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.

Under No Obligation
Where Supposed to Love Meets Want to Love

I’m trying to get away from thinking of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. as a review column.

I know, that’s a little silly, since literally all I do in this space is review music. But I’m talking about a different headspace for myself. This project started 22 years (!) ago as a bi-weekly feature in Face Magazine covering contemporary music as it came out. It was a vacuum that needed filling – Face’s excellent staff featured a lot of focus on the classic decades of rock and punk, without lavishing much attention on the new stuff.

Granted, in the late ‘90s a lot of that new stuff was terrible. But I took it upon myself to dutifully cover that stuff, listening to it and giving my take on it. (Once upon a time I wasted some ink on a positive review of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, and I blame the ‘90s the way hippies blame the ‘60s for bell bottoms.) When I left Face and started this version of the column up, I stayed in the same mode, reviewing new music whether or not I liked it, as if it were still my job to do so. And for nearly 19 years I have essentially thought of this thing the same way.

But now, with my stated intention to make this more fun for me, I’m starting to interrogate those impulses. I’ve spent a lot of time responding to high-profile releases (or important lower-profile releases) just because that’s what would be expected of a weekly music column, and that’s time that I have not spent talking about the music I truly love. I’m hoping to address that balance. There is a sense of duty to it for me, still – I waxed ecstatic about Marillion last week, so I should really dip into the records the rest of the world is interested in this week.

Here’s a good case in point, though: I’m tired of talking about the National. Not only are they the darlings of the critical press, they’re well-loved among my friends, and people ask me about them all the time. So I’m kind of forced to find new ways to say “I don’t like them,” and to justify my own disinterest in them. Let’s be clear: I buy every National album, hoping that it will hook me, and that I will finally be able to join in the cultural conversation about them in a positive way.

So I did buy I Am Easy to Find, the band’s eighth record. (As a side note, someone had to remind me that they’ve had seven albums, since I totally forgot about 2017’s Sleep Well Beast.) I’ve heard it four times now, and I’m happy to say it’s my favorite National album. But I still don’t like it much. They’ve worked overtime here to address some of my big issues with their work – the textures and orchestration are lush and beautiful, and Matt Berninger is essentially a featured performer on his own band’s record, his mopey, somnambulant voice bolstered by strong lead spots from Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and others. The rotating lead vocalists give this long record an appealing mixtape feel.

But the songs are still boring, and none of them stick. If I were to review this album, I would right now come up with examples where the elements all work, but the bones are weak. (OK, I’ll name one: “The Pull of You,” which includes vocals by Hannigan and Van Etten, a spoken-word section and some cresting and crashing instrumentation, all of which is in service of a song that repeats four chords for four minutes, with no chorus. It’s superficially interesting, and certainly a nice step forward for the band, but underneath there isn’t anything for me to grab onto.)

I don’t want to, though. I’m still listening to this and trying to love it, because it feels like something I should love. But I don’t, not yet. More than that, though, I feel like it’s something I’m supposed to love, and I’m trying to get beyond that idea. I’ve been trying for years, though, and I’m still susceptible to it. I make myself want to like it, and that only adds to the pressure when I don’t. I Am Easy to Find, while absolutely the best thing I have heard from this band, isn’t working for me as well as I know it is working for other people and other critics. I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.

But I’m even trying to move past the idea of having to review something I’m supposed to like, whether or not I like it. Here’s a really good example: Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. I’ve been watching for her name ever since my friend Javi told me about her, and I’ve liked everything I’ve heard from her. I liked Lizzo even before I heard her records, just for what she represents – she looks nothing like the typical pop star, and instead of hiding it, she flaunts it, saying with every confident move that she knows she is beautiful, and she knows you are too. It’s a look the music industry needs, desperately.

But she’s also pretty awesome, musically speaking. Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s third record, is a 42-minute burst of infectious energy. She has a powerful, bold voice and she matches it with bold songs about life, love and throwing like a girl. This is a record that struts, and every song is exactly as long as it needs to be, handing off to the next in three minutes or so. Flashy banger “Juice” is basically the song of the summer, but I love that it passes the baton to “Soulmate,” an ode to loving yourself that makes me smile every time. (“Woke up in the mirror, like, damn, she’s the one.”)

Basically, I love this record, which means I agree with the cultural zeitgeist for what is probably the first time in a while. Cuz I Love You deserves all the praise I’m lavishing on it – Lizzo makes me swoon for a soulful kiss-off tune like “Jerome,” proves she can hang with Missy Elliott on the clubby “Tempo,” gets sexy on “Lingerie” and leaves us with my favorite song, the effervescent “Water Me,” all with a remarkable energy that never flags. I’m excited to talk about it.

And yet I also feel oddly obligated to talk about it, because of the moment Lizzo is having right now, and I’m working on resisting that feeling. I waited quite a while to talk about it (essentially holding out for the CD release, which came more than a month after the digital release), riding out the hype. Normally when I dig something this much I’m jazzed to share my thoughts, but this time I kind of held back. I’m glad to be on record (ha!) with my love for this thing, especially since I’ve been asked where my review of it is. I’m trying to find the balance between obligation and joy, even when I really like something and could easily add to the chorus of praise.

I know, this is all very strange, and I’m probably the only one who thinks this way. That said, though, I’m glad to have a record to close things out with that a) I quite like and b) nobody is waiting for me to talk about. I’ve been kind of in love with The Head and the Heart since their debut in 2011, and that love only grew when they fully embraced their Fleetwood Mac influences on 2016’s Signs of Light. Their fourth record, Living Mirage, continues in that vein, and it’s similarly lovely.

This record is so sunny and sing-able that I don’t know how anyone could hate it. The Head and the Heart have mastered the art of positivity without treacle – their sentiments should come off as cheesy, but they never do. “People Need a Melody” ought to be so gooey that it collapses, but it soars. Opener “See You Through My Eyes” is exactly what you think it will be – singer Jonathan Russell wishing a loved one could see the beauty he does – but the band makes it work. There’s an organic quality to what they do – pianos, acoustic guitars, down-home harmonies – and this underpins all of their emotional moments, making them click.

I’m still not sure that something like “Honeybee” should work as well as it does, but it does. There are a lot of electronic drum patterns on this record, but somehow they don’t detract from the down-to-earth feel. Even a song called “Running Through Hell” is joyous – it’s simple, and it has a War on Drugs feel, but I like it way more than the National’s attempts at the same kind of thing. Hell, this is a band that ends their record by saying, out loud, “I believe in the glory of music,” and it doesn’t make me gag. It makes me smile.

Living Mirage is another winner from a band that doesn’t get as much attention as I think they should. Absolutely no one has been waiting for my thoughts on this one, which paradoxically makes me much more eager to share them. This is the strange headspace I am living in now, as I try to make this weekly labor of love less labor and more love.

Next week, I may or may not take the week off for my 45th birthday. When I return, though, I’ll talk about the strange and splendid new records from Esperanza Spalding and Brad Mehldau. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

My Marillion Diary
Notes from the Montreal Weekend 2019

Pre-game

I’m writing this from O’Hare International Airport, where I plan to make use of the “international” part of the name. I’m waiting for my flight to Montreal, where I will experience my second Marillion Weekend.

The last time I attended a Weekend was in 2015, and it was one of the best concert-going experiences of my life. Even aside from the music, which I know is divisive (although I am not sure why), a Marillion show is unlike any other, and a Marillion Weekend even more amazing. Over more than 40 years this band has cultivated a fanbase like no other, and to be in a room with them as band and audience feed off of the reciprocal love for one another is an incredible thing. You really have to be there to understand it.

And I will be there. The fans are one reason, but I love this band the way I love very few others. I have tried and failed for decades to explain why at this point. All I know is that the particular combination of things that they do hits my soul in exactly the right way. Yeah, there are all kinds of intellectual reasons why I consider them one of the best bands in the world. They’re without genre, for instance, equally at home with three-minute pop tunes and 20-minute epics and dabbling in just about everything in between, and their musical chops are without peer.

But honestly, none of that explains it. None of that explains why I am planning to board a plane in a couple hours and fly to another country, shacking up with people I have only met once, just to hear them play. I can’t explain it. This thing they do, it just works for me. This weekend I will get to hear them play some of my favorites, from “Ocean Cloud” to “This Strange Engine” to “This Is the 21st Century” to all of Essence, the first disc of their wonderful Happiness is the Road album. I know the contours of this music inside and out, and I am still jumping out of my skin with excitement.

They’re Marillion, and I’m a fan, and I get to hear them three times this weekend in the company of fellow fans. For me, that’s magic. I’m so ready.

Friday night

There is just no explaining the vibe of a Marillion Weekend, but I’m gonna try.

Montreal is a gorgeous city, its old-stone buildings and streets very reminiscent of the parts of France I have been lucky to see. Everyone speaks French and English, but French is preferred. There are dozens of little cafes and shops, and winding little avenues that promise hidden adventures. And this weekend, there are Marillion fans everywhere. It’s like slipping into an alternate universe in which the obscure band I  love is suddenly a household name.

I’m staying this time at a first-floor home one of my traveling companions found on AirBnB, and it feels like an authentic Montreal experience. I mentioned this above, but I’m staying with two people I have only ever met once, at a previous Marillion Weekend, and one person I met just today. This is the kind of instant camaraderie that I have rarely felt with the fans of any band. There’s an immediate connection with fellow Marillion fans, like we’re sharing a secret. That feeling is a rare one, and usually only happens in small doses, but this weekend is like swimming in it.

In defiance of Jeremy Piven’s advice, wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see is encouraged, so that fans can find one another. One of my compatriots tonight wore an original shirt from the 1981 tour, which is pretty amazing, but I also saw a veritable sea of shirts from previous Weekends and the 2016 North American tour. Again, I have to emphasize how surreal this is, to see thousands of people proudly showing off their devotion to a band I have loved in a lonely way for decades. We ate in a corner bar before the show and met probably a dozen fellow fans, just randomly.

L’Olympia is a lovely theater, with a balcony and a tiered floor to make it easier for everyone to see. I will not be able to adequately describe the vibe of love in the room, reflected from band to audience and back, but it’s something to be a part of. Tonight’s opening band was District 97 from Chicago, and I had a few good laughs about the fact that I traveled to another country to see a band from my neighborhood. (They were fine, but maybe not for this audience. They have all the pieces, but I wasn’t a fan of what they built with them.)

OK, so here is what you need to know to understand the music choices for this Marillion Weekend. The band used to have a singer called Fish, but he left in 1988. The “new guy,” Steve Hogarth, joined the band in 1989, which means this year is his 30th anniversary at the helm. So this weekend is basically a guided tour-slash-retrospective of his three decades with the band. Tonight’s show drew from their first four albums with H, as he is known, spanning 1989 to 1995. I knew this going in, because the setlists for other 2019 Weekends had been posted online, but it was fun to be with people who didn’t know, and were pleasantly surprised.

Early H-era Marillion tended to be a little more straightforward, a little more prog-pop, a little more synth-driven than the current stuff. It’s a sound I think of as classic, but some might consider dated. The band faithfully reproduced it tonight, beginning with the long and glorious keyboard intro to “The King of Sunset Town,” which kicks off Seasons End, the first Hogarth-led Marillion album. The soaring melodies and even more soaring lead guitar parts are hallmarks of this era, and I can’t get enough of them.

Tonight I got to see so many older tunes I had never seen live. “The Bell in the Sea” remains incredible, especially the pirate-shanty guitar melodies. Hogarth brought out the MIDI gloves for “The Uninvited Guest,” which was a treat. They played almost all of Holidays in Eden, their most accessible record, including the rarely-performed title track. That album is full of guitar-heavy pop-rock songs which went down like candy. Being part of an audience that not only knows “Cover My Eyes” but sings every word of it is an amazing thing.

Highlights? So many. The snippet of “Montreal” the band played early was one, certainly. I knew we would get this song at some point this weekend, as it has become a staple here, and joining in with the crowd on the line “welcome back to Montreal” was joyous. “Dry Land” was wonderful. Hogarth still sings the living hell out of it. The suite from 1994’s Brave, still one of their most complex and dark records, was phenomenal, especially the beautiful title track, which I had never heard live. And the encore consisted of three upbeat songs from 1995’s Afraid of Sunlight, including “Cannibal Surf Babe,” which was an absolute delight.

The vibe, though. It was the vibe that made this special, and that’s something I have never really experienced anywhere else. This weekend was already worth the money and time, and there are two nights to go. I know what’s coming – I can’t stop myself from peeking at setlists – and I am so very excited. Now, to sleep!

Saturday night

The second day of our tour through the music of Steve Hogarth began with the music of Fish.

As I mentioned above, Marillion’s original singer – a tall, brooding Scotsman named Derek Dick who goes by the moniker Fish – left the band in 1988. Hogarth does occasionally sing songs from the Fish era (four albums dating from 1983 to 1987), but with three decades of extraordinary material with the band, he has no need to rely on the older work. But the fans still love it.

Enter Scripted, a Fish-era tribute band from Montreal, who performed a wonderful two-hour set of the early stuff at a pub named Brutopia this afternoon. Brutopia is one of the strangest pubs I have been in, in terms of layout – there’s a stage that is not visible to about 2/3 of the venue, including an upstairs area that overlooks only part of the performance space. This place fills up pretty quickly, so I was preparing to merely hear Scripted, but as it turns out one of my traveling companions scored us a table right next to the stage. It was an extraordinary bit of luck that turned a pre-concert lark into an unforgettable musical moment.

I’m the guy who loves every era of Marillion, so hearing the Fish-era stuff is always a treat for me, especially since the opportunity to see it live is rare. Scripted is a really good band, and singer Patrick Turcotte puts everything he has into these performances. It was incredible to see him up so close, and to be part of a massive, roiling crowd that knew every word and shouted them along. This never happens – I never get to be part of something like this, with so many people who love the same obscure thing I do, screaming and dancing and going insane. I honestly thought the floor of the bar would buckle under our joyous cacophony. Being right in the middle of it for “Market Square Heroes” and “Incommunicado” is an experience I will never forget.

Of course, that was only act one. Marillion proper gave us an epic set of music tonight, spanning their middle period with Hogarth, from 1997 to 2003. They took from four albums again – This Strange Engine, Dotcom, Anoraknophobia and the amazing Marbles – and mixed up the setlist rather than guiding us through a series of suites. I definitely think it was the right way to go. This set lasted two and a half hours, and a full hour of it was given over to four lengthy songs, interspersed throughout. The ebb and flow was magnificent. They opened with the 15-minute “Interior Lulu,” a song I’d never heard them play, and it set the tone wonderfully.

Honestly, I have never heard this band sound better than they did tonight. I’m still buzzing from being in a room with thousands of people who love this stuff the way I do. We stood right in front of guitarist Steve Rothery while he played some of his best soaring lines – he does them the same way every time, but he puts so much feeling into them that they feel like his first forays. Hogarth took “One Fine Day” to a new level, and the whole band killed it on “An Accidental Man.” And then there was “Ocean Cloud,” my favorite Marillion song. Being part of the five-minute ovation for this number was something special. “Ocean Cloud” is 18 minutes long, and this whole crowd was just INTO IT, every second of it, and they applauded like the band had just played all of their wedding songs. It was soul-lifting.

The encores felt like they were chosen for me – “Estonia,” a song I want played at my funeral, and the incredible “This Is the 21st Century,” followed by a full-on emotional performance of the 15-minute “This Strange Engine.” I could not have asked for better. Seeing Rothery play THAT solo in “Engine” was, as usual, astonishing, and Hogarth put so much of himself into the finale of the song that I thought he would burst. The vibe was even better tonight than it was last night – you could almost literally see the love being passed back and forth between band and crowd, and I was right there in it. Unforgettable.

Tonight’s opening act was Rothery’s daughter, Jennifer, playing songs from an EP she has just released under the name Sylf. Strong, moody songs delivered with a powerful, melodious voice. A really terrific lead-in for one of the best nights of music I have ever treated myself to. And I get to do this again tomorrow. Very much looking forward to wrapping up this journey with the late-period work, but in no way am I looking forward to all of this being over.

Sunday night

It rained here in Montreal today while we were waiting in line at L’Olympia. The experience of thousands of us shivering in the downpour while smiling and getting to know each other sort of summed up this weird third day for me. The setlist was my least favorite of the weekend, but the real Marillion weekend was the friends we made along the way. Or something like that.

And I definitely made new friends this weekend. One of the best things about these get-togethers is that our shared love for a band few others know makes for a ready-made conversation starter. I heard stories from so many people about the various ways they got into this music, from old veterans to newbies. In the rainy line we met a woman who lives in Montreal but had never heard of the band before a few weeks ago. In the venue we met two people from Massachusetts, my old stomping grounds, who had been following the band for years and years.

I think every fan has a favorite era, and the way the songs were organized this weekend felt like an attempt to argue for the strengths of each of those eras. Tonight we got the late-period work, from the band’s last four records: 2007’s Somewhere Else, 2008’s Happiness is the Road, 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made and 2016’s Fuck Everyone and Run. I love all of these records, and if I were to create a setlist that honored them, it would feel very different to the one we got tonight.

That was the slight downfall of night three for me: the band chose to eschew a lot of crowd-pleasers (like “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” or “The Leavers”) in favor of a more downbeat set. It was still great, but it never really approached the greatness of the previous two nights. It didn’t successfully argue for its era like I think it should have. I enjoyed what we got, certainly, and would put tonight’s performance up against 90% of the shows I have seen in my life. But in comparison to the first two nights, it was a bit of a comedown.

I should mention first that there was no opening act today. Instead the band took the stage with their manager, the amazing Lucy Jordache, to answer fan questions. That was a lot of fun. They are genuinely charming and humble folks, and their bond is obvious. Hogarth told a hilarious story about bassist Pete Trewavas’ ill-fated attempt to learn the ukulele, and Lucy brought a few fans on stage to have their photos taken with the group. I enjoyed this semi-intimate peek at the band as people.

I also knew going in that about an hour of this show would be taken up by a full performance of an imperfect yet beautiful and meditative album called Essence. It’s the first half of the Happiness is the Road double record, and long stretches of it are quiet and patient. It’s an album about being lost and finding peace within yourself, and while it never seems to be anyone’s favorite Marillion album, I have always loved it. I expected it to be a transporting live experience, and it wasn’t quite that, though the more joyous second half really worked. The crashing first chords of “Woke Up” brought us out of the quiet with a burst of energy, and the finale, the ten-minute “Happiness is the Road,” had the crowd singing with gusto. What a great moment to be part of.

After that more sedate record I think I expected the band to let it rip, given the coiled-up excitement of a last night at a Marillion Weekend. They didn’t quite do that – “Whatever is Wrong With You” went down very well, but they stuck with some more thoughtful pieces like “Invisible Ink” and “Somewhere Else” when the crowd really wanted to dance. They ended the set proper with a long, slow, sad epic called “The Sky Above the Rain,” and at that point the disconnect between what we wanted and what we were getting felt strong in the room.

But the encores made up for everything. The band found their fire and ripped through a few favorites, including their cover of “Toxic” (which I still maintain is one of the best pop songs of the last 20 years) and the only Fish-era song to see an airing, “Slainte Mhath.” It was so much fun being near the front of that crowd for that song in particular – it has energized and connected these people for more than 30 years. The band showered us in confetti during closer “All One Tonight,” and that was magical.

And then it was over. Afterward hundreds of us stood on a floor covered in bits of colored paper and reminisced about what we’d seen, not wanting this weekend to end. But we’ll take these new friendships and lovely memories with us as we board our separate planes tomorrow. (As a quick side note, 28 countries were represented at this weekend. 28 countries!) Marillion is a band unlike any other, and its fanbase is unique as well. Being a part of it for the last three nights has been amazing. Thank you to everyone I shared this with. Let’s do it again in two years.

Next week, who knows? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Worthy On Their Own
Joy Williams and John Paul White Move On From Their Civil Wars

I had a conversation today about the fact that some of my favorite albums grew from turmoil within the bands that created them.

The most obvious example, of course, is Rumours, in which the members of Fleetwood Mac aired dirty laundry about each other to some of their most indelible grooves. One of my favorites is Keane’s Under the Iron Sea, which is basically a suite of angry letters from pianist Tim Rice-Oxley to singer Tom Chaplin, which Chaplin then had to sing.

And of course, there is the 2013 self-titled record from the Civil Wars. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White announced their breakup almost simultaneously with the release of this album, and people pored over it for clues to their abrupt separation. People wondered if the two of them, both married to other people, were secretly a couple, and whether the darker emotions on their breakup record were drawn from real life. It was like the indie-folk equivalent of reality TV.

Usually I don’t care about this sort of thing, and even in this case, I don’t care very much. But it is tempting to consider Williams and White in parallel, and question whether the songs on their new solo albums, released within weeks of each other, touch on the feelings that led to the end of the Civil Wars. This honestly is not particularly fruitful – it’s speculating about people’s lives, and about stories we may never know, nor have any right to know. But some lingering questions are unavoidable.

But I also think this does both of them a disservice. White and Williams were both accomplished songwriters before they formed a band, and they’re still working that trade now. Both of their new albums are lovely things that clearly were labored over, and should be considered on their own merits. It’s an easy thing to talk about them together, and to wonder if, for example, White’s “Yesterday’s Love” is about Williams, but let’s not do that. Let’s take them one at a time, as the singer-songwriter efforts they are, because they are both very much worth hearing.

White’s album is called The Hurting Kind, and its vintage-looking cover perfectly sets expectations for the music within. This is like a Roy Orbison record, with some classic country balladry enhanced by rich strings. White’s music has always been influenced by this old-timey material, but this is the first time he’s taken the full plunge. “Heart Like a Kite” could easily be a Hank Williams ballad, as could the aforementioned “Yesterday’s Love.” There’s a healthy helping of pedal steel and those twangy electric guitars over loping strums, and White’s clear, strong voice.

I’d put “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” up against the best of his work. This one is full Roy Orbison, and I could honestly hear Roy singing this piece. The chorus soars: “A melody with harmony, soft and sweet, that sounds like what it feels like when you dance with me…” This one will stick with you. On the other end of the spectrum, though just as terrific, is “The Long Way Home,” a dark and strummy rocker that could find a home on country radio.

I don’t know if that’s his aim, though. The Hurting Kind eschews pop country for traditional sounds, as on the sad and pretty “This Isn’t Gonna End Well,” which features a dynamite vocal from Lee Ann Womack. (Speaking of someone immersed in traditional country.) The 6/8 shuffle of “You Lost Me” is pure George Jones. Closer “My Dreams Have All Come True” is in the same time signature, but is totally Roy, with its floating, gorgeous falsetto. This isn’t an album that panders in any way to modern audiences. It’s a celebration of White’s ability to write new songs that sound timeless.

People certainly accused Williams of pandering last time out. 2015’s Venus was a striking piece of work, incorporating electronic elements to bolster her folksy tunes. And there were some corkers on there, particularly “Woman (Oh Mama),” an invigorating feminist anthem. Her new one, Front Porch, is in many ways the musical opposite of Venus – it’s a quiet country-folk record that feels organic from first note to last, and emphasizes her glorious voice. If you like Sara Watkins’ softer material, you will like this.

The subject matter here doesn’t need a lot of speculation: Williams recently split with her husband of 15 years, and many songs on Front Porch directly reference this. “When Does a Heart Move On” is a lament for a broken relationship, and for the strength to move forward. “All I Need” is about finding solace in being alone: “I may not have everything I want, but I’ve got all I need.” “The Trouble With Wanting” is about being drawn to someone even though it’s clearly not going to work. That song has some absolutely breathtaking harmonies from Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids.

This whole album is beautiful, and I hope it catches the ears of people who like, for example, Sarah Jarosz. The instrumentation is sparse – the sweet “No Place Like You” is just Williams and an acoustic guitar – which shines a spotlight on the songwriting, and Williams has stepped up with some stunners. I’m a big fan of “When Creation Was Young,” a new twist on the old “I’ve been loving you forever” trope, and “Preacher’s Daughter” is a pretty tribute to Williams’ father.

And I love that she chose to end this heartache of a record with something sweet and optimistic. The brief “Look How Far We’ve Come” is a ray of sunshine right at the end, a song that sounds a hundred years old but is born from a contemporary belief that things will get better. It leaves me with a smile, and even through all the pain on this record that smile is what has lingered the longest. Front Porch is a superb little record, and it deserves to catapult Joy Williams into the next level of her solo career.

Hell, both of these records are swell, and proof that the Civil Wars may be over, but Williams and White haven’t stopped making tremendous music that deserves our attention. I have no idea whether any lingering feelings about their collaboration made their way into the corners of these tunes, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Both White and Williams are strong songwriters who deserve success on their own terms, and their names should be as well-known as that of their former band.

Next week I will be in Montreal for the 2019 Marillion Weekend. I plan to keep a diary of each night’s show and bore you to tears with it next Tuesday. After that it’s back to your regularly scheduled review column with the National, the Head and the Heart, Eperanza Spalding and Lizzo, to name a few. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook atwww.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Time in a Bottle
New Albums by Vampire Weekend and Unwed Sailor are Worth the Wait

As I get older, time seems to be speeding up.

In about a month, I will be 45 years old, and I can’t tell you where the last ten or so of those years went. They passed in a blur. I know I lived each day, hour by hour, but looking back those years feel like one of those montages in ‘80s movies, where months of training for some athletic event/military action zip by in minutes. We’re almost halfway through 2019, and I don’t know what happened. It was January, then I blinked, now it’s May. My nephews, who were born only weeks ago, have both had birthdays. They are seven and five now. Blink.

The bright side of this phenomenon is that it makes waiting for pop cultural events a lot easier. I know the seven months between now and the next Star Wars movie will pass like nothing, for instance. The Good Place will not return to our screens until the fall, and Doctor Who is off the air until 2020, but I know that I won’t even feel all that time go by. Next weekend I am heading to Montreal to experience my second Marillion weekend, and it feels like only a few weeks ago when I experienced my first, in 2015.

All that to say that we waited six years for the new Vampire Weekend, but I certainly didn’t feel those years. I realize that is a long time, and if you’d asked me anytime in those six years if I was anticipating a new VW record, I would have said yes. But now it’s here, and the wait for it doesn’t seem all that long to me. I really enjoyed their last one, Modern Vampires of the City, and have been worrying a bit about this new one – the band is entirely Ezra Koenig’s now, after co-conspirator Rostam Batmanglij made his exit in 2016.

But now that I am listening to the breezy, well-crafted Father of the Bride, Koenig’s first foray steering the Vampire Weekend ship, all that worry was for nothing. Koenig has turned in a varied, unfailingly interesting ride here, generously padded out with 18 songs yet still coming in at under an hour. I probably should have expected this, but Rostam’s absence has led to a more spacious, organic Vampire Weekend – there are definitely still keyboards and samples, but they are fewer and more subtle.

The focus here is on straightforward, catchy tunes. There’s nothing as tricky as the multiple time shifts of “Bryn,” for instance – the songs Koenig has written here are more basic, with some classic country influences – but the album as a whole takes you enough places that it’s never boring. These songs are all fairly short – the longest, “Harmony Hall,” just breaks five minutes, and several stay south of two – and the effect is like listening to a suite that keeps changing. The production is remarkably varied, too, from the Patsy Cline-style crooning of opener “Hold You Now” to the Eels-like electronic patchwork of “How Long.”

Some of that diverse sound can be attributed to Koenig’s collaborators here, including Dave Macklovitch of electro-funkers Chromeo on several songs, and Danielle Haim, who provides lead vocals on three tracks. This whole record has a come-in-and-let’s-try-this feel to it, but the finished product doesn’t feel ramshackle or pieced together. It’s more of an appealing looseness – a song like “Married in a Gold Rush” has the feeling of having been written and recorded in an afternoon, and its segue into the more carefully crafted “My Mistake” is seamless.

As you can maybe tell by some of the song titles, while this album is bright and sunny musically, it’s lyrics are darker and full of loss. The last verse of “Harmony Hall” sums up a lot of this record: “Anger wants a voice, voices wanna sing, singers harmonize ‘til you can’t hear anything, I thought that I was free from all that questioning, but every time a problem ends another one begins.” Father of the Bride is largely about those questions and problems, and when the lyrics and music match up, as on the joyous “We Belong Together,” it feels surprisingly well earned.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Father of the Bride, but Koenig came through. This is a truly swell record, from start to finish. It’s a new model Vampire Weekend, less steeped in African guitar and percussion (although that is certainly present – check out the elastic “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon”) and more in American pop, but this new VW is just as enjoyable as they’ve ever been. If it took six years to land on this approach and these songs, they were six years well spent.

It’s been an even longer wait for a new Unwed Sailor album, but far fewer people have been counting the days for that one. As one of those people, though, I have to say I’ve been anticipating this one more than the Vampire Weekend, partially because I had no doubt it would be awesome.

And it is. Heavy Age is the first new long-player from this instrumental outfit since 2008, and in contrast to stylistic detours like The Marionette and the Music Box and The White Ox, this one hits like fire. Bassist Jonathan Ford is Unwed Sailor, but here he’s leading a quartet that includes a guitarist and two drummers, and the sound is as widescreen and pulsing as they have ever been.

I’m not even sure what to compare this to. Explosions in the Sky without a trace of metal? A wordless Cure in full rock mode? What I can tell you is that these are songs, not jams – they barrel forward with a remarkable sense of purpose, and they don’t waste a second. Something like “Moon Coin” has verses and a chorus, even though there are no vocals – Dave Swatzell’s guitar swirls and soars as the band surges forward and draws back around him. (This is a song with both drummers playing, one in each speaker, and the effect is pretty great.)

There are quieter pieces, like the fragile, gorgeous “Nova,” but mainly Heavy Age seeks to sculpt with energy, and it succeeds brilliantly. For those who have never heard Unwed Sailor, this is a great record to start with. For those who, like me, have been waiting for their return, it’s a mighty and glorious one. Hear their stuff and buy it here: https://unwedsailor.bandcamp.com.

Next week, the two members of the Civil Wars return with solo records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

April Showers Part Two
A Rocker, Two Crooners, a Noise Band and an Enigma

Every new Starflyer 59 album feels like a gift.

It’s been 25 years since Jason Martin wrote “Blue Collar Love,” the opening track on SF59’s astonishing debut album. This is a fact Martin reminds us of on Young in My Head, his band’s 15th (!) long-player, and each time I hear that line, it pulls me up short. I vividly remember discovering the first Starflyer album after stumbling across their entry on a Steve Taylor tribute, and getting lost inside it. The record with the solid silver cover is still a favorite – each time I play it, I forget how thick and powerful those guitar sounds are, and I’m blown away anew.

Martin has taken SF59 through several phases, moving away from the sludgy shoegaze of his earlier records into a more keyboard-driven indie-pop period with stopovers in new wave and straight-up rock. Latter-day Starflyer has been a mix of rock and Cure-like textures, and the new one is no exception. Jason Martin can really write a song, though, and after a quick sojourn with David Bazan in Lo Tom, he’s back here with ten more of them, each one a winner.

True to its title, Young in My Head is about growing old. He begins the album asking “Hey, Are You Listening,” which is a legitimate question 25 years in, and then gives us song after song about life passing by, and about disappointment and despair. In “Cry” he seemingly tries to outrun death: “Now I see it coming, coming behind my back, so I just started running, running to make it last…” “Remind Me,” the song with the “Blue Collar Love” reference, finds Martin lamenting that his time is over: “I had my turn, stayed longer than most, longer than I should have…”

All of this feels like Martin telling us that Young in My Head is the last Starflyer album. But given how good it is, I sincerely hope that isn’t the case. There’s a lot on this album about hanging it up and just being with family – Martin’s 16-year-old son Charlie plays drums on this record – and I would never begrudge him that, if that’s what he wants. But as I listen to the ins and outs of this thing, especially a masterpiece like “Wicked Trick,” I can’t help thinking that the world would be much poorer without new Starflyer 59 records every few years. I hope this isn’t the end, but if it is, it’s a strong last chapter.

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The cover of Jonatha Brooke’s new EP, Imposter, is garish and ridiculous. I hope it sells some copies for her, because the music contained within is her usual wonderful chamber-pop.

This one’s a bit more chamber than usual, too, with a bunch of orchestral players pitching in on strings, horns and flute. You can hear this right away on the title track, as it opens with accordion and violin and its chorus is punctuated with muted trumpets. The song is exactly the kind of melodic beauty that made me fall in love with Brooke in the first place, back in the ‘90s, and I’m so glad she’s still here, doing her thing.

The other four songs are similarly wonderful. “Fire” is a come-and-get-it female anthem with some tongue-twister verses that she handles with ease. “Twilight” brings the flutes in to join the strings on a sweeping acoustic piece about human failings: “I love you, not perfectly, not well, but I love you…” “Revenge” is quieter and happier than its title might indicate, its narrator content to let her rival get the last laugh.

Closer “True to You,” written with the late Joe Sample, is the biggest surprise: an honest-to-God gospel song. Brooke sings it with all her heart, and it’s achingly beautiful. It’s the first one of its kind in her catalog, and she handles this style brilliantly. This is the first album she has made with a grant – she thanks the McKnight Foundation for making the album possible – and I sincerely hope that whatever financial hoops she has to jump through (including crowdfunding, for which I would gladly contribute), Jonatha Brooke keeps making music. She’s wonderful.

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From someone I have loved for 20-plus years to someone I have just discovered.

Natalie Mering records under the name Weyes Blood (it’s a play on “wise blood”), and she’s just released her fourth album. I’m working on getting the previous three, because her new one, Titanic Rising, really does it for me. Her voice has an Aimee Mann quality, her songs have a timeless feel, her album has a grandiose sheen with some delightful ‘70s soft-rock touches. Songs like “Everyday” are right out of Carole King’s playbook.

That’s a lot of references, but then, this is an album about nostalgia. It is inspired not by the actual Titanic, but by Mering’s memories of seeing the movie Titanic in the ‘90s. (She’s 30, so she would have been eight when the movie came out.) “Movies” is the one song that makes this plain, but much of Titanic Rising is about living on a fault line, as she sings in “Something to Believe.” It’s about trying to find love and life knowing that at any time an iceberg could tear it all away.

Yeah, that’s pretty melodramatic, and the album lives up. Most of these songs are piano ballads with big orchestration, there’s an instrumental interlude and a reprise at the end, and songs like the aforementioned “Movies” take their time, building slowly, wave after wave. But this is melodrama that gets under your skin, that feels genuine, that has been lived through. A song like “Picture Me Better” comes from the soul, and there’s no disguising that.

I’m glad to have found Mering and her work, and I’ll be keeping up from now on. Titanic Rising is a strange record, but a lovely one, and I’m finding more to appreciate about it each time I listen.

* * * * *

In my first draft of this review, I opined that Weyes Blood is at the exact opposite end of the musical spectrum from Sunn O))). But that’s not really true.

I don’t mean to imply that they sound alike – they don’t, at all. But both Natalie Mering and the two core members of Sunn O))) use broad canvases to create massive emotional music. The emotions aren’t even all that different – Sunn O))) music conveys a sense of living under a shadow, of something bigger than we can comprehend coming to change everything. In Mering’s case it’s an iceberg, in Sunn O)))’s case, it sounds to me like a dying star.

Their eighth album is called Life Metal, and I love that title. It’s a nice swipe at death metal, and an indication of their intentions: to make something brighter and less doom-y while keeping the Sunn O))) sound intact. That sound features guitars that sound bigger than anything you’ve ever heard, and a complete disregard for rhythm and melody, and those elements are still here. But they’ve enlisted cellists and vocalists and synth players to fill this out and give it more of an energized feel.

I think I might have been expecting a greater departure from this thing, but the changes they have made are more textural than alchemical. Life Metal contains four long drones, the longest, “Novae,” coming in at more than 25 minutes, and the always-mighty guitars are at the center. It’s engrossing, wrapping you up in a rarely-changing river of sound. I understand this is just the first of two Steve Albini-recorded albums coming this year, and if the second one is more of the same, I won’t be surprised. Sunn O))) has done the thing they do very well for 20 years now, and Life Metal is another sterling example of it.

* * * * *

I’ve been listening to all of the above, but if you asked me to pick the one record I’ve been obsessed with lately, it’s Jandek’s The Ray.

I’ve mentioned Jandek a few times here in the past, and I’m gearing up to write a full-on examination of all of his work, since I find it endlessly fascinating. Jandek is a limited musician with no limits – he isn’t trained, he has developed his own style based on not really being able to play instruments with any classical ability, but he’s produced one of the most expansive and artistically restless catalogs I’ve ever encountered. That catalog numbers 94 albums now, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Thirty-eight of those albums are live recordings, performed with a variety of musicians around the world. The Representative from Corwood (we believe the man at the center of the Jandek project is named Sterling Smith, but there has been no official confirmation of that) surrounds himself with people willing to roll with his improvisational vibe, and I’ve been deeply impressed with his willingness to try various musical guises. We’ve had country Jandek, jazz Jandek, disco Jandek, funk Jandek, incredibly loud noise-rock Jandek and folksy Jandek, and I know he’s Jandeked up other styles in concerts that haven’t been released on CD yet.

For five years, this is all we’ve been getting. Jandek released 17 live albums between 2015 and 2019, and considering that this is a guy who recorded for 26 years without playing live or giving any interviews, that’s shocking. I’d resigned myself to never hearing another Jandek studio album again, which of course means he surprised me with one.

I’ve never been much for the mystery of Jandek – I think the music is fascinating enough on its own – but the sudden appearance of The Ray set me thinking. When I buy an album these days, I know a lot about it, usually. I’ll know the track listing, the length of the record, usually the length of the songs, who produced the album, who plays on it, and generally what I should expect from it. Normally I’ll have heard one or two songs and read a review or two. Not so with Jandek releases. He still runs his own label and website, and when I buy a new Jandek record, especially a studio one, I only know the title and what the cover looks like. That’s it. There’s an excitement that comes along with having no idea what you’re about to get, and Jandek is the only artist who truly delivers that for me right now.

What does The Ray sound like? It’s a single hour-long track that I have been describing as an acid-rock nightmare. There are drums and bass and at least two guitars. The song is a thick, slow dirge, performed as if the players were all in separate rooms. (My theory is that this one is entirely the Rep, oberdubbing himself.) Atop all of this, the Rep intones a poem about love and loss in his inimitable, atonal style. I wouldn’t call it chaotic, but it does feel like disparate parts forming a weird tunnel of sound. I’ve made it all the way through once, and I’m not sure when I will have the time and patience to do so again.

But it’s utterly fascinating. I know of no one else who would make a record like this one. I’m not even sure making a record like this one is anything to aspire to. But I remain happy to have found the one person on the planet who would make a record like this one, and who continues, against all reason, to create this stuff and share it with the world.

* * * * *

That’s it for this week, and for April. Next week, something much shorter. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

April Showers Part One
Three Solo Artists, Two Bands and a Boatload of New Music

I owe Javi Terrazas for getting me into Anderson Paak.

Truth be told, Javi is my in for most modern R&B, since I don’t have my finger on the pulse of that world. I heard of Lizzo years before the moment she’s having now, for instance, thanks to Javi. He was singing the praises of Tierra Whack before anyone else I know. And three years ago, Javi urged me to try an album called Malibu by a then-unknown Paak. So I did, and I really enjoyed it.

I think what I like best about Paak is his equal commitment to two musical worlds. At his best – and he is at his best on most of his just-released fourth album, Ventura – he marries hip-hop with old-school soul without succumbing to the temptation to mess with either sound. What we have here is straight out of Motown, horns and strings included, with modern touches confined to their own spaces. The grooves here are so 1960s and 1970s, and the hybrid he generates sounds entirely new without sacrificing any of the vintage feel. (I mean, not many albums can sequence guest spots by Andre 3000 and Smokey Robinson back to back seamlessly.)

Ventura is a looser, airier record than his fussier third, Oxnard, and I like this one quite a bit more. The first four songs here represent one of my favorite opening salvos on any album yet this year – the grooves on “Reachin’ 2 Much” and “Make it Better” are sweet delights. “Yada Yada” takes a Lil’ Stevie Wonder vibe and turns it into a swear-y half-rapped rant, with a quick stop-off to enforce a climate-conscious message. “King James” just kills, dropping its justice-minded verses over a superb funk beat. The hip-hop influences come to the fore during the album’s back half, but Paak never loses his focus on organic, soulful instrumentation.

There isn’t much about Ventura I don’t love. It vies with Malibu as Paak’s best, and hopefully will draw some much-deserved attention. It’s a compact 39:36, and each time when it ends (with the killer horn-driven “What Can We Do”), it leaves me wanting more. That’s always the mark of a good record to me, and of an artist to watch.

* * * * *

Bruce Hornsby has been one of my piano-playing idols since I first heard “The Way it Is,” his ubiquitous hit single from 1986.

As is my way, I’ve followed him since then, while the rest of the world seems to have forgotten him, aside from that one song. If this is you – if, when I said Hornsby’s name, you sang the piano figure to “The Way it Is” in your head – I’m here to tell you that you’ve missed a lot. Hornsby’s musical evolution has been amazing to watch, and as he gave us jazz-pop and electronic folk and jam-band workouts and bluegrass and even straight-up jazz, he grew into one of the musicians I most look forward to hearing from.

His unpredictable career continues with Absolute Zero, his eleventh album (not counting collaborations) and his first without the Noisemakers since 1998. I never know what to expect, but I don’t think I could have predicted what he’s given us this time. This record is downright weird, mixing up a lot of Hornsby’s previous work into a strange goulash of pianos, strings, electronic beats and odd arrangements. Oh, and Justin Vernon is on it, too, much to the surprise of people like me who would never have imagined those two together.

But here they are, trading verses on the meandering “Cast-Off” while Hornsby plays his signature chord voicings and sings about being a discarded chew toy. That’s just one of the strange moments on an album full of them, as Hornsby revels in full creative freedom. Listen to the joy in his playing on the mathematically complex “Fractals.” Just check out “Voyager One,” with its stunning horn and string arrangement courtesy of yMusic. Listen to the dusty weirdness of “Echolocation,” on which Hornsby plays dulcimer.

It took me a few listens to even figure out what Hornsby was trying to do on this record. I’ve found it an enjoyable listen since then, even though it still keeps me at arm’s length here and there. I love the theatrical flurry of “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” though, and have been singing along with the anthemic closer “Take You There” on my last few listens. I like that Absolute Zero is difficult. I like that it’s taking me time to absorb it. It’s further proof that Hornsby is a remarkably creative musician, one willing to take risks no matter the reward.

* * * * *

Speaking of taking risks, here’s Norah Jones.

Jones was originally typecast as a piano-playing singer of jazz standards and soft-focus pop, thanks to the smashing success of her debut album Come Away With Me in 2002. It took her a while to break out of that mold, but ten years later, on an album called Little Broken Hearts, she did. Now she seems to be jumping back and forth between playing it safe and striking out without a net, and I tend to like her riskier material better.

Which is why I am definitely digging Begin Again, her seventh record. Ostensibly a compilation of singles, Begin Again documents seven collaborations with other artists, most of which fall outside Jones’ usual purview. Opener “My Heart is Full” finds her working with Thomas Bartlett, otherwise known as Doveman, on a chant-like piece that floats on an ocean of electronic sounds. The title track reminds me of Hornsby, with its slinky jazz beat courtesy of celebrated drummer Brian Blade.

She co-writes two songs with Jeff Tweedy, one of them featuring his son Spencer on drums, and they’re stark folk pieces. “A Song With No Name” is a lazy ramble, but Jones’ heavily reverbed voice makes it work, and “Wintertime” is a jazzier thing that makes me believe I might like Wilco more with someone else singing. It is “Uh Oh,” her second collaboration with Bartlett, that truly stretches her style, with a breakbeat and lots of dissonant keyboard noises.

Overall Begin Again is another nice departure for Jones, providing new contexts for her gorgeous voice. I hope at some point she takes this ball and runs with it, committing to a more challenging and interesting career. But even if she heads back to standardsville next time, I’ll be there.

* * * * *

I saw someone ask the other day whether the Chemical Brothers had even made music beyond 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, and if so, why? I hope it’s not news to people reading this that the answers are yes, and because their work has been almost uniformly excellent.

If you don’t include DJ mix record Brothers Gonna Work It Out or their score to Hanna, the just-released No Geography is the ninth Chemical Brothers album. In the 21 years since Dig Your Own Hole Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have taken their beat-heavy style through the realms of psychedelica, produced superb collaborations with Beth Orton and Richard Ashcroft and delivered one mesmerizing electro-rock journey after another. They’ve expanded and refined what they do, sticking with the core of it – big beats and bass lines surrounded by sounds that fold space and time around you.

No Geography finds them doing what they do, which is basically soundtracking late-night drives between galaxies. There aren’t a lot of surprises here, just ten more danceable excursions into other realms. But this doesn’t need to be surprising to be enjoyable, and it is, from first note to last. I’m a big fan of the opening three-part suite that ends with the title track, and of the loping groove of “The Universe Sent Me,” with vocals by someone named Aurora. “We’ve Got to Try” is a soulful anthem, while closer “Catch Me I’m Falling” repurposes Snowbird’s “Bears on My Trail” to wonderful effect.

If you’ve kept up with the Chemical Brothers, the quality of No Geography won’t be a shock. If you haven’t, this is as good a place to start catching up as any. They still ply the same trade, but with nearly 25 years under their belts, they’ve gotten quite a bit better at it. “Block Rockin’ Beats” fans should check it out.

* * * * *

Finally, I owe Chris Prunckle for turning me on to the Yawpers.

A three-piece from Denver, the Yawpers play a wildly energetic form of country-inflected rock, like a punk version of Uncle Tupelo. Chris, who writes and draws a comic strip review column called Wannabe, named the Yawpers’ third album Boy in a Well his favorite of 2017, so I had to check it out. And it’s really good, a conceptual piece about… well, a boy in a well, delivered with undeniable passion.

Their fourth, Human Question, is even better. My lord, this thing rocks. The band comes out swinging on the runaway train that is “Child of Mercy” and rarely lets up. The electric guitars are off the leash here, bursting out of the speakers to light your hair on fire, and the rhythm section propels this along at high speed. When things do calm down a little, it’s like cool water on a hot day. But of course they never calm down for long.

I don’t know if this is the first existential country-punk record, but Human Question tackles themes of suffering and hard-won hope. The title track asks “what can we hold up beneath an empty sky,” and there’s a novel in that one line alone. The absolutely killer “Earn Your Heaven” begins with these lines: “My head is empty, the center cannot hold, I’m studying solitude and I’m the only one enrolled.” These are songs of struggle, both internal and external, and when a quieter song of reliance like “Carry Me” comes along, it earns its grace notes. The record ends with the thoughtful, hopeful “Where the Winters End,” which feels like shaking off a lot of what has come before.

“Thoughtful” is a good word for what the Yawpers do. Their songs are generally simple things, musically, but they have a lot on their minds, so when you’re done being blown backwards by their sheer ferocity, there’s still quite a bit to dig into. I’m still doing that digging, but on first listens the Yawpers have impressed me again. Hear and buy their stuff here.

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Next week, more music! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Clock’s Already Ticking
Counting Down to the 2019 Marillion Weekend

I said at the beginning of the year that I wanted to make tm3am more of a chronicle of what I am actually listening to, as opposed to a series of reviews I feel obligated to write. With that in mind, here’s what I feel like I should be writing about this week: Bruce Hornsby, the Chemical Brothers, Norah Jones, John Paul White and the first Unwed Sailor album in 11 years. These are all new records I have enjoyed, to one degree or another.

But if you want to ask me what I’m listening to? I mean, really, obsessively listening to? That’s easy. It’s Marillion.

There’s a good reason for that, too. In a month’s time, I will be in Montreal with thousands of fellow fans for the 2019 Marillion Weekend. It’s the first such weekend on this side of the Atlantic since 2015, and I went to that one too and had an amazing time. This go-round I am staying in an Airbnb with friends I made last time, and I’m excited to see them again and catch up. I’m excited for the whole thing, though, and I’ve been listening to the band almost non-stop for weeks in preparation.

What is a Marillion Weekend? It’s a gathering of fans for three concerts over three consecutive nights, celebrating this band we all love. This year promises to be special, since we’re also celebrating Steve Hogarth’s 30th anniversary as frontman. (He joined in 1989 after original singer Fish lit out for a solo career.) Hogarth has been an absolute godsend for this band – his extraordinary strong-yet-vulnerable voice remains as supple as ever, he’s become a truly remarkable lyricist, and with him at the helm, the band has explored dozens of styles with no fear.

Part of what makes the Marillion Weekend special is the sense of togetherness, of having found our people. Marillion isn’t for everyone, despite the fact that I think they should be. Their work crosses a lot of genre lines, they aren’t afraid to write songs that stretch more than a quarter of an hour, and they’re a very patient band, content to create an atmosphere and live in it for as long as possible. Hogarth’s voice is, for some reason, divisive – I’ve tried to turn some people on to the band and heard an earful in return about the vocals, which to me are a main selling point.

Long story short, it’s a lonely fandom, and being in a room with thousands of people who love the band as much as I do is euphoric in a way I can’t even describe. You have to be there. So I will be there.

In the meantime, I listen. I know what we’re getting this year – the setlists are generally the same for all of the Weekends held around the world – and it’s nothing less than a victory lap, touching on all eras of Hogarth’s three decades with the band. I’m excited to hear songs I’ve never heard live, but I’m more excited to revel in some older favorites and some newer masterpieces. On Sunday we will get all of Essence, the first half of 2008’s Happiness is the Road double album, and it’s basically a 50-minute song that I am so looking forward to getting lost in.

As if the band just knew I would be in the mood to buy new stuff from them, they’ve just released five new albums and a new Blu-Ray/DVD. Three of those albums and the film document the 2017 Marillion Weekend in Santiago, Chile, the first such weekend in South America. (This was the tradeoff for skipping the Montreal Weekend that year.) And it’s lovely stuff.

The Friday night set seems like a best-of, which I am sure the Chile audience appreciated. It spans 1991’s Holidays in Eden to 2012’s Sounds that Can’t Be Made, including rarely-played gems like “A Collection” and “Faith.” There’s a fantastic run-through of the acoustic version of “Hard as Love,” an astounding “A Few Words for the Dead” and a final encore of the 17-minute “Gaza” that offers further proof of this piece as a modern classic.

On Saturday the band dipped back to the Fish era for a selection of songs from 1987’s Clutching at Straws and 1985’s Misplaced Childhood. These are songs Hogarth rarely sings, and for good reason – they’re not his, and there’s 30 years of material from his tenure to choose from. But the fans love this material, and Hogarth puts his all into it. The band also played all of FEAR, their latest album, but apparently were not happy with the recording, so those songs sit out this collection. That’s fine – I love FEAR, but I have a few different renditions of it now, and they won’t top the Royal Albert Hall recording of it from last year.

On Sunday the band played all of 1999’s Dotcom, an album that does not get enough love. I think it’s an underrated gem, seven lovely songs (including “Go” and “Enlightened” and “Tumble Down the Years,” all favorites) and two epics. The extraordinary “Interior Lulu” remains stunning no matter how many times I hear it, and I love the chilled-out “House” for its unique vibe. A few great encores, including the new anthem “All One Tonight,” round this off and end things on a high note.

I’ve been so immersed in the Chile records that I haven’t yet listened to the other two, but I will soon. They are the next two installments in the band’s series of audio documentaries, chronicling the making of Happiness and of 2007’s Somewhere Else. As a process junkie, these artifacts – which start with the unformed jams that led to the songs, and then build to full demos – are fascinating. At nearly five hours, these two releases will definitely give me enough to listen to before the weekend.

I know I will not be able to explain the experience of being there for you, just as I have not been able to explain what this band’s music has meant to me over the 20 or so years I have been listening to them. It’s a lonely fandom, but it’s an important one to me. In 30 days I will be in another country, in the company of friends, reveling in the fact that this band exists. And I’ll keep on talking about it until I find the words.

Next week, some of those records I listed up top. But just know that in between all of those, I will still be listening to Marillion. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Authentic Experience
Sara Bareilles and Mike Mains Take Different Directions

I’ve been thinking about what a strange beast authenticity is.

I know some people for whom authentic expression is the most important element in music. If the artist is putting on a show, or putting up walls of artifice, these people would say the music is worthless. I, of course, disagree with this – I love the artifice sometimes, and enjoy trying to crack the code of artists like David Bowie and Beck, who throw up persona after persona, and yet create very personal art in the process.

Like a lot of things, authenticity can be bought. Or rather, the appearance of authenticity, since it’s sort of a genre unto itself. People often assume that if something sounds naked and full of soul and emotion, it must be. I don’t think that’s true. I think artists can deliver irony with an acoustic guitar just as easily as truth, and can speak with piercing honesty behind the gaze of a mask.

I don’t say this to make you distrust every troubadour with a six-string. I just find it fascinating that the physical sound of some styles of music seem to speak directly to the heart, because those sounds and styles can be created at will. I don’t at all, for instance, doubt that Sara Bareilles is an honest, earnest songwriter. I’m a fan. I like her work immensely. I just think it’s interesting that you can tell when she’s aiming for pop hits, and when she’s delivering a singer-songwriter work like her new one, Amidst the Chaos.

For this one, she worked with T Bone Burnett, who has made a career out of capturing authenticity, both in style and in substance. Together they’ve crafted something beautiful – this is one of Bareilles’ best records, if not her best. They assembled an army of fantastic players, from drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner to guitarist Marc Ribot to keyboardist Patrick Warren, and this dream team has coaxed the best out of this set of pretty terrific songs.

Amidst the Chaos was written as a reaction to the first two years of the Trump administration. Several songs here are disguised as longing odes to lost loves, when they are in fact nostalgic yearnings for the Barack Obama years. Splendid first single “Armor” is a #metoo-inspired anthem of womanhood: “You think I am high and mighty, mister? Wait ‘till you meet my little sister.” Album closer “A Safe Place to Land” is about the migrant crisis at the border, Bareilles and John Legend standing in solidarity with those looking for the security of our land of plenty: “So say the Lord’s prayer twice, hold your babies tight, surely someone will reach out a hand and show you a safe place to land…”

Other songs are less overtly products of our times, but they’re no less well crafted. “Miss Simone” is, of course, about Nina Simone, who provides the backdrop to a perfect romantic evening: “On the rooftop thinking no one needs to know a thing but Miss Simone.” The absolutely delightful “Poetry by Dead Men” sports my favorite vocal melody here, and offers a well-observed snapshot of a lost relationship: “I wanted to be your girl with your hands on my skin, stirring in the cinnamon while you read me poetry by dead men…”

The production here is organic and folksy, with some dips into rock (“Eyes on You”) and soul (“If I Can’t Have You,” one of the Obama songs, and it’s so much better when you know that). I don’t know if the sound of this thing will earn Bareilles more respect than her more pop-oriented records have, but she has always been this good. Her voice is strong, her songwriting voice even more so, and she shines in this setting. If Burnett’s participation brings in more fans of thoughtful, well-written songs, that can only be a good thing. Those of us who have been here for a while already know what a treasure Bareilles is. But don’t worry, we’re a welcoming bunch.

Mike Mains has gone in the opposite direction, sonically, and that’s equally interesting to me. Mains and his band, the Branches, knocked me out when I saw them at Cornerstone in 2012 – they were a scrappy rock band with a shout-along style, and their first two records, Home and Calm Down Everything is Fine, captured that feel. Guitar-heavy and propulsive, galloping from song to song, Mains and his cohorts sounded barely restrained on those albums, just a hair less explosive than they were on stage.

So how to explain When We Were in Love, the third Branches record? It’s a naked bid for wider exposure, full of keyboards and pop production. The shout-alongs have become singalongs, the energy has been replaced with a more danceable vibe, and just about everything that made Mains unique has been scrubbed away. This sounds like something you’d hear on Alt Nation six times a day.

And I have no doubt that was the point. Songs like “Endless Summer” and “Live Forever” sound like they were crafted to capture that particular audience. It’s taken a few listens for me to hear past the sheen to the songs, and they’re not drastically different from the ones Mains gave us in the early years of his career – I quite like “Holy Ghost,” which riffs on the old Catholic school maxim for school dances (“Leave room for the holy ghost!”), and closer “Swamp” is pretty swell.

Some of these songs, in fact, are as good as anything Mains has given us. I’m listening to the aforementioned “Holy Ghost” now, and it’s great. “Around the Corner” is a rousing positivity anthem that I could see catching fire, given a chance, and that one begins with the line “Do you feel like hanging from a cross, do you feel like paradise is lost?” What’s missing is the edge, the live band feel, but it sounds to me like Mains believes these songs as much as anything he’s done, and it’s only the production that makes them sound inauthentic.

Which is fascinating. While Bareilles has consciously chosen to aim for an audience that respects respectability, Mains is specifically looking for some of that alt-pop superstar attention. I really hope this record makes him famous. It sounds like it was crafted to do just that, and he’s toiled in the trenches long enough to deserve it. I don’t love this record, but I bet these songs are better live, and I’d like to hear them recorded in the same edgy style I’ve grown to expect. I’m pulling for this band, and this record makes it a little harder to do so, but I’m still on board.

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Let Us Begin to Live Again
Devin Townsend's Incredible Empath

Have you ever intensely looked forward to something, and then when that thing arrives, it’s even better than you hoped it would be?

I know, this is not the way it usually goes. I’ve written a lot in this space about expectation, and how it changes our perception of art. I can’t count the number of times I have waited breathlessly for an album or movie or book, then had to deal with the reality of that work falling short of what I wanted it to be. It’s a process, in my mind, to separate the art itself from the expectation of it – to say that no, this isn’t what I wanted, but in going a different direction, the artist has created something special.

Prolonged expectation really skews that process. The most prominent example I can think of is Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. It’s no exaggeration to say that I waited 16 years for that movie, and as reports of its filming and post-production leaked out over the years leading up to its release, my excitement grew and grew. I waited in line for something like 18 hours to buy tickets to the midnight premiere, and I don’t regret a minute of that. It was so much fun. But the movie was something else, and it took many repeat viewings for me to separate the actual Episode One from my thoughts and ideas of what it should have been. (I have ended up liking it, despite its many and obvious flaws.)

But sometimes – very rarely, but sometimes – a movie or a book or (in this case) an album not only meets those expectations, it surpasses them. And when that happens, I spend days upon days just reveling in it, absorbing it, learning its contours. Of course, you’ve all figured out that I’m not speaking hypothetically. I do have an album to talk about this week that blew past all of my hopes for it, and that album is Devin Townsend’s Empath.

I’m sure many of you are Googling Devin Townsend right now. He’s a Canadian musician with more than 25 albums to his name, and he’s been plying his trade since the mid-‘90s. Still, I’m not surprised when people haven’t heard of him. Devin’s work is intense, in all the best ways, and he’s been evolving as an artist, rarely putting out the same type of album twice. He began as the sole member of extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad, eventually adding musicians and producing five vicious, impossible-to-play albums under that name. His solo material began as a wall-of-sound version of metal, with so much under the surface that it almost seemed like very loud ambient music, but has grown into something much bigger and harder to describe.

Lately he’s been working with a core group of conspirators on the Devin Townsend Project, sorting his various influences into boxes and spotlighting them. This has brought us from the insane Zappa-metal extremes of Deconstruction to the glorious atmospheres of Ghost to the pop powerhouses that make up Epicloud. It’s been a great run, but in 2017 Devin disbanded the Project, looking to bring all of his styles together in one massive solo album called Empath.

That album is now here, and it’s astonishing.

Nothing I say in the next few paragraphs will be any kind of substitute for hearing this thing. Empath is a sonic sculpture, a triumph of production. There’s so much going on here that I could spend the next three pages just describing the first song. (I won’t do that, but I could.) As a record maker, he’s outdone himself here, and if you’re familiar with Devin’s work, you know what a statement that is. It almost feels like he spent the last 20 years learning how to make Empath, from a production standpoint.

This album feels like an arrival point for Devin as a songwriter, too. The DTP certainly showed off his range, and gave him the opportunity to grow in a dozen different styles. As promised, Empath brings all of those styles together, and it fully knocks down the walls between them. These songs jump styles and genres like they’re hopscotch squares. This thing opens with ambient music, glides into steel-drum island sounds, then blossoms into a full choral arrangement before the loudloudLOUD guitars even come in. Then that first song, “Genesis,” takes us from groove-rock to blast-beat extravagance to video game music to 1920s balladry, complete with strings and choir.

Honestly, it’s almost too much to take in, and there’s 74 minutes of it. “Spirits Will Collide” is a pop song designed to give your ear something to hang on to, but it’s early, and the album never gets that accessible again. When I heard the oh-my-god-how-did-humans-play-this explosion of “Hear Me” slip effortlessly into the Disney-esque orchestrations of “Why,” my jaw dropped. Devin can really sing all this material, too, from full-throated screams to sweetly melodic passages, but he brings in a small army of collaborators to vocalize as well. (Evidently fellow Canuck Chad Kroger of Nickelback is somewhere in the chaos of “Hear Me,” but I haven’t been able to find him.)

After 50 minutes of mind-melting music, which wraps up with the beautiful “Requiem,” Empath closes with a monster. The 24-minute “Singularity” is Devin’s most accomplished extended composition, rising slowly over its first movements and earning its massive catharsis. Only its abrupt ending keeps me from swooning entirely, but I can forgive that for the genre-destroying mastery that precedes it. In many ways that ending feels like a “to be continued” card, pointing forward to whatever Devin can possibly do to follow this.

There’s another aspect of Empath that I love, and it only comes from following Devin’s career and listening to him change and grow as a person, not just as a musician. His early work is ugly on purpose, exorcising his anger issues and his addictions, and some of it is difficult to listen to. Over time he has devoted more and more of his music to joyous celebrations of togetherness, and Empathis the culmination of all of that. This is a relentlessly positive album, even in its more aggressive moments, and it’s all about spirituality and community and, well, empathy. And it’s a great pleasure to hear him arrive here, both musically and personally.

I don’t know if I’ve said enough to sell you on this experience. I hope I have. Empath is amazing. It’s the kind of album artists spend their whole lives pursuing. Devin Townsend is a one-of-a-kind musician, and Empathis the most Devin Townsend album he has ever made. It’s an exhausting thing to listen to, an excessive outpouring of complexity and sheer sound, and I mean that in the best possible way. Very few people on the planet could have made an album like this, and no one else would have. It’s pure, uncut Devin, and it makes me giddy. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever given us.

* * * * *

Speaking of insane complexity, I just got the 40th anniversary edition of Zappa in New York.

My admiration for Frank Zappa as a composer and a player is well known, I expect. There will never be another like him, and any attempt to squeeze his work into a box and market it is doomed to failure. But while he was alive, record companies were tasked with doing just that. The most famous story of Frank’s inability to play by record company rules concerns a four-disc set called Lather, and Warner Bros.’ insistence that it be cut down into several smaller bites for public consumption.

One of those bites was 1978’s Zappa in New York, which documented a 1976 run of shows at the Palladium in New York City. Most of the material on the album was new, debuted and recorded live, and it includes such Zappa classics as “The Black Page #2” and “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” It also originally contained an 11-minute stunner called “Punky’s Whips,” detailing a strange relationship between drummer Terry Bozzio and a publicity photo of Punky Meadows, guitarist for the band Angel. Warner Bros. really didn’t like “Punky’s Whips” and forcibly removed it from the original issue of the album. (It was restored for a 1991 reissue that included four bonus tracks as well.)

Zappa gets the last laugh here, though, with this extravagant and extraordinary new edition. Let me just describe the packaging first. The whole thing comes in a New York-style pizza box with the familiar Zappa in New York marquee logo printed on it. When you open the box, you see the second box – a metal canister shaped like a New York City hubcap. It is, frankly, beautiful, and when you open that canister, you get an expansive booklet, a replica of a ticket to one of the Palladium shows, and five (FIVE) CDs of material.

I know this isn’t exhaustive – only a complete recording of the 1976 concerts would be – but it’s plenty for me. In addition to the original Zappa in New York, appearing here in its 1978 vinyl mix for the first time, you get almost three and a half hours of additional performances from the Palladium shows. These are unedited and unsweetened live recordings of one of Zappa’s best bands, with special guest Don Pardo having the time of his life, and hearing them wind their way through so much complicated material is a treat. The fifth disc contains some additional gems from the vault, and a brand new recording of a piano arrangement of “The Black Page #2” performed by the incredible Ruth Underwood.

Suffice it to say that I have been making my way through this mammoth set since it arrived, and I’ve been marveling at the performances Frank always managed to get from his players. I wish I could have seen him live – I was two when these concerts were recorded, alas. It’s not the same, but listening to the stunning work captured on the new Zappa in New York set will have to do.

Next week, Sara Bareilles and Weyes Blood, I think. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles