Four-Color Fantasies
Gorillaz and Jonathan Coulton Get Graphic

When I was a young boy, I always loved visiting my grandparents. Of course I loved them and enjoyed their company, but there were two reasons in particular I liked going to their house: they always let me have snacks my mother would not, and my grandfather always bought me comic books.

If I owe my lifelong love of sequential art to anyone, it’s to the kindly old man who indulged my longing for the further adventures of Spider-Man, back when comics were a quarter. (I also owe much of my lifelong love of music to his wife, my grandmother, a concert pianist who taught me to play my first songs.) My fascination with four-color universes has never faded – it now encompasses 96-million-color epics and black-and-white tales and everything in between.

Along the way I learned that many people have a strange misconception of comics as an art form, as if one can only use it to tell stories of costumed heroes punching one another. In college I found books like Bone and Cerebus and Strangers in Paradise, and discovered that comics can be anything. (One of the most brilliant professors at my school once borrowed a couple comics from me, and he returned them with a gleam in his eye as he said this: “I just realized you can write anything you want in the word balloons!”)

These days I buy dozens of comics, both in single-issue and book form, and I read voraciously. I expect my love for this medium will never die – I’ll run out of money first. So naturally, I’m drawn to anything that taps into the world of comics, particularly if I can simultaneously indulge my love of music. I feel like I’m getting some kind of two-for-one deal.

So you can imagine how ecstatic I am to be talking about both of this week’s contestants. First up, obviously, is Gorillaz, the best animated band on the planet. (That’s right, Jem and the Holograms. Sorry, Dethklok.) Created by Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz officially includes 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and Noodle, four misfits finding their way through a post-apocalyptic future. Unofficially, of course, none of them exist outside of Hewlett’s imagination.

But the animated band is vital to the Gorillaz experience. For one thing, the band’s album covers and videos are all great, all rendered in Hewlett’s punk-influenced style. But for another, the four-color foursome allows Albarn to basically be invisible. Remarkably, this frees him up to sound like anything he wants, much like writing whatever comes to mind in the word balloons. Gorillaz music is hip-hop, electro-pop, soul and funk, all mixed together in a heady brew that goes by like lightning, and none of it has ever sounded like what you’d expect from the frontman of Blur.

Albarn and his co-conspirators have taken most of this decade off after releasing two records – the stuffed-full Plastic Beach and the more intimate The Fall – in 2010. Their comeback, Humanz, is much more the former than the latter. It spans 26 tracks and is positively loaded with guest stars. It’s also exactly what I want in a Gorillaz album. It breaks genre boundaries like they were nothing, confidently treads anywhere it likes and plays like a mixtape.

Albarn himself is on most of these tracks, but he takes a back seat, ceding the floor to his frankly astonishing roster of guests. Just to hit some of the highlights: “Let Me Out” features Mavis Staples and Pusha T and is one of the most stirring things here, “Momentz” harnesses the renewed power of De La Soul for a surprising strut, “Charger” brings Grace Jones to the forefront (and is a powerhouse), and Vince Staples fires off verses on album opener “Andromeda.” Carly Simon shows up on one song, as does Savages’ Jehnny Beth and splendid singer Anthony Hamilton.

You might think that such a diverse roster leads to a scattershot feeling, and you’d be right. Very little holds this record together as more than a collection of disparate tracks. But those tracks range from good to great, and if you think of this (and every Gorillaz album) as a mix CD created by these four fictional characters, it really works. Part of the thrill is hearing these tracks rub up next to each other. “Submission,” a pulsing winner featuring singer Kelela and a rapid-fire verse by Danny Brown, slinks its way into the dirty sorta-guitars of “Charger,” on which Albarn’s half-asleep vocal style slides into Grace Jones’ powerful one.

There are certainly low lights, as you’d expect from an album with 26 tracks. “Busted and Blue,” performed entirely by Albarn, is the first dip in momentum. It’s also the longest thing here at 4:37, which just shows how quickly this thing flies by. I definitely could have lived without “Sex Murder Party,” and “The Apprentice” feels thrown together. But it’s remarkable how much of Humanz is as good as it is.

Gorillaz is a band of comic book characters, and their albums feel like the soundtrack to their strange and unbelievable lives. It feels like reading comics, like getting pieces of 26 different stories every month, and reading them all back to back. Albarn doesn’t do the best job of setting a scene and telling a story, but this project has freed him in so many important creative ways. Just listen to “Hallelujah Money,” featuring Benjamin Clemente. I mean, what is that? Synthetic drunken future-soul meets noise sculpture? Any project that allows this kind of freedom is aces with me.

* * * * *

While I love Gorillaz’ comic book style and sensibility, no one has better integrated comics with his music so far this year than Jonathan Coulton.

Coulton himself is a comic book story. A self-proclaimed internet superstar, Coulton made his name writing about geeky subjects – monkeys, robots, the Mandelbrot set. He’s a stunningly clever writer, able to find the sadness behind his sci-fi inspiration. Early song “I Crush Everything” was written from the point of view of a self-loathing giant squid, unable to stop himself from destroying the things he loves. “I’m Your Moon” is a valentine from Pluto’s moon Charon, on the occasion of Pluto’s declassification as a planet, and is one of the warmest songs of affirmation I know.

For years, Coulton has been shoving against the idea that he’s a novelty act, writing nerdy songs for nerds. His last album, Artificial Heart, was a clear sign that he was heading elsewhere. There were novelty songs, most notably the awesome “Je Suis Rick Springfield,” but they sat alongside truly heartfelt pieces like “Glasses” and “Today With Your Wife,” songs any writer would be thrilled to pen. Coulton is in the odd position of having to please an audience that loves songs like “Re: Your Brains” while also growing as a songsmith.

He’s found a way to do that, and do it brilliantly, on his fantastic new record Solid State. It is simultaneously the geekiest and most mature thing he’s done. Solid State is a concept album about the internet and its wide-ranging effects, accompanied by a massive graphic novel co-written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Albert Monteys. The comic tells the album’s story, filling in details – it’s essentially about an internet troll who invents an artificial intelligence that causes a worldwide collapse, then leaves earth, returning many years later to survey the damage.

Yeah, that’s geeky, and it allows Coulton to say a lot of things he’s probably wanted to say for some time about anonymity and technology. But I’m not sure his audience is quite ready for Solid State itself, a record that is remarkably serious in intent and execution. This is a great leap forward for Coulton, a record that can stand proudly alongside the works of his heroes. And those heroes, it is becoming clear, are the likes of Elvis Costello and his new collaborator and label boss, Aimee Mann.

These songs. These songs! Coulton has never delivered as consistent a set of songs as this one. Solid State begins with “Wake Up,” from the point of view of the unnamed artificial intelligence awakening in space, and just by itself it announces the ambition and intent of this record. “The whole world is waiting for you,” Coulton sings over an epic arrangement that leads into “All This Time,” an electro-blip tune set in the future. This song name-checks Kurzweil and depicts a society where people are cogs in a machine, where all they have is all this time. The lovely title track bemoans this use of technology, and then we’re back in the past, looking at the origins of dystopia.

Those origins just happen to be an abrasive character who grows, changes and matures over the next nine songs, becoming a family man just in time for his creation to ruin the world. This section of the album kicks off with “Brave,” one of the very best things Coulton has written. A backhand to anonymous internet trolls set to a superb guitar-rock beat, the song finds Coulton taking on the voice of one, ranting about “sheeple” and declaring “when I torch the place, cover up my face, that will make me brave…”

But as the pressures of the world (and the internet) get to this character, they change him. Only Coulton would write a tender ballad about coping and call it “Pictures of Cats,” and only Coulton could make it this affecting. Only Coulton would write a song about creating a massive artificial intelligence, call it “Robots.txt,” and imagine it as a beautiful song of encouragement. And only Coulton would pen a song from that AI’s point of view as it scours the internet and decides that we’re not worth saving. That song, “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” is the most old-school Coulton thing here, and it’s wonderful. “Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, Lucy went to heaven but she still felt like hell, so she only gave it two stars, worst place ever…”

By the time of “Your Tattoo” and “Ball and Chain,” the main character of Solid State has settled down and is a better person. So naturally, the world falls apart in “Sunshine,” possibly the most impressive and intricate song of Coulton’s career. “Long on Bitcoin and regret without much to show, the roaches took the kitchenette, we just let it go…” The chorus is superb, lamenting the burning world and leaving it behind.

Honestly, even though the record has 17 tracks, I could have used another song or two set in the future civilization. (The graphic novel does yeoman’s work filling in the narrative gaps.) The last four songs are a suite from the AI’s POV as it makes its way back to Earth, longing for humanity, for connection. The two-part “All to Myself” brings a Pink Floyd feel to the proceedings, and the brief “There You Are” depicts the reunion. The last panel of the graphic novel captures the same moment, creator and destroyer, face to face. What happens next, only Coulton knows.

I think this album is going to surprise a lot of people. It surprised me. I’ve been waiting for a quantum leap forward like this from Coulton for a while, but even I’m stunned by how good Solid State is. The songs are all top notch, without a wasted moment. The production is gorgeous. Best of all, you feel like you’ve been somewhere by the end of it. It seems like a ridiculous understatement to say that Coulton has grown as a songwriter and a record maker here. He’s made one of the year’s finest albums, a deep and coherent statement about where we are and where we’re going. This is one to experience.

You can hear Solid State and order both the album and the graphic novel online here.

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Wow, ran long this time. Next week, Slowdive and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

A Slight Pause Whilst We Catch Up
Take a Breath, Look to the Future

So here’s the thing. I’m very, very behind.

Not just on this column, though I am behind on this too. I’m behind on every single aspect of my art-loving life. I have thousands – and I’m not exaggerating there – of comics and books to read, some of which I’ve borrowed from friends. I am so far behind on my television watching that I am just now getting to Fringe. (Which I am enjoying!) And as for music, well, I have probably two dozen records just from this year that are languishing unheard. Life is busy, and it leaves little time for my second career as a semi-pro appreciator.

Here’s how this manifested itself this week. I’m behind on the column, late as usual. I intended to write about both the swell new Gorillaz album and Jonathan Coulton’s delightful Solid State this week, wrapping them up in a theme about comic books. But I wanted to wait until my copy of the Solid State CD and graphic novel arrived, so I could explore the full experience and then write about that. Of course, it hasn’t arrived, and while I have the album practically memorized at this point, I still don’t feel comfortable writing about it until I’ve taken in everything Coulton wants me to.

Normally, that would be no problem. I’d just shift to reviewing something else. But because I’m so far behind on my listening, I don’t really have anything to say about anything else right now either. I’ve been enjoying several new records, including the wonderful new Slowdive (their first in 22 years) and the terrific collaboration between Isildur’s Bane and Marillion’s Steve Hogarth.

I plan to write about both of those. But if I were to do that this week, you’d get something rushed and disorganized. (You might get that anyway. But I don’t want it to be from lack of preparation.) I’ve heard each of those records twice, which is one more time than I’ve heard any of the other candidates for this week’s column, including Juliana Hatfield’s vicious Pussycat and Feist’s Pleasure. I haven’t even heard the new At the Drive-In yet, and I’ve been anticipating that one for months.

So I could just lag behind again, but I decided I would at least try to give you something this week. And as I often do when I’m in this jam, I decided to look forward at what’s coming up. This year is shaping up to be pretty good, so here’s a brief look at a few records I’m looking forward to. (Of course, I’ll buy them and then not listen to them for weeks, trying to find the time, but I remain excited!)

Probably highest on my list right now is Husky, whose tremendous sophomore album Ruckers Hill made my top 10 list a couple years ago. Husky, led by a guy actually named Husky, might not seem that innovative – they’re an acoustic folk-pop band, like half a million others. But they write outstanding songs, songs that stay with you for weeks. The two songs I’ve heard from the upcoming Punchbuzz (“Ghost”  and “Late Night Store”) don’t make me think that this will be the one to break the streak. I adore this band, and I’m jazzed to see where they go next.

I waxed eloquent about Sufjan Stevens last week. I think he’s one of the most important and compelling artists of this generation, and I’m interested in any project he’s part of. That includes the new Planetarium, a cosmic-themed project with string arranger Nico Mulhy, longtime Sufjan collaborator James McAllister and the National’s Bryce Dessner. (Yes, Sufjan’s involvement has me excited in spite of someone from the National muddying things up.) As with most things Sufjan, it’s difficult to describe or summarize. You just have to hear it.

I grew up on the work of Roger Waters, both with Pink Floyd and on his own. I can vividly remember hearing The Wall for the first time – that’s a revelatory record when you’re 14. Radio K.A.O.S. provided an embarrassing percentage of the soundtrack to my first years of high school, while Amused to Death scored my early college years with piss and venom. I never thought I’d live to hear another Waters album, but lo and behold, one is coming. It’s called Is This the Life We Really Want, and the two songs released so far (“Smell the Roses”  and “Déjà Vu”) somehow sound exactly as you’d expect them to, and at the same time very good. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia – I’m very much looking forward to this record.

I mentioned Slowdive above – they’re just the latest old-school shoegaze band to reunite and return after a long absence. Later in the year, English band Ride will return after 21 years with Weather Diaries. Single “Charm Assault” feels like they’ve never been away. Another surprise, announced this week, is supergroup Lo Tom, made up of Jason Martin from shoegazers Starflyer 59, David Bazan, Trey Many of His Name is Alive and Velour 100, and TW Walsh of the Soft Drugs. My bet is that most of you are befuddled right now, but some of you are nodding vigorously, salivating to hear this. Wait no more.

The great Steven Wilson has just announced a new record called To the Bone. I know virtually nothing about it, but Wilson’s track record is enough for me. Same with Fleet Foxes, whose third album Crack-Up is high on my most wanted list. (It’s only so far down in this column because I’ve mentioned it several times before.) The Choir plans to release Bloodshot later this year, and frontman Derri Daughterty will have a solo record before long. You all know how I feel about the Choir, so you can imagine how much I’m looking forward to these.

And finally, a band you may not know, but should. Marah in the Mainsail was a highlight of the second AudioFeed Festival for me, and their first full-length, Thaumatrope, didn’t disappoint. They’ve just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for their second, the darker-sounding fairy tale Bone Crown. It’s a concept piece about animals fighting for dominance (I think), and it sounds like it’s going to be great. You can hear Marah here.

There’s more, of course, and I’m sure the release schedule for the second half of the year will fill out nicely. (Right now it’s a wasteland, save for that new Tori Amos.) But these are the records I’m most excited about. Anything you think I should be paying more attention to?

Next week, honest, I’ll get to Gorillaz and Jonathan Coulton, and then Slowdive and others. And hopefully I’ll stay on track. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Full/Empty
Living Through Grief with Sufjan Stevens and Phil Elverum

In 2012, Sufjan Stevens lost his mother.

It’s fair to say that Stevens’ relationship with his mother was complicated at best. She had abandoned him repeatedly as a child, staying sometimes for days and once, when married to his stepfather, for five years before leaving again. She died after a long battle with stomach cancer, leaving Stevens confused and standing on the precipice of complete despair.

And so he wrote an amazing album called Carrie and Lowell. Named after his mother and stepfather (who now runs Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty), Carrie and Lowell laid bare the depth and power of Stevens’ grief. It was sometimes frightening to listen to. Stevens was at such a low point when creating these songs that even those things that previously had sustained him – his faith chief among them – were not enough anymore. The album is painful to listen to, sparse and bare to an unflinching degree, and I can only imagine how painful it was to live through.

But in many ways, that’s what art is for – to give us a way to live through it. Stevens has said that creating Carrie and Lowell was not cathartic for him, that as the songs kept coming, he kept feeling worse. The album bears this out, closing with “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” on which he descends into self-destructive behavior, and “Blue Bucket of Gold,” which finds him reaching out desperately, with no reply. It’s dark and difficult, a clear memoir of a place I certainly hope he has not stayed in.

And if I have hope that Stevens is clawing his way back to the light, much of it comes from Carrie and Lowell Live, his extraordinary new concert document. Stevens took these songs – some of which I can’t fathom how he could sing more than once – out on the road, and fashioned an affecting and beautiful show from them. All of the songs from the album are here, but they are reinvented. They’re fuller, bigger, they radiate life in surprising ways. They’re still haunting – they’re some of the most haunting songs you will ever hear – but they feel like progress, like kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, as a wise man once said.

The show still begins with “Death with Dignity” (after a brief benediction in the form of “Redford”) and ends with “Blue Bucket of Gold,” but within those boundaries it opens itself up to new possibilities. “Should Have Known Better” takes the light electronic foundation of the original and runs with it, illuminating the second half (“Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing…”) with glorious synths and a small choir of singers. “All of Me Wants All of You” is a revelation, beginning a lot like Genesis’ “Mama,” all electronic toms and dirge-y keys in place of the strummy acoustics of the studio version. When it erupts into a blistering synthesizer solo, it feels like an entirely new song.

That’s the overall effect of Carrie and Lowell Live – these feel like new songs, or at least new ways of looking at familiar ones. Even “No Shade,” performed in a similar way to its studio counterpart, feels new – the way Stevens sings it and plays it here sounds less like a man on the edge of despair. It sounds like a man looking back on despair, remembering it and honoring it, and inviting his audience to honor it with him. Grief and mourning are important, difficult though they may be, and Carrie and Lowell Live walks a fine line, acknowledging their power while not celebrating it.

The reinvention is so complete here that when Stevens adds two songs from the manic The Age of Adz (“Vesuvius” and “Futile Devices”), they fit right in. “Blue Bucket of Gold” still finds Stevens reaching out, but the blissful 12-minute ambient outro provides a closure, a beauty that the album version eschewed. It feels for all the world like healing, like catharsis, like crying out through pain and being answered. (That Stevens chooses to encore with a goofy cover of “Hotline Bling” only underlines the notion that this has all been about putting grief behind him.)

I’m glad to see this get an official release, because Carrie and Lowell Live is now an essential part of the story Stevens began with the original album. Together they lead you through Stevens’ darkest places, first from within and then from without, showing that while grief is heavy and painful and it seems impossible while you’re in it, it does fade, it does become manageable. And eventually you will look back on it, not as a distant memory, but as something that helps define you, helps make you who you are. That process, as detailed lovingly here by Sufjan Stevens, is beautiful.

Carrie and Lowell Live is available as a video you can watch for free, and as a soundtrack that you can download for ten bucks.

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In 2016 Phil Elverum lost his wife, and the mother of his child.

Her name was Genevieve Castree, and while she had her own musical legacy as O Paon and Woelv, she is perhaps best known as a frequent contributor to Elverum’s long-running musical project Mount Eerie. In May of 2015, Castree was diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, and in July of 2016 she died at home, leaving Elverum to care for their daughter alone. It was the worst possible ending to what should have been a fairy tale story of two musicians in love, and in its wake, Elverum was lost.

And like Stevens, he wrote songs while in the midst of this loss. The new Mount Eerie album is called A Crow Looked at Me, and if you are familiar with Elverum and his work, this one will leave you stunned. Mount Eerie albums are normally enormous, mysterious things, but this one is bare, empty, full of space and longing. There’s precious little here except Elverum’s guitar and quivering everyman voice. Mount Eerie songs have tackled death as a subject for years, in metaphorical and poetic ways, but this one dispenses with all of that, just telling the story of his pain in plain language. It’s like reading Elverum’s diary. It’s almost too real. “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals,” he sings on “Emptiness Pt. 2,” and it feels like a key insight.

A Crow Looked at Me is an invitation to experience Elverum’s greif along with him, from deep inside it. The liner notes even inform you of when each song was written, in relation to Genevieve’s death. Opener “Real Death” was penned one week after, while closer “Crow,” the latest of these, was penned four months after. That isn’t a long time, so there isn’t much of a journey here, just slow realization of what her absence means, trying to hold on to memories and not collapse while living each day, one at a time.

“Real Death” is in some ways the most raw, the most open. It casts a newly wise eye on Elverum’s canon, speaking as plainly as possible: “Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not, and it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art… When I walk into the room where you were and look into the emptiness instead, all fails, my knees fail, my brain fails, words fail…” The song ends with a story of a package arriving a week after Genevieve died: a backpack she had bought for their daughter, as a surprise. The album is full of these little moments, these horrible everyday things that bring her rushing back, that remind him that death is real.

“I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away, I’m sorry, I had to, and now I’ll move, I’ll move with our daughter, we will ride over water with your ghost underneath the boat,” he sings in the crushingly beautiful “Ravens.” He sings of spreading Genevieve’s ashes in “Seaweed,” written 11 days after her death: “I brought a chair from home, I’m leaving it on the hill facing west and north, and I poured out your ashes on it, I guess so you can watch the sunset, but the truth is that I don’t think of that dust as you, you are the sunset…” In “When I Take Out the Garbage at Night” he explains that he is leaving windows open despite the cold, just in case “something still needs to leave.” In “Forest Fire,” written later, he closes the windows: “I kept them open for as long as I could, but the baby got cold…”

Most of these songs stop abruptly, refusing to offer comfort or release. “My Chasm” finds Elverum wondering, two months after her death, if the people in his life are growing tired of hearing about her. He writes about this in the most ordinary and painful of ways: “I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion and mutual aching to leave, the loss in my life is a chasm I take into town and I don’t want to close it, look at me, death is real…” It’s these details that make A Crow Looked at Me such a powerful and difficult listen, its author in the midst of the worst experience of his life and making us feel it. It’s a travelogue, and its mile markers are simple yet devastating.

The expansive and beautiful “Soria Moria,” written seven months before Genevieve’s death, is the album’s most poetic, giving us a glimpse into life before she was gone. It gives way to the finale, “Crow,” written four months after her death, and it offers a single glimmer of light. Elverum writes of his daughter dreaming of a crow just before one appeared, and it’s a moment that remains meaningful for him, one that helped him get through the pain he details throughout this aching wound of an album.

I wish A Crow Looked at Me did not exist. I wish it didn’t have to. I wish it were not important to live through these hellish experiences, and to talk about them and share them with each other. I have a hard time listening to this, and like Carrie and Lowell, I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to experience. But I’m glad to have it, while at the same time glad to have albums like Carrie and Lowell Live that assure me that this is not the end of the story, that while death is real and grief is like a dark gray cloud covering everything, you can live through it. There is healing, there is hope, there is life.

Buy A Crow Looked at Me here.

Next week, Gorillaz and Jonathan Coulton. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hoping for the Best
On Kendrick Lamar and Giving a Damn

So, Doctor Who is back.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quieter, less momentous start to a season, let alone a season this significant. Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi will bid goodbye at Christmas this year, so this is his last full season. Arguably more importantly, though, showrunner Steven Moffat will also hang up his TARDIS key this year. We have only four more Moffat-penned episodes to go, and since I consider him the best writer the show has ever had, I’m feeling wistful about it.

But despite the winds of change surrounding it, season 36 (or series 10 for those of you who care about the old show-new show division) has sauntered in on a summer breeze. The first two episodes have been almost entirely about the relationship forming between Capaldi’s grumpy yet kind Doctor and Pearl Mackie’s winsome, curious Bill Potts, and it’s a lovely one, to be sure. I adore Mackie, and Bill is a perfect companion for Twelve – after the brutality of last season, he needs someone who can help him see the universe afresh, through new eyes.

This isn’t a new dynamic. It is, in fact, the very engine of the show – the companion revitalizes the Doctor, and the show at the same time. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that dynamic approached in such a gentle way before. Moffat’s opening episode, cheekly titled “The Pilot,” spent most of its running time introducing Bill (and reintroducing the Doctor). It was ages before a plot appeared, and when it did, it was a simpler, more emotional story than I expected.

“Smile,” the second episode, followed suit. Penned by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the story follows the Doctor and Bill as they investigate a seemingly empty settlement on a distant planet in the future. And it’s very quiet. For about 30 of its 45 minutes, Capaldi and Mackie are the only actors on screen, wandering empty halls and looking for clues. The resolution is a lovely anticlimax as well, and it’s clear that so far, the focus here is on these two characters getting to know one another as they travel space and time.

Nothing whatsoever wrong with that, and I’m enjoying the slower pace, the more languid feel, and the trust this show is placing in us to appreciate those things. I expect the show’s heart rate to ramp up soon – there’s a three-parter at the heart of this season, and an intriguing mystery in the background that will no doubt explode all over the place. But for now, Doctor Who season 36 is a quieter, more reflective thing, and that’s a delightful change of pace. It gives us more time to take in the nuances of Capaldi’s performance before he heads off into the sunset.

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Kendrick Lamar may be the greatest rapper alive.

He’ll tell you so, of course, but when Lamar refers to himself as the greatest, it sounds more like an acknowledgement of fact than a boast. More than that, it sounds like an acknowledgement of responsibility. When Lamar speaks now, people hang on his every syllable – more people, perhaps, than Lamar himself ever expected to be paying attention to him. He knows he has influence, and a moral imperative to use that influence wisely.

That’s what To Pimp a Butterfly, his masterpiece of a third album, was all about at its core: Lamar’s struggles with his own responsibility, and his intense efforts to live up to it. He knows he’s an example and an inspiration to poor kids in Compton, his home town, and now to millions of other kids who look up to him, and Butterfly, with its Biblical temptation narratives, its deep probe into the self-image of Black America, and finally, its extended fantasy conversation with Lamar’s idol, Tupac Shakur, explored this from all angles.

I don’t hesitate to say Butterfly is one of the best albums of the past decade, and Lamar’s almost superhuman ability to realize his tightly controlled and intricate vision is one major reason why. That’s why I think he’s the greatest – not just because he’s the fastest and most adept behind the mic, though he very well may be, but because he thinks on grander scales, maps out his albums like novels and trusts his audience to understand. We will still be listening to To Pimp a Butterfly in 20 or 30 years, still parsing it out, still revering it as a milestone.

The same can’t quite be said of its follow-up, Damn, but Lamar’s hallmarks are here. The album has a circular structure, beginning with the rapper’s own death and ending with a story of redemption. It explores Biblical concepts of justice and humility. It speaks directly to Lamar’s Black audience, offering them more insights into his own struggles in the hopes that it will help with theirs. It feels like a Kendrick Lamar album.

I just wish I liked it more. Lamar’s on fire throughout this record, particularly on “DNA,” “Feel” and “Fear,” and there’s no faulting his prowess. But coming off of one of the most complex rap albums ever made, Damn feels thrown together in ways I didn’t expect. It certainly announces itself as more visceral, from the title to the cheap-looking cover, and songs like “Loyalty” don’t feel like they contribute to a larger whole. That wouldn’t bother me if the songs were amazing, but mostly they’re just good.

The production on Damn doesn’t help me to love it. Butterfly’s experiments with jazz and funk are all but gone here, replaced by a pretty average electronic hip-hop sound (thanks to producers like Mike Will Made-It). If the goal of Damn was to show that more typical hip-hop records can be creative and inspiring, it succeeds a good chunk of the time. But I’m not sure why Lamar chose that goal, especially when following up one of the most creative and interesting records of the decade.

It remains a singular treat, though, to hear Lamar dig in on tracks like “XXX,” a mini-epic that features Bono on vocals near the end. Just check out this extraordinary verse: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph, the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives, compulsive disorder, sons and daughters, barricaded blocks and borders, look what you taught us, it’s murder on my street, your street, back streets, Wall Street, corporate offices, banks, employees and bosses with homicidal thoughts, Donald Trump’s in office, we lost Barack, promised to never doubt him again, but is America honest or do we bask in sin?”

Lamar seeds Damn with mirror images sequenced next to each other – a song called “Lust” followed by one called “Love,” for example. It’s no coincidence that “Pride” and “Humble” sound like their opposite, “Humble” crashing in on a strident beat while “Pride” takes a more contemplative tone. It is on “Pride” where Lamar addresses his own arrogance, something he has always been cognizant of: “Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays… I know the walls, they can listen, I wish they could talk back, the hurt becomes repetition, the love almost lost, that sick venom in men and women overcome with pride…”

And as he often does, Lamar ends that verse with a skyward look: “In a perfect world I’ll choose faith over riches, I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison, I’ll take all the religions and put ‘em all in one service just to tell ‘em we ain’t shit but He’s been perfect, world.” That’s just perfection, some of his very best work.

If much of the rest of Damn is intended to remind us of how imperfect the world is, it certainly does that. But there are just too many unconnected, sloppy moments for me to rate this as highly as I would like to. “Loyalty,” just as an example, isn’t a bad song, it’s just average, with lines about working “only for that dollar sign” and “that pussy good, it’s to die for” cluttering it up like stray thoughts. Rihanna’s presence doesn’t elevate things, either. “Love” is typical, as is “God” – these songs could be from anyone, and that they’re from Lamar is disappointing.

Here’s an example of the sloppiness that I keep coming back to. “Fear” is, for most of its running time, a lyrical masterpiece. Lamar revisits his own life at seven, 17, 27 and now at 29, illuminating what he feared most at each age: an abusive father, facing death as part of his gang life in Compton, losing what he’d earned, and not living up to his responsibility as a voice for his people, respectively. It’s stunning, but what keeps tripping me up is the repeated “life’s a bitch, pull them panties to the side” in the chorus. It means nothing there. It feels like a rough draft, like syllables. I can see a possible “I will dominate the world” interpretation, but that doesn’t stick with me. It mars an otherwise tremendous song.

Normally I would not be so picky, would not scour these lyrics like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues to deeper meaning. I would excuse a few less inspiring tracks, and would focus on the good parts of what is, after all, a pretty strong outing. But Lamar has trained me to expect better from him. Butterfly was so intricate, so well-considered and so strong that I’m conditioned now to look for that intricacy, consideration and strength in everything he does. And so much of Damn is so good that the too-often moments of laziness and sloppiness stand out.

Lamar does leave us with a stunner, one that redeems much of what came before it. “Duckworth,” titled after Lamar’s given surname, tells the unlikely yet true story of a fast food clerk and the gangster who made a choice not to kill him. In the kind of twist only real life throws at you, that clerk was Lamar’s father and that gangster grew up to be Anthony Tiffith, the head of Lamar’s label Top Dawg Entertainment. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence, because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be serving life while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight…”

That the album then loops back around to the start, a skit in which Lamar does die of a gunshot wound, only serves to drive the point home. We all have choices, and those choices create ripples in reality, spreading out around us, affecting things we don’t even understand. I love this message, and I wish Lamar had spent more of Damn delivering it. As a raw document of perhaps the world’s greatest rapper doing whatever he damn well pleases, this album is mostly great. It only suffers in comparison to his greatest work. And he doesn’t owe us anything, of course, but now that we know what he’s capable of, it hurts to hear him fall short of that. Damn is fine. It’s good, even. But I was hoping for better than good.

Wow, that’s a lot of words. Next week, either Mount Eerie or Gorillaz. Or both, if I’m feeling particularly ornery. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Don’t Make Them Wait For It
Quiet Company Gives Us the Music Now and Later

Gather round, kids. Let me tell you a story about the good old days.

The way it used to be, an artist would record an album, and then it would take months to put that album through the label process to get it ready for release. There was the manufacturing process (particularly for vinyl) and the publicity run-up, then the first single would drop weeks in advance, and then finally, when you just couldn’t wait anymore, the album would arrive in stores. Yes, actual stores that you had to go to, where you would buy physical things that contained the music you wanted.

I hesitate to say “that’s all changed,” since for the majority of artists I follow, the process hasn’t really evolved. One of the biggest album releases of the month is Humanz, by Gorillaz, and despite the social media-ness of the entire project, it followed the traditional path – album announcement, advance singles, album to drop on April 28. But for an increasing number of artists, that path has proven a little too… well, traditional.

We’re living in the age of the surprise release, which takes the traditional release cycle and eliminates all of the buzz-building that seemed so essential when I was growing up. Artists of a certain stature these days know that the buzz will be created organically by fans – all they need to do is generate excitement by putting the music out there, and the audience will do the rest.

Kendrick Lamar is the latest to drop an album with little advance warning – his Damn was released on Friday, at least digitally – and while advance word has been good, I’m old, so I’m waiting for my local record store to receive a shipment of the shiny plastic discs. So I haven’t heard this yet, but I’m looking forward to it, despite my initial reaction to the unimaginative title, shoddy cover art and underwhelming first single (“Humble”). Lamar made one of the best albums of the last 10 years with To Pimp a Butterfly, so he gets my attention, always and forever. But I’m still not going to buy his record twice just to hear it on the release date. (Next week, I swear.)

For bands and artists not at that level, though, it’s hard to generate the excitement you’d need to justify spending months on an album and dropping it without warning. In fact, it’s often hard to generate the excitement you’d need to justify spending months on an album, full stop. Austin band Quiet Company has decided on a way around that – they’re working on their fifth album, but they’re releasing it in chapters, Celldweller-style, as they complete it. This means we get Taylor Muse’s new songs in bite-sized chunks, and then get to see how they fit together into a full album statement.

The first of these chunks is called It’s Not Attractive and it Changes Nothing, and the title might be longer than the three-song EP itself. But short as it is, it’s so, so worth it. The three songs show off Muse’s range, easing in with the middle-tempo “Celebrity Teeth Poacher” before sucker-punching you with the best rock song of the year so far, “Get Beside Me, Satan.” This thing moves like a high-speed train, Muse spitting out more of his honest wranglings with faith and religion (“We were promised something better, but when it couldn’t be named, we scorched a bit of earth and did it all for the fame, and a comfortable position when eternity came…”) before sliding into a darker, slower section near the end.

The EP concludes with “On Single Moms,” which finds Muse reaching out for love for the first time in a song since the churning breakup music of 2015’s Transgressor. This song is sweet the way QuietCo songs used to be, with ringing horns and lovely lyrics: “And you’ll be free to lean on me, because I am twice as strong as I need to be, and I’ll be true, I’ll be good to you, but only if you really want me to…” Near the song’s end, he repeats “You don’t scare me at all,” and I nearly teared up, so powerful is the moment. (Especially if you’ve been following Muse’s story.)

If you’re only going to give us three songs at a time, those three songs better be very good. It’s Not Attractive and it Changes Nothing is very good, and absolutely justifies purchasing it now, instead of waiting. Listen to it and buy it at QuietCo’s Bandcamp site, and tune in sometime this summer for the second installment.

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John Mayer doesn’t need to parcel out his recording budgets, but he’s taken the same approach with his new album, The Search for Everything. He released eight of these 12 songs in smaller portions – four-song EPs, called Wave One and Wave Two – before compiling the record onto a single CD. Why he did this I have no idea, especially since hearing this music would convince anyone not to buy it. But he did.

Naturally, I waited and bought the full 12-song monstrosity, so my listen was more of a marathon than a sprint. After two albums of acoustic-based music that at least felt more honest, The Search for Everything is Mayer’s return to cheesy, wimpy pop. Here’s the thing that hurts the most: this album is the one on which he finally brought his trio (bass god Pino Palladino and drumming legend Steve Jordan, previously only captured on fiery live records) into the studio with him. And this is the material he gives them.

I have long since given up defending John Mayer from his own work. Live, he’s a monster – he’s a tremendous guitar player, and with Palladino and Jordan backing him up, his shows are often blistering jam sessions. But put him in a studio and all that fire goes away. There are two songs on The Search for Everything with a pulse. One is the opener, the pseudo-soul “Still Feel Like Your Man,” and the other is track three, “Helpless,” which actually features a pretty grand guitar solo. “Still Feel” gives you some idea of the talent Mayer is wasting here. Just listen to Palladino knock himself out on the bass lines. They’re like butter.

The rest of the album – seriously, every other song – is the aural equivalent of drinking milk with a well-balanced dinner. There’s a song called “Emoji of a Wave,” and while that’s ridiculous, you at least expect that it might be interesting. Nope. Total boredom. “Love on the Weekend” is just as bad as it sounds. “Changing” promises that its singer is evolving, but the typical chords and sing-song-y melody put lie to that. It’s “Daughters” redux. There’s an instrumental that isn’t bad, and “Rosie” and “Roll It On Home” take stabs at jazz-pop and country, respectively, and pull them off. But it’s too little too late, and then the sickly string-laden closer “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” completes the dive into the ditch.

It’s my fault, I know, for continuing to buy Mayer’s records. I was heartened by 2012’s Born and Raised, hoping that it had signified a newfound sense of purpose. But he’s squandered all of that with this overcooked and underbaked collection. He’s right back where he was ten years ago, when I was still saying things like “One day he’ll make a great record” and “Listen to him live.” I don’t even have the energy to say that anymore.

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So far we’ve talked about two artists who made sure we could hear their songs early, before the albums were finished. If you want a good example of the opposite tack, of really making us wait for it, there’s Eric Matthews.

You may remember Matthews from “Fanfare,” his 1995 hit and the leadoff track from his debut album, It’s Heavy in Here. “Fanfare” stood out in the ‘90s for its orchestral influence – Matthews’ trumpet led the charge – and that first album followed suit, essentially consisting of a series of chamber music pieces posing as pop songs. He kept that up for three more records and an EP, his songwriting taking on baroque overtones while his instrumentation focused more on bass and guitar. 2006’s Foundation Sounds remains a favorite, Matthews playing nearly every instrument in search of a singular vision.

There’s been a Wikipedia listing for Too Much World, his fifth album, since at least 2010. Matthews announced it in the immediate wake of his fourth, The Imagination Stage, in 2008, and since then, nothing. A couple side projects, including a reunion of his duo Cardinal (with Richard Davies of the Moles), but no news about the album. I expect it’s been sitting in a vault since then, untouched.

But now, thanks to Jeffrey Kotthoff at Lo-Fidelity Records, Too Much World is here. And I have virtually no doubt that this record has been sitting completed for seven or eight years. It’s very much of a piece with Foundation Sounds and The Imagination Stage. Matthews played all the instruments, and wrote a cycle of unfailingly tricky and surprising songs. None of these tracks have easy choruses or follow the usual rules of pop. But if you’re willing to follow Matthews down his particular rabbit hole, they’re fun to puzzle out. The Bowie-esque “Exactly Like Them” is the single for a reason – it’s the only one that shimmies and struts. The rest of these songs are content to unfold in their own time, winding down pathways no one but their author saw coming.

As you might guess, this is up my alley. I’ve always enjoyed Matthews, oblique as he can be, and these 12 tunes do nothing to keep me away. Some of them are downright wonderful, particularly at album’s end: the nightmarish “Your Mom’s at Midnight” gives way to the sweet instrumental “A Quiet Place We Can Go,” and then slides into the piano-driven title track, which ends the record on a surprisingly upbeat note. I’m not sure I can say Too Much World was worth the wait, since it sounds so much like the records he made right before it, and is so obviously part of the same burst of creativity. But as a missing piece of the Eric Matthews story, it fits right in and makes its case nicely. Check it out at his Bandcamp site.

Just a quick plug for Lo-Fidelity, since I’ve been buying from Jeffrey for something like a decade now. This is what he does – he shines a spotlight on albums that would have been lost to the ravages of time, giving them new leases on life. Most recently he remastered and re-released Adam Again’s fantastic Homeboys, a record almost nobody heard on its initial release in 1990, and he’s currently taking pledges for a new remaster of the 77s’ dark and heavy monster Drowning with Land in Sight. Show him some love, if you have some to spare.

Next week, Kendrick, I promise. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Form, It Is Returned To
The New Pornographers and Peter Mulvey Come Back Swinging

Last week’s column was all about artists just doing what they do, establishing a signature sound and riding it out. If I’d heard it in time, I would have included Whiteout Conditions, the seventh album by Canadian don’t-call-us-a-supergroup supergroup The New Pornographers.

Before hearing Whiteout Conditions, I was expecting a bit of a shakeup. While they prefer to be called a collective instead of a supergroup, the New Pornographers initially drew together seven well-known Vancouver-area musicians, most notably chief songwriter A.C. Newman, golden-voiced troubadour Neko Case and Dan Bejar, leader of the constantly-morphing band Destroyer. This lineup has remained relatively stable, and Bejar especially has injected some important mood-shifting diversity with his rougher-edged songs.

Whiteout Conditions is the first New Porn album without Bejar, although Newman insists he has not left the band entirely. It is also the first without founding drummer Kurt Dahle, replaced here by touring drummer Joe Seiders. Case stopped writing songs for the band after their first record, so this means this new album is the first one entirely led by Newman. All eleven songs are his.

In theory, this means Whiteout Conditions should be the band’s most homogenous, monochrome record. In practice, though, what we get is eleven glittering, pulsing pop songs in classic A.C. Newman style, and the final product is remarkably enjoyable. I’d even put this above the last couple – much as I liked Brill Bruisers, the songs on this new one are stronger, solidifying the band’s resurgence after the mediocre Challengers and Together. Case has settled nicely into her role as hired gun singer, and she blends her voice nicely with those of Newman and Kathryn Calder, delivering lovely harmonies. They sound unified here, and it suits them.

All of which would mean less than nothing if Newman hadn’t come up with the goods, but in this album’s new-wave pop-rock grooves, he’s found his. Tunes like “High Ticket Attractions” swagger and shake, the insistent bass thump anchoring flickering keyboards and stabbing bursts of guitar. “Colosseums” bounces along with authority, the title track dances down the lane, beckoning you to follow. “We’ve Been Here Before” offers a glowing interlude that feels like the clouds parting, the three singers harmonizing like angels.

There really isn’t anything here you haven’t heard before from Newman and his band – this is really just them doing what they do. But what they do hasn’t felt this energized, this (to steal an old album title) together in some time. I’m not sure what the circumstances were that led to Whiteout Conditions falling almost entirely under Newman’s purview, but it’s proof that he can deliver, and that the New Pornographers are nowhere near out of gas.

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Newman’s not the only one to pull off a return to form this week.

I’ve been a fan of folk songwriter Peter Mulvey for more than 20 years. His first label, Eastern Front, sent copies of his third album, Rapture, and its companion EP, Goodbye Bob, to the music magazine I worked at after college. It was Mulvey’s voice-and-guitar cover of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” that drew my attention, and his unique approach to the guitar on songs like “If Love is Not Enough” and “On the Way Up” that kept it. I saw him live only once, at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland, Maine, but that was the night he wrote and debuted one of his signature pieces, “The Trouble with Poets.” I’ve been following ever since.

Lately, though, Mulvey’s output has felt strangely spotty to me. I adore Letters from a Flying Machine, his 2009 conceptual piece that includes “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” a song so good he turned it into a TED talk. But covers album The Good Stuff was, you know, good, and 2014’s Silver Ladder felt a little uninspired to me. Mulvey, it seemed to me, needed something to shake him out of his comfort zone and get him thinking about different approaches to songwriting again.

Who better to shake him up than Ani DiFranco? I have no idea how these two connected – probably just orbiting the same troubadour-with-a-guitar circles – but I’m so glad they did. DiFranco produced and played on Mulvey’s terrific new album, Are You Listening, and has released it on her own Righteous Babe Records, hopefully opening up a new audience for him. At least I hope so, because this is an album that deserves to be heard.

Are You Listening was made largely with DiFranco’s backing band – bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, with violin and vocals by Anna Tivel and lots of contributions from the Little Folksinger herself. There’s an energy to it that has been missing from his work lately, a sense of playing out on the edge, of finding these songs on the side of the road and just running with them. The album opens and closes with jaunty vignettes about country life (“Hold me touch me feed me, that’s what my phone always says, it needs me, but I don’t need you, phone,” he sings on opener “D.I.A.”), and in between touches on war, change, loss and the death of Trayvon Martin, just to name a few.

And despite the fact that it jumps from tone to tone, from strummy exuberance to dark lament to spoken word, it holds together beautifully. Standout “Just Before the War” is about memories of more innocent times, taken (like the song’s subject) too soon and too abruptly. “Winter Poem” is just that, a spoken piece about the stories we erase, just by being the biggest and strongest. “Which One Were You,” dedicated to Martin, is an abstract, haunting tone poem that aches with grief. “The Details” is an old-school Mulvey piece, de-tuned guitar and all, about how we cause our own problems.

As much as I love all of that, I’m a huge fan of the way this album ends. “Sebastian” is a hip-shaker, Tivel’s violin shoving the air around while Mulvey half-raps and harmonizes with DiFranco on the catchy chorus. (“How does it make you feel?”) He follows up earlier number “The Last Song” with “The Song After the Last Song,” a simple anthem of hope that builds and builds over its unfolding five minutes to become something truly special. And then he chooses to go out with a bookend, an epilogue: “Still Life” is silly and timeless, a minute-long reminder that we’re all just simple people with simple lives, and that is beautiful.

I’ve been a Mulvey fan for a long, long time, and Are You Listening is easily one of his very best. Taking a gamble and working with DiFranco and her band paid off a hundredfold. I know there is room for records this deep, this insightful, this dedicated to capturing the human experience, and if DiFranco can open her audience up to the magic that is Mulvey at his best, they’ll be enriched. I certainly have been. It’s been a joy to follow this man’s work for the past two decades, through hills and valleys, great records and misfires, like following a real person’s life. Are You Listening is most definitely a great Peter Mulvey record, daring and powerful and grounded while staring at the sky in wonder. Get thee to www.petermulvey.com and buy it.

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That will do it for me this week. Next week, reviews of Kendrick Lamar (if I hear it in time), Quiet Company and others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Doing What You Do
Aimee Mann's Best Imitation of Herself

Sufjan Stevens has just announced the release of Planetarium, his long-in-the-works collaboration with Bryce Dessner, Nico Mulhy and James McAlister. Stevens and his cohorts premiered much of the music from Planetarium live in 2013, and it sounds like nothing he’s done. The first single, “Saturn,” is so outside the realm of anything I’ve heard from Stevens that it feels like exploring space itself.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I love it when artists light out for new territories. Many of my favorite songwriters are also chameleons, shape-shifting from album to album, shedding skin and emerging fully formed as a whole new beast. I love that quality so much, in fact, that I’m going to spend an entire column talking about its exact opposite.

Because there is virtue in consistency, too. There’s value in doing one thing very well for an entire career, especially if you’re the best there is at doing that one thing. For instance, if that one thing you do very well is write sad, perfect songs, and you can do that consistently for more than 30 years, trying on different musical affectations but remaining true to a signature style, then you might be Aimee Mann. But you probably aren’t, because there’s only one Aimee Mann, and she’s amazing.

Over eight prior solo albums (and one swell collaboration with Ted Leo), Mann has written some of the most heart-wrenching tunes I know. She’s wrapped those tunes in orchestration, snarling rock, delicate acoustics and, on 2012’s Charmer, kitschy synths, as if to distract us from the fact that she’s penned the same kind of odes to loneliness and pain her entire life. I don’t even mean that as a criticism – as I said above, she’s pretty much the best there is at writing songs like these, and I will gladly take another 20 albums’ worth of them.

What I admire most about Mental Illness, Mann’s ninth album, is that it signals an embrace of this identity. Where her last few records tried to obscure their sad-sack waltzes with punchy production touches, this one lets them be what they are. Mental Illness is the slowest, saddest, most nakedly emotional album Mann has made in a long time, and she’s risen to the occasion with a set of songs that can proudly stand among her best. Considering this is Aimee Mann we’re talking about, that’s very high praise.

The album is almost too wispy a thing to shoulder such praise. It’s almost entirely acoustic, built on delicate finger-picking and glorious harmonies and occasional shuddering strings. Opener “Goose Snow Cone” sets the tone, if not the bar – it’s a simple thing, gliding by without drawing blood, but it raises the curtain perfectly. The songs get so much better from there, rising up with swaying waltz “Stuck in the Past” and never coming back down. (That bridge is wonderful, its cello line sublime.) “You Never Loved Me” feels the same, but heads off in different directions. How’s this for a sad line: “3,000 miles to sit in a room with a vanishing groom, ‘til it undoes me.” Ugh. Right there.

Mann invited the great Jonathan Coulton to co-write some of the songs on Mental Illness (she’ll return the favor by releasing Coulton’s new rock opera Solid State later this month on her SuperEgo label), and perhaps coincidentally, those are the ones I ended up loving the most. “Rollercoasters” is almost too beautiful to exist, its chorus a delicate fade. I have never heard a more lovely or crushing “please, baby, please” in all my years. “Patient Zero” is one of the few things here that makes use of drummer Jay Bellerose. Here’s another Mann special: “Life is good, you look around and think ‘I’m in the right neighborhood,’ but honey, you just moved in, life is grand, and wouldn’t you like to have it go as planned…”

I can understand people complaining that Mental Illness (and take a second to deal with that title) gets a little same-y, particularly in its back half. But it’s same-y the way Bach concertos are. These are all Aimee Mann songs, all rendered in similar ways, but each one makes a case for itself. The strings and harmonies on “Philly Sinks,” for example, elevate this simple waltz to gorgeous levels, and the clever orchestration on “Simple Fix” is delightfully distinctive. Closer “Poor Judge” is a piano-driven dive into despair: “You might have had some other reason to lead me to the guillotine, but your heart is a poor judge and it harbors an old grudge…”

To say I am in love with this album would be to understate things by an impressive amount. Aimee Mann is one of the best songwriters we have, especially when she feels free to simply be who she is. Mental Illness is the sound of her granting herself that freedom, and the results are stunning. She’s a treasure, and this album is one of her very best, a slow and gentle collapse into the cold and dark, lulling you all the while.

Put it another way: Mental Illness. You’d be mad not to love it.

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Speaking of just doing what they do, here’s the Jesus and Mary Chain.

The big difference here is that it’s been nearly 20 years since the Reid brothers have written and recorded together. Jim and William Reid burst out of the gate in 1985 with a shoegaze-rock classic called Psychocandy. Its juxtaposition of ‘50s rock with snarling, overpowering feedback was a revelation, and it worked so well that they never really did it again. On subsequent records they ditched the shoegaze and turned in simple, repetitive melodic rock. Even their quieter record, Stoned and Dethroned, sounds the same but without amplifiers.

The Jesus and Mary Chain broke up in 1999, and each Reid brother took on other projects. But ten years ago they reunited, and now they’ve just released Damage and Joy, their first record in 19 years. And you know what? It sounds exactly like they did two decades ago. I mean there is literally no change – the songs still siphon their biggest influence from ‘50s pop, the band still plays those songs on overdriven electric guitars, the Reids haven’t changed a lick vocally. They’re exactly the same band.

Whether you like that or not depends on your opinion of everything after Psychocandy. I reservedly like it, but I can’t name a single highlight – the songs are all kind of the same, and are all produced the same way. Which sounds like exactly what I said about Aimee Mann’s record above, but in this case, the songs aren’t as well-crafted and they don’t distinguish themselves. Sky Ferreira and Isobel Campbell put in guest vocal spots, but you wouldn’t be able to tell – they disappear into the record, pummeled by the Jesus and Mary Chain-ness of it all.

And I guess that’s the lesson from consistency. If you really like the Jesus and Mary Chain, enough to be able to tell these 14 songs apart from not only each other but almost everything the Reid brothers have written since their debut, then Damage and Joy will hold untold delights for you. You’ll get exactly what you want from it. I’ve never been their biggest fan. I’ve trudged alongside them, buying their work and feeling unmoved by it, and I get the same emotion from this new one.

As with everything, it comes down to taste: I love what Mann does, and want more of it, but I could have lived without one more Jesus and Mary Chain album that is a carbon copy of the other Jesus and Mary Chain albums. But if this is for you, I hope you love it. Get as much joy from it as you can.

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OK, it’s time for the First Quarter Report. I know, I’m a week late, and while that is partially because last week’s column ran long, it’s also partially because I knew what would, after this week, sit atop the list. Every three months I post a look at my top 10 list in progress – basically, what the list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. And as there are barely ten great records this year so far, I feel pretty confident in this list, with the caveat that I haven’t heard Laura Marling’s new one yet, as well as a few others I know I have to get to.

But for right now, here’s the list:

10. KXM, Scatterbrain.

9. Son Volt, Notes of Blue.

8. Grandaddy, Last Place.

7. Pain of Salvation, In the Passing Light of Day.

6. Ryan Adams, Prisoner.

5. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway.

4. Peter Silberman, Impermanence.

3. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir.

2. Elbow, Little Fictions.

  1. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.

I am 100 percent certain that this will change, and in fact it won’t take long. I hear Kendrick Lamar has a new thing coming next week…

Speaking of next week, I’ll have more reviews on tap. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Life and Death
The Magnetic Fields and Noah Gabriel Get Existential

We lost Chuck Berry this month.

I’ve never been a fan of Elvis Presley, and whenever anyone would ask me who the real king of rock ‘n’ roll is, I wouldn’t hesitate to say Chuck Berry. Seeing Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, the 1987 documentary that chronicles a pair of Berry concerts, was a big moment for me. While there are a lot of musicians who can rightly be called influential, Berry is one of the few whose impact cannot be overstated. I’m paraphrasing my friend Greg Boerner here: If you like rock music, of any stripe, you owe a debt to Chuck Berry. If you play rock music, of any stripe, you owe your career to Chuck Berry.

Believe it or not, Berry has a new album coming out, his first in 38 years. That’s almost as long as I’ve been alive. It was always intended to be his last, but sadly, Berry did not live to see it released. He died at age 90 at his home, leaving behind a legacy so indelible that generations of guitar players carry it on every time they play that fast, exciting sound he pioneered. Hail to the real king of rock ‘n’ roll. May he rest in peace.

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Berry’s death (and long life) offers a good opportunity to reflect on what we leave behind us, and how we deal with the inevitable end. If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I have a particular fascination with final records, particularly those made under the shadow of impending death. Last year gave us two incredible examples of this in David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, both difficult and bold final statements from artistic icons. And I am still captivated by Warren Zevon’s final days, and his final record, The Wind.

In truth, though, any artist’s latest work could be his or her last. Prince, for example, clearly did not intend Hit n Run Phase Two to be his last word, and it certainly isn’t a significant enough piece of his canon to shoulder that weight. Imagine if Johnny Cash’s last album had been Boom Chicka Boom, for example, instead of his extraordinary run of American Recordings. Imagine if Miles Davis had died with You’re Under Arrest, instead of swinging back with Tutu and Aura. Or imagine if he’d finished that final hip-hop-driven album, complete with Prince collaborations, instead of leaving us with the halfway glimpse that is Doo Bop. As Chuck Berry once said, you never can tell.

I wish no ill on Stephin Merritt, but if his new Magnetic Fields opus, 50 Song Memoir, sadly becomes his last, it would be a fine capper to his remarkable career. Merritt is a songwriter’s songwriter, a storyteller of breadth and depth that is much rarer now, certainly, than it used to be. Merritt sits comfortably in the lineage of masters like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, encapsulating full-length novels into the barest few lines and writing love songs that contain whole worlds. He made his name with 69 Love Songs, a monolithic set that explored that much-maligned and yet ever-present form from every angle, and has kept up a steady stream of output (with the Fields and his other projects) since, all of it worth hearing.

But one thing he hasn’t done – in fact, one thing that has made him uncomfortable – until now is autobiography. Merritt is an observer and a tale-spinner, and his songs are rarely about him. 50 Song Memoir has a gimmick that’s just irresistible: Merritt, now 50, has written a song for each year of his life, and collected them on five CDs, one for each decade. It’s as delightful as it is unexpected, and it offers, for the first time, a real window into the man behind the music.

Of course, this is Stephin Merritt we’re talking about, so this isn’t straight “and then this happened” diary entry. It’s more oblique and artful, and Merritt can’t resist looking back at 50 and commenting here and there as well. Musically he incorporates influences from the decades he’s traversing – the ‘60s material brings in some psychedelia, and the ‘80s songs sound like ‘80s songs. But of course, the entire two-and-a-half-hour thing sounds like no one else but Merritt.

50 Song Memoir, then, is a collection of moments, each filtered through Merritt’s particular prism. The early songs are mainly memories – “Judy Garland” left an impression, as did “A Cat Named Dionysus” – but Merritt makes sure to include his conflicting religious impulses at age 9, on a song called “No.” It’s the album’s first stunner, showing how he came to rely on evidence and reject spirituality early. At age 11, Merritt ordered a record called “Hustle ‘76” off of the television, sparking his love of music, which he explores in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life” (age 14) and “How to Play the Synthesizer” (age 16).

And even during his teenage years, he is unsparing with his mother and the succession of boyfriends and stepdads he grew up with. “Happy Beeping” is a frightening tale of abuse from age 17, and it sets up the difficult “Fathers in the Clouds” from age 34, and this couplet: “There’s a lie on my birth certificate, and the other guy would like me to change it, I’ve met each of them twice…” The teenage years are full of music and exploration – dancing to Ultravox on “Foxx and I,” going clubbing on “Danceteria” – while the twenties are full of sex (“Me and Fred and Dave and Ted”) and scraping by (“Haven’t Got a Penny”). The second and third discs here serve as a splendid portrait of what it was like to grow up gay in the ‘80s, with the specter of AIDS hanging over every encounter.

The fourth disc, detailing Merritt’s life from age 31 to 40, is the saddest. It even begins with a song called “I’m Sad,” and it includes a tribute to New York after 9/11 (“Have You Seen It in the Snow”) and a concluding trilogy about an ill-fated romance. (The second entry in that trilogy, “Cold-Blooded Man,” is one of the best songs here, and one of the harshest.) During these years Merritt moves from his beloved New York to Los Angeles, chasing after a boyfriend, and it’s a decision he comes to regret.

Thankfully, the final disc isn’t full of recriminations and regrets. It’s actually the most beautiful of the five, save for the opener, “Quotes,” an unleashed smack at irresponsible journalists. (Only Merritt would rhyme “speech defects” with “homosex” and then continue the word – “uality” – on the next line.) “You Can Never Go Back to New York” finds Merritt returning to his home and finding it wonderfully different, while “Big Enough for Both of Us” finds him falling in love again, and playing on our sense of double entendre to talk about his heart. “I Wish I Had Pictures” could have been the final track, as a 49-year-old Merritt looks back on his life wistfully: “I’m just a singer, it’s only a song, the things I remember are probably wrong, I wish I had pictures of every old day ‘cause all these old memories are fading away…”

But true to perverse form, Merritt chooses to end with “Somebody’s Fetish,” which sums up what he’s learned about love: there’s someone for everyone. “And I, even I, with my wildebeest’s face, my eccentricities and my freedom from grace, even for me has Cupid found a place,” he sings, and somehow he makes even his hangdog vocal style sound giddy here. It’s a quirky, beautiful thing, and it ends this memoir on a hopeful, joyous note.

The question everyone will ask is whether 50 Song Memoir is as good as 69 Love Songs, and I think that’s the wrong question. They’re very different works, despite being twin pillars of the Magnetic Fields catalog. I think 50 Song Memoir is the more significant achievement for this reclusive, reticent artist, giving us an extended look at his own life for the first time, and on his own terms. It’s quite a ride, and by the end you feel like you know Stephin Merritt, finally, as more than just a clever, sad songwriter. That’s worth a million love songs to me. 50 Song Memoir is a treasure, and I’m glad both of us lived long enough to see it happen.

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As Mark Twain once said, though, the trouble with stories is that if you keep them going long enough they always end in death. That’s something my friend Noah Gabriel knows well. He’s dedicated his new album (his tenth!), Dead Reckoning, to an extended reflection on life’s inevitable end, and in the process he’s shed the blues-rock style he’s worked hard to establish, both on his own and with his band, Noah’s Arcade. In its place he’s spun a moody web of subtle sounds, and over 32 minutes those sounds will wrap you up and carry you along.

Dead Reckoning is split into two sides. On the first, Gabriel writes from the perspective of someone on his deathbed, staring down eternity. He does so with his usual straightforward language, and it’s heartbreaking. “Jericho Walls” finds our character wondering if he will weigh down those he’s leaving behind, and on “Temporary State” he curses whatever disease has left him where he is: “God damn this temporary state, each day the hollows they wait, God damn this restless mind of mine, got me doing time…” He wrestles with belief throughout these songs, noting that “everybody’s born destined for the dirt” on “Heavy” but holding out hope on “Invitation”: “If heaven is a promise, I hope it never breaks, I hope to find it open when I reach the gates…”

Death comes on “Damage Been Done,” and it’s tough to listen to: “I hear the beat of the angel’s wings, come to take me home, rest with me here, child, can’t you see the damage been done…” This is Gabriel’s most emotionally resonant material ever, and the 18 minutes of side one play like a single piece, setting a mood and seeing it through. “Heavy” feels like an extended introduction to “Invitation,” and I mean that in the best way – when the drums crash in on the latter track, it feels like a chapter turning, like a journey moving on. And “Damage Been Done” is a powerful, sparse conclusion.

Side two, then, approaches death from the other side, from the point of view of people watching a loved one slip away. “Fast Train” feels somewhat disconnected from the rest, though it provides a two-minute burst of strums and drums that is much needed at the halfway point of this record. But the next three songs explore Gabriel’s theme thoroughly. “Far From Home” finds him wishing he could hold on to his loved ones as they go: “Through worried eyes I watched you try, you gave and I prayed but you couldn’t stay, I gave all my love…” “Midnight Blue” is like a lullaby, but one full of dread and longing: “And we both know the sun, it couldn’t come too soon…”

And “Shine,” the final song (save for a bookending instrumental), hearkens back to the spirituality of the first side, Gabriel’s character recovering from his loved one’s death and promising to make the most of life. “I know there’s something more than living, I know there’s reason for the rhyme, life is love and love is giving, so now I’m giving in to shine…” It’s a hopeful finish to what is basically a half-hour of mourning, and it’s the closest thing here to Gabriel’s usual style – he sounds like he’s coming alive at the end, soaring guitar solos and all. It’s really the best message anyone could take from an album about death – in the words of Warren Zevon, enjoy every sandwich.

You can buy Dead Reckoning from Noah here. Be sure to check out that great cover by Aurora artist Chris Hodge.

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This one ran long, so I’m going to save the First Quarter Report until next time. Speaking of next time, I have Aimee Mann’s new one to talk about, as well as a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

Synthesized, I Want You Synthesized
Behind the Boards with Spoon, Bazan and Anohni

I love synthesizers.

I grew up in the ‘80s, so I appreciate the sound of synthesizers, when used well. I’m the guy who spent at least part of high school listening to Yanni and thinking he was pretty great. (His old stuff is much better than his later material. Yes, I am critically assessing the career of Yanni.) I wasn’t all that interested in Van Halen before “Jump.” I loved the Pet Shop Boys and the Art of Noise and anything with big, blocky keyboard chords. And don’t even get me started on “The Final Countdown,” which was actually considered awesome before Arrested Development got ahold of it.

I play keys, too, and have spent an awfully large percentage of my free time shaping new synth sounds and composing massive electronic music pieces, none of which really deserve to see the light of day. My first keyboard was a Casio SK-200, with tiny keys and an on-board sampler so I could loop my own voice. (Badly.) I made several instrumental albums full of goopy keyboards, and then in my twenties made many, many more, filling hours of tape with sloppily programmed beats and sloppily played keyboard leads right out of bad prog.

The point is, I love them. So it’s never struck me as odd for a rock band (or any band, really) to use them. Incorporating synths has become a bit of a cliché, something bands do when they need new ideas, but to me it’s always sounded natural. For instance, I barely even noticed that the new Spoon album, Hot Thoughts, makes much more use of keys than prior albums by the band. Only by putting this record next to older, more piano-driven ones like Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight did I register just how far they’ve evolved.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise – Hot Thoughts was produced by Dave Fridmann, longtime sound-shaper for the Flaming Lips, who guided OK Go, to name one, through a similar transformation recently. Fridmann loves his synthesizers, and loves that woozy, not-quite-distinct sound he creates. (He tends to overdrive the drums and vocals, and blur everything else.) Hot Thoughts sounds like you’d expect Spoon to sound when filtered through Fridmann’s prism, complete with an increased fascination with synth sounds.

But at its heart, it’s still a Spoon album. Britt Daniel still sports one of the best vocal swaggers since Jagger, and his songs are clap-along gallops. Only a couple tracks here – the six-minute shiver “Pink Up” and the closing saxophone-laden instrumental “Us” – sound like true experiments with form, and feel like Fridmann taking the wheel. The other eight tracks retain that essential Spoon feeling – just check out the slinky groove of “Can I Sit Next to You,” or the welcome return of the piano pounding in the slow burn “Tear it Down.” (And the bass line of “Shotgun” should have its own record deal.)

Hot Thoughts is a subtle enough transformation that it barely registers as one. Spoon makes judicious use of synthesizers, but incorporates them into their own template. They’re enhancements, not replacements for core elements of their sound. More interesting to me is when artists formerly known for guitars or other more organic instruments take the deep dive into cold electronics. That’s when you see how much of their humanity and warmth comes through.

David Bazan is an excellent example. The former Pedro the Lion frontman made his name by playing shambling guitar-driven indie rock, and his first solo albums stuck to that sound, with some electronic embellishments. But with Blanco, his third, he dove in, and his fourth, Care, continues that exploration. There aren’t any organic instruments on Care, as far as I can tell – it’s all computer beats and blipping synth sounds. “Disappearing Ink,” one of two previously released songs here, sounds like a dispatch from 1982, but it works. Bazan’s hangdog voice and melodies complement this instrumentation very well.

And like Spoon, Bazan hasn’t changed what he does, at its core. His songs are still Bazan songs – dark and memorable, filled with turns of phrase that are like twists of a knife. Care is one of his most optimistic, lyrically speaking – it’s full of love songs, albeit realistic ones. “Inner Lives” captures a domestic scene between two people not quite connecting: “Without a word you made coffee for us both, without thinking I sat down and made a joke, the way you laughed at me threw off a little spark, in an instant I remembered who we are…”

“Keep Trying” contains a rare (for Bazan) shaft of light, a sweet tableau (“Isn’t there something that we both like to do? That’s not what I was thinking, but as long as it’s with you…”) in which he admits that “sometimes love isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” but, he repeats, you “keep trying.” On “Make Music” he uses a band as a metaphor for a relationship, and brings that to its full flower on the closer, “The Ballad of Pedro y Blanco,” a beautiful series of letters from one partner to another through their lives. “Dreamin’ on in a hospital bed, I’m holding her hand and kissing her head, kids and grandkids in unison howl, ‘Put down your guitar, go enjoy her right now…’”

Care is another terrific Bazan album, and proof that this transformation into a homespun electronic artist suits what he does very well. The key to its success, though, is that Bazan truly hasn’t changed – the trappings are different, but the songs and sentiments are pure David Bazan, and if he were to play these tunes on guitar, they would sound like his older work.

No, if you want someone who has made a complete transformation, you need to look at Anohni. She was once Antony Hegarty, who sung torch songs and orchestral numbers with a haunting, unforgettable voice. That voice is the only thing connecting her work as Anohni to her past. With last year’s album Hopelessness, she emerged as a powerful electronic artist, and her new EP Paradise continues along that path. In fact, although it is only six songs and 22 minutes, Paradise is a stronger and more complete statement, I think, thanks in part to noisy production by Oneohtrix Point Never.

I remain amazed at how well Anohni’s utterly unique voice works in this setting. Jumping from strings to rapid-fire electronic drums and glittering synthesizers is like time travel for her, and on Paradise, she sounds energized, alive, angry, standing on mountaintops and harnessing lightning. Several of these songs explode into noise, and the darkness of the sound is tangible. “Jesus Will Kill You” is perhaps the darkest, a sustained torrent of rage aimed at our leaders. “Burning people, burning hope, burning planet, all for your wealth, your wealth is predicated on the poverty of others, others must be poor if you’re to be rich…”

“You Are My Enemy” is surprisingly gentle, Anohni’s astounding voice rising above the subtle organ sounds as she sings about being ready to “cast from this world.” The glorious harmonies in the chorus belie the rancor in the lyrics. “Ricochet” is a song about reincarnation – specifically, about how Anohni doesn’t want to be reincarnated, and will be mightily pissed if she is.  Final track “She Doesn’t Mourn her Loss” is an ode to her mother, and one of the saddest and prettiest things she’s ever given us. “She fed me all those years, and now she’s dry as her tears, and I’m asking, ‘Who will remember her if not her children?’”

Anohni’s cocoon-like transformation is so complete that she almost sounds like a completely different artist. This isn’t just a matter of adding synthesizers and tweaking her songwriting. This is a change of artistic outlook, a totally new skin, and it shines. Hopelessness and Paradise are the best work I’ve heard from her, and no matter how sad and dark this material gets, I can’t help but think that she sounds reborn through it.

Of course, while all these kids are finding keytars in their parents’ closets, the boys in Depeche Mode are sitting back and laughing. They’re early adopters of this sound, and are celebrating 37 years together with a new album called Spirit. And it sounds like Depeche Mode, through and through. Slow crawlers built on thumping drums and pulsing keyboard thrums, Dave Gahan’s deep voice (which also hasn’t changed a lick in nearly four decades), songs about liars and false religions and standing up for truth.

In short, it’s a Depeche Mode album, and in a column entirely about reinvention, they’re the counter-argument for consistency. Is it a strong argument? Well, it’s a strong album, though it doesn’t distinguish itself from the last one (or two, or…). I do find it ironic that the second track is called “Where’s the Revolution” (a plea for social change), and it sounds like every Depeche Mode song in recent memory.

Still, I quite like this record, and Depeche Mode in general, if for no other reason than as ongoing inspiration for the younger artists discovering how effective synths can be. But if you want a real revolution, look toward the likes of Bazan and Anohni, ripping up their own rulebooks and blazing new paths.

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the Magnetic Fields trace fifty years in fifty songs. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

It’s Been a Long Time
The Much-Anticipated Returns of Grandaddy and the Shins

This is a column about long-awaited returns, and while I was deciding on that theme, one of them happened.

In fact, it’s the most important of them – Fleet Foxes have ended their six-year exile with a nine-minute song and the announcement of their third album, Crack-Up. And good lord, that song, “Third of May/Odaigahara,” is excellent. Robin Pecknold’s merry men have kept everything I loved about them – the folksy timelessness, the unearthly harmonies, the soul-lifting tunefulness – and indulged in their ambition. Just listen to that propulsive space-rock section in the middle! Crack-Up is out in June, and it feels to me like the difficult third album, which means I’ll probably love it to pieces.

But the fact that Fleet Foxes resurfaced after six long years with a complex slice of folk-prog does lead to some interesting questions about artists going AWOL and what we expect when they come back. Pecknold has been promising new Fleet Foxes music for many of those six years, and you can hear in “Third of May/Odaigahara” just where those years went. Do we look to returning artists’ new music to justify the time they spent away? Do they owe us that time? Do we even deserve an explanation? I know it can feel like we do, but do we?

And I mean, of course we don’t, but I’ll admit to feeling relieved and more on board with this new Fleet Foxes because I can hear the steps forward the band has taken in the past half-decade. I’m one of maybe fifteen people alive who enjoyed Chinese Democracy, partially because the years of work that went into it were audible in every groove of that thing. (Whether it was overworked is another question for another day.) But is it necessary for a band to move ahead by leaps and bounds over a long absence? Or is it enough to just remind you of how good they were, and still are?

Take Grandaddy, for instance. The project of California songwriter Jason Lytle, Grandaddy emerged in the mid-‘90s, but made its mark in 2000 with an excellent second album, The Sophtware Slump. I originally heard that album while working at a record store, and I can still remember first experiencing the long, glorious coda of “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” Lytle and his comrades made two fantastic albums as Grandaddy after that, and called it quits in 2006 with a stunning denouement called Just Like the Fambly Cat.

Eleven years later, Lytle has revived the Grandaddy name for Last Place, the band’s fifth album. In truth, Lytle never went away – he delivered a few strong solo albums and produced records for others, including last year’s Band of Horses effort Why Are You OK. But bringing Grandaddy back isn’t just a matter of enlisting Aaron Burtch to drum on these songs. It’s an aesthetic, a point of view that is distinct from Lytle’s own work. And on Last Place, he ably recaptures not just the sound but the feel of classic Grandaddy. This may be a solo effort under the band name (like Fambly Cat was), but Lytle knows what makes Grandaddy special.

From the first notes of “Way We Won’t,” Last Place is a classic Grandaddy record. The ever-present quarter-note shimmy that propels the best Grandaddy songs is everywhere here, along with the low-tech synths, Lytle’s whispered vocals and the songs about how technology leaves us even more alone. Had this come out right after Sumday it would have fit right in with the band’s catalog. Lytle is cognizant of just how a song like “That’s What You Get for Getting Out of Bed” can and should fit in with the aesthetic he’s established, and a bona fide Grandaddy epic like “This is the Part” feels as comfortable as a well-worn suit.

Is this a good thing? I think so, in this case. It’s been 11 years since we had a Grandaddy record, and all Lytle had to do with Last Place is remind us how much we love and miss this sound. By album’s end, he’s done that and more. He resurrects Jed the Humanoid from Sophtware on “Jed the 4th” (this being the fourth song to bear his name), giving his story a tragic update, and then offers up what might be his best thesis on the mingling of technology and humanity, the piano-driven “A Lost Machine.” “Everything about us is a lost machine,” Lytle sings, his voice cracking and pleading, over and over. It’s beautiful.

And it’s 100 percent Grandaddy. If the goal of Last Place was to remind us that no one, not even Lytle on his own, sounds like Grandaddy, that mission was accomplished. I hope this return is a long-lasting one, and of course next time out I will be listening for growth and ambition, but for now this is exactly what I wanted after more than a decade away.

Perhaps it’s just a function of time. Eleven years is long enough that all I need is a reminder of how wonderful Grandaddy was. But five years – the amount of time between the new Shins album, Heartworms, and the last one – might not be enough to forgive a lackluster effort just because I miss the band. In fact, Heartworms, like Port of Morrow before it, makes me miss the band even more, since virtually nothing I loved about them is in evidence here.

That probably shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Shins effectively broke up after 2007’s delightful Wincing the Night Away. Since then, James Mercer has been offering solo efforts under the band’s name, and they’re decidedly lesser things. The Shins made their mark by merging Brian Wilson-esque melodies with shimmering lo-fi production, and even as their sound grew, the twisting, mesmerizing melodies remained. But when Mercer emerged as the Shins in 2012 with Port of Morrow, the writing had taken a dive into the average, the normal.

That trend continues on Heartworms, an album that sounds as overworked as it does underbaked. The album was written and produced by Mercer, and it is positively overloaded with sounds, mainly goopy synthesizers. The synths aren’t used for effect, as they are on the Grandaddy album, but to fill spaces left empty by the songs. Like the last Shins album, Heartworms sports some of Mercer’s laziest and least exciting songwriting. When one of the highlights is a simple one-four-five bit of blues-country like “Mildenhall,” something’s off.

And honestly, it’s only by comparison that Heartworms suffers. As an average indie-inflected synthesizer pop record, it’s not bad. It just doesn’t live up to the name it’s been released under. There are bits of it I like – the “ba-da, ba-da” bits of “Rubber Ballz,” for example, and the verse melody of “Dead Alive” – but there’s nothing that rises to the level of the band’s first three records. It’s slightly less underwhelming than Morrow, but still underwhelming. The Shins started off by creating Pet Sounds on a shoestring, and now Mercer is giving us the equivalent of Brian Wilson’s first few solo albums. This is his Imagination, a fairly uninspired effort drowned in keyboard sounds.

After five years away, I definitely hoped for more. I’m finding myself questioning why this took five years to make, whereas I was impressed with the sheer amount of work that went into the Fleet Foxes single. It is, of course, silly to expect that Mercer spent all five of those years working on Heartworms, or that Pecknold spent all six years crafting Crack-Up. We don’t deserve to believe that we own that time, or that we’re owed it. We get the music we get. But there’s no way to deny that absence sets expectation.

I’d be more forgiving of Heartworms had it come out three years ago, and I know that’s just my own desire for more and better Shins music. Life is short, time is finite, we’re only going to get to hear so much. That’s really at the core of my excitement over returns and reunions – the sense that I lived to hear this. I want to live to hear it all. I know I won’t, but I still want to. So I will wait however long I am able, and if what I’m given at the end of that wait isn’t enough, I will keep on waiting.

Next week, speaking of time passing, I’ll dive into the Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles