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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Pocket Full of Soul
Surprises from Marc Cohn and Bear Rinehart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

How about another pleasant surprise to round out the week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

I still have problems with Kid A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Missed Again
A Quick Catch-Up From the June Hiatus

So I missed all of June.

I’m not complaining about it. It was the best thing for me, and I’m feeling better and more energized about my writing projects since taking an extended break. But the downside is that I missed the chance to talk about a ton of new music that hit shelves during that month. And it’s not like the flood of new releases has abated – I’ve had plenty to discuss since my return, and will be taking a listen to the new Thom Yorke and Flaming Lips records next week.

But I decided to take this week’s column and spend a few minutes with some of the best records that came out during my hiatus. These quick takes aren’t really going to be in any order – these are just some of the albums that I listened to during my weeks off, and have been listening to since. I have honestly not even taken the time to think about where any of these would rank among the year’s best, though one or two of them might end up in the list. These are all recommended to some degree, though, especially if you are a fan of any of the artists’ previous work.

OK, here we go.

Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells.

I’ve heard this thing probably a dozen times and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I love Esperanza Spalding – I rated her Emily’s D+Evolution the best album of 2016, and saw her live last year just before she released Exposure, her strange sixth album. The music she played on stage, some of which ended up on Spells, was totally out of this world. She uses jazz only as the foundation, the baseline, building off of jazz instrumentation to spin something wholly hers.

12 Little Spells is wholly hers. I honestly don’t know any other musician who could make this record, let alone would make this record. None of this is immediately accessible, the way “Unconditional Love” or “Rest in Pleasure” was. Every song here requires concentration just to follow Spalding’s wild melodies from place to place. Every song is meticulously arranged and complex, showing off just how wide and deep Spalding’s mind is. I love this record, but I don’t feel like I understand it yet.

And that’s OK. Sometimes brilliant music takes time to absorb, and this is absolutely brilliant stuff. Spalding’s bass playing is on point, her voice is vibrant and fully within her control, and her band follows her down each of these rabbit holes with exuberance. Each song is paired with a body part in the liner notes, and Spalding gives you something to ponder with each one, showing just how much thought went into this.

If you want to, you can hear most of this right now – the 12 main “spells” were released online one by one last year, and the four bonus tracks joined them after the album came out in June. I don’t know if there’s a more talented musician working right now, and I hope a few more spins of this record will help me appreciate the wonder I can already tell is there.

Collective Soul, Blood.

Hands up if you thought Collective Soul would still be going in 2019. My hand is down, for the record – I thought they would be a one-hit wonder and fade away quickly. Well, Ed Roland and his merry band showed me. Blood is their tenth album, not counting two live records and an acoustic project, and they show no signs of turning into the ‘90s nostalgia cliché I expected them to.

Far from fading, Blood sounds alive. There’s nothing here the band hasn’t done before – it’s another set of riff-rock with simple melodies – but this is a band that knows what they do, and here they deliver. “Now’s the Time” and “Over Me” bring a strong, crunchy vibe, and closer “Porch Swing” is convincingly folksy. In between these poles Collective Soul just kinda do Collective Soul, and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this.

The Alarm, Sigma.

What, like I’m gonna fail to recommend the Alarm? Never. Sigma is the second official album to come out of the Blood Red Viral Black sessions, and I think it’s the stronger of the two. About half of it is unreleased material (Mike Peters issued two previous collections of recordings from those sessions on the Alarm website), and it’s very good stuff. And the songs drawn from BRVB are excellent, especially “Brighter Than the Sun” and “Love and Understanding.”

Mostly, though, I continue to be surprised and elated at the level of energy Peters and his band still have. This is the new model Alarm – Peters is the only original member, and the band now includes Peters’ wife Jules and his longtime friend James Stevenson of the Cult. But rather than sounding like some in-name-only shadow of itself, this Alarm feels fresh, new, on fire. Peters’ songs are as rousing and raucous as ever, and he keeps trying to write the definitive anthem for our times. He gets close on Sigma, and it doesn’t sound like he’ll ever stop trying.

Baroness, Gold and Grey.

This is quite a thing. Baroness’ second double album will apparently be their final “color series” release, and if you listen to each of these, from Red Album to this one, the progression is simply breathtaking. Gold and Grey is more of a hard rock record than the pummeling metal they started off with, but the songwriting is no less exciting and interesting.

In fact, this might be the band’s most cohesive piece of work, which is remarkable since it is the first without longtime guitarist Pete Adams. Gina Gleason does a fine job as the band heads into more atmospheric territory, and the six instrumental tracks serve to unify the whole thing. I get that some people miss the more aggressive sound the band delivered in its earliest days, but the evolution has been a joy to watch, and Gold and Grey feels like an arrival point. Perfect time to end the series they’re best known for and move on to new creative pastures.

Buddy and Julie Miller, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South.

Husband and wife team Buddy and Julie Miller are legends in their home town of Nashville. Buddy has played with damn near everybody and produced most of them too, and as a songwriter he’s penned work for some of the brightest lights in the Americana scene. Julie is a highly respected singer-songwriter with six acclaimed solo albums to her credit. I love them both individually, but it’s a rare treat when they decide to record together.

And it has been a while – ten years since Written in Chalk, which Julie Miller spent struggling with health issues. You’d never know it listening to this record. It’s another dozen beautiful country-folk songs, all written or co-written by Julie, that find their voices entwining as well as they ever have. Some of these, like “Everything is Your Fault,” feel achingly personal, but all of them feel universal. It’s so nice to have these two back, and I hope we hear more from them in this vein soon.

The Divine Comedy, Office Politics.

I will admit to being a relative newbie to Neil Hannon’s work. I’d heard of his one-man project The Divine Comedy for years, but only recently started dipping into the catalog. So I don’t necessarily have the fullest context in which to place Office Politics, Hannon’s 12th record. But I do know what I like, and I enjoyed nearly every minute of this long, snarky, hilarious collection of songs.

Some of it is just straightforwardly funny, like the privilege anthem “Queuejumper” and the delightful “Norman and Norma.” Some of it is more obscure, like “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company,” which imagines an endlessly repetitive jingle in the style of Glass and Roach. All of Office Politics, though, feels like it comes from the same dry humor and melodic wellspring, and I am down for all of it. I’m still making my way through Hannon’s prodigious output, but this album is proof that whatever spark he has carried with him still burns brightly.

Titus Andronicus, An Obelisk.

I didn’t even bother to review A Productive Cough, Titus’ ponderous snooze of a fifth album. I barely got through it, and concluded that if the best thing on your record is a nine-minute cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” something has gone terribly wrong. Well, it seems like the band agreed with me, because An Obelisk, recorded and released quickly, is something of a corrective.

Mastermind Patrick Stickles went and hired Bob Mould to produce and turned out a short, abrasive punk album. No experiments, no detours, no conceptual underpinning, just 38 minutes of focused, rapid-fire, guitar-fueled energy. As a Titus album, it’s not bad – the sameness of it does wear after a while, but it’s short enough to work, and Stickles and the band sound fully invested. As a course correction, this feels like exactly what Titus needed to do. It puts them back at zero, and I can’t wait to hear the next one, which will undoubtedly fire up the ambition machine once again.

Prince, Originals.

And I can’t fail, here at the end, to mention this one. The second posthumous Prince album is a collection of the man’s versions of songs he wrote for others, and it’s revelatory. You expect some of the hits he wrote for Sheila E. and other proteges, and you get them, but I’m most glad to have Prince’s versions of “Jungle Love” and “Manic Monday,” along with “You’re My Love,” a Kenny Rogers song I had no idea he’d written.

But come on, the real gem here is right at the end. Here, finally, is Prince’s original take on “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song that Sinead O’Connor stripped down and made her own. Prince’s take is bigger and bolder and full of saxophones, and it’s completely different from O’Connor’s, as of course it should be. I can’t say one is better than the other, but thankfully we now have both. The real lesson of this release is just how many well-known songs Prince has written behind the scenes. He truly was one of a kind.

All right, done. That doesn’t fully catch me up, but at least it puts me on record (heh) about eight of the most significant June releases. Next week, as I mentioned, Thom Yorke and the Flaming Lips try to weird us out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Rocking and “Rocking”
On Two New Albums the Choice is Black and White

The name of the new Black Keys album is ‘Let’s Rock’, ironic quotes and all. And I don’t think they could have summed up their aesthetic any better.

It would be tough to call the music made by Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney anything but rock, really. At their best, they traffic in guitar-heavy, blues-influenced tunes with big, familiar-sounding riffs. If you’ve heard “Lo/Hi,” the first single from ‘Let’s Rock’, you know they can sound exactly like ZZ Top at times. There are all kinds of ways to deconstruct it, but at its heart, the Black Keys play rock.

Only they don’t want to get, you know, all “rock” about it. There’s a distance to even their most straightforward music, a sort of winking acknowledgement that, should you feel like none of this is to be taken seriously, they’re right there with you. They’ll rock for you, simplistic lyrics and roadhouse riffage and all, but they’ll also stand in the wings, smoking cigarettes and chuckling at all the rocking.

The end result is a catalog full of a style of music that I don’t know if the band is fully committed to. I mean, they keep doing it, so they must enjoy it. ‘Let’s Rock’ is one of their best, too, a compact 39-minute collection of easy songs that homage the 1970s at just about every turn, but do so effectively. This is welcome after the turgid slog that was 2014’s Turn Blue. It’s also self-produced, marking the end of their four-album association with Danger Mouse, and that also turns out to be a very good thing.

Fans of real, unironic rock will find a lot to love here, from the smoky blues of “Every Little Thing” to the foot-stomping boogie of “Get Yourself Together.” The lyrics are all stupid, but no more stupid than anything Mountain ever did, for example. You can guess the rhymes as they come up, and there are no deeper sentiments on display. (I mean, “On the run, it ain’t no fun being under the gun…”) Which is very rock and roll, come to think of it – it’s always been primal music, staying on the surface.

And you’ll be too busy enjoying the grooves here to care. That ZZ Top beat strikes more than once here, most effectively on “Go,” one of the most convincing slabs of guitar-pop the Keys have given us. (It’s buried at track nine, but don’t miss it.) I’m a fan of the shadows on “Tell Me Lies” and the McCartney-esque sunlight on “Sit Around and Miss You.” The closing “Fire Walk With Me” isn’t the treasure chest of Twin Peaks references I’d hoped, but it is the twelfth good song in a row, and that’s all you can really ask for.

I still think Auerbach and Carney don’t feel this music down to their bones. There’s an element of pastiche, of commentary, of “rocking” instead of rocking. If that matters to you, the Black Keys might never get you where you need them to. If it matters less to you, I will say that ‘Let’s Rock’ is the best record they’ve made in some time, and if that’s enough for you, you should check it out.

* * * * *

One thing you have to say about Jack White: if nothing else, he feels the music he makes. Since emerging on the scene with the White Stripes, he’s delivered album after album of messy, bluesy guitar rock, drawing from a deep river of influences stretching back a hundred years. He’s somehow mastered the art of being reverential while also being irreverent. He’s often working hard to sound like his blues-rock heroes, but he never feels enslaved to their sounds. He makes Jack White music, and though it might take many forms, it always sounds like Jack White.

That’s true even when he’s just one part of a larger whole, as he is in the Raconteurs. Emerging in 2006 on the back of killer single “Steady, As She Goes,” the Raconteurs established themselves as one of White’s most interesting going concerns. The band includes pop maestro Brendan Benson and two members of the Greenhornes, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, and the songs are written democratically, with White and Benson trading off lead vocal duties.

After two records back to back, the Raconteurs took 11 years off, but now they’re back with a pretty swell third album, Help Us Stranger. This one feels a little more off the cuff than their previous efforts (but not nearly as accidental as White’s last solo record, Boarding House Reach), but it still ably shows off how well White and Benson converge. White gives Benson’s melodies a punch, while Benson sweetens White’s rawer edges. The result is a compelling rock album that feels spontaneous but never careens off the rails.

One of the best examples of White and Benson playing to each other’s strengths is the mini-epic “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying).” Its melody feels like pure Benson, its churning chorus riff underpinning the two lead singers as they repeat their frustration and sadness. But then everything stops, a strum begins, and White cranks up the noise for the rousing singalong coda: “I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet…”

Much of this record feels like encouragement in desperate times, like injecting hope into a world gone crazy. The title track is about how we should all help and care for those we don’t know, which seems like an elementary sentiment until you look around and see how much we need that message now. “What’s Yours is Mine” takes aim at the entire idea of personal property, and closer “Thoughts and Prayers,” which I expected to be sarcastic and bitter, is actually dark and pleading: “There’s got to be a better way to contact God and hear her say there are reasons why it is this way…”

Sure, there are throwaway rockers, like “Don’t Bother Me” and “Sunday Driver,” and there’s even one wicked bluesy breakup number (“Now That You’re Gone,” with Benson singing and White wailing on the guitar). But there are some very well considered pieces here as well. “Shine the Light on Me” might be my favorite thing here – over a piano part played by Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age, the Dead Weather), Benson and White harmonize on a Zeppelin-meets-Abbey-Road melody, singing about finding light in the darkest places. All by itself this song justifies bringing the Raconteurs back from the dead.

Even a casual listen will, I think, illuminate the difference between the Black Keys, who stand on the sidelines, and Jack White, who dives right in. Help Us Stranger is another strong, solid effort from this multifaceted talent, and a welcome return for his collaborations with Benson and the rest of the band. It never “rocks,” but it rocks like crazy, and while I don’t mind the former, I vastly prefer the latter.

Next week, a bunch of records I missed during my month off. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Worth Every Day
Bryan Scary's Birds Arrives After Four Years

I love old-fashioned brick-and-mortar record stores.

There is literally nothing I don’t love about them. Browsing for hidden treasures, talking about music with the proprietors and customers, seeing musicians play in-store events, supporting local businesses. All of it is wonderful. We’ve been in this brave new digital world for some time now, but I’m still one of those people who likes to hold the CD or record in his hands and read the liner notes and put new acquisitions on the shelf. Hence, record stores.

I wanted to say all that up front because the albums I have been most excited about lately are not available in those record stores. (At least, not yet.) I have been buying more and more albums online in recent years, paying my money directly to the music makers themselves, and while I feel good about supporting them without any middlemen, I do miss the record store experience every time I do it.

And yet, I also have not found an analogous feeling to the one I get when an album I have pre-ordered shows up in my inbox. The last few Marillion albums have been pre-order affairs, and I have gladly given the band my money a year or more in advance each time. And when the download link is emailed to pledgers like me, long before anyone else gets to hear it, there’s a certain undeniable thrill that comes along with it.

That was certainly the case for Bryan Scary’s wonderful new album Birds. Some background: Bryan Scary is one of our most underrated and undervalued pop maestros. His work is extraordinary, intricate and endlessly inventive, while never being anything less than stuck-in-your-head tuneful. He makes amazing records, manic masterpieces of piano-pounding rock, and his last one, the delightfully goofy Daffy’s Elixir, was mind-blowingly complex in all the best ways. (Will also put in a plug for his band Evil Arrows, which released five pretty excellent EPs.)

So of course when Scary asked me, back in 2015, to pony up for a new album, I did it immediately. I knew nothing about it except the title (Birds) and Scary’s brief description of his plan: a more orchestral and consciously beautiful piece of work. I didn’t need anything else. (I’m basically in for anything Scary wants to do, from now until one of us dies.) What I didn’t know – and what Scary didn’t know either – is that it would take him four years to finish Birds and get it into our hands. The last of those years was marked by near-total silence on Scary’s part, and I nearly forgot all about this record, and that I’d already paid for it.

And then, on June 26, it just… showed up. I think even the neighbors heard my delighted gasp when I read the email, and I may have broken one or two laws of physics to download that thing as quickly as possible. It’s been a couple weeks now and I still can’t get enough of it. Birds is stunning, pitched somewhere between pastoral folk and prog rock with some Supertramp thrown in and a healthy helping of orchestral grandeur. It’s absolutely a Bryan Scary album, but it’s like his Apple Venus Vol. 1, bringing his signature intricate melodicism down new avenues of sound.

This is an album on which every song is a highlight, so singling out individual tracks for praise is difficult. I have no doubt, given the depth and complexity of the production, that he worked on this for the entire four years. I can imagine spending months on “Wendy, Wake the Sparrow” alone, with its fluttering string lines, its leaps from strummy folk to monolithic soundtrack music and its abrupt shifts in sound. It’s followed here by a minute-long instrumental that sounds like Frank Zappa writing for an old west saloon band, and I bet even that took ages to get right.

As you might have guessed from the title, these songs are about birds, at least in a metaphorical sense. The album is bookended by a sprightly thing called “I Saw Birds Flocking,” and the songs have titles like “Seagull,” “Birdy” and “Universal Crane.” “Seagull” is one of my favorites, its tone pure Brian Wilson, its melody indelible. The folksy “Royal Soil” is instantly memorable, its shimmering acoustic guitars constantly moving. I particularly love the stompy midsection that turns it into a jig.

But if you forced me, gun to my head, to pick a favorite here, it would probably be “Loon on the Lake.” It’s the most manic thing here, starting with an insistent beat and the title phrase repeated like a mantra, but then it shifts every few seconds, from raw orchestral craziness to a building piano crescendo to more Brian Wilson-esque prettiness. It finally brings everything home in a dazzling instrumental explosion. I’m gonna study this track over and over to figure out how he did it, and I probably never will.

Birds is incredible, a concentrated burst of melodic pop genius that proves once again that Bryan Scary is playing on a whole different level than most other musicians. I have no doubt that it took all four years to make this thing, and I can’t say it feels like he wasted a day. I honestly don’t know when or how you all will get to hear this – Scary is still working out a wide release – but you should jump at the chance. In the meantime, try out Scary’s previous work. It’s all amazing stuff, and if he asks me to pledge again for another record, I won’t even hesitate.

* * * * *

I didn’t wait nearly as long for the new Appleseed Cast album – just the standard pre-order period – but like Scary’s record, I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since it arrived. The Appleseed Cast is a post-rock-y band from Kansas, of all places, and has been plying its trade since 1996. I like everything they’ve done, but I have a particular affinity for 2001’s double album Low Level Owl, which fully broke them out of their emo roots and into a more sonically fascinating area.

Since then, the band has been walking that line, never quite delving into the ambient beauty of Low Level Owl again, but forging ahead with an aggressive yet dreamy sound. Their ninth album, and their first in six years, sports the gloriously self-serious title The Fleeting Light of Impermanence, but the vast, sweeping music within earns it. Half of these eight songs reach or exceed six minutes, and an epic like “Time the Destroyer” earns every second. That song thunders along on a pulsing synthesizer line and swooping strings, with chiming, crashing guitars breaking like waves all over it.

There isn’t a bad song here, and the whole thing flows, one song into another, like a suite. It’s an intense piece of work, one that demands concentration, but it’s a marvelously rewarding one. My favorite thing here comes late – “Reaching the Forest” is a snowy landscape of synthesizers that explodes at the two minute mark into a Cure-like web of guitars circling galloping drums. It’s just amazing from there, sporting one of the record’s best melodies.

But that’s just one bright spot of many on an album that sweeps me away each time I hear it. I’ve enjoyed the last few Appleseed Cast albums, but this one seems to take a step up somehow. It’s a confident and fully formed thing. There’s been some speculation, given the title of the album and the last song (“Last Words and Final Celebrations”), that this may be the last Appleseed Cast album. I hope this is not the case, but if they choose to go out on this one, I wouldn’t blame them. It’s their best in some time, and record store or no, I’m glad to own it.

Next week, some rock and roll, maybe? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Summer Mourning
Where I've Been for the Entire Month of June

Well. Hello. It’s been a while.

I honestly did not intend to take all of June off from this column. I’ve been writing Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. regularly for almost 19 years, and sometimes I have felt like the momentum of those years is all that has kept carrying it forward. I still enjoy it when I’m doing it, but the desire to sit down and actually do it has waned, if I am being honest. (Also, I’m not sure anyone is reading it, which doesn’t help.)

Still, I’d like to finish out 20 years if I can, and then see how I feel. So I had planned to take my somewhat traditional week off to celebrate my 45th birthday and then jump right back into it. I had ideas for the next three columns, and with the extra week I was looking forward to exploring more complicated records like Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. (Spoiler: It’s really good, but it takes several listens to penetrate.)

And then my beloved cat died.

I will probably not be able to explain this properly to people who don’t own and love pets. I have always had cats – my childhood cat was named Pebbles (because her mother’s name was Marblehead, you see, ha ha) and she was a sweet little creature, especially as she grew older. Ever since then, I’ve been a committed cat person, and the bond that grows between a cat and her human is just indescribable to anyone who hasn’t been through it.

And Shadow was a special cat. She came into my life entirely by accident. I had lost my previous cat, the fiercely loyal Miss Kitty, about a year prior and was still not sure if I wanted another. But then a co-worker’s mother died, and that co-worker begged for help finding a new home for her mom’s cat. And I took a chance. She was named Noirah when I got her, but that felt too exotic for this lovable little black furball. It was my nephew Luke who re-named her: she was a black cat who followed me everywhere, so Shadow seemed to fit.

I had her for four years, and we became good friends. I know that sounds weird to people who don’t have pets, but it’s true. She was a snuggly, affectionate cat, and I couldn’t have asked for a better four-legged companion. But she was old when I took her in, and I knew even then it wouldn’t last long. She had bladder problems for the entire time I knew her, and was on medication and special food. Finally, a week or so before my birthday, she developed a tumor in her bladder that prevented her from using the litter box. (Well, that’s not true. She would go to the litter box and sit there for whole minutes while nothing happened, and leave frustrated. It was the saddest thing.)

Finally she stopped eating and drinking, knowing in that way that cats know that things were not going to get better. My vet told me there was nothing we could do. We put her on pain meds and made her as comfortable as we could. And on June 10, with me petting her and telling her it was OK, she died. It was awful. I am singularly incapable of describing in words how awful it was.

And afterward I kind of stopped everything for a bit. Some of you may know that I have this ongoing daily Star Trek project I do. I stopped that as well. I told myself that these things are mine, and I can stop them if I want to for as long as I want to. So I did. Like I said, I honestly did not expect this mourning period-slash-hiatus to last all month, but it has. Oddly, it took traveling to another country to put my spirits right – I’m writing this in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a hotel that overlooks Lake Geneva. I’m here for work, but just being in this place has felt like healing.

So this is the first tm3am column in a month, the longest break I have ever taken. And I don’t know what the future of this little project is, but I felt inspired to write this re-introductory piece and, hopefully, get back on the weekly horse. I’ve been listening to plenty of great new music – I’m especially excited by the new Bryan Scary, which is finally, finally out, but there’s Buddy and Julie Miller and the Appleseed Cast and the Raconteurs and Baroness and the Divine Comedy, and there’s a new Keane coming. I have plenty to write about. I just need the will to write it.

So I will leave this as a statement of purpose, and I’ll be back to this very soon. Thanks to everyone who sent messages of support. And thanks to Shadow for the last four years. It was an honor being your human.

We will return to your regularly scheduled silly music column shortly. Thank you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles