, and lately has been releasing two or three albums under various names each year.

You’d think, given the rate of his output, that he would start to suck, but he hasn’t yet. Monochrome, the new Scandroid album, is his third new thing of the year, including the Scandroid remix album and the surprisingly gentle new Celldweller, Offworld. It’s clear, though, that a lot of his work this year has gone into Monochrome. Like its predecessor, it’s a perfect recreation of that 1980s sound, from the drum fills to the blipping bass lines to the vocal effects. And like its predecessor, it’s more than a pastiche. It’s clearly a labor of love, a sincere valentine to a sound he grew up with and still cherishes.

There’s a lot to love about Monochrome, from the songs that were released early (the great “A Thousand Years,” “Afterglow,” “Rendezvous”) to the deep cuts (the title track, the epic “The Veil”). Throughout, Klayton keeps that vintage sound fresh, and if you enjoyed the first Scandroid album, there isn’t a lot that would keep you from loving this one.

But there are a few things, mainly the disjointed nature of the whole thing. Start with the fact that there are four instrumentals and a remix padding out the runtime. Then consider the two covers – one of the instrumentals is a re-working of John Williams’ “The Force Theme” from Star Wars, which really feels out of place here, and the other is a full-on dive into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that somehow manages to be audacious without quite going far enough. That leaves only six new Scandroid songs with vocals, not counting the intro “2518.”

The effect is a pretty bumpy ride, as an album. Where the first Scandroid album flowed beautifully, even incorporating a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” into its mix, this one feels like Klayton had enough tracks on his hard drive to fill an album and just shoved them all onto the same CD. On a song-by-song basis, these are all pretty cool tracks – the instrumental “Oblivia” works in a very ‘80s sax sound and still manages to be expansive, “On the Face of the Deep” is similarly widescreen, and while I don’t think it belongs, I enjoy “The Force Theme” more than I expected to.

This is an album that raises the question of whether albums are meant to be complete journeys or a series of individual tracks on a disc. I’m always a fan of the former, but even with its cohesion problems, Monochrome is an enjoyable second effort from a project I remain excited about. I’m down for anything Klayton wants to do, and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. It might be time to slow down a little, though, and work on creating something that holds up as a complete journey next time out. I’m happy to hear as much music as Klayton wants to throw at me, but some more gestation time could have transformed Monochrome from an enjoyable hodgepodge to a fully formed statement.

* * * * *

Gonna call it early this week. Next week, Weezer and Julien Baker, and maybe one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Sensational Shape Shifters
Beck, Clark, Plant and the Value of Constant Change

I confess that it took me a while to get Beck.

If you were alive in 1994, you could not possibly have escaped “Loser,” Beck’s signature hit. A bluesy acoustic shuffle over electronic boom-boom drums with lyrics in Spanish and a lackadaisical half-rap vocal style, “Loser” was like nothing else. It was like a weird novelty record from the future. It was also the only song like it on Mellow Gold, which remains one of the strangest major-label debuts in history.

I heard Mellow Gold a couple times, then filed it away, expecting it would be the last I would hear of Beck. Maybe, I thought, he’d eke out a couple more bizarre records, but no one would pay any attention to them. Happily, he’s gone on to surprise me (and everyone else) again and again. No one expected the sophisticated cut-and-paste pop chemistry of Odelay, nor the gentle Mutations, nor the Prince-tastic joke-a-thon Midnite Vultures, nor the beautiful and ethereal Sea Change. For the next 20-some years, Beck became one of our most nimble sonic chameleons, to the point where you never quite knew where he was going to land next.

Three years ago, Beck dropped Morning Phase, a spiritual sequel to Sea Change that found him treading old ground for the first time. That’s not to say that the album wasn’t wonderful, because it was. But where the erstwhile Mr. Hansen used to pull the rug out with each new record, now we find ourselves switching between two modes: Somber Beck and Party Beck. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, since both modes have produced great work. It’s just more predictable.

Colors, Beck’s newly released 13th album, is Party Beck, which isn’t a surprise. But if he were that boring, this would be the end of the review. The truth is, Colors is great, well worth the three-year wait. It’s the most low-key and mature record Party Beck has made – he’s 47 years old now, too much of a grown-up for the jump-cut hysteria of Odelay. With one glaring exception, Colors is straight-ahead melodic bliss, the work of a confident elder statesman who still likes to dance.

For this record, Beck worked mainly with Greg Kurstin, whose stock in trade is this flavor of pop – sweet and melody-driven, but far from the realm of your Taylor Swifts and Justin Biebers. These songs are classic pop, simple and driving and hummable, and all dressed up in their finest clothes. There’s a hint of Beck’s ‘90s roots on “I’m So Free,” and a nice nod to the happier end of Elliott Smith’s oeuvre on “Dear Life.” “No Distraction” sounds like a lost Police hit from 1983 with a dance-floor update.

There’s a danger that Beck’s electro-dance-pop will not age as well as he does, and Colors should put that to rest. It all feels graceful and agile, never dipping into embarrassment. Well, except once – the pre-release single, “Wow,” which doesn’t fit this album at all. Reportedly included on Colors because of label pressure, “Wow” is everything the rest of the album isn’t: a labored attempt to be modern that flails desperately and falls flat. Luckily, it’s followed by “Up All Night,” one of the most delightful slices of fun here, so it’s a memory soon forgotten. But it shouldn’t be here at all.

Nine out of ten is a pretty good average, though, and Colors is mostly dynamite. While it’s not as whiplash-inducing as some of his previous shifts, it does stake out its own territory in his catalog – he’s never quite brought his party mode and his melodic instincts together as well as this. And if you listen to this and, say, The Information back to back, you’ll be surprised at how far he’s come, and how different this is. I’m quite pleased with this record, and if Party Beck wants to continue in this vein, I’m all for it. But knowing him, I’m sure another tonal shift is around the corner.

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Speaking of shapeshifters, here’s Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. And it’s probably about time that I admit something pretty weird.

While I think Clark is terrifically talented, and I have enjoyed every St. Vincent album, I honestly can’t remember them. I’m looking now at the track listings for Marry Me and Actor and Strange Mercy, albums I swear I heard and enjoy, and I can’t recall a note from any of them. It’s hard for me to think of this as Clark’s fault – she’s a mix of Kate Bush and Prince, a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the dramatic and a coy sensuality, all things I enjoy. But man, I can’t even remember how “Cheerleader” goes, and I know people who have covered it.

So it’s a good thing that I’m re-listening to her fifth album, Masseduction, as I write this. The album even looks like a departure – the cover is a view of Clark’s backside, lit in red, the most sexualized image she has used. The record is her most mainstream-sounding, full of electronic beats and synthesized noises, and I’m inclined to credit her collaboration with Jack Antonoff (one half of fun. and the sole member of Bleachers) with this shift, but mostly I think it’s just Clark trying on new tones like new outfits, as she always has.

It’s a lot to take initially, though. The title track finds her purring “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” in a tone both sexy and menacing. “Sugarboy” is a blippy synth nightmare on overdrive with freaky shouted gang vocals and an interlude that sounds like a video game. “Los Ageless” is a pretty simple pop song dressed up in a stomping beat and a squirrely electro bass sound that gets more abrasive as it goes, and it ends with a spoken word coda. “Savior” is a strange detour into fetish-land, and it leads into “New York,” a genuinely pretty tune with the hook line “you’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.” “Fear the Future” is a jittery, skittering thing with a big Tori Amos-style chorus.

It’s a lot to process, and I’m normally excited by records that throw this much at me. Weirdly, though, Masseduction glides right by me, leaving no lasting mark. It’s good – in fact, the closer, “Smoking Section,” flirts with brilliance – and I admire Clark for being this individualistic, for creating albums that could come from no one else. I like it while it’s playing, much like I have enjoyed all of her work while I’m listening to it. But I can already tell it isn’t going to stick with me, no matter how many times I listen. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s probably not Masseduction’s fault. Take that as you will.

* * * * *

Finally, we have the legendary Robert Plant, who definitely qualifies as a shape shifter, and whose current band is called the Sensational Space Shifters.

Plant is 69 years old now, and what a career he’s carved out for himself. His decade fronting Led Zeppelin guaranteed him the freedom to do whatever he wanted from then on, and he’s used that freedom to explore every kind of music he can grace with that velvet voice. From his brief stint with the Honeydrippers to his electro-metal Now and Zen period to his subtle and beautiful work with Strange Sensation to his career-highlight collaboration with Alison Krauss, Plant has done everything imaginable.

So what’s left? His 11th solo album, Carry Fire, is his second with the Space Shifters, and it finds him harnessing this spectacular band to create the most beautiful music he can. Over time Plant’s voice has weathered and aged into a creaky yet wizened thing – he’s still capable of hitting those higher notes and belting it out when he chooses to, but these days he’s more interested in whispering to us, in singing with restraint and reserve. He knows he has nothing more to prove.

To that end, quite a lot of Carry Fire stands with the prettiest work he’s done. “Season’s Song” is a gentle acoustic hymn that builds in intensity, sung with an airy grace. “Dance with You Tonight” takes its rolling rhythm and sculpts it into a gorgeous bit of sunlight. “A Way With Words” is almost too intimate, the microphone picking up every breathy sound from Plant’s mouth, but it works with the sparse, swaying music. Even an uptempo piece like opener “The May Queen” concentrates on being as beautiful as possible.

All of this is not to say that the Space Shifters don’t crank up the amps here and there. “New World” and “Bones of Saints” are stompers, while “Carving Up the World Again… A Wall and Not a Fence” is a bluesy state of the union address that kicks. And the title track is a stunning bit of Middle Eastern dance music. Plant has assembled one of his very best bands, and they knock it out of the park again and again here.

If there’s anyone who doesn’t need to keep creating new music, it’s Robert Plant. He doesn’t need the money, and he’s already immortal. But I’m beyond glad that he does. Each new album is an exploration of tone, mood and style unlike any Plant has made before. After nearly 50 years as a recording artist, Plant is still charting new territory, taking that voice new places. It’s more than we deserve.

* * * * *

That’s it for this week. Next week, probably Scandroid. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Staring Into the Void with Fingers Crossed
Derek Webb's searing, powerful, painful new record

I’ve recently started going to church again, after a 25-year absence.

The reasons are many and varied, but they come down to the fact that I have finally found a church where I feel at home. Churches, in my experience, can be toxic places, full of judgment and exclusion and moral superiority. If I’m going to go to church, that church needs to be a place where I can have as many doubts and as much disbelief as I have, without feeling like that leaves me on the outside. Or even that there is an outside – church should be welcoming to everyone who wants to be there, I think, wherever they are on whatever journey they’re on.

I grew up in a church, but as I got older, I realized I had more questions than the church had answers for me, and I moved away from it. Faith has never come easy for me, and being around people who seem to breeze through it makes it even more difficult. I’ve never really left it alone during that time – or, as Steve Hindalong would say, somebody out there won’t leave me alone, which is more accurate. But for a quarter-century, really the only thing faith-related that I kept up with was the music.

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know I love a lot of music that falls under the Christian banner. The truth is, I have always been interested in any art that honestly responds to the infinite. Call it God, call it the Force, whatever. The art that moves me most is the art that discusses our relationship to whatever it is that is beyond us, and to my mind, all responses are valid. This includes anger and fear and bewilderment and rejection, as well as faith and love. It’s a messy, complicated thing, and I’m always on board for honest, emotional outpourings to the heavens.

So that’s how I know who Derek Webb is. He’s been on my radar for nearly two decades, first as one half of Caedmon’s Call and then as a solo artist. If Webb is known for anything, it’s for being a provocateur – his work points fingers in a lot of directions, including back at himself, and has been staunchly Christian in nature, yet still piercingly honest. The first Webb song I fell in love with was “Wedding Dress,” on his 2003 solo debut She Must and Shall Go Free. It’s a powerful examination of his tendency to parade his own righteousness around: “I am a whore, I do confess, put you on just like a wedding dress and I run down the aisle…”

Webb has never been your average songwriter. He’s wrestled with the implications of faith for his whole career, perhaps most pointedly on 2009’s Stockholm Syndrome, a difficult yet danceable deconstruction of both church and state. That one caused some controversy – Christian audiences don’t tend to like it when you take them uncomfortable places, and Stockholm Syndrome was partially about confronting the church’s homophobia and racism head-on. It’s a great little record, but a prickly one.

So the church was primed and ready to throw stones at Webb as soon as he stumbled, and he sure did. He was caught in an affair that led to the very public end of his marriage to fellow songwriter Sandra McCracken, and in the ensuing years, he’s lost that sure-fire faith he held on to throughout his career. Webb calls his new album, Fingers Crossed, a tale of two divorces – from his wife and from God and the church. It’s his first in four years, following the more traditionally church-y I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You, and it’s clear that these four years have been the most painful of his life.

And because he is Derek Webb, he has examined these years with the same soul-baring honesty he has brought to everything he’s done. Even if I had not started orbiting the church world again, Fingers Crossed would be a difficult and powerful listen. Every time I spin it, it lays me low. It hurts. It’s meant to hurt. To be truthful, I’m not done processing this record, and I don’t know if I ever will be. This is a record about feeling abandoned by people, about making a terrible mistake and watching as the ones who said they would stand by you left you alone in it. Worse, this is a record about feeling abandoned by God, about the incredibly empty feeling of losing faith.

He addresses the people right up front, on the striking opener “Stop Listening.” Over what will become the framework for this album – gently picked acoustic guitars atop uncomfortable, off-kilter electronic percussion – Webb exhorts those who are grieving his separation from the faith to either come at this work with an open mind, or tune out: “If you stop listening now, we can still be friends, if your eyes can see what’s killing me, I’ll need you by the end, but I’ll understand if you stop listening…” He takes on the voices of the church in the second verse: “We’re with you all the way, no matter what the cost, I mean unless you climb down from the cross…”

For those who keep listening, Webb lays himself bare. The most gut-wrenching moments of the album paint him as a wretched, lonely soul, drinking alone and crying out in anguish, yearning for his lost love and his lost faith, hoping to repair his severed connections, but not sure how. “A Tempest in a Teacup” is a searing portrait of deconstruction, of a man with nothing left: “Something deep down in my heart, something that made me who I was, invisible, I guess it just didn’t pan out, I guess it’s just another heart I broke, another dream I woke up…”

I can barely listen to “Love is Not a Choice,” a song in which Webb admits that he sometimes wakes up and doesn’t remember where his wife and children have gone. “I’ve chosen not to love you anymore,” he sings, but he knows that he has no control over it. “And deep down the only one you want is the one who you betray, the one you can’t have, who’ll never take you back, who you think you never loved and who never loved you too, sometimes you need the lie to be the truth…” (This is absolutely a one-sided record, by the way, and I do wonder how McCracken feels hearing these songs.)

Similarly, “I Will” is devastating: “Oh God, take us back to the place where this all began, where I’m holding her hand with no shame and no damn regret…” Webb’s albums have been one-man shows for some time now, but he’s never sounded this alone before.

The heartbreak of divorce is one thing, but when he digs down into his feelings of abandonment about God, it’s quite another. He can point to his mistake in his marriage, but in song after song on Fingers Crossed, Webb doesn’t know what he’s done to make God fall silent. “Easter Eggs” is the most elegant metaphor for the unsolvable mystery of God I’ve heard in a long time, portraying God as the Easter Bunny: “When our backs are turned, he sneaks around, hides the sweetest things for us… but us kids have a thought that mom’s been making it up, so our hearts won’t break like Easter eggs…”

It’s the bridge of that song that really gets me, though: “Either this is what you wanted, or I’m not praying hard enough, in either case you can’t be trusted, so I think I’m giving up…” I would have to raise my hand and say that I’ve felt like this so many times. The mysteries remain mysteries, and I can’t possibly pray hard enough to untangle them. God stays hidden. The album’s title track finds Webb staring down infinity with the newfound thought that perhaps there is nothing to save him: “What if there’s no sin, there’s no cross, there’s no them, there is no us, there’s just you and what you do, and how you pay for what you choose…”

The song guaranteed to attract the most attention here is “The Spirit Bears the Curse,” which masquerades as an expert troll job but is actually a soul-crushing admission. It’s a worship song, with the exact cadence and language of modern church music, all early Coldplay and water metaphors: “We raise our voice, we raise an offering, would you come near and quench our thirst…” The twist, though, is that this song is about alcohol, and it plays like a joke: “I am calling out the only name that delivers me from my guilt and shame, oh alcohol…” But on repeated listens, it’s obviously heartfelt, the work of a man who used to find fulfillment in one place, and is now finding it in another. Alcohol does for him now what God used to.

For a certain segment of Webb’s audience, that’s going to be a very hard admission to deal with. I said this when I reviewed Webb’s set at AudioFeed this year: those are the people who most need to listen, particularly to those who leave the faith, about why they leave. These stories don’t end, and people are not relegated to “good” and “bad” boxes. They’re people, with stories, and if I know anything about the faith Webb used to proclaim, it’s about loving people, listening to their stories and being part of them.

Webb himself leaves some hope, however subtle, in the final song, “Goodbye, For Now.” The last two words are pointed – the song is the saddest thing here, bringing his marriage and his faith together in a forlorn farewell to both. “So either you aren’t real,” he sings to God, “or I am just not chosen, maybe I’ll never know, either way my heart is broken…” But that “for now,” repeated in each chorus, is like a faint promise, echoed in the climax of the first song: “If we can get through this we may have a shot at something even we can’t tear apart.” The album ends on an unresolved chord, the musical equivalent of “to be continued.”

I hope so. As someone who has loved Derek Webb’s work for a long, long time, Fingers Crossed is a difficult and painful listen. It’s also a brilliant one, honest and true to where he is. I expected nothing less. I don’t know how often I am going to revisit it – how often I physically can revisit it, given what it does to me – but I hope that the people who most need to hear an album like this don’t stop listening. Webb’s voice remains important, crying out in a different kind of wilderness, but speaking truth just the same.

Buy Fingers Crossed here.

Next week, Beck and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

Into the Great Wide Open
Tom Petty, 1950-2017

What an emotionally exhausting week.

The entire country is reeling from the news out of Las Vegas: more than 50 people killed in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. I’ve seen footage and photographs, and it’s devastating. I admire those who are standing up in the face of tragedy to try to enact real change. I’m just not sure what that looks like anymore. I’d love it if we could agree to make preventing this kind of horror a priority, but it just doesn’t look like we’re going to. So I’m already mentally preparing for the next one. Which is unfathomably sad.

And then we lost Tom Petty. Which, I know, is not on the same scale, but for fans like myself, it added to the emotional distress of the week.

The first Tom Petty song I can remember hearing was “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I was ten years old when it was released on Petty’s Southern Accents album, and I remember the song largely because of the creepy video. It was Alice in Wonderland meets surreal horror, with Petty as the Mad Hatter, and it ended with Alice’s body being cut into slices and served as cake to the denizens of Wonderland. I don’t remember a lot of things about being ten, but I remember the unsettled feeling that video left me with.

I know I heard “Refugee” and “The Waiting” and “Jammin’ Me” on the radio after that, but the first Petty I bought was Full Moon Fever, his first foray away from his lifelong backing band, the Heartbreakers. I never loved “Free Fallin’” like most people did – even at 14 I was gravitating away from simplicity – but I loved “I Won’t Back Down” and “Yer So Bad” and “Alright for Now.” My favorite was “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” which would go on to be an undisputed Petty classic. My friend Mike and I used that song in an animated short film about the Erie Canal we created for history class. (Yes, we were pretty nerdy.)

From then on, Petty would stay sort of peripheral to my life, but always a part of it. Into the Great Wide Open, particularly the great “Learning to Fly,” soundtracked my last year of high school. Petty was my way into the Traveling Wilburys, and I grew to love (or at least admire) each of those songwriters. I remember exactly where I was – in the kitchen of a house I shared with three guys during my junior year of college – the first time I heard Wildflowers, Petty’s best solo album. We’d watch the video for “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and lament the censorship – “let’s roll another joint” became “let’s roll another jnuuuuh,” or some other indecipherable mess. For us, this was a high crime, no pun intended.

I bought She’s the One at my favorite record store in downtown Portland, Maine, where I ended up working a few years later. I gave Echo a lukewarm review in the music magazine I worked for out of college, still in Portland. I bought The Live Anthology with money I made working as a journalist outside of Chicago, and it finally convinced me that the Heartbreakers are one of the best bands in America. I adored every second of Unchained, the Heartbreakers’ album with Johnny Cash, recorded near the end of the Man in Black’s life.

I think this is how Petty was for a lot of people. He had sort of a stealth effect on my life – I have never considered him a favorite, but when I look back, his music has made a deep impression on me for more than three decades. Of the “pure rock” songwriters I enjoy, he was quite possibly the best. He certainly knew how to make three chords and some keen observations into a smash hit that resonated with millions. They resonated with me, too, and it’s hard to believe that such a constant presence in my life is gone.

Petty died on Monday night after a heart attack earlier in the day. The conflicting news reports didn’t help, with many outlets pronouncing him dead hours before he actually passed on, causing many of us to go through the process of emotionally saying goodbye twice. Petty was only 66 years old, which I used to think was ancient. Now I can see it around the corner from me, and Petty’s death is a reminder that each day is precious. Hold on to the ones you love.

Rest in peace, Tom, and thank you for all the tunes.

* * * * *

That’s going to do it for me this week. If you’d like to read a more eloquent remembrance of Tom Petty, you can’t do better than this one from my friend John J. Thompson.

Next week, Derek Webb, speaking of emotionally devastating. I’m still not ready to write about it. I’m not sure I will be in a week, either. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles