The Gospel According to Paul (and Paul)
McCartney and Simon and the Enduring Urge to Create

I don’t know much, but I do know this. When the universe conspires to bring you new albums from two of rock’s most respected elder statesmen, and both of those gentlemen happen to be named Paul, you write about them together. It’s like a gift.

Here’s the thing about both Paul McCartney and Paul Simon: they don’t have to make any new music, ever. They’re both 76 years old, and could very easily ride out their retirement years on the insane amounts of money they have already made. Neither one has anything to prove. Both will be eulogized as revered songwriters and entertainers, whether or not they pump any new material out before they go. Their legacies are absolutely secure, and adding to those legacies runs the risk of tarnishing them. There are probably more reasons not to jump back into the game for both of these men than there are to take the leap.

And yet both have consistently written and recorded new material long past the point when I probably would have taken my shingle down. McCartney’s last album, the underrated New, came out five years ago, and Simon’s latest, the delightfully weird Stranger to Stranger, landed only two years ago. And here they both are again. Of the two, Simon seems more interested in taking stock – he’s just completed what he says is his last tour, and his new album is more retrospective. McCartney, meanwhile, is pushing forward, launching a massive jaunt around the world in support of Egypt Station, his 18th solo album.

So what compels both Pauls to keep on making new music? It has to be a creative urge. Writing new tunes and getting together with your mates to record them has to be in the blood for both of these men. McCartney, for example, has to know that everything he does (and has done for decades) will be compared with his beloved work in the Beatles, and will fall short. Egypt Station is not for the people who will make such comparisons. It’s for McCartney himself, and for anyone willing to come along with him.

Is it worth the ride? Well, mostly. Because he’s working just for himself, he’s willing to stick with simple, fun tunes for much of the running time, songs that sound like they were fun to play but aren’t going to stand the test of time particularly well. McCartney once again worked with Greg Kurstin, producer extraordinaire, and the record sounds really good. McCartney played most of the instruments himself, as he has throughout his career, but you wouldn’t know it – the record has a full, sweeping feel to it, even songs like shuffling first single “Come On to Me” that don’t quite deserve the love lavished on them.

Kurstin isn’t the guy to tell McCartney no, either, so most of the lyrics here feel like first drafts, or sketches. That’s pretty standard for McCartney, never the world’s best lyricist. Even so, “People Want Peace” feels particularly cloying, and the Ryan Tedder-produced “Fuh You” should never have seen the light of day. I think I’m fondest of the slower piano-driven ones, like opener “I Don’t Know” and the sweet “Hand in Hand,” even though they’re full of clichés. I have much less trouble imagining a 76-year-old man singing something like “Hand in Hand” than “Fuh You.”

But this is Paul McCartney, so every idea he had during the recording sessions is here, packed together in 57 minutes. The second half gets more adventurous, and I’m here for much of it – “Dominoes” is a great little pop song, “Back in Brazil” feels like something Joe Jackson might turn out, and “Do It Now” hearkens back to the classic McCartney ballads of the past. (His voice is still pretty strong, if noticeably weaker than in his heyday.) The biggest surprise is “Despite Repeated Warnings,” a “Band on the Run” for the Trump age. It’s a seven-minute suite about taking back the ship of state from a madman, and it’s heavy-handed and obvious, but musically fascinating. This one especially underscores how good of a melody maker he still is.

If McCartney had pared down a couple of his indulgences – have I mentioned how wretched “Fuh You” is? – Egypt Station would be a tight, solid rock record. But it wouldn’t feel like a Paul McCartney album. There’s just something about the messes he creates, about having to sit through something like “Caesar Rock” to get to the infinitely better “Despite Repeated Warnings,” that has characterized his whole solo career. This one fits right in, in all its inconsistent glory. He’s definitely making these things for himself now, but if you’re willing to let the shadow of his history fade away and just enjoy it, Egypt Station is a pretty fun time.

Paul Simon has taken things considerably more seriously on In the Blue Light, his 14th album, released to commemorate that final tour. Simon has always been one to look forward, jumping genres with nimble ease and offering new observations every few years, rather than just playing the hits. Blue Light is his first real look back, on which he rearranges and re-records some of his lesser-known and lesser-loved works. A prolific and creative writer like Simon has given us many songs (and in fact whole albums) that didn’t quite land, and this album feels like an admission and a second chance.

At least, it does until you hear it and marvel at how completely Simon has reconstructed these songs from the ground up. The album opens with a full-on jazz-band reading of “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor,” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and it’s a delight. The familiar piano intro is there, but the folksy shuffle has been replaced with a New Orleans-style groove, complete with trumpets and saxophones. The song’s structure is the same, but the feel is entirely different. The jazz band returns on “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns,” the One Trick Pony song that gives this collection its name, and the rebirth is even more complete here. (And can I mention how utterly clear and strong Simon’s voice remains? It’s a treasure.)

Rob Moose’s collective yMusic shows up here a few times, none more prominently than the great “Can Run But,” from The Rhythm of the Saints. On that album, the song was built with percussion, so of course Simon and yMusic recreate it with no percussion at all, capturing the original feel with violins, bass clarinets and flutes. It’s amazing, breathing new life into a song that was fantastic to begin with. yMusic also works their magic on “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” a song from Hearts and Bones that I’ve always found difficult to love. This orchestral recasting brings out the subtle beauty of the lyric, and it’s wonderful.

But if there’s an album of his that Simon wants you to revisit, judging from In the Blue Light, that album is You’re the One. Recorded and released in the wake of The Capeman, Simon’s disastrous Broadway show, it’s a funny, confident, intimate and often quite beautiful record, one I have quietly loved for nearly 20 years. It’s nice to see that Simon shares my opinion of it, as he devoted four of the ten tracks here to it. “Darling Lorraine” still makes me laugh out loud, and “The Teacher” is still pretty, here fully reinvented with Brazil’s Assad Brothers. “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” gets a full Dixieland reading with Wynton Marsalis leading the charge.

And here is “Love,” one of my very favorite Paul Simon songs, not so much reinvented as respected, with Bill Frisell doing his transcendent thing on guitar. If there’s a song here that I hope gets another shot at becoming iconic, it’s this one.

I adore the idea of Paul Simon looking back over his vast, storied catalog, plucking out gems, giving them a once-over and bringing them out to the showroom floor again. Very few of these are songs I would have expected, but now that I hear the care and love he’s shown in these recreations, I can see why he chose each one. Some are songs I had forgotten – most of One Trick Pony has drifted from my memory, and Hearts and Bones was never a favorite – and I will be listening with new ears. If that was Simon’s motivation for recording this, mission accomplished.

But like McCartney, I think Simon records for himself now, and In the Blue Light especially sounds like a project he needed to pursue as he wraps up his stellar career. I certainly hope we’ve not heard the last Paul Simon album, but if he does grace us with another one, it will be because he wants to, has to, is drawn to the creative well with an inexorable pull. And if he is, I’ll be first in line to hear it.

Next week, I’m not sure, but probably a few things from Lo-Fidelity Records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Neverending ’90s
AiC and 3EB Prove Their Staying Power

I grew up in the ‘80s, but came of age in the ‘90s.

I was at the right age to respond to the grunge movement with all my love. I was 17 when Nevermind came out, and while it’s never been a favorite, it did open up the doors for bands that ended up soundtracking my life. I watch Singles, Cameron Crowe’s film about the burgeoning Seattle scene, and I see friends of mine. I see how we dressed in college. And I hear songs that have stayed with me for more than 20 years.

I’m the target demographic for ‘90s nostalgia, and yet I remain surprised at how much of it there is. In a lot of ways, the ‘90s never went away. Pearl Jam is still the best touring rock band in the world. I have a friend with a teenage daughter who dresses exactly like Angela Chase in My So-Called Life. We mourned the loss of Chris Cornell last year in a way befitting his status as one of the greats. I have a tendency to think of the ‘90s as a cultural aberration, a little pocket unto itself, but it truly has seeped into our zeitgeist. There’s a ‘90s resurgence happening now, but the decade and its art have been with us the whole time.

I can think of no more obvious example than the continued existence of Alice in Chains. In the ‘90s AiC was one of the architects of the Seattle sound – it has its roots in metal, but played more slowly, with a greater emphasis on melody. Alice in Chains added a lovely sense of harmony, with Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell singing together more often than not, like a sludge-rock Everly Brothers. That is, if the Everly Brothers sang about drug addiction, self-harm, depression and pain. Alice in Chains’ masterpiece is their 1992 album Dirt, and its mathematically complex grooves and overall musical assault disguise what a pitch-dark album it is.

I think in the ‘90s we tended to dismiss depressing and dark lyrics as par for the course, but when Staley died from a massive drug overdose in 2002, it was a wake-up call. I fully expected it to be the end for Alice in Chains as well, but the band has soldiered on, hiring William DuVall to step up to the microphone. They’ve now made as many albums with DuVall as they did with Staley. Half of the original band is now dead – bassist Mike Starr also died of a drug overdose in 2011. It’s fair to say the Alice in Chains we know today are survivors, still committed to a style of music that meant something to a lot of people.

Rainier Fog is the sixth AiC album, and it’s exactly like the last two. Its title and cover art were inspired by Mount Rainier, which looms above Seattle, but we didn’t need the direct reference to know that the city and its scene remain at the core of this band. Cantrell is clearly steering this ship, and his thick guitar sound remains a constant. DuVall sounds a lot like Staley, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this album is vintage 1991. Like everything Cantrell has done without Staley, this is based more on mood and sound than on crisp songwriting. Nothing here is going to eclipse “Would” or “Man in the Box.” But it’s solid.

Weirdly, my favorite song here is the one DuVall wrote on his own. “So Far Under” has a more traditional metal feel than a lot of the swampier things on here, and a chorus guitar part that just kills. It sounds like someone holding the edge of a vinyl record to make it slow down, and the song feels like it’s tumbling into a hole again and again. It’s also the most depressing: “This whole house of cards is crumbling slow, if I disappeared would you even know?” The band also goes for a “Stairway to Heaven” moment with the closer, the seven-minute “All I Am,” and it’s a convincing, slowly building piece.

The rest of Rainier Fog is pretty average Alice in Chains, unwinding slowly with a particular forceful hopelessness that they helped pioneer. It isn’t any fun, but it is committed to a style that virtually no one else is playing anymore. When they started, Alice in Chains were alone, trying to sell the world on their very different sound, and now that they’re entering their fourth decade, they’re alone again, still championing that sound. I’m still listening, and there certainly seem to be enough people still on board with me.

Third Eye Blind began only six years after Alice in Chains, but in a lot of ways their continued presence is even more surprising. When Stephan Jenkins and his crew knocked on the door of pop culture in 1997 with their self-titled record, they sounded like the end point of the ‘90s thing for me, the utter commercialization of a sound that dove from Soundgarden to Stone Temple Pilots to Everclear in a depressing arc. The idea that Third Eye Blind now has five albums and is gearing up to make a sixth seems kind of improbable.

And yet here we are. We’re at the point where 3EB is making a covers album as a stopgap between albums, like they’re that convinced that they will keep on plugging. The whole idea of a Third Eye Blind covers record has been a joke in my circles for weeks, but now that Thanks for Everything is here, I have to say it makes a strong argument for itself. In fact, as much as I am loath to admit it, I kind of love it. The key to its success, besides a strong commitment from the band itself, is the song selection. Hands up if you expected some well-known tunes given the ‘90s alt-rock treatment. You won’t find that here.

Instead, Jenkins has delivered some genuine surprises. I like this version of Babyshambles’ “Fuck Forever” quite a bit more than the original, for instance – the surging guitars and strong, wide-awake vocals serve to turn this into an anthem. I’m stunned at this version of Santigold’s “This Isn’t Our Parade,” which would not have been anywhere near my list of possible cover songs for Third Eye Blind. But they own it. I can’t even fault their serious-minded run through Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren,” which Jenkins says is more inspired by the This Mortal Coil version. So, to recap, Third Eye Blind has revealed Tim Buckley and This Moral Coil are on their list of influences. Wow.

I’ve never even heard of Chastity Belt, but 3EB convincingly rocks through their “Joke.” I have heard Queens of the Stone Age and Bon Iver, and I remain surprised at how much I like these versions of both “In the Fade” and “Blood Bank.” They’re both bizarre choices, not well-known tunes, and I’m impressed with the selections and with the straight-ahead, strong readings here. It’s almost like they forgot that they’re supposed to be Third Eye Blind, and they just went for it, and it works. I know, I’m as gobsmacked as you are.

So, to recap. Alice in Chains has made a solid third album with their new singer, and they remain as committed to their sound as ever. And Third Eye Blind is not only still around, but has delivered a pretty wonderful new covers record. The ‘90s are not only back, they never went away, and long may they live. Every single bit of that paragraph stuns me, but it’s all true.

Next week, some people named Paul. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In My Blood
On 30-Plus Years of Loving Neil Finn

Back in 1998 (an astonishing 20 years ago), I saw Neil Finn play a free outdoor concert in Boston.

His first solo album, Try Whistling This, had just come out, and true to its title, it was a surprisingly difficult record to love. Finn gamely tried out this new material on the Boston audience, but save for the singalong “She Will Have Her Way,” it was rough going. But then, near the end of the show, Finn pulled out an acoustic guitar and started playing “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and the crowd came to life. Even me, the guy most willing (especially as a young’un) to champion the difficult material. I felt a stirring within at the opening chords of that song, and sang along like my life depended on it.

It’s not just that “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a better song than anything on Try Whistling This, although it certainly is. It’s not even that it’s more immediate, and thus far easier to love. For me – and I suspect for a lot of people on the lawn that day – it was that I first heard “Don’t Dream It’s Over” in 1986, and fell in love with it then, and that love has not abated through time and tide. It was not the first Neil Finn song I heard. Believe it or not, that was “World Where You Live,” which I saw Crowded House perform live on MTV. But it was the first one I fell head over heels for.

I was all of 12 years old when Crowded House’s first album hit the American airwaves, but I like to think I knew good songs when I heard them, even then. That album is full of good songs, and it sparked my lifelong admiration of Neil Finn. By the time I was making my own money and could buy records on my own, Crowded House had become a favorite, and I’d started tracking down Finn’s older work in Split Enz. I still think Crowded House’s Woodface is one of the best and most underrated records of the 1990s, and Together Alone isn’t far behind. In fact, the first Finn album I bought and didn’t immediately love was Try Whistling This, which Finn gamely tried to sell me on during that Boston concert.

For those of you rushing to Google, don’t worry, this isn’t a eulogy. This is a straight-up review situation, but I wanted to talk a little bit about how having a long history with a performer or songwriter colors one’s expectations and reactions to new work. Finn just happens to be one of the artists whose work has impacted me for the longest time, and he happens to have a new record out with his son Liam, which I swear I will talk about soon. But mainly I want to talk about what goes through my head every time Neil Finn announces a new record, or releases a new song, which is nothing less than my entire history with his music.

For instance, I think about One Nil, his glorious 2001 solo album, and how, before last year, “Turn and Run” was the last Finn song to make me shiver and well up. I have reservedly liked everything he’s done outside of Crowded House (except for that wretched Pajama Club thing), but haven’t felt that “oh my GOD listen to this melody how PERFECT” feeling since 2001. And I’ve often wondered if the material Finn has released since then just hasn’t been as good, or if his earliest work has just burrowed deeper. It’s hard to know.

I think about how much of Finn’s work includes (and in fact revolves around) his family, for better or worse. His brother Tim was the main voice of Split Enz, joined Crowded House for Woodface, and made two records with Neil as The Finn Brothers. His wife Sharon has played with him in various bands (including that awful Pajama Club thing, of which we will speak no more). And literally the only reason I keep buying Liam Finn’s work is because he is Neil Finn’s son. He’s pretty good – much more interested in electronics and atmosphere than his father – but he wouldn’t be on my radar without my connection to his father.

And of course, I am now thinking of Out of Silence, last year’s under-the-radar record, which contained the best music Neil Finn had made in at least 15 years. And I’m thinking about how I might not have bought it, or even heard about it, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Finn’s work back in my preteen years. Out of Silence is amazing, full of gorgeous orchestrated wonders, and it’s proof to me that he’s still one of the very best, when he wants to be. It also sets expectations higher for his next project.

Which, of course, brings us to Lightsleeper, Neil’s first collaboration album with Liam. I have done my best to manage my hopes for this – all it needed to do, for me, is balance out their styles, offer up some Neil Finn melodies alongside the Liam Finn soundscapes. And blessedly, following a messy opening trilogy, it does this. It’s impressive how well the duo meshes. But I have to emphasize that, had this not been a Neil Finn project, I probably would not have listened to it more than twice. It is only the long tether of my love for Neil’s work that is keeping me attached to this album, still diving through it, still teasing out its joys.

Because they are there. I almost shut down during the formless “Meet Me In the Air,” which (save for a brief prelude) opens the album with floaty meandering, and the silly “Where’s My Room” goes on for an eternity, mutating into an orchestrated five-car pileup that did not bode well for the rest of the record. But keep listening, because the following eight songs range from the simple and pretty to the delightful, and are worth digging through.

I like so many things about those last eight songs, but what I think I like most about them is the push-pull of Neil and Liam’s sensibilities. Some of these songs, like the kinda-funky “Ghosts,” feel led more by Liam, and “Listen,” one of only two songs solely written by Neil, could have fit on Out of Silence nicely. But when Neil’s piano is given equal weight with Liam’s penchant for sonic frippery, magic happens. “Any Other Way” is a treat, Mick Fleetwood’s drums and Liam’s synths making room for a classically beautiful melody line, sung by Liam. “Back to Life” is a simple tune, but it’s a really pretty one, with a strong and memorable chorus, and Neil digs into it joyously.

I’m also a big fan of the way this record ends, juxtaposing the relatively grand-scale “We Know What It Means,” sung by Neil (with just a wonderful piano solo in there too), with the gorgeous lullaby “Hold Her Close,” sung by Liam. These are both graceful little songs, and like most of Lightsleeper, they’re subtle – you have to listen more than once to really hear how well-crafted they are. And without my lifelong love of Neil Finn, I might not have done so. I might have listened once, filed it away under “not bad,” and kept on with my life.

Which is interesting to me. I’ve found a lot to love on Lightsleeper, but I’ve only given it the repeated listens and chances I have because Neil Finn’s name is on it. This raises a couple questions for me, most notably whether I am missing similar pleasures on albums that do not have Neil Finn’s name on them, albums I pay only cursory attention to. I buy such a volume of music that it sometimes takes a 30-plus-year association with an artist’s work to get me to really listen more than once. I’m in constant risk of barely hearing songs that could change my life. It’s something worth thinking about.

But I’m also using Lightsleeper as an excuse to celebrate those 30-plus years of letting Finn’s music into my heart. I still believe he’s one of the world’s best living songwriters, and at age 60, he’s still proving it. Lightsleeperis indulgent, for sure, but in its heart live some beautiful little songs, and I’m very glad to have heard them. Neil Finn’s music has been with me for most of my life, enriching it all the while, and that’s why I will give everything he does more than a fair chance. I owe him at least that much.

Next week, the dream of the ‘90s is alive and well. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Death, Death Cab and Rebirth
Or, When 900 Columns You Reach, Look This Good You Will Not

We lost Aretha Franklin this week.

I certainly hope you don’t need me to tell you why this is important, why Franklin’s departure leaves an unfillable hole in the world. She was perhaps the greatest singer who ever lived. At the very least, any conversation about the greatest singers who ever lived that does not mention Aretha Franklin is woefully incomplete. She was certainly one of the best gospel singers ever, and her move to soul and pop music in the 1960s and 1970s was impeccable. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and deservedly so. There was never anyone like her, and there will never be anyone else like her.

I’m not going to be able to properly eulogize someone whose career spanned six decades and whose voice redefined much of what we know as popular music. Franklin was 76 years old when she died after a short illness, and was only four years removed from her last album, on which she sings songs made famous by female performers, and nails them. At 72. Aretha Franklin was the embodiment of legendary, just one of the finest singers this species has ever produced. Rest in peace, Aretha. Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover it.

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A few weeks ago, I pulled out Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 album Plans, just to see if I still love it.

Short answer: I do. Plans is my favorite Death Cab album, which I know is an unpopular opinion. But I think it’s the one on which their yearning indie-rock sound transitioned most effectively into the more ambitious work we were all expecting from them on a major label. Plans is essentially a sonic novel about death and loss, a melancholy painting across a wide canvas, and I don’t think Ben Gibbard has ever stepped up with a better set of lyrics.

I’ve been hard on the band’s post-Plans work, and I don’t know if all of my disappointment has been warranted. I can say nice things about most of the follow-ups. Narrow Stairs is a great collection of short stories, even if in retrospect it was the start of the spiral. Codes and Keys is an inconsistent jump into more of an electronic sound, but there are some gems. Only Kintsugi stands out to me as a waste, a trifle of a record that contains very little I have grown to care about. And as it was the last album with Chris Walla on guitars and behind the recording desk, I couldn’t imagine that Death Cab would even continue, let alone make something worth listening to again.

It would be difficult for me to say that their ninth album, Thank You For Today, is the turnaround they needed. But it is certainly better than Kintsugi, and better than I expected by a long, long way. To be clear, this is the furthest Death Cab have sounded from their more rock-oriented origins, and the album is a slow burner, indebted more to the Cure than just about anyone else. But far from a last gasp, this feels like a right turn, the beginning of a new era. Unlike the protagonists of most of these songs, I’m hopeful.

It does take a few listens to hear it that way, though. The first half of Thank You For Today is low-key and repetitive, and I can really hear the Cure in numbers like “Summer Years,” which spin a web of clean guitars over insistent drums. “Gold Rush” is here, and it’s grown on me, but it doesn’t end up doing very much over its four minutes. I do like the sound – the slide guitars and thump-thump drum beat are new for Death Cab – but the song kind of jogs in place. The most immediate thing on the first half for me is “Your Hurricane,” a classic Gibbard tale of caring about someone too much. But even this sinks into the mood piece that is the first five songs, and if you don’t see it as a mood piece from the start, you’ll probably find it a little boring.

Things pick up significantly with tracks six and seven, two of the most convincing Death Cab pop-rock songs in years. “Autumn Love,” all by itself, justifies this album’s existence for me. The melody here is exactly the breath of fresh air I’d been waiting for, exactly the shot in the arm the record needed at exactly this point. (There’s no denying the value of a good “whoa-oh,” too.) “Northern Lights” is even better, folding a guest appearance by Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches into a deep, dark pop tune. I still think it all sounds like the Cure, but this one feels more like “In Between Days.” It’s my favorite Death Cab song for at least three albums.

These two songs give a purpose to the rest of the record – the first five tracks build up to “Autumn Love,” and the final three come down from that high. And oddly, they put you in the right frame of mind to shudder and sigh at the last act – it’s all wistful and melancholy stuff. I’m a big fan of “Near/Far,” with its pulsing acoustic guitars, and the finale, “60 and Punk,” isn’t nearly as funny as its title. It’s a piano-led lament about growing old and irrelevant. Gibbard gets a lot of emotion into the line “the band plays you off,” and if this finally ends up being the last bow of Death Cab for Cutie, it will be a thematically resonant way to go out.

But I don’t think it will be.Thank You for Today feels like hitting the refresh button. Not exactly like starting over, but like beginning a new chapter. It’s a downbeat album, for sure, but somehow it breathes new life into a band I was ready to write off. Songs like “Your Hurricane” and “Northern Lights” are all the evidence I need that my life would be poorer without Death Cab for Cutie in it, and I hope this is the start of a grand third act.

* * * * *

This is my 900th Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column. I’m in disbelief about that as well. In a few weeks I will finish up my 18th year writing this thing on a (mostly) weekly basis. I hope it is still enriching your life.

I don’t have anything special planned for the 900th. I think just putting out yet another music column, particulary one as average as this one, is a good enough statement of purpose. I’m gonna keep plugging away at this, and I hope you all keep reading it. I can’t thank you enough for continuing on this journey with me.

Next week, no idea, honestly. Freedom! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Chip Z’Nuff Goes It Alone
Is Diamond Boy Enuff?

There are a lot of things I should be writing about this week.

Amanda Shires’ new album, for instance, is as lovely as everyone says it is. Lucero’s Among the Ghosts does exactly what it should, and is probably that band’s best work. I have yet to catch up with Meg Myers and Cowboy Junkies and Dirty Projectors. If I wanted to maintain the illusion that Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. is a real music column with any concern at all for what I should be reviewing, I’d pick one or two of those.

But this column is meant as a chronicle of what I am actually listening to, and so I have to be honest. I don’t care as much about anything I’ve listed there as I do about the new Enuff Z’Nuff. If there’s one release this week that made me rush home, rip off the cellophane and listen right away, it’s this one. I have no idea what that says about me, other than the fact that I’ve been a fan of this Chicago-based rock band for nearly 30 years. Feel free to ridicule. It won’t stop me from being excited.

I’ve lauded Enuff Z’Nuff in this space before, many times. In 1989 and 1990, they were exactly what I needed to bridge the gap between my teenage metalhead years and my budding fascination with the Beatles and all things ‘60s pop. I’d never even heard the term “power pop,” but I knew I loved what Enuff Z’Nuff was doing. Their self-titled debut was pretty good, but it was their second album, Strength, that truly made me a fan. Big, screaming pop-metal guitars surrounding beautifully written songs, melodies that went on for days and gorgeous harmonies. It’s still a great record.

And then they just, you know, kept on doing that. For the next 15 years, they seemed unstoppable, issuing one great power pop album after another. For a while they would reach back into their archives and come up with gems like Peach Fuzz that they would gussy up and release in between their more forward-looking records, like the powerhouse Tweaked. I think their best album is 2000’s Ten – it’s more concise than some of their more sprawling efforts, and has a tremendous hit rate when it comes to songwriting.

For all of that time, the Lennon and McCartney of Enuff Z’Nuff remained Donnie Vie and Chip Z’Nuff. They’re dope-smoking rock stars, to be sure, and no one would ever call them role models, but man, could those two guys write a hook. They don’t get along very well these days, and it’s a shame – Donnie quit the band more than once, returning just for studio efforts like 2010’s terrific Dissonance, and he hasn’t been a member of the touring version of Enuff Z’Nuff for more than a decade.

So now here is Diamond Boy, the 15th Enuff Z’Nuff album and the first one without Donnie Vie’s participation at all. Chip sings every song here, and is the lead songwriter, and there’s some question in my mind whether this should count as an Enuff Z’Nuff album at all. But thankfully, the record is good enough that those questions just fade away as I’m listening to it. I miss Vie’s distinctive voice – Z’Nuff doesn’t quite have the power or the character to make up for it – but the songs here are pretty great. If this had to exist, I’m glad it’s as good as it is.

Chip has taken a deep dive into ‘60s psychedelica here, upping the weirdness while keeping the guitar-rock core of the band intact. The title track is fun, but it’s “Where Did You Go” that makes the best early argument for this album’s existence. It has a hook that will sink into you, and the band plays it with swagger, which is all you can ask. As the album goes on, Chip gives us straight-ahead rockers like “Metalheart,” but also more complex ‘60s pop numbers like “Down On Luck.” This is a dark record, with references to cheap cocaine and a song called “Dopesick,” but it’s a catchy one, and its more psych-infused moments give it a flair all its own.

“Love is On the Line” is probably my favorite here, its strange Lennon-esque chord progression building and changing throughout, its chorus big and memorable. Those who write Enuff Z’Nuff off as an ‘80s glam band always seem to miss songs like this one, or like the closer “Imaginary Man,” which borrows a melody line from “For No One.” They’ve been part of the EZN DNA since the start, and it’s their ability and willingness to write songs like these that has kept me in their corner for three decades.

I’m sad that there needed to be an Enuff Z’Nuff album without Donnie Vie, but I’m pleased that the one we have is so solid. Chip and his new band can swagger all they want to. Diamond Boy is much better than I expected it would be. And for those who miss Donnie, he’s taking pre-orders for his new album now, with an eye toward releasing it this year. Three decades in and Enuff Z’Nuff keeps earning my fandom.

* * * * *

In addition to this new one from a band that draws equally from the ‘60s and the ‘80s, I’ve been listening non-stop to an album from 1979.

The obscurity of Daniel Amos continues to frustrate me, decades after I first caught on to them. They’re one of the most important spiritual rock bands ever, the one that set the template of creativity and poetry for others that followed. Inside of a very small circle, Terry Scott Taylor and his band of musical miscreants are legends. They were among the first to bring a sense of artistry to the Jesus-rock industry, and for pretty much their entire career, that industry had no idea what to do with them.

The record I have been binge-listening to is a case in point. In 1978, DA released Shotgun Angel, a weird record that is half Eagles, half prog-rock. This got them signed to Solid Rock Records, owned by fellow pioneer Larry Norman, and in 1979 they delivered their third album, Horrendous Disc, which found them taking the plunge into full-on rock. The first four DA albums chart a musical evolution so sharp that their early fans still complain about it, and that was only exacerbated by Solid Rock’s decision not to release Horrendous Disc for two years.

That means that in 1981, DA’s third album – a jump away from country-gospel and into ‘70s radio-rock – was issued mere weeks before their fourth, Alarma, which dove straight into ‘80s new wave. What fans they had built up to this point were thrown two curve balls at once, and must have wondered what had happened to the band they had known. There’s a fearlessness to this rapid artistic growth, but even the band wanted to ease their fans in a little bit more than their label allowed them to.

Horrendous Disc is often overlooked in DA’s catalog, and a new, astonishingly wonderful reissue aims to correct that. The result of a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the Horrendous Disc box combines the remastered album with four CDs of bonus material, a beautiful book, some signed postcards, a guitar pick and a pin, collected together in a purposefully garish box. I don’t need most of that stuff, but the five CDs of content are all indispensable and help make the case for Horrendous Disc’s importance.

Start with the album itself, which is splendid. “I Love You #19” starts with a classic ‘70s guitar riff, and it has never sounded bigger or better. This song should be on classic rock radio. It’s just a killer tune, and it sets the tone. Most of the rest of Horrendous Disc has a classic ‘70s sound and feel, from the Zevon-esque “Hound of Heaven” to the Jeff Lynne-style extravaganza of “Man in the Moon.” These songs all tackle their spiritual themes with metaphor and poetry – “On the Line” is about prayer, though you’d never know it just from listening once – and the lyrics demand close reads to tease out their meanings. (This is completely different from the Christian music of today, which beats you over the head with its message.)

The title track that closes the album is something else entirely, a five-minute psychodrama about a broken marriage. It’s a constantly shifting masterpiece, one of the earliest signs that Daniel Amos wasn’t going to be like any other band. (I will cop to hearing metal band Deliverance’s version of this first, but you can’t beat the original, and it sounds better here than I have ever heard it.)

As for the bonus material, well, therein lies a tale. Between 1979 and 1981, Daniel Amos didn’t just sit around waiting for their album to come out. They wrote and recorded a bunch of tunes that were never released until now. The second disc of this set contains what is basically a new Daniel Amos album, slotting in between Horrendous and Alarma, and it’s wonderful. The third disc contains four-track demos of the “ten biggies,” the ten songs intended for the next record that never happened. We also get the requisite plethora of demos and alternate takes, and a full concert from 1979, but it’s this unreleased material that is the true treasure.

And there are two interesting things about it, to me. One is that, while Taylor remains the leader of this band, Jerry Chamberlain proves himself a musical force here. His material stands strong and tall with Taylor’s, and it’s great stuff. The other is that these songs don’t provide a bridge to Alarma at all. You might think you’d be able to hear the new wave influences creeping in, but you can’t. The touchstone remains ELO for all of this material, which is fascinating. Where did the angular guitar slashing of the next record come from? It remains a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the enduring legacy of Horrendous Disc. While few people have heard it (or even heard of it), within the spiritual pop realm, it’s an absolute classic. I’m so glad to see it finally get the reissue it deserves. In my world, its importance cannot be overstated. You can check it out yourself at www.danielamos.com.

Next week, the new Death Cab for Cutie comes out, so I’m bound to write about something people care about. Or maybe not. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Feel the Flood Fall In
My Report from the Prayer Chain Reunion Show

I hate saying “you had to be there.”

In a lot of ways, that phrase is antithetical to what this column is about. I set out to chronicle my musical experiences not so that readers would be jealous and upset over the music I heard and saw, but so that my excitement for that music could serve well those who do not get to hear the volume of music that I do. Saying “you had to be there,” for whatever reason, is like throwing my hands up and admitting that no matter how well I describe something, no matter how evocative the language I use, reading my words is a paltry substitute for hearing the music itself.

Trouble is, that’s true. There’s little I can tell you about Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, for instance, that you could not glean just by listening to it. And nothing I write here should be seen as a proper stand-in for your own musical experience. That’s all well and good for albums one can buy in a shop or online (or hear in any number of ways), because even if I’m helpful to you in deciding what to listen to, you’re not dependent on me to provide the experience itself. You can listen for yourself.

It gets trickier where live performances are concerned, though, and some of the most transcendent musical moments of my life have come while watching an incredible band play on stage. This past Saturday I experienced another one in a small-ish ballroom in Nashville, surrounded by strangers who were nevertheless brothers and sisters that evening, there to witness something that may never happen again. And nothing I write here is going to capture for you the thrill of being in that room.

In short, you had to be there. But let me tell you about it anyway.

In 1993, while the Seattle grunge invasion was in full swing, I happened upon an album called Shawl by a still-unknown California outfit called The Prayer Chain. If you’ve guessed that I found this record in the same Christian bookstore where I had, three years earlier, picked up the Choir’s Circle Slide, the album that set me along a path of amazing spiritual pop and rock music, you’d be right. At this point I was buying anything and everything that looked cool from that store, and I remain surprised at how much good stuff I had found in such a short time, bands and artists that have stayed with me for a quarter-century.

This Shawl album, for instance. I saw that it had been produced by Steve Hindalong, drummer for the Choir, and that was enough for me. I bought it sound unheard, and I liked it a great deal. It reminded me of Jane’s Addiction in places, but it was weird in its own way. The first sound on the album is a full-throated “HI-YAH-HI-YAH-HI-YAH,” repeated four times like a test to see if you want to continue. “Fifty-Eight,” an emotional tale of parental neglect, was in 5/8 time. (Hence the title.) “The Hollow” was a Peter Gabriel-esque interlude with lots of hand percussion. “Never Enough” used that percussion for texture on an epic which ended with a ghostly choral round.

Shawl is a great rock record, one of those never-heard classics that you stumble across and wonder why no one else knows about it. Two years later, though, the Prayer Chain released what is still one of my 20 favorite albums of all time. Mercury remains unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. The songs got a lot more elliptical, the arrangements more bizarre, and for most of the record the Prayer Chain leaves their identity as a rock band behind entirely.

Andy Prickett’s guitar plays characters here, spinning gossamer magic one moment and filling the room with crazy noise the next, while Eric Campuzano’s bass holds down the fort, because the drums and percussion are off on their own trip. Some of it is inhumanly beautiful (“Mercury,” “Bendy Line”) while some of it is unsettling in the best ways (“Grylliade,” “Shiver”). And the closer, “Sun Stoned,” still astounds me. It’s nearly nine minutes long (one of two songs here to stretch to that length), built around a single bass figure, and though it begins almost inaudibly, it ends as one of the most exuberant alien celebrations I have ever heard.

No one’s ever made an album quite like Mercury, and so of course the band broke up shortly after. Their half-live album Antarctica has remained the closest I thought I would ever get to seeing The Prayer Chain live for more than 20 years.

You all know what’s coming, right? A couple successful Kickstarters to get Mercury and then Shawl pressed onto high-quality vinyl, and then the bombshell: The Prayer Chain would reunite for two shows, one in Los Angeles and one in Nashville, to celebrate Shawl’s 25th anniversary. It’s a dream, it’s a miracle, and there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to miss it. Add a full-on rock show by the Choir and an opening set from spiritual pop-punkers Dakota Motor Co. (who also had not played together for two decades), and what was already a must-see turned into the most important musical journey of my year.

My long-suffering girlfriend agreed to accompany me and we made a six-day Nashville vacation out of it. We visited Kix Brooks’ vineyard and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. It was a great time, and I’m glad we did it, and I’m doubly glad she got to see the Prayer Chain play, since she enjoyed it. (I was joking with her that she was there for something monumental, but she couldn’t really brag about it because anyone who cared about it was in that room.)

I’m not going to be able to tell you what it was like to see this show, or to be in a room with so many people who loved this band the way I do. That alone would have made the trip worth it for me – I connected with several people I had only met online, including Robert Berman, with whom I sang old Choir songs in Centennial Park, and Matthew Coppola, who graciously gave us two of his early access tickets. The show was a who’s-who of spiritual pop music – among the luminaries there were Kevin Max, Steve Taylor and Phil Madiera. If you don’t know who any of them are, their presence might not mean much to you, but to the folks in that room, they were royalty.

Dakota Motor Co. had not played together in 20+ years either, but you would never have known it. Their brand of ‘90s punk-pop is still fun, and they played with a lot of energy. I understand they’re recording new material, and I’ll be first in line to buy it. The Choir is The Choir – they’re amazing live, and for this show they were accompanied by Stephen Mason of Jars of Clay on guitar and Wayne Everett from the Prayer Chain on percussion. They ran through some new songs from Bloodshot and then played the classics, including “Robin Had a Dream” in celebration of Robin Spurs joining them on bass for this show. “Circle Slide” was, as always, a highlight – swirly and massive and chaotic and loud, with sax player Dan Michaels jumping off stage and roaming through the crowd for the breakdown section. If you haven’t seen the Choir live, you should remedy that. Thirty-five years into their career and they’re still fantastic.

And then the seas parted and we made it up to the front row for the main event. I expected the Prayer Chain to be good. I did not expect them to be magical. It’s sometimes easy to compare bands, but the Prayer Chain to me doesn’t sound like anyone. For this show they had three drummers, including the indomitable Steve Hindalong from the Choir, and their astonishing guitarist Andrew Prickett unveiled his full gamut of sounds. The band played all of Shawl in order, so we got more of the Jane’s Addiction style from them, but songs like “Fifty Eight” were life-changing, and the transition from “The Hollow” into “Never Enough” was one of my favorite concert-going moments ever. The crowd sang every line of every song, and singer Tim Taber stood on the railing in front of us a couple times, towering over us. (Tim had just turned 50, and I hope I look half that good when I’m 50. I mean, I don’t look half that good now, so the odds are not in my favor, but you know.)

As I mentioned above, I like Shawl, but I love Mercury, and my favorite moments of the show revolved around finally getting to hear the Mercury material live. They opened with a shortened version of “Sun Stoned,” and man, that was something to see. We also got the title track (my favorite Prayer Chain song) and “Sky High,” the epic. I could not have anticipated how physically draining (in a good way) it would be to hear these songs performed. I shouted along with every word, I swayed to the glorious guitar textures, I moved to the tribal percussion. Audience and band were as one, and there was no greater evidence of that than when bassist Eric Campuzano kept stopping “Chalk” to make sure he was in tune with Prickett (and that he remembered how to play it). The crowd never turned on him, but rather lifted him up. “Aside from my children being born, this is the best night of my life,” he said.

All that plus my girlfriend got a free copy of Shawl on vinyl, handed out by Taber himself. After the final encore, we all stood around stunned at what we had just seen. And of course the band hung out afterward, taking pictures and just talking with whoever wanted to stick around. They knew, like we knew, that this would never happen again. Those of us privileged enough to see it witnessed something that burned brightly, but briefly, like the Prayer Chain themselves.

I hate to say it, but you kind of had to be there.

If you missed the Prayer Chain during the ‘90s, well, you’re not alone. They do have a Bandcamp page. Shawl isn’t there, for some reason – I expect they’re waiting until all the Kickstarter vinyl ships before listing it – but Mercury is, as is Humb, the album as originally handed in to their record company. It really is unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Twenty-three years later and I’m still singing its praises.

Next week, I have no idea. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Just One More
You Don't Need to Break Ground to Build

Last week I discussed Between the Buried and Me, a band so complex that even some people I know who gravitate toward musicianship as an end in itself find them daunting. In retrospect, I should have saved them for this week’s column, to provide contrast.

I used to believe that complexity automatically meant quality, and that because you can write a 30-minute suite with 12 sections labeled with Roman numerals, that makes you better than bands who can’t do that. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started more and more sentences with “but as I’ve grown older.” I’ve also come to appreciate simplicity as an ideal. I still get annoyed when I hear those same four generic chords being used again and again, but I have grown to love simple songs performed in simple ways.

Here’s a case in point: my blind fascination with all kinds of technical metal music led me to miss out on punk entirely. I was in my 20s before I heard the Clash, or the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols, and I frankly dismissed a lot of what they had to offer. Green Day was one of the first punk-ish bands I really listened to (I know, the shame), and by that time the entire idea of punk had been co-opted and commodified. What I didn’t understand then was that punk, as a movement, was partially about the democratization of music. It was a reaction to the notion that musical education (which is, historically, reserved for the rich) is necessary to be a musician, and a refutation of prog rock and all it stood for.

Of course, I love me some prog rock, but do I still think chops are the most important element in determining a band’s worth? Nah. Last night I went to see Aimee Mann play a free show in downtown Chicago. She’s great – she’s a tremendous songwriter, one of my very favorites, and a strong singer and performer. Did she do anything on stage last night that made me think she could out-play John Petrucci? Or even some of the guitar players I know personally? Nope. Mann writes straightforward, strummable folk-rock songs. But they’re genius.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this one as well, but one of the first sorta-kinda-punk bands I got into was MxPx. I first gravitated toward them because they were sold in Bibles, Books and Things, the Christian bookstore near my home in Massachusetts. This is because they were on Tooth and Nail Records, which made its name selling edgier bands to Christian kids who couldn’t stand Petra. I was, at the time, really into anything I could find at Bibles, Books and Things, so I loved Life in General, the band’s third album, and I’ve stuck with them.

I’m so loyal that I Kickstarted their new self-titled album several months ago, and when it arrived all shiny in my inbox a couple weeks ago, I confirmed something I had long suspected: I am never going to hate this band. In a very general way, all of their songs sound the same – they’re loud, fast and melodic, the very definition of pop-punk. And it took a lot of Bad Religion records to come to the realization that the sameness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. MxPx has been playing in the same sandbox for more than 25 years, and they don’t leave it on this new album.

But what we have here is 11 fast, fun, hummable tunes, and I like every one of them. This album is in and out in 30 minutes, which is about the right length for a pop-punk record anyway, and in this case leaves me wanting more. As befits a self-titled record a quarter-century into their run, MxPx is about looking back at how far the band has come, and in doing so they seem to have captured some of the fire they played with in their early days. Quick opener “Rolling Strong,” standout “Let’s Ride,” “Uptown Streets” (which sports my favorite guitar riff here), “20/20 Hindsight,” “The Way We Do,” and on and on – these are tunes dripping with nostalgia, and with pride.

And yes, this breaks no new ground whatsoever. Mike Herrera still sounds like a bratty 17-year-old. (He’s 41 now.) Yuri Riley still plays the drums like he’s outrunning a train. Everything sounds exactly as you remember it, if you remember MxPx. This should be a detriment. I should be expecting a band on its 12th album to try new things, go new places. But I don’t care. I’m really enjoying this album, as I have every MxPx album I’ve heard since I was 17. No shame. This is just fun.

If you were to put Punch Brothers on the absolute other end of the musical spectrum, I’d be hard pressed to disagree. Where MxPx is loud and brash, Chris Thile’s prog-grass outfit is quiet and considered. The MxPx boys can certainly play, but they’re not virtuosos by any stretch of the imagination. Meanwhile the five Brothers are all masters at their instruments – Thile is a once-in-a-generation kind of player, and he’s somehow found a band that doesn’t feel like his backup dancers. They match him perfectly. While Mike Herrera would probably be kicked out of Lake Woebegone, Thile has been hosting A Prairie Home Companion for years now. (It’s called Live From Here now, but it’s the same show.)

So what could they possibly have in common? Like MxPx, Punch Brothers break no new ground on their new album,All Ashore. It’s their fifth, and by now the quintet’s sound is well established – they use the traditional bluegrass lineup of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass to create complex musical excursions, and the occasional killer pop song. Last time out, on an album called The Phosphorescent Blues, the Brothers debuted drums and percussion, pushing their sound to new places, but here they return to the traditional instrumentation they’re known for.

And if you need further proof that you don’t need to innovate to create fantastic music, this record should do it. These nine songs are simply wonderful. They’re all originals, and two of them are complex instrumentals, while the rest find Thile in fine voice, his twisty lyrics telling tales of an America in pain. The seven-minute title track sets the tone well, spinning a story of a family falling to pieces with a delicate eye for detail. Thile gives himself a vocal workout on “The Angel of Doubt,” on which his whisper cuts through the silence and his swaying sing-speak final verse comes closer to rap than he ever has. And on “Just Look at This Mess” the band embraces a gorgeous sense of dynamics, moving from sparse to sweeping in five minutes.

If you’re a fan of this band, there’s nothing on All Ashore you haven’t heard before. “Jumbo” is the down-home bluegrass one, this time with a political bent. “The Gardener” is the slow one with the beautiful harmonies. “Three Dots and a Dash” is the workout, the five Brothers circling around each other, fingers flailing. “It’s All Part of the Plan” is the single, and the most hummable one. This falls into familiar patterns, but you won’t care. Just listen to these arrangements, to the way that each instrument finds it space, then makes room. Listen to how astonishing the playing is on “Jungle Bird,” how natural the build is on “Mess,” how typically extraordinary every element of the closer “Like It’s Going Out of Style” is.

Every bit of All Ashore is thoughtfully considered, every moment carefully crafted to showcase what this band does. That they don’t do anything new is in no way a detriment. There is no other band like this one, and if we’ve heard everything they’re capable of, and the next dozen Punch Brothers records sound exactly like this one, I won’t be upset or disappointed. You don’t need to break new ground to build, and they’ve built something wonderful here.

Next week, I’m in Nashville to see the Prayer Chain reunite after more than 20 years. Believe me that I’m going to write about that. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Heavy With a Twist
New Metal Albums Rewriting the Rulebook

One of my favorite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called Lost in Vegas.

It features two men from Vegas (naturally) named Ryan and George. They’re hip-hop heads by nature, and they appear to have grown up without hearing much in the way of other music. And on their YouTube channel, they take recommendations of rock and metal songs for them to listen to, and react to them live. That’s the entire concept, but oh man, the giddy joy of watching these two listen to, say, “Holy Wars” by Megadeth or “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” by Van Halen or anything – literally anything – by Metallica is invigorating.

What I love most about Lost in Vegas is watching these guys hear for the first time what I heard in these songs years ago. Hearing old songs through new ears has been a treat, especially old metal songs, because as I’ve grown older, I’ve moved more and more away from aggressive music. It’s not that I don’t still love me some Ride the Lightning, because I most certainly do. It’s just that the sound has grown a little stale for me, and it takes something pretty special to get me interested in new metal these days.

I’m not absolutely sure how this ended up happening, but I’ve found myself buying traditional metal records by the likes of Sepultura and Mastodon and even Metallica by rote, and enjoying them, but not really giving them my full attention. I sometimes even forget that Metallica gave us the mostly excellent Hardwired… to Self Destruct not long ago, and that I liked it. If you look at the metal albums I’ve been excited about in recent years, none of them are straight down the thrash lane. I think I’m looking to recapture that first-blush sense of awe I see in Ryan and George of Lost in Vegas, and after hearing the standard metal sound for 30 years, I’m more inured to it.

All of that said, I’ve been quite excited about the two metal albums I’m talking about today, and true to form, neither of them are traditional in any sense. First up is San Francisco’s Deafheaven, and I’ve been jazzed to hear their new album for months. It’s called Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, and it follows two extraordinary albums, 2013’s Sunbather and 2015’s New Bermuda, albums that filled me with the same sense of discovery I felt when I heard Rust in Peace for the first time.

Deafheaven is, frankly, unlike any other metal band I’ve ever encountered. They’re almost insanely heavy, in a way that feels like the entire ocean crashing down on you. It’s the kind of heavy that is almost gentle after a while, enveloping you like a cocoon. The songs are long, routinely stretching past 10 minutes, and the band’s sense of dynamics is so good that at the end of each of these extended adventures, you feel like you’ve been somewhere. The fascinating thing about Deafheaven for me is that they’re a loud, abrasive band. The guitars fill whatever room they’re played in, and George Clarke’s vocals are demonic things – his screams and screeches are like sandpaper against your skin. But with all of this, they’re probably the most devoted metal band on earth to the concept of musical beauty.

Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is beautiful. It’s even more gorgeous than its predecessors, and it feels purposeful – the first sound you hear is piano, there are plenty of clean guitar sections, and Clarke’s lyrics are pure poetry. (I’m not kidding about that. Here is a bit from standout “Honeycomb”: “I’m reluctant to stay sad, life beyond is a field of flowers, my love is a nervous child lapping from the glowing lagoon of their presence, my love is a bulging, blue-faced fool hung from the throat by sunflower stems…”) The band can still bring the heavy, and it does throughout, but even that heaviness is layered and full of light.

My favorites here are the three longer ones. The aforementioned “Honeycomb” is a powerhouse, bigger in sound than I can even describe. There are moments when they sound like a straight-ahead rock band here, lead guitars spinning out melody, and the sound gets gentler near the end, taking on post-rock qualities. The chiming guitars that close out “Honeycomb” are magical. “Canary Yellow” is a masterpiece, beginning like a Cure song, building into a monolith and then closing in harmony. “On and on we choke on an everlasting handsome night,” Clarke screams. “My lover’s blood rushes right through me, wild, fantastic.” “Glint” and closer “Worthless Animal” are similarly superb, building and crashing and building again to an extraordinary climax.

This is the kind of band for whom four-minute songs are interludes, but I don’t want to give short shrift to tracks like “Near” and “Night People,” which contribute immensely to the sound and flow of this record. I’m not sure if this is my favorite of Deafheaven’s efforts – there’s something a little more human about this one, where Sunbather felt totally alien – but it is certainly the most delicate and instantly appealing of them. I feel like this band is on a journey, and the final destination is one of almost impossible beauty, and I’m very much enjoying being along for the ride.

Between the Buried and Me don’t traffic in beautiful, but they do offer the other side of my brain – the one fascinated by equations and logic puzzles and plot twists – plenty to chew on. They started as an intelligent post-metal band, but have since evolved into one of the most complex and mind-boggling acts on earth. The series of albums starting with 2007’s Colors is one of the most dense bodies of work I can name, each record worthy of years of study. They have offered up nothing but conceptual pieces for years, giving us difficult plotlines and music that sounds virtually impossible for five people to play. (I’ve seen them live. They can do it.)

A few months ago I reviewed the first half of their new album, Automata. For reasons passing my understanding, Sumerian Records chose to break Automata up into two EPs, rather than issuing the complete work at once. Now that I have that complete work with the release of Automata II, that decision makes even less sense. I understand that the record company makes more money when I pay twice for something, but as a whole, Automata is the same length as its predecessor, Coma Ecliptic, and far shorter than The Parallax II, still the best BTBAM album. I’ve heard the band suggest that the density of the material over an extended running time might be too much for audiences, hence the split, but come on. We’re fans of this stuff. We know what we’re getting.

We get about 33 minutes of it on Automata II, and it’s remarkably ambitious and adventurous stuff. The first thing they hit you with is the album’s 13-minute centerpiece, “The Proverbial Bellow,” and within two minutes they’ve out-Dream Theatered Dream Theater. The band’s fascination with synthesizers and keyboard sounds hits its zenith here, some portions of this song feeling more like a film score than anything else. It’s an incredible piece of music, packing in an album’s worth of melodies, twists and turns, and it gets heavy as hell, Tommy Rogers whipping out that trademark growl around the four-minute mark.

Automata is the story of a man whose dreams are broadcast to the world for entertainment, and in this final chapter, this man confronts the company behind it, called Voice of Trespass, and gets his happy ending. Positive resolutions are new ground for this band – their last two concept records ended in death – and they’ve broken new musical ground at the same time. “Glide” is a two-minute interlude built around an accordion figure, of all things, while “Voice of Trespass” is BTBAM’s first foray into jazz-metal. The song features a full horn section brassing its way through the din, and it’s kind of awesome. Rogers puts on an Alice Cooper growl and acts as ringmaster for this circus, and it’s convincing and captivating. And then there’s the callback to Automata I’s “Condemned to the Gallows,” which might not feel as impressive had they issued this album in one piece.

Ten-minute closer “Grid” brings us back to Between the Buried and Me’s signature sound, and it’s as complicated and satisfying an ending as you could ask for. It still strikes me as amazing that these five guys can not only come up with music this tricky and intricate, but can keep it all straight and play it on stage. Just trying to keep the myriad sections of “Grid” in order in my mind would be beyond my musical abilities. That they continue to seek out new territory while building on this sound is beyond impressive.

I do wish we’d been given Automata all at once, since it works best as a single piece of music. But release strategy aside, this album contains exactly what BTBAM fans have come to expect from this band, and several innovations in their sound as well. As a 68-minute work, it stands with the best of what BTBAM has offered, and if putting it out in bite-sized chunks helped people come to terms with it and absorb it, then it was worth it. It’s music that deserves the extra time it takes to unravel it and fully understand it. With Automata, they have once again proven that they are nowhere near typical.

Next week, probably MXPX and Punch Brothers. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

The Choir’s Hat Trick
Three New Records Tell the Story of One Extraordinary Band

I’ve been a fan of Nashville-based spiritual pop band The Choir for nearly 30 years. I can’t think of a better time to be into them than right now.

I will fully cop to not being entirely objective when it comes to the Choir. I love very few bands the way I love this one – they have been in my personal pantheon for the majority of my life. I try my best to review Choir albums the same way I would review any other band’s work, and I’m never sure if I have succeeded. Their music means so much to me that stepping outside of myself is difficult, if not impossible. When a Choir album hits with me, it hits deeply.

Why is this? Well, I can run down the reasons, but they probably won’t be convincing. I’ve told the story numerous times before, but the band’s 1990 masterpiece Circle Slide changed my life. It was the first music like it I had ever heard – searching and human and yearning and absolutely soul-filling. I have bought Circle Slide five times now – on cassette, on CD, on vinyl, as part of a box set and in a remastered anniversary edition – and I listen to it every few weeks. In nearly three decades, I have not grown tired of it.

And of course I bought everything that came before Circle Slide, and have bought everything after it. I’m not actually sure there’s a catalog of music I enjoy more. The Choir makes music that speaks to my soul, that seems tailor-made just for me. Over the years I have appreciated their honesty, their willingness to let their listeners in on their doubts, their fears and their lives. I almost feel like I know Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty. I’ve listened as their kids were born, and as they grew up. (“It Hurts To Say Goodbye,” from 2014’s fantastic Shadow Weaver, is the latest song about their children, this one about the homes they have built for themselves as adults. It’s remarkable to me that you can trace their lives through song this way.)

The Choir started out in 1983, and amazingly, they’re still going strong. The band is fully independent at this point, existing on the generosity of fans who pre-order their new music up to a year in advance. The continued existence of the Choir is just one of the reasons I love crowdfunding, and I’m more than happy to pony up for this band’s new work. And when I said I can’t think of a better time to be into them than right now, that new work is the reason. Because for the past few years there has been a lot of new Choir material, and there’s no sign that the flood will slow down soon.

I have three – THREE – new Choir-related albums that I have been listening to nearly non-stop for a few weeks now. Together, they paint a strong picture of the current state of the band. In fact, I’d advocate for buying all three (because of course I would) and listening in a row. These three records complement each other marvelously, and together are the best argument I could make for becoming a fan.

You may recall that a couple weeks ago, I reviewed the Choir’s 15th album, Bloodshot, here in this space. You may also recall that I was slightly underwhelmed by it, and you will probably not be surprised to learn that it has grown on me considerably since I scribbled down my initial impressions. Most of what I said initially still stands, but I’ve grown attached to these songs and gained respect for the way they decided to make this album.

Because on first blush, it’s the least Choir-sounding Choir album in a long time – the songs are all straightforward, the production is earthy and Derri Daugherty’s floaty guitar sound is in short supply. But that tone fits the subject matter well – Bloodshot is an honest and raw accounting of drummer Steve Hindalong’s divorce, and its best songs paint a sad portrait of two people unable to make their marriage work, no matter how hard they try. Opener “Bloodshot Eyes” is stunning, a slow burn that, in one of Hindalong’s most incisive lyrics, puts you right there as two tired and bleary people talk through the night, hoping for some kind of understanding that never comes.

About half the songs on Bloodshot are about Hindalong’s divorce, and they’re painful things. As I said before, the decision to keep the darkness out of much of the bright sound of this record (“Bloodshot Eyes” notwithstanding) feels intentional, as if darker music would have made the experience unbearable. Some of these songs are killers, like “Birds, Bewildered” and “House of Blues,” and the finale, “The Time Has Come,” remains the definition of a Choir classic – it’s a gorgeous hymn about forgiveness, for others and for ourselves.

If you remember my previous review, you’ll recall that I’ve always loved the darker half of this record, and I had some issues with the lighter, sillier material. Rockers like “Summer Rain” and “Magic” remain wonderful, and while I will never love “Californians On Ice,” it’s grown on me. I’m especially fond of the saxophone break and the soaring guitar section before the last verse. Similarly, I’ve become more enamored of “The Way You Always Are,” Hindalong’s one vocal turn on this record. It’s a little simplistic, but it’s fun.

Mostly, though, I think Bloodshot works as a whole, an opinion I’ve only recently come to. The lighter songs balance off the heavier ones nicely, and the choice to include a reprise at track eight creates a nice demarcation between the darker material and the more hopeful final third. I still wish the band had landed on some stranger arrangements here and there, but I’ve come to think of the singular sound of this album, so different from any other Choir record, as a strength.

The more straight-ahead rock leanings of Bloodshot provide a beautiful contrast to the second of our three albums, Derri Daugherty’s The Color of Dreams. For years the idea of a full-blown Derri solo record has been an in-joke among Choir fans – he’s basically been promising one for nearly 20 years. Now that it’s here, I can say it was worth every day we waited for it. It’s a gentler, folksier album, as you might expect, and with Hindalong producing, co-writing and playing on every track, it feels like getting a second Choir record weeks after the first one.

But this is a deeply personal album for Daugherty. (Full disclosure: I wrote the bio sheet for this album, and interviewed Daugherty about the songs.) It was created during a difficult time, as Daugherty uprooted his life and moved back to Los Angeles to take care of his ailing father. The elder Daugherty died as the album was nearing completion, and his spirit lives in these songs. Most obviously, there is “Your Chair,” my vote for the prettiest song of 2018. It’s a gorgeous acoustic number, Daugherty recounting some of the, frankly, amazing things his father did during his life: “I’ve been with you to the South Pacific, patrolling the Tokyo Bay, landed a plane with a flashlight in a field in Iowa, when your runaway ’44 Ford rolled into Bakersfield, we weren’t scared, me riding on the sofa and you sitting in your chair…” It’s absolutely lovely.

But the sense of enjoying life while it is here is all over this album. The title track is dedicated to a longtime friend whose wife of 30 years died recently. “Baby Breathe” was written for Daugherty’s daughter, to encourage her to take time and appreciate what she has. Terry Taylor’s wonderful “Between Nashville and L.A.” was written specifically for this record, and it captures Daugherty’s journeys between his two lives. Even “We’ve Got the Moon,” reprised here from Bloodshot in a strummier version, is about grabbing the chance for a more interesting life before that chance is gone.

The Color of Dreams is a more varied album than Bloodshot, Daugherty working in a number of styles. Standout “Unhypnotized” is a propulsive acoustic rocker about trying to see one’s faith clearly. (Hindalong’s lyrics for this one are amazing.) Paul Averitt’s “Saying Goodbye” is a tricky folk song – try to follow its extra beats on first listen – and the slow burn “I Want You to Be” contains all the darkness that you won’t find on the Choir album. The latter song is about the ways we want to control our relationships, both with each other and with God.

The album ends with a delightful cover of Peter Bradley Adams’ “So Are You to Me,” and then six ambient tracks that recast themes from the record in a more expansive instrumental form. The ambient numbers are a nice bonus, and given how little of Daugherty’s watery shoegaze guitar sound made it onto the Choir album and his own effort, it’s nice to hear a good 20 minutes of him playing like only he can. The Color of Dreams is terrific, and together with Bloodshot it provides a more complete story.

But the Choir’s not done yet. The third of their trilogy has just landed in the form of a 25th anniversary package for their Kissers and Killers album, one that looks back and forward. In 1993, after touring Circle Slide, the Choir went independent, creating their loudest and most abrasive effort and then self-releasing it. Kissers and Killers filters the then-burgeoning grunge phenomenon through the Choir’s particular lenses, but it doesn’t sound dated in the slightest. It’s just loud, roaring rock and roll, Steve and Derri turning out some of their most explosive songs. The title track may be the fastest steamroller of a tune they’ve ever written, while pop songs like “Amazing” and “Weather Girl” are given extraordinary energy from the fuzzed-out guitars.

The Choir has remastered the album and pressed it onto vinyl for the first time, but that’s not all. They’ve also completely re-recorded it in a stripped-down acoustic setting, and the results are revelatory. This isn’t just a cheap point-a-mic-at-Derri affair, it’s a full reimagining of Kissers and Killers, shifting tempos and adorning these songs with new arrangements. It transforms these songs from steel wool to silk, and in every case the reinvention works beautifully.

I’m in love with the new version of the title track, with its gently sloping guitar, its swell saxophone parts and its tambourine mirroring the double-time drums of the original. I’m also in love with the new “Weather Girl,” which emphasizes the lovely melody, and the new “Grace,” which frees this very pretty song from the strange sonic landscape it was originally rendered in. Hindalong has grown as a singer considerably since 1993, and he reprises his vocal turn on “Let the Sky Fall,” eclipsing his earlier performance.

Kissers and Killers ends with its best track, the sweet “Love Your Mind,” and I think I may love this new recasting best of all. It’s similar to the version that ended up on De-Plumed back in 2010, but there’s something about this fuller take that brings out the emotion in Daugherty’s voice. The wavering cello, the bells, everything works so well. I can’t stop listening to it. I’ve loved this song for 25 years, and I’ve never loved it more.

So yeah, listening to both versions of Kissers and Killers in this new package will give you those missing elements of the Choir’s sound: the amps-ablaze rock band they can often be, and the nuanced interpreters of their own work that they’ve become. Add that to Bloodshot’s raw, honest pop-rock and The Color of Dreams’ more reflective yet still full and varied sound, and you have everything the Choir does well. I’m beyond grateful to have all three of these new records and to have one of my favorite bands continue to create such soul-stirring music, even after so long.

If I’ve convinced you to give the band a shot, you can get Bloodshot and Kissers and Killers here. You can pick up The Color of Dreams from Lo-Fidelity here.

Next week, things get loud. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Reasons to Be Cheerful
A Look Ahead at Summer's Bounty

As you read this, I am in France. Yes, that France.

I’m visiting for nine days for work, and while I can’t say for sure, I’m betting that the fact that I’m on the clock hasn’t dampened my excitement for my first visit to the land of my ancestors. I’m in Toulouse, an 800-year-old city in the country’s southwest region, and probably having the time of my life.

Which means this week you’re not getting my best effort. Next week’s will certainly be more substantial than this week’s, but it will also be an easy one for me to write, as you’ll see. This week, though, I thought I’d run down a couple of upcoming releases I’m excited about, since this is supposed to be a column about the geeky thrill of new music. So here are some records coming out soon that I am geekily thrilled about.

We’re in a massive month for new tunes, and I hope I’m going to have time to listen to everything I’m picking up. I’m pretty jazzed for the new Deafheaven album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. That’s a great title, and from everything I’ve heard, the band leapt to a new level on this one. I’m also quite looking forward to Between the Buried and Me’s Automata II, which will conclude the album they began a few months ago. It still seems to me that there was no reason to break this record up into two releases, but we’ll see.

Punch Brothers will have a new one called All Ashore in a couple weeks. Chris Thile is, as I’ve said before, a once-in-a-generation kind of musician, and I’m always interested in whatever he comes up with. I’ve heard nothing about this new one, other than the two songs that have been released from it, so it feels to me like just another Punch Brothers record, but they’ve all been pretty amazing so far. I’m very ready for a new Cowboy Junkies album too, after too long a wait.

August is slimmer pickings, but there are certainly some I’m looking forward to. The big one next month is Death Cab for Cutie, who will return with Thank You For Today on August 17. Everything I’ve heard has been godawful boring, but I hope they can deliver a good argument for their continued existence. I’m also looking forward to Lightsleeper, the first album from Neil and Liam Finn together. Neil is just coming off of his best album in many years, Out of Silence, and Liam has always been a swell writer. This should be very good.

Other things from August include the first Ultraphonix record, and I say first because I hope there will be more. Ultraphonix is a collaboration between singer Corey Glover of Living Colour and guitarist George Lynch, and anything that gets me more Corey Glover is going to be worth my money. I have long been an Enuff Znuff fan, as anyone who has followed this column probably knows, and on August 10 they will issue their first record without Donnie Vie. This, of course, has me worried, but I will buy it anyway and see how it is. Donnie is working on a new thing now too, and I’ve supported him on Pledgemusic.

September opens with Paul McCartney’s Egypt Station and Paul Simon’s In the Blue Light, in case you were wondering if any legends would pop up in this list. McCartney’s record is all new songs, and I’m always interested to hear new tunes from Paul, because he doesn’t have to write any ever again. He makes new music now solely because he wants to, and that’s the best kind of freedom. Simon’s record revisits some forgotten gems from his catalog and, judging by the lineup of musicians on this thing, reinvents them. Very much looking forward to both.

Also in September is a new Orbital album, a new one from Low, a comeback from Nile Rodgers and Chic, a new Joy Formidable record, the first new Riverside album since their guitarist died, a new Richard Thompson record, a vault release from Prince and a four-CD box set of unreleased music from Tom Petty. Given all that, October can’t match up yet – we’ll have a new Tom Odell album, a new Coheed and Cambria rock opera, a new Twenty-One Pilots and the final EP from Minus the Bear.

I’m also anticipating the new Tourniquet album Gazing at Medusa somewhere in there, and the new one from Jimmy Brown of Deliverance, called Eraserhead. And sometime later this month, a five-CD reissue of Horrendous Disc, one of the most important Daniel Amos albums, will land in my mailbox. That will take some time to get through all on its own.

So yeah, there’s a bounty of new stuff headed our way. And my usual problem applies: I have less and less time to absorb it all and form thoughts about it. I am genuinely hopeful that after I return from France, I can buckle down and get you the weekly column that you deserve. Thanks for reading even when I don’t deliver. I appreciate you more than you know.

Next week, the Choir scores the hat trick. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles