Writers in the Sky
Randy Newman and Dan Wilson Show Us How It's Done

I’m often asked to name my favorite song. I always name “Wichita Lineman.”

This may seem like a strange choice, but I think it’s a perfect song. I must have first heard it on the radio when I was very young, because I cannot remember a world in which I didn’t know “Wichita Lineman.” Its melody is a glorious, ever-changing thing, capped off by a perfect rising note that still sends chills. It contains one of the most beautiful lines in all of pop music: “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” I’ve heard probably 40 different versions of this song, and every time it gets me.

The definitive version of “Wichita Lineman,” of course, belongs to Glen Campbell, who turned it into a hit in 1968. And if that were the only thing Campbell had ever done, he’d still be noteworthy. But of course it isn’t. Campbell’s career spanned more than 50 years and led to an astonishing 80 hits, 29 of them top ten. That’s not even counting his work as a member of Los Angeles session musician collective The Wrecking Crew, with whom he performed on hundreds of the most important songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. (He’s on

And that’s not even mentioning his work in film and television. Campbell was a rare talent – a guitar player’s guitar player with a hit-maker’s charm, able to duck anonymously into work-for-hire one minute and be a charismatic band leader the next. We lost Campbell today after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past seven years, Campbell has been saying a long goodbye, re-recording some of his favorites (including “Wichita Lineman”) and giving us a final album of cover tunes in June called Adios.  It’s truly marvelous stuff, and a reminder of what a powerful performer we’ve lost.

Rest in peace, Glen. And thank you.

* * * * *

Last week Manchester Orchestra released an album that takes place in and around the site of one of my laboratory’s upcoming experiments. This week Randy Newman releases an album called Dark Matter, an album that opens with an eight-minute examination of science and faith. It’s like all of music has decided to be about me.

There’s no one on earth like Randy Newman, and I’m always glad to see a new record from him. They’re appearing about once a decade now, which isn’t nearly frequently enough for me, but he’s 73 years old and his intricate work takes some time to put together. Dark Matter is… well, it’s a Randy Newman album. It’s sharp and biting and definitely not safe. It’s also tender and sad, often in ways you would never expect from a man with his singular voice. And it’s fully orchestrated – these all sound like show tunes from a Broadway in a much more interesting alternate universe.

Newman wastes no time at all on this album, hitting you with “The Great Debate” right up front. Only Newman would write this song – it’s a dramatic piece pitting the world’s scientists against religious leaders in an arena in Durham, North Carolina (which should be a hint as to how this will go). Newman’s ringmaster character demands that science explain dark matter (which it can’t yet), and gives a Ken Ham-style refutation of evolution. His snarky pronouncements are punctuated by bursts of gospel music and dancing. And then it turns meta, with a member of the audience calling out Newman by name for setting up these cynical straw men. When the song Newman is writing turns against him, it’s a wildly thrilling moment, one that says a lot about his view of America.

Dark Matter doesn’t quite get there again – “The Great Debate” is the biggest and broadest statement of this record. But there are other highlights. Oh yes. “Putin” is one of Newman’s all-time greats, a sarcastic anthem for Russia’s bare-chested leader. “He can drive his giant tractor across the Trans-Siberian plain, he can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain…” The Putin girls, there to provide lascivious commentary on Vladimir’s attractiveness and power, are hilarious, as is Newman’s dismissal of them: “Putin hates the Putin girls because he hates vulgarity.”

Elsewhere, Newman takes on the roles of historical figures. “Brothers” is a dialogue between Jack and Bobby Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. “Sonny Boy” imagines the original Sonny Boy Williamson returning as a ghost and seeing the young upstart who stole his name. Television makes a significant mark this time, Newman giving us not only a full version of “It’s a Jungle Out There,” his theme to Monk, but resurrecting “She Chose Me,” a beautiful song he wrote for (yes, really) Stephen Bochco’s Cop Rock.

And amidst all the satire and snark, there is a real beauty to Newman’s work, and he’s never been afraid to let it show. “Lost Without You” is the album’s prettiest song, a raw and real document of a family on the verge of losing its center. It’s devastating. The record ends with its second-prettiest, “Wandering Boy,” a swaying folk song that tells a whole tale about fatherhood in three minutes. Like all of Dark Matter, it’s vintage Randy Newman, a short story in song form. While I’d like one of these short story books more than once every ten years, when we get one, it’s always cause for celebration.

* * * * *

If we’re talking about great songwriters this week – and we are – my list would absolutely include Dan Wilson.

He’s remained pretty much anonymous for most of his career, but chances are you know at least one Dan Wilson song. For nearly 20 years – basically since the breakup of his swell band, Semisonic – Wilson has been the songwriter for the stars, responsible for a remarkably wide range of tunes performed by a remarkably wide range of artists. Just over the last year, he’s written songs for Phantogram, Halsey, Cold War Kids, the Head and the Heart, Sara Watkins, Andrew Bird and Weezer, among others.

Like Jimmy Webb, the man behind “Wichita Lineman,” Wilson has stayed out of the spotlight, only receiving accolades for his myriad songsmithing contributions from those in the know. But his new solo album is designed to remedy that, showcasing Wilson’s versions of songs he wrote or co-wrote for others. It’s called Re-Covered (get it?), and it includes some of the biggest hits Wilson has penned, as well as some interesting deeper cuts.

I’ll admit that I was more interested in the idea behind Re-Covered than the album itself. Wilson’s versions of these songs are all sturdy and enjoyable. I’m especially fond of his take on “All Will Be Well,” a song recorded by the Gabe Dixon Band (and used in a great episode of Parks and Recreation). The horn arrangements are spot on, and Wilson sings this with a delightfully wistful quality. But he’s not quite the singer he needs to be to match the original versions of some of these tunes.

Most notable here, of course, is Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Wilson gamely sings it, and he does a fine job, but come on, he’s no Adele. Others, like “You and I,” recorded by John Legend, and “Not Ready to Make Nice,” popularized by the Dixie Chicks, suffer similar fates. I like these versions fine, but I probably won’t turn to them very often.

Re-Covered does burst to life when Wilson tackles lesser-known tunes. “Landing” was written with his brother Matt for his 1998 solo album, and this re-do is marvelous. Wilson breathes new life into “Your Misfortune,” co-written with Mike Doughty. And I adore this take on “When the Stars Come Out,” originally performed by country darling Chris Stapleton. Wilson caps things off with a new take on “Closing Time,” Semisonic’s biggest hit, reminding everyone listening that yes, he wrote that one too.

I don’t want to be hard on Re-Covered. I like it fine. It certainly accomplishes its main purpose – connecting Dan Wilson’s name to all of these terrific songs he’s written. If this opens some people’s eyes to his wide-ranging, below-the-surface talent, I’m all for it.

* * * * *

Next week, Kesha’s comeback. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Good, the Bad and the Pretty
Finally Some New Music Reviews

Who wants to talk about music?

Well, good. Me too. So let me start by telling you a story about science.

I work for a particle physics laboratory, and a couple weeks ago we held a groundbreaking for our latest and largest experiment. We’re basically building a 70,000-ton monolith that will help us capture more information about tiny particles called neutrinos that are all around us, but are frustratingly difficult to study. This wasn’t just any groundbreaking – it took place a mile underground, in the site of the old Homestake mine in South Dakota.

Homestake used to be the deepest gold mine in North America. It’s located in a town called Lead, which is pronounced like “lead on, MacDuff” despite the many lead-into-gold jokes that a different pronunciation would open up. To get to the site of what will be our new experiment, you have to take a cage (basically an open wooden elevator operated by a massive 80-year-old winching system) down for about 10 minutes, watching the rock pass by as you go, and then get onto a motorized tram car and travel for another 10 minutes through narrow caverns of rock. It was quite the experience.

While I was there, I got a sense of how important the Homestake mine was to this region, and how intimately tied to the mine the history of Lead is. I met people who worked in the mine, and whose parents and grandparents worked in the mine. Building our new experiment will create a couple thousand local jobs, and the people of Lead are grateful to the underground research facility that took donation of the mine in 2009. They’re pleased to see something that was the center of their town’s life continue to be put to good use.

I mention all of this to say that I have a personal connection to Manchester Orchestra’s brilliant new album, A Black Mile to the Surface. Its story takes place in and around the Homestake mine, when it was still used for its original purpose. There’s a song called “Lead, S.D,” the only song that breaks with the album’s article-noun naming convention. (Others include “The Maze,” “The Gold,” “The Silence,” etc.) The mine and the town are used as a symbol of being stuck in a place, and later on, being stuck in a family.

Manchester Orchestra (they’re actually from Atlanta) is led by Andy Hull, a powerful singer who writes aching lyrics and sweeping melodies to go with them. Hull has said that Black Mile was inspired by the birth of his now-three-year-old daughter. Becoming a father has matured Hull, but it has also opened up new topics for him to dissect with his trademark fervor. This is a record about being part of a family, but it is also one about death and insignificance, about seeing one’s life for the fleeting thing that it is. It’s fitting that it was inspired by a birth, because this record really is the birth of something new for the band.

A Black Mile is the most complex and widescreen Manchester Orchestra record, and it gets there not by going bigger (as if they could get bigger than the amps-on-fire rock they’ve been playing since the start), but by embracing dynamics and scope. It’s the most well-produced album in their catalog, and in this case that doesn’t mean that it’s glossy or blunted. It just means it sounds fuller, that instead of just running headlong into the red, the band is now playing on a canvas that can accommodate their ambitions. Their last records, the scorching Cope and its quiet twin Hope, explored the extremes of their sound. Black Mile brings it all together, showing what they’re really capable of.

Hull and the band have responded with their best set of songs, their most cry-out-in-the-desert honest work they’ve ever delivered. Much of this album is wrapped up in fictional narratives, and it’s remarkable – as it always is with this band – that they’re able to cut right to the emotional heart anyway. “The Gold” is one of the sharpest songs they’ve written, Hull introducing us to a couple torn apart by the gold mine and their differences. “You and me, we’re a day drink, so lose your faith in me,” he sings over a rolling 6/8 riff, and it’s magical.

While “The Gold” is a high point, the album never slips from that pinnacle. Other highlights include the tricky, furious “The Moth,” the lower-key and lovely “The Alien,” the Hull solo track “The Parts” (probably the saddest and most affecting of these songs) and the extraordinary closer “The Silence,” on which Hull addresses the chains of family: “Little girl, you are cursed by my ancestry, there’s nothing but darkness and agony…”

A Black Mile to the Surface is a novel in album form, a dark masterpiece about responsibility and inertia. I went into it looking for connections to my own life and Homestake, but came out of it simply blown away by the heart and scope of this thing. I’ve always liked Manchester Orchestra, but this is the first time I have unreservedly loved every song, the first time that Hull’s horizon-wide narratives and ambition have swept me along like a pebble in a river. Everything about this record is beautiful. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

* * * * *

Ambition, scope and heart used to be the hallmarks of Arcade Fire, the Montreal band with like 75 members. They exploded out of nowhere 13 years ago with a driving, nostalgic rock record called Funeral, and only got better on 2007’s Neon Bible and 2010’s The Suburbs. Arcade Fire’s sound was enormous and all-encompassing, the sort of thing you can only do for so long before burning out on it.

The turning point came on Reflektor, a double album on which the band embraced danceable, Talking Heads-ish grooves. And now they’ve gone full Abba on their fifth and worst record, Everything Now. Most of this album takes the form of a dance party about materialism and commercialism, which certainly feels like an attempt at irony, but it’s so leaden, so on the nose, that it falls flat. U2 took on a similar irony in the ‘90s and did it far more successfully, which should put this backfire in perspective.

Not that this doesn’t shimmy and shake convincingly. The opening trilogy of the bubblegum-pop title track, the relentless “Signs of Life” and the throbbing synths of “Creature Comfort” certainly set a tone, Win Butler railing against our dead-inside culture and addressing teenage suicide with typical bluntness: “God, make me famous, and if you can’t, just make it painless.” The synth-heavy sound is bright neon, the words subversive, but Butler acts as if no one has ever thought of this dichotomy before.

To say “things go south from there” is to understate considerably. “Peter Pan,” “Chemistry” and the two tracks titled “Infinite Content” are the worst Arcade Fire songs ever. It’s amazing to me that something as goofy and unlistenable as the faux-reggae “Chemistry” ever made it past the rehearsal stage. You simply won’t believe how bad it is. And Butler sings his lyrical pun on “Infinite Content” – in one form a piss-poor punk pastiche and in the other a lazy Sunday acoustic piece – with an unearned sense of self-satisfaction.

The album gets more interesting in its final third, but it couldn’t really get less interesting. I actually like the pulsing love song “Put Your Money on Me,” though its obvious “commercialism is not as good as love” theme is pretty basic, and the slow burner “We Don’t Deserve Love” is the album’s best song. Had they started from there, scrapped everything else and really buckled down, they might have written something worthwhile. As it is, though, Everything Now is remarkably facile and surprisingly limp. It’s a sad and precipitous fall for a once-great band, and proof that if you make a bad record ironically, you’ve still made a bad record.

* * * * *

The artist formally known as Klayton seems to delight in being hard to predict.

He is the sole member of three projects. As Celldweller, he specializes in epic, genre-busting electronic prog-metal awesomeness. As Circle of Dust, he pummels you with chugging guitar-heavy industrial madness. And as Scandroid, he time-travels to the 1980s and channels the Blade Runner soundtrack for pure retro synth-pop goodness. He’s worked hard over the past few years to establish and separate these identities, even remixing songs from one project in the style of the others, just to delineate them.

So of course, his new Celldweller album, Offworld, sounds like nothing else he’s done. Gone are the hyperactive electronic drums, gone are the bursts of distorted guitar, gone is the almost ADD-quality genre-hopping. Offworld is a quiet, reflective thing, centered mainly on shoegaze-style clean guitar and melancholy atmosphere. It’s still perfectly produced, big-sounding and clear, but the subtle keyboard flourishes and linear, organic guitar that dominate this record are a surprise.

Is it any good? Of course it is. The expansive title track kicks things off with a long instrumental introduction that sets the tone. “How Little I Must Know” is the most naked Klayton has ever allowed himself to be on record – just an electric guitar, a subtle synth and emotional vocals. “The Great Divide” is a splendid single, strummy and memorable. He knocks a cover of the Call’s “Too Many Tears” out of the park, and then positively reinvents Scandroid’s “Awakening with You” as a shoegaze epic. “Into the Fall” is a rewrite of Circle of Dust’s “Embracing Entropy,” and it’s thoroughly unrecognizable.

Offworld is just the right length, too. Seventy-five minutes of this melancholy might have been too much. Klayton stops at 47 minutes, following up the terrific “Last Night on Earth” with a reprise of the title track. As a bonus, he gives us a stunning Ulrich Schnauss remix of “Awakening with You” that is absolutely worth the additional five minutes. This is a successful experiment on Klayton’s part – a Celldweller album that sounds nothing like Celldweller, and yet fits in with the aesthetic he’s built. It blurs the lines between his three projects while forging new paths. In short, it’s Klayton, and I’m still glad to be along for the ride.

Check out Klayton’s work here: https://fixtstore.com.

* * * * *

Next week, more music with Randy Newman and Dan Wilson. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Why is Everything So Heavy?
Chester Bennington, 1976-2017

We lost Chester Bennington this week.

I’ll talk about Linkin Park first, because that part’s easier. I have long maintained that Linkin Park doesn’t get the respect they deserve. Their first album, the processed rock-rap hit factory Hybrid Theory, is still their biggest-selling, and I think many people assumed the band’s entire bag of tricks was exhausted on their first go-round. But Linkin Park proved to be one of the most artistically restless bands to ever sell more than ten million records.

Truthfully, they only carbon-copied themselves once – their rushed second album, Meteora, is basically Hybird Theory II. But after that, Bennington and his bandmates never really revisited that sound. Minutes to Midnight is a largely quiet and reflective thing, and then their magnum opus A Thousand Suns took them to a new level. A more mature, political work, A Thousand Suns was a patchwork quilt of influences, from Bowie to Chuck D. It still surprises me each time I hear it.

From there they kept throwing curve balls. Living Things has grown in my estimation – I gave it short shrift because it wasn’t as all-over-the-map creative as A Thousand Suns, but it’s a strong and risky electro-pop record. The awesome The Hunting Party followed that up with a full-on metal record, and I don’t mean the radio metal of Hybrid Theory. I mean old-school blast-beat metal. And just two months ago, they took a dive into glossy radio pop, the kind they’d never really made before. I’m still absorbing One More Light, but I waver between thinking of it as the ultimate sellout and considering it their most beautiful set of songs.

My favorite artists keep me guessing, and Linkin Park certainly did that. And in Chester Bennington they had a singer who could handle anything they threw at him. He could scream with the best of them, and wasn’t intimidated at all by metal epics like “Keys to the Kingdom,” and he could also sing with subtlety, as he proved one last time on the title track of One More Light. I’m not sure Bennington ever got the respect he deserved either.

Now we get to the more difficult part. Last Thursday, Bennington was found dead in his California home. He had hung himself, another victim of depression who saw no other way out. Bennington killed himself on what would have been Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday, had he not also hung himself two months prior.

This is a lot to take in. Bennington didn’t have quite the impact on my life Cornell did, but he was a singer I always looked forward to hearing, and now we won’t get to hear him again. I knew very little about his private life, about his daily struggle. I do know this, though: depression is real. It’s a clawing, insidious thing that works on you every minute, convincing you that you’re not worth anything and the world would be better without you. It can strike at any time, but the truth is if you have it, it’s always there, coiled and waiting.

I would never presume to know what Bennington felt, or what he went through. But for many years I have glossed over his more angst-filled lyrics, the same way I did those of Cornell and Cobain and others. And maybe that’s my fault for not taking them seriously. Bennington has been telling us for his whole career that he is in pain, that he’s close to giving up. He even wrote his own eulogy in “Leave Out All the Rest”: “When my time comes, forget the wrong that I’ve done, help me leave behind some reasons to be missed, don’t resent me and when you’re feeling empty, keep me in your memory, leave out all the rest…”

I’ve been listening to Linkin Park intently since Bennington’s death, and it all sounds new to me. Even a pop song like “Nobody Can Save Me” hurts now: “I’m dancing with my demons, I’m hanging off the edge, storm clouds gathered beneath me, waves break above my head… I’m holding up a light, chasing out the darkness inside, but nobody can save me now…”

The most painful for me, though, is “One More Light,” which quickly became one of my favorite Linkin Park songs. It is a passionately anti-suicide plea: “Who cares if someone’s time runs out if a moment is all we are? Who cares if one more light goes out? Well, I do.” God, it hurts. And not just because I will miss Bennington and his work. It hurts because Bennington sung this song, believed this song, connected with it so deeply that he could barely get through it at Cornell’s funeral, and it wasn’t enough. The very idea of that pains me to my soul.

Suicide stories are always difficult for me. I think I’ve said enough about this one. Remember that you are loved, and remember to let others know that they are loved. If anything will beat back the darkness, it’s love.

*

On the subject of farewells, we lost two longtime Doctor Who stalwarts this week, and I wanted to mention them.

Deborah Watling played the Second Doctor’s companion Victoria Waterfield in 1967 and 1968. Victoria was a classic damsel in distress kind of companion, and I always wished she’d been given more development, but Watling screamed and ran away like a pro. The moments of her brief run where she was allowed to be fierce and inventive have always drawn cheers from me. A few years ago the BBC announced that it had recovered nine episodes of ‘60s Doctor Who, episodes that had been missing for 45 years. Watling is in all nine of those episodes, and I’m so glad we have more of her performance now to watch. Deborah Watling died on Friday, July 21 after a brief bout with lung cancer. She was 69.

Trevor Baxter had an interesting life quite apart from Doctor Who – he toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in productions in several countries, and wrote many plays himself. But to me, he will always be Professor Litefoot, investigator of infernal incidents. 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the strangest and best Doctor Who stories, and not just because it introduced the world to Jago and Litefoot. But that’s high up on its list of good qualities. Theater owner Henry Gordon Jago, played by Christopher Benjamin, and Professor George Litefoot, played by Baxter, were a classic double act, one boisterous and prone to exaggeration, the other meticulous and reserved.

The pair would go on to reprise their roles as Jago and Litefoot in an audio series from Big Finish that ran 13 seasons. To say that they are beloved among Who fans is to understate by miles. Baxter died of unknown causes on July 16. He was 84. There are some fine tributes to him on the Big Finish page.

Of course, the big Doctor Who news is the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor. She’s an inspired choice to play the first female Doctor. Whittaker is a tremendous actress, an out-of-nowhere selection that instantly feels right. She’s going to be superb. I’m actually much more worried about the material she will get, due to Chris Chibnall’s imminent takeover as showrunner. Chibnall’s work for the show has been so-so at best – in fact, Whittaker’s casting is the first glimmer of hope I have had for his era. She will likely be the best thing about it, but I am very excited now to see how it goes.

And Whittaker is exactly the caliber of actor you need to succeed someone like Peter Capaldi, who over three years in the role has more than proven himself to be one of the all-time greats. I like Capaldi a lot more than many seem to – I think he may be the best actor to ever take on the role of the Doctor, and he’s played the part with a subtlety that flies in the face of the David Tennant-Matt Smith style. (Not that I don’t also like that style!) I’ll have more to say about Capaldi when he bows out at Christmas. But let me leave it by saying this: it’s a great time to be a fan of Doctor Who.

Next week, some actual music reviews. I promise! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Music of AudioFeed 2017
Some New Discoveries, Some Old Favorites, Some Great Records

Last week I waxed eloquent about the importance of the AudioFeed Festival, to me and to the world in which it lives. But this is a music column after all, so it’s time to talk about the music I picked up while I was there.

AudioFeed, as I have mentioned before, has pound for pound more excellent music than any other festival I could name. For the past few years, once the old-school headliners stopped being the only draw, it has been my yearly chance to chart the growth of some new favorites and an unmissable opportunity to discover even newer favorites. And I always walk away with a ton of new CDs.

This year there were fewer out-of-the-park discoveries. But there certainly were a couple. One of them, in fact, is a couple: Dave and Licia Radford of Nashville, who go by the name The Gray Havens. (Obscure Tolkien reference!) They refer to their music as narrative folk, and it certainly fits that description. They write story-songs (the absolutely delightful “Sirens” is a good example of this), and though they are stripped-down live, their voices intertwining over guitars or pianos, they are full-blooded on record.

I bought all three of the Gray Havens’ albums, and although I missed out on their recent Kickstarter, I am patiently awaiting their fourth. The latest, Ghost of a King, is really nice – there are shades of Coldplay here and there, and hints of Gungor, but mostly the Gray Havens are their own thing. I’d write more about these albums, but my lovely girlfriend has had them since AudioFeed (she loves them as much as I do), so I’ve only heard them online. But when record number four arrives, I will certainly delve deeper. Check them out here.

The AudioFeed community seemed excited to have booked as one of their headliners an act I’d never heard of: Lowercase Noises. It turned out to be the one-man project of Andrew Othling, who has been releasing beautiful ambient music under his band name since 2010. His show was breathtaking – an hour of sweeping, wave-like, gorgeous noise flowing over the audience as we watched mysterious shapes and colors appear on a screen at the back of the stage. Othling made oceans of wonder come out of his guitar, and it was bliss.

His new Lowercase Noises album is called The Swiss Illness, and it’s great. It’s about nostalgia, which was characterized as a disease during the 17th to 19th centuries, particularly in Switzerland. Soldiers were discharged for nostalgia, and were treated for it as if it were a mental disorder. The music on The Swiss Illness, though completely instrumental, feels sad and nostalgic to me. It’s almost overwhelmingly pretty, and listening to it on full volume is like being surrounded by water, cut off from everything, experiencing nothing but beauty. I love it. I’m hungry for more. Buy it here.

On the exact other end of the musical spectrum, there is Death Therapy. It’s the new project from Jason Wisdom of metal band Becoming the Archetype. Incidentally, I remember Wisdom and his bandmates handing out free CDs at Cornerstone in 2002, dreaming of being signed. Becoming the Archetype turned into a popular and impressive band, with five records and an EP to their name. Wisdom left in 2011 to pursue other avenues.

Those other avenues have led him to Death Therapy, a band I saw in action at last year’s AudioFeed. They’re danceable electro-metal, kind of like Deliverance’s Assimilation album, but more complex and shouty. Electronic drums sit alongside organic ones, distorted bass fires out in rhythmic bursts. Everything is about the groove. Death Therapy’s debut album is called The Storm Before the Calm, and it’s everything I was hoping for. I’m fond of every song, but the two-part instrumental at the end was a particularly interesting surprise. Find out more here.

Insomniac Folklore is a mainstay at AudioFeed. I saw them the first year, and was not surprised to hear that they are from Portland, Oregon. They take a lot from the Decemberists, though they are more stripped-back and apocalyptic. I’ve enjoyed their shows, but never picked up one of their albums before.

I rectified that this year, buying their new one, Everything Will Burn. While the title sounds more like something Death Therapy would put out, this album is rooted in centuries-old folk music and anchored by the baritone voice of Tyler Hentschel. It’s rickety in the best way, swaying back and forth on concertinas and cellos. The album is a song cycle about Exodus, and while it certainly isn’t for everyone, I find myself more enchanted by it than not. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a band quite like this one, and for that alone they deserve respect. Check the record out here.

I’ve made some discoveries at AudioFeed that I know will be with me the rest of my life. Von Strantz is one of them. Led by the core duo of Jess and Kelsey Von Strantz (they’re not related, they just both adopted the band name as their own), this band has appeared in half a dozen different incarnations throughout AudioFeed history. Their folksier early EPs shared space with some jazzier tracks on their first album, Narratives, which I praised effusively here a couple years ago.

A couple months ago, I pledged to a Kickstarter campaign for a new Von Strantz record called Apple of Your Eye, recorded with John Vanderslice. I was a little surprised to find out that Apple’s seven songs only stretch to 20 minutes, but they’re a pretty terrific 20 minutes. Von Strantz played the album straight through live at AudioFeed in a more acoustic setting that really brought the songs home, and prepared me for the more electronic, bizarre production they’ve employed on the record itself.

This is absolutely a divorce record, detailing the dissolution of Jess’ relationship. It’s darker and more difficult than the more upbeat Narratives, but it’s naked and powerful. Songs like “Loved You More” lay it bare: “Every time we touched, it never seemed to mean much to you…” The lyrics keep the songs grounded, no matter how many strange avenues the music takes. (The grooves of the title track and “Best Kept Secret” are particularly well-constructed, made of unlikely materials.) The best thing here, though, is the Adele-like “Sometimes It Hurts,” a simple piano piece that Jess sings the living hell out of. It’s a stunning closer to a record that takes Von Strantz to new places, musically and emotionally.

There doesn’t seem to be any place online to hear the new one, but you can hear all the old ones here.

Jess Von Strantz is also one-half of a band called Native Land, along with singer/songwriter (and fiancee) Matthew Hobler. Hobler’s songs are altogether stranger, but quite beautiful – he reminds me of Tim Buckley more than anyone else, writing and singing space-y acoustic tunes with cosmic imagery and surprising melodies. Native Land’s self-titled EP is handmade – it comes on a CD-R in a paper bag – and was recorded at home, but the lovely songs come through. I’m particularly fond of closer “Aneetha May,” which sounds timeless to my ears. You can hear the EP here.

But perhaps my favorite new CD I picked up at (actually shortly after) AudioFeed comes from Sho Baraka. I’d never heard of him before his post-midnight set on the final day of the festival, but he knocked me out. Imagine the gospel-tinged hip-hop of Chance the Rapper with a more pointed social awareness, a deeper willingness to talk about racism and inequality and systemic oppression and how those are moral issues for people of faith. Baraka walked into an almost entirely white room and guided this audience by the hand through all of these hard topics, with grace and humor and confidence. It was one of the best shows of the weekend.

Baraka’s new album is called The Narrative, and it is everything I could have wanted after his set. It’s a powerful piece of work, walking us through the history of racial oppression in this country and never whitewashing the role of the church in that oppression. It’s also, paradoxically, a lot of fun. “Kanye” uses Chicago’s loudest as license to rant, and the rant itself is fantastic. “Here” and “Excellent” are eminently danceable tracks with heavier themes. “Fathers” is a moving ode to men who take responsibility, and the closer “Piano Break” (which got Baraka banned from LifeWay Christian bookstores for using the word “penis”) is perhaps his fullest expression here, a deep and wide-ranging poem of anguish and love.

The Narrative is superb in every way, probably my favorite hip-hop album I have heard this year. (It came out last year, alas, or it would be in my list.) You can check Sho Baraka out here. He has a follow-up EP to The Narrative out now too, called Pianos and Politics, and I am looking forward to hearing that.

All in all, a pretty good haul from AudioFeed 2017. Already looking forward to next year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Why AudioFeed Matters
The Festival That's Best of All

The AudioFeed Festival turned five this year.

I’m happy to say I haven’t missed an AudioFeed yet, and if I have anything to say about it, I’ll be there each year for as long as the merry band who organizes it keeps the torches lit. It’s become for me like going home and seeing family once a year. I’ve really stopped being able to review the festival, if that’s ever what I was doing, since it’s become such an important part of my life.

I’ve talked at length in this space about why AudioFeed is important to me. I grew up in a church, but for 25 years after I left, I’ve never felt at home in houses of worship. I’m still not sure what I believe, or even how best to explore the belief I have. The constant thread, though – the thing that keeps me coming back to a sense of the divine, the infinite – has been music. I grew up listening to Christian music – awful stuff, like Petra – but in 1990, I bought a mysterious-looking album called Circle Slide from one of the best bands I’ve ever had the pleasure to stumble on, The Choir.

The rest is history. My love of the Choir introduced me to Daniel Amos and Adam Again and the 77s and Starflyer 59 and so many other artists. My life would be infinitely poorer without them all. I eventually made my way to Cornerstone, the legendary alternative Christian music festival in Illinois, and when I moved to this state in 2004, I started going regularly. Cornerstone allowed me to see bands like the Choir and the 77s live for the first time, and introduced me to many more terrific artists I may never have encountered otherwise.

Still and all, I never felt comfortable at Cornerstone. I felt like an impostor more often than not, as if I were just waiting to be unmasked as a non-believer. I made some dear friends at Cornerstone, but always came away from it feeling like I’d crashed a party, and barely got away with it. Still, I was heartbroken when Cornerstone ended its mammoth 28-year run in 2012, and when the Choir, the last band on the last night, closed their set with “To Bid Farewell,” I definitely had something in my eye. (It’s really dusty in Bushnell.)

AudioFeed has gamely stepped into that gap, but it’s become more than clear over the ensuing five years that they have no intention of being the “next Cornerstone.” While the main draws for me at first were the bands I have loved for decades, I’m now just as excited about discovering new artists and seeing again the bands I first found at AudioFeed. I’m there for the likes of Von Strantz and Hushpad and Marah in the Mainsail (bring them back!) as I am for the old favorites.

As you might have guessed, this approach has turned off a lot of the old Cornerstone crowd, and I used to worry about that too. But I’ve seen this remarkable community grow up around AudioFeed, and I understand now that this festival is for them, not for the folks who just want to re-live the good old days. It’s about the future, in ways that Cornerstone no longer was. It’s about nurturing a new crop of fantastic artists and supporting them as they grow and create. And if they happen to explore faith in interesting ways, more so the better.

For five years running, I have felt at home at AudioFeed. It’s a festival that accepts people wherever they are in their journey, and invites them to participate. That, more than anything else, is what I need. I’ve recently started going to church again for the first time in a quarter-century, and it’s because I found a place that believes that everyone is welcome. Religion, for so many people, is about exclusion, about building walls between people and then getting on the “right” side of those walls. And I have always thought that it should be about love.

Because, as a band I love once sang, there’s something wonderful about love.

This fifth year was no exception. It was less a year of discovery for me – there seemed to be fewer new acts I had not seen before, but there certainly were some, including the Grey Havens and Lowercase Noises, that I will now follow forever. My favorite sets this year were mainly found on the larger Arkansas Stage, and included a smooth and soulful show by singer Liz Vice, a completely unexpected old-time gospel revue from the normally swamp-blues-y Sean Michel, a similarly surprising gritty set from John Mark McMillan, a guided tour through social issues set to rhyme by Sho Baraka and another chance to see the rolling fireball that is Ravenhill. My friend Jeff Elbel played two sterling sets as well, one with his current band Ping (road-testing several songs from the upcoming The Threefinger Opera) and one that reunited his ‘90s band Farewell to Juliet.

In addition to Sho Baraka (more about him next week), there were a couple shows at AudioFeed 2017 that I think demonstrate clearly why this festival is not just important to me, but an important thing to have in the world. With evangelicals supporting Donald Trump (still!) in record numbers and Christians seemingly standing against every fight for equality, I can think of no institution that needs to consider other viewpoints as much as the church does. And one of those viewpoints the church needs to consider is why people leave it.

The organizers of AudioFeed invited Derek Webb to make his debut appearance at the Radon Lounge (basically the acoustic stage). Webb is a superstar in this corner of the music world, having made his name with Caedmon’s Call and a slew of inventive, incisive, decidedly Christian solo records. But in the intervening years, Webb’s marriage dissolved (due to infidelity on his part), and he has lost his faith. His new songs, to be released on an album called Fingers Crossed later this year, detail that loss of faith with as much honestly and insight as he has brought to his entire career.

He played six of those new songs, and make no mistake, they are searing and amazing. They would have had him run out of Cornerstone on a rail. That AudioFeed gave him a platform to share them, and that the audience accepted both them and him as they are, speaks volumes about why I am so comfortable at this festival. When they say they want everyone to feel welcome, they mean it. I identified with much of what Webb was singing about, and had the audience turned on him, they would have been turning on me too. But they didn’t.

Similarly, one of the headliners this year was David Bazan, who, with his band Pedro the Lion, was an important part of the Christian indie scene in the ‘90s. Bazan also went through a very public loss of faith some years ago, and has been writing (brilliantly) from that perspective ever since. His work is bleaker now, more concerned with struggle and silence than it used to be, but it’s no less wonderful. (And he’s just delivered a swell platter from his new supergroup Lo Tom that is well worth hearing.)

I encountered some Christians who could not believe that David Bazan was not only invited to be part of AudioFeed, but was headlining. This would never happen at Cornerstone, or at any other Christian festival, they said. And of course, they’re right. That, to me, is what makes AudioFeed special. Bazan wasn’t preached at or lectured. He was listened to and loved, right where he is. I think we could all use more of that, but I think the church especially could learn that lesson.

Yeah, AudioFeed is just a music festival, a gathering of a few thousand in a fairground in Champaign once a year. But it feels like so much more than that. It feels like a family to me, and in the way it approaches community, inclusion and diversity, it feels like the future. It feels important. I’m so grateful I get to visit every summer, and I hope I get to every summer for a long, long time. Viva AudioFeed.

Next week, I’ll talk about some of the music I picked up at this year’s festival. Yes, music! I know, right? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Independence is Overrated
Why I Live for Recommendations

I’m going to spend this Independence Day talking about how much I depend on my friends.

If you know anything about me, you know that I connect with people most directly over music. “What are you listening to” isn’t just an idle question for me, it’s a way of seeking out kindred spirits, of finding connection points with people and then reveling in them. Discovering that other people love the same music I love, as deeply as I love it, is one of my life’s greatest joys.

Another of them is when those people hear new music they love and think of me. I’ve discovered so many new bands and songs and albums through kind recommendations. Quite often those recommendations come from folks I have never met in person. Those hold a special place in my heart. Knowing that people I’ve never even shared a meal with think enough of me to want to enrich my life with music, well, it makes my heart grow several sizes.

I’ve never met Adam Baker, though it feels like I’ve known him forever. We connected in a Facebook group for fans of Christian music from the ‘90s (yes, that’s a real thing), but as he lives in North Carolina and I’m stuck in the vast expanse of the Midwest, we’ve never even shaken hands. But we have talked about music, a lot. I know he likes a diverse array of hardcore, which for a Methodist pastor is absolutely fantastic, and he knows what I’m into as well.

Which is probably why he knew I would like Algiers. I can’t remember the circumstances that led Adam to recommending this Georgia band to me, but I’m glad he did. My first exposure to them was the title track of their just-released second album, The Underside of Power. The song is, frankly, amazing. It’s like soul music from a dark, dystopian future. Franklin James Fisher has a powerful, rich voice, and the band creates a fury around him that feels like Motown meets the Death Star. It somehow manages to be portentous and important while maintaining the shuffling soul sound of a Leon Bridges at its core.

Frankly, I’d never heard anything quite like it, so I ran to the record store that day to buy the album. And while it never ascends those heights again, The Underside of Power is pretty awesome. It’s all together darker than the single would indicate, taking you through a wounded and wrecked world while gently nudging you toward revolution. “Dystopian soul” is, it turns out, a fine way to describe the entire thing. Fisher’s voice remains a beacon throughout, able to express great misery (check out his tortured performance on “A Murmur a Sign”) while still embodying glimmers of hope.

Long stretches of this record wallow in murky atmosphere, the clattering of electronic drums breaking the surface here and there. “Cleveland” brings the tempo up a little for a call and response over pitter-patter percussion, Fisher screaming and moaning while name-checking African-Americans like Sandra Bland whose suspicious deaths were ruled suicides. “The hand that brings the gavel down is the hand that ties the noose… but that hand is gonna fold, the day is coming soon…” “Animals,” right after that, is the loudest and punkiest track here, slashing and burning everything in its way for two and a half minutes.

The final third of The Underside of Power is the darkest, full of oppressive instrumentals and the unsettling lament of “Hymn for an Average Man,” with its refrain of “deny it, deny it.” (At one point, a barely-audible voice sings out “Ignore their screaming, you got away with it.” Chilling.) But the final track is a hell of a way to go out. “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly” earns its multi-part title, Fisher’s soulful “we are the cycle that begins, we are the spiral to the end” stretching out over flitting piano and drums. The band creates an almighty racket before fading away, leaving its revolution in your hands.

Adam was right. I think this is pretty great, even if it never gets quite as good as my first exposure to the band. The title song rises head and shoulders above everything else here, of course, but as an experience, The Underside of Power is a tough and uncompromising one, making use of the band’s unique elements in unexpected yet powerful ways. As a walk through a difficult future, this is something else. I’ll be buying whatever Algiers decide to do next.

* * * * *

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate recommendations from my longtime friends.

Case in point: I’ve known the irascible Javi Terrazzas for years now. He’s one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met, even if he likes to project an air of grumpiness and misanthropy. He’s also ahead of the curve in so many areas of music, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m sure during the time I’ve known him that he’s tried to get me into Gossip, a band I’ve never quite investigated. But my delayed reaction didn’t stop him from enthusiastically recommending Fake Sugar, the first solo album from Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto.

And good lord, is this record fantastic, and I may never have heard it without Javi. Just from spinning this album over and over, Ditto is quickly climbing my list of favorite singers. She has a big, strong, malleable voice that carries every song here, caressing when the song calls for it and letting loose with a forceful wail when it’s needed. One of those times is on the refrain of the first song and first single, “Fire.” This thing is a delight. It comes on like a shimmering old-school shuffle, but with her siren-call “Fiiiiiiiiyer,” it erupts. The song still shimmies, but in a more volcanic way. It’s just great.

The rest of Fake Sugar is sweeter and softer, Ditto delivering one great showcase for that voice after another. “In and Out” may be one of my favorite pure pop songs of the year, but there’s more than one contender for that crown here. The title track is a lovely, sparse gallop, Ditto subtly singing the solo-guitar opening before the song blossoms into something out of Paul Simon. Ditto co-wrote most of these songs with her producer, Jennifer Decilveo, who also played bass and other instruments, and it’s clearly a partnership that sings. I cannot stop listening to “Savoir Faire,” particularly its vivacious chorus. These two know how to write a song.

The whole record is delightful, even if it gets a bit samey-sounding by the end. Ditto and Decilveo set a template of spare guitars and subtle drums, leaving plenty of room for the voice to fill in the corners. (One exception is “We Could Run,” on which Ditto fully opens up those vocal chords, and the production matches her. “Love in Real Life” gets a fuller treatment too, and it benefits.) I’m kind of in love with this record, and I’m grateful to Javi for letting me know about it.

And I’m grateful to anyone who has ever let me know about music they love. It keeps me going, but more than that, it keeps me connected to you all, and I’m thankful for that.

* * * * *

Okay, one week late, but here is the Second Quarter Report. I’m not sure I have seen a more complete rewriting of the First Quarter Report since I started writing them. The last three months have seen an avalanche of excellent new records, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up. If most of the ten records listed below end up being also-rans in December, it will have been an extraordinary year.

Here is what the top 10 list would look like if I were forced under pain of death to publish it right now:

10.  Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me

9.  Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up.

8.  Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound.

7.  Roger Waters, Is This the Life We Really Want.

6.  Husky, Punchbuzz.

5.  Elbow, Little Fictions.

4.  Slowdive.

3.  Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.

2.  Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.

  1. Planetarium.

Next week, AudioFeed 2017. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hey June Part Three
It's a Songwriter's Paradise

As much as I love the kind of labyrinthine puzzle box albums we talked about last week, if you know me at all you know my heart lies with the song.

Give me a catchy melody, some heartfelt and well-considered lyrics, and a solid structure and I’m in every time. I’m constantly on the lookout for songwriters who try to capture entire worlds in four or five minutes. Elvis Costello may be the best of them, but there are plenty of others – Aimee Mann, Neil Finn, Dan Wilson, the astonishing Paul Simon, along with the three I have on tap this week – who keep on finding new ways to marry words and music, telling stories and baring their souls.

Soul-baring is Ani DiFranco’s stock in trade, and a new Ani album is always cause for celebration. She’s giving us fewer of them these days – for the whole of the ‘90s, it was a given that there would be a new DiFranco record each year, culminating in 1999, during which she released three of them. Her twenty-first album, Binary, arrives after a three-year absence, although she has never stopped touring.

You grow up and you calm down, and this angry young folksinger has aged gracefully into a considered, textured songwriter. Albums like Binary just take longer to make than slapdash nearly-live documents like Imperfectly, and for my money, the deep, rich sound she conjures on this record is worth the wait. Binary finds DiFranco engaged with the world around her, preaching politics and feminism and letting her rage boil up more frequently than she has recently, and that also can only be a good thing. If there were ever a time for a strong female voice like DiFranco’s, that time is now.

The most direct song here is “Play God,” her feminist pro-choice anthem: “You get to run the world in your special way, you get much more, much more than your say, government, religion, it’s all just patriarchy, I must insist you leave this one thing to me…” It’s reminiscent of the old Ani – you can actually see her at 20-something, selling her cassettes out of her car and playing that guitar for all she’s worth, giving her older self a high-five. The only thing that separates it from the furious songs she used to write is the loping, jazzy groove, a staple of this record.

Mostly, though, DiFranco is here to talk about how to live together, how to build each other up without breaking under the strain of Trump’s America. “Alrighty,” amidst its arguments for a female God, is about remaining connected to our collective consciousness. “Terrifying Sight” is about looking around and not liking what she sees, buckling up for the difficult ride ahead. “Pacifist’s Lament” charts a nonviolent path forward, urging us to say we’re sorry and stop in the middle of our pitched battles. And closer “Delayed Gratification” is about teaching our children to live and act with empathy. “I vote in every election,” she sings. “Hopefully one day these kids are going to help us win.”

It’s an album with no easy answers, no quick fixes, and that’s fitting for someone whose years of engagement have given her perspective. I know this is a matter of debate among her fans, but she’s also become much better at wrangling these observations and ruminations into songs. Binary is a beautiful-sounding record, anchored by her longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose and her touring drummer Terence Higgins. They get DiFranco’s jazz-funk groove – to pinch one of her new song titles, they’re practically telepathic. They nimbly handle a tricky vibe like the “Spider,” and add punch to the one true love song here, “Even More.”

DiFranco jams here with some distinguished guests, including trumpeter Maceo Parker, pianist Ivan Neville and saxophonist Skerik. Justin Vernon pops up on “Zizzing,” but it’s violinist Jenny Scheinman who steals that show, and every track she’s on. Her solo on “Telepathic” is a highlight. Through it all, DiFranco, who has been self-producing her records forever, keeps everything focused. This is the work of a seasoned, experienced record-maker – it’s tight, colorful and exactly what it should be.

So yeah, a new DiFranco record is always cause for a parade through the town square. But one this good, this insightful and well-crafted, is even more welcome. She’s slowed down, but I hope she never stops. I’ll gladly wait three years for an album as good as Binary.

* * * * *

If you’re going to talk about songwriters, you have to talk about Nashville. And right now, one of the best songwriters in Nashville is a guy from Alabama.

Jason Isbell has been at it for a long time, first as a member of Drive-By Truckers for six years (during which he gave us gems like “Danko/Manuel”) and then as a solo artist. It took him until his fourth album, the phenomenal Southeastern, to gain the acclaim he has always deserved. That’s not finger-wagging – I didn’t really pay attention to Isbell until Southeastern either, much to my shame.

But when I finally explored his work, I found a songwriter able to collapse whole novels into three minutes. Isbell is part of a long tradition of storytellers, one that includes Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Cash and Tom Waits and Hank Williams. Isbell creates characters, then gets behind their eyes and brings us their lives in a few incisive lines. It’s a skill few possess, and even fewer can do as well as Isbell can.

In some ways, the success of Southeastern was a liability. In retrospect, Isbell’s follow-up, the ambitious Something More Than Free, strained under the weight of expectation. It felt like a record with something to prove, branching out in new directions just to show that it could. What I like best about The Nashville Sound, Isbell’s new record, is that it feels free of that weight. It’s a confident, low-stakes record that paradoxically shows off Isbell’s undeniable talents better than the all-over-the-place nature of its predecessor.

For the first time since 2011, Isbell shares top billing on this record with his band, the 400 Unit. As you might expect, that means The Nashville Sound rocks a little harder and feels a little more live, and that vibe fits these new songs perfectly. After the acoustic opener “Last of My Kind,” the band leaps into action on “Cumberland Gap,” a roaring rocker about dying slowly in a small town. Here’s one of several perfect verses: “I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say? I’m all that she has left, I’m with her every day. Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge, if you don’t sit facing the window you could be in any town…”

Good as the opening of this record is, there’s a stretch of songs in the middle that are as good as anything I’ve ever heard from Isbell. In “White Man’s World,” one of his best lyrics, he tackles his own privilege and responsibility as a white male American: “I’m a white man living on a white man’s street, got the bones of the red man under my feet,” he sings, and one verse later he finds himself “looking in a black man’s eyes, wishing I’d never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke…” He sums it up perfectly in the chorus: “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war.”

“Anxiety” gets more personal with one eye on the world situation, starting with a riff right out of prog-metal and ending up as a seven-minute ode to the immobilizing stress many of us feel every day. “It’s the weight of the world, but it’s nothing at all, I’m light as a prayer then I feel myself fall…” On the glorious “Hope the High Road,” he obliquely references the Trump election, repeating “there can’t be more of them than us” and offering his hand: “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know, but I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road.” And on the great closer “Something to Love,” he sings of hope to his daughter: “I don’t quite recognize the world you’ll call home, just find what makes you happy, girl, and do it ‘til you’re gone.”

But for my money, the best thing here is “If We Were Vampires,” which is an odd title for perhaps the best, most realistic love song Isbell has ever penned. It’s about how mortality makes every second with the ones you love precious: “Maybe time running out is a gift, I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift, give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind…” That last line links back to the chorus, in which Isbell is as frank as can be: “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone, maybe we’ll get forty years together, but one day I’ll be gone, or one day you’ll be gone…” That he makes these sentiments beautiful, longing and haunting is a testament to his skill.

In fact, the whole of The Nashville Sound is a testament. Isbell sounds relaxed here, fully aware of his prodigious talent and comfortable using it. This is a songwriter at the height of his powers, making it all seem easy. Jason Isbell has been great for a long time, and he may be at his best on this record. It’s a thing of beauty.

* * * * *

Speaking of songwriters that have been plying their trade for a long time, here’s Matthew Sweet.

I first heard Sweet when all of you did: in 1991, when his third album Girlfriend took over the radio and MTV. A snarling power pop gem, Girlfriend yielded several hits (the title track most notable among them) and made Sweet a household name, at least for a few years. His follow-ups Altered Beast and 100% Fun were similarly acclaimed, and his run of records through the ‘90s, culminating in the wonderful In Reverse, are unimpeachable.

And then I’m not sure what happened. It would be difficult for me to say that anything he’s done since In Reverse matches up to that historic run through the flannel decade. I’ve enjoyed his subsequent records, especially Sunshine Lies, but I could hear him running out of gas. He seemed to save most of his exuberance for a series of covers albums he made with Susanna Hoffs, and while those were splendid, they didn’t do much for his reputation as a songwriter. The last of those came out in 2013, two years after the last original album he made, Modern Art.

So when Sweet offered a new record through Kickstarter, I jumped at it, even though I doubted it would be anything special. My doubts only grew as the album took years beyond its original due date to appear. But man, I was so wrong. The new record is called Tomorrow Forever, and it’s easily the best thing Sweet has done since the ‘90s. It’s a generous 17 songs over 59 minutes, and I’d probably keep all of them, since the album flows so nicely. It’s his most consistent, most full-on power-pop record in many years, and it’s so good to hear him play and sing songs like this again.

All you need is the first song, “Trick,” to know that we’re back in classic Matthew Sweet territory. Guitars chug, lead lines step all over each other, and Sweet harmonizes with himself beautifully. It’s not quite like listening to Girlfriend again – Sweet’s voice is older and more worn – but it’s close. And Sweet’s gift for melody has followed him into his fifties. These songs are simple things, for the most part, but they’re lovely, and you’ll want to sing along. And when he gets deeper and darker, as he does on “Haunted” (featuring Rod Argent on piano), he reminds you just how good he is.

If you backed Tomorrow Forever on Kickstarter, you also got a 12-song bonus album called Tomorrow’s Daughter, which is (amazingly) just as good and just as consistent as the main disc. In fact, some of those songs (like “Years”) stand above the main disc, and the sound is overall rawer. I’m not sure Tomorrow’s Daughter will ever be available outside of the Kickstarter campaign, but combined with the main record, Sweet has given us 29 new tunes over 100 minutes. That’s how you make a comeback.

I’m so happy to be here for this Matthew Sweet renaissance. If you’ve been confused or turned off by Sweet’s post-‘90s output, this is the record you’ve been hoping for. Fingers crossed that it’s just the start of a killer third act. I’ll be listening.

* * * * *

This week’s column ran way too long, so I’m going to hold off on the Second Quarter Report until next week. I’ll also be taking a look at some out-of-the-blue surprises. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hey June Part Two
Complicated Games with Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens

I have too much music to listen to.

I understand, of course, that on the scale of problems I could have, “I have too much music to listen to” doesn’t really rate. It ranks up there with “I don’t like this new car smell” and “I really wish people would stop handing me money for no reason.” I get that. But bear with me. I promise this won’t be too whiny.

Because I want to talk about complexity this week, which is a common theme here at Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I love complexity. I love albums that require a dozen listens to fully grasp, and even then you end up finding more and more to praise about them. I love music that requires my time and patience to unravel and to truly appreciate. I absolutely adore spending weeks with a new record, swimming in its depths, piecing together my reaction to it.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. With the virtual tidal wave of new music coming at me lately, I’m only able to give most records two or three listens. If I don’t keep this pace up, I miss out on giving at least one listen to everything I buy, and I would like to keep up. But that means that when faced with albums of the caliber and complexity I’m writing about this week, I just don’t have the time to give them the attention they need.

So what you’re getting this week is first impressions of albums that I know I will be listening to for years. Both of these records give me that tingly feeling in the back of my head, the one that says to me that I’m hearing an album I will treasure for a long, long time. And both of them, it must be said, are tricky and dense and difficult enough that I know I am only scratching the surface right now, and it will take months of repeated plays to truly unlock everything here.

Both of them floated in seemingly out of nowhere, too. It’s been long enough since the second Fleet Foxes album, 2011’s lovely Helplessness Blues, that you’d be forgiven for wondering if we would ever get a third one. Leader Robin Pecknold has been talking about new Fleet Foxes music for a while, but as the years ticked by without any specifics, it felt like empty talk.

And hell, not many bands deliver two near-perfect records and a glorious EP to boot. It’s a fine legacy, one built on celestial harmonies and earthy, timeless songs. I still consider the self-titled Fleet Foxes album to be one of the finest records of my lifetime. Could a new album even live up? Would it be the curse of the Difficult Third Record, destined to be admired from a distance but never loved?

Crack-Up, that decidedly weird and complicated third record, is in fact all of those things. It is absolutely the band’s Difficult Third, but it’s also a textbook case of how to embrace that cliché while doing it right. Virtually nothing about Crack-Up is easy. It contains long, multi-part songs, some separated by slashes (like opener “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/The Thumbprint Scar”), some spread out over adjacent tracks. Pecknold’s penchant for writing indelible, timeless melodies has not exactly been pushed aside, but has been relegated to second place behind the obvious joy he takes in stretching his prog-folk orchestrations as far as they can go.

And they go very far indeed. The scratchy, almost inaudible opening of the album begins a crescendo that breaks with the gigantic clarinets-and-piano ending of second track, “Cassius, -“ which, as the title indicates, segues directly into its sweet second half on track three, “- Naiads, Cassiades.” The track titles aren’t hiding quick and clever pop tunes behind them – they’re appropriate for the gorgeous, patient, study-worthy music Pecknold has written.

Crack-Up, even more than the first two Fleet Foxes records, needs and deserves to be heard as a whole. The way the rolling piano of “Kept Woman” picks up perfectly from the pitched-down guitar at the end of the prior track is seamless. By the time you’re through the nearly nine-minute “Third of May/Odaigahara,” the fifth winding and tricky song in a row, you’re ready for something simpler, and right on cue, here is the beautiful plainsong “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me.” It does exactly what it’s supposed to, at exactly the right place in the album.

There’s no doubt, though, that over 55 minutes, this level of complexity can get wearying. Pecknold and his bandmates still deliver those woodsy, men-out-of-time harmonies, and they are still perfect – they take your hand and guide you when the melodies get too obscure. But this is the kind of album that will find you needing an anchor, something to hang your brain on. The second half is marginally more immediate, particularly the stunning “On Another Ocean,” but the concluding title track brings back the multitude of instruments, the ebb and flow of the musical tide that marks this record. Occasionally the song will drop from full orchestration to nearly empty spoken word and then crash back again, horns wailing. It’s mammoth, almost too much to absorb.

Given all that, does Crack-Up add to the Fleet Foxes legacy, or take it down a blind alley? If you’re like me, you’ll find it hard to say after the first few listens. But I have the unmistakable feeling that this album will only grow more rewarding as I listen further. It’s definitely their Difficult Third Record, but even at this early stage, I feel like it’s a bit of a masterpiece, and I look forward to learning more about it.

If you think Crack-Up is complicated, you may want to buckle in for Planetarium, our other contestant this week. This one is positively brain-melting. I’ve heard it four times, and I still don’t quite have it mapped out in my head. I just know that it’s utterly brilliant.

Of course, an album like this could only come from Sufjan Stevens, perhaps the finest musical mind of my generation. It is also ostensibly a collaboration with Bryce Dessner of the National, string arranger Nico Mulhy and multi-instrumentalist and producer James McAllister, and while I hear all of them in this thing to varying degrees (with the blessed exception of Dessner), the dominant force here is undoubtedly Stevens. Planetarium follows nicely from his Age of Adz experimentalism, mixed with his penchant for delirious melodies and multi-part orchestral suites.

But this is no retread. Written and refined over a period of years, the music on Planetarium goes further out than Stevens ever has. Framed as an exploration of our solar system and featuring songs for every planet (and Pluto!), the cosmic backdrop gives Stevens and his collaborators license to go supernova – some parts of this record leap further into the electropocalypse than even Age of Adz, and some parts are head-spinning progressive orchestral wonderamas. And some sections are so beautiful that I won’t have adequate words for them.

What is it like to listen to? Imagine being on a roller coaster that plunges underwater at random intervals, forcing you to pay attention and hold your breath at a moment’s notice. Every few seconds, there’s something new, some fresh hairpin turn, some moment that you swear is the best moment yet. And then seconds later, here comes another one. There are extraordinary epics here, like “Jupiter” and “Uranus” and the jittery, unbelievable “Earth,” and you’ll come back to those more than once, but there are also immediate pieces of gorgeous songcraft like “Saturn” and the delightful album-closing “Mercury.” While Planetarium can sometimes leave you lost in space, it always brings you back around.

There are some portions of Planetarium that even after four listens still befuddle me. The early stretches of “Mars,” for example, or the lovely yet too-long ambient pieces “Black Energy” and “Sun,” which stop the album’s momentum dead. But even those moments feel like they’re purposeful, that they fit into a larger vision. The lyrics are similarly head-scratching, as Stevens often is, but even more so this time. Much of it seems to be wrestling with God and our place in the universe – standard topics for Stevens – but enough of it is indecipherable that I can only hope that repeated listens will make it clear.

As you can tell, I’m barely beginning my journey with Planetarium, and already I know it’s like nothing else I own. I’m swept away by it, stunned into silence by its complexity and yet able to lose myself in it at the same time. This is a lot of music – 76 minutes, and it rarely slows down for you, throwing you new ideas at a feverish pace. But if you’re looking for music that takes you places and leaves you with the unmistakable sense that you have been somewhere else, and now you are not the same, then this is for you. It’s a lot to take in, but its rewards are many, and they will no doubt unfold over years and years.

Next week, it’s a songwriters’ paradise with Ani Difranco, Jason Isbell and Matthew Sweet. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hey June Part One
A Ringing Alarm, Rising Waters and a Swell Buzz

Well look at me, I’m forty-three.

I actually took a week off for my birthday this year. I never do that. I’ve promised both you and myself that I will do that every year for at least the last ten, but I don’t think I ever have. I may call it a tradition from now on, because it was surprisingly refreshing and revitalizing. If the day ever comes when I end this column, whether from exhaustion or simply running out of time to write it each week, I may look back on this delightful week off as the beginning of the end.

Don’t worry, though. I still feel like I have plenty to say, and lord knows the torrent of new music is not slowing down. I’m going to try the same experiment I tried in October of last year – a month of columns full of shorter, more to-the-point reviews. June is full to bursting with new tunes, and just out of necessity I have to start with a couple that came out last month, so I’m going to try to say fewer words about each of these records and make the words I do say count more. We’ll see how I do.

* * * * *

My birthday has, of course, brought with it the usual reflection on my life, accompanied by the usual wish to be 17 again. Don’t get me wrong – if offered, I probably wouldn’t go back and live my twenties again. They weren’t my favorite years, and I’m actually quite happy in my forties. But what I miss sometimes is that fire I used to have, that ability to pursue projects until they were a reality. I miss the way I could once get through an entire week without feeling tired at the end.

I do think some of my teenage drive came from the music I listened to. And when I put that music on now, I feel the same optimism and idealism that defined my best days as a teen. Sure, I was a metalhead in those years, with a long curly mullet and a firm belief that Megadeth’s Rust in Peace was the pinnacle of artistic achievement, but it was during that phase that I also discovered some of my most enduring favorites. And perhaps the most enduring of them all has been the Alarm.

Let’s just get this out of the way: I am never going to hate the Alarm. They mean too much to me. My friend Chris Callaway, who very kindly mentioned me more than once in his book of interviews with rock stars, got me into the Welsh foursome by lending me Eye of the Hurricane when we were both 14, and it shone new light on my world. It was everything I loved about U2 with a more pop sensibility, and even then I appreciated a great melody more than anything else.

The original Alarm released five studio albums and a bunch of other material, and I love all of it. They morphed from an acoustic punk band to a melodic rock band and then headed in a bluesier, crunchier direction before calling it quits in 1991. Nine years later, frontman Mike Peters reformed the band with new musicians and started its second chapter, and the Alarm been a powerhouse since.

It was in this later incarnation that the Alarm broke free from the U2-isms that had always dogged them. Mike Peters still sings like Bono, with all the passion and fire he can muster each time out, but he started bringing in louder punk influences, and with 2008’s tremendous Counter Attack (an 8-CD box set of new material), captured the spirit of one of U2’s earliest inspirations, the Clash. They sounded alive, vital, hungry, ready for anything.

Which is why it’s somewhat disheartening that Peters has gone back to U2-land with Blood Red, the Alarm’s first record of new material in nine years. Blood Red is the first of at least two new records coming down the pike, and while it’s good, it doesn’t quite rise up to the bar they’ve set for themselves, and it doesn’t make me particularly jazzed for the second installment.

Now look, I’m never going to hate the Alarm, and these ten anthems still stir the soul. Peters sounds older, which of course he is, but given his fight (and his wife’s fight) against cancer in recent years, he doesn’t sound nearly as beaten down by life as you might expect. “Coming Backwards” includes every Alarm cliché, including Peters’ wailing harmonica, and it all still works. “There Must Be a Way” is a low-key fist pump, a song that could have been written in the band’s early days, recorded a bit slower than younger Peters would have done it, with a few more synthesizers and a bit less energy. But it still sounds like the Alarm.

And if that’s all you need, Blood Red is going to do it for you. The best stuff comes in the middle – “Time” is a deep, dark excursion, “Love and Understanding” basically rewrites “Strength” for 2017, and “Brighter Than the Sun” is a minor-key mid-tempo thing, reminiscent of “Scarlet” from 1989’s Change. Outside those three and the classic Bono-style ballad “No Greater Love,” Peters struggles for inspiration, but he always sounds like Mike Peters – older but unbowed, and still itching for a fight. For most of this album, that’s enough.

Find the Alarm online here: www.thealarm.com

* * * * *

I’ve bought a lot of music recently, but one thing I haven’t bought is the new mix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I feel like I ought to, but I’ve bought Sgt. Pepper four times now in various formats, and even though it’s one of my very favorite records, I’m not sure I need to buy it again, particularly with all the potentially fantastic new records coming out. But that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate its birthday. I’m just more than seven years younger than Sgt. Pepper – the album turned 50 on May 26. The magic of Sgt. Pepper is that in many ways, we’re still catching up with it.

I discovered the Beatles in junior high, which I think is about the same time everyone discovers them. There’s a short list of bands that everyone finds out about in junior high or high school – Led Zeppelin, for instance, or Simon and Garfunkel. The big one, though, seems to be Pink Floyd. I play in the band at my church, and our guitarist is a 15-year-old kid who loves Floyd. He plays “Money” and “Wish You Were Here” like they were new songs, and it always makes me nostalgic, because I discovered them around the same time.

Of course, by the time I got there, they were the David Gilmour Band, soloing their way through A Momentary Lapse of Reason. I remember the first time I heard Roger Waters sing – I jumped right into The Wall next on a recommendation – and I wasn’t impressed. Who was this shouty guy? Where was the far more melodious Gilmour? What about the guitar solos? It didn’t take long for me to come around. By the time I’d delved into his solo work, I was a Roger Waters fan.

So when Amused to Death hit during my freshman year of college, I was ready for it. Basically a rant in album form, Amused is the one where all of Waters’ sonic and social interests collided, painting a dark picture of a world addicted to digital experiences and devoid of human ones. It was basically the ultimate Roger Waters album. Amused was so good that I thought we’d never see another one out of him. He’d basically said what he came here to say.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Twenty-five years after Amused to Death, here is Waters’ fourth solo album, Is This the Life We Really Want. In most ways, this is a sequel to Amused – Waters worked with Nigel Godrich here, the man behind every Radiohead album for the last 20 years, and he creates a very Roger Waters atmosphere, full of ambient interludes and big string arrangements and stabbing guitar accents and Pink Floyd-style keyboards. It’s a patient album, a slow one, but in its best moments, it’s a remarkably powerful one.

Lyrically, this record is mainly what you’d expect, if not more so. Waters is 73 years old now, and this is even more of a cranky old man rant than Amused was. Much of this was either written very recently, or tied in retroactively with Trump’s election – “A leader with no fucking brains,” Waters sings on “Picture That,” lyrics that are transposed over a photo of Dear Leader in the liner notes. “Every time a young girl’s life is casually spent, and every time a nincompoop becomes the president,” he spits out on the title track, essentially a litany of society’s ills.

I am all about Roger Waters ripping modern life to shreds, so I enjoyed every second of his venomous invective. But he does something even more interesting here, something that sets this record above all of his other solo work to me: he juxtaposes his descriptions of the crumbling world with an examination of a crumbling relationship. Waters’ emotional vulnerability, his genuine regret, give these songs (and by extension, the album) a weight that they might not have had otherwise.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the final three songs, which together form a gorgeous little suite. “Wait for Her” and “Oceans Apart” are poetic love songs, and the finale, “Part of Me Died,” shows how much he has grown. “When I laid eyes on her, a part of me died,” he sings, listing off the qualities he no longer wants to feel: cold-hearted, devious, greedy, mischievous, global, colonial, bloodthirsty and blind. The message, of course, is that love is the answer, love is the way out of the mess we’re in, the way to find the life we really want. But Waters delivers that message with such delicate honesty that it lands. It’s my favorite moment of his career.

Is This the Life We Really Want is an event. It may very well be the last record of Roger Waters’ life, and if so, he’s gone out with a stunner. There are so many moments throughout this work that brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. It’s another rant in album form, make no mistake, but it’s probably his best rant, and there’s a twist in the tale that takes it to another level. I’m not sure what I was expecting 25 years later, but Waters delivered.

* * * * *

Shorter and to the point, huh? Wow, do I suck at this. Regardless, I have one more record to tell you about, and as it’s one of my favorites of the year, I need to tell you about it now. It also illustrates that while I’m always excited to hear from artists I’ve loved for years, I’m equally excited to find new acts that thrill me.

Husky thrills me. I have my friend Rob Hale to thank for turning me on to this Australian band. They’re exactly the kind of melodic folksy rock band I adore, and namesake Husky Gawenda’s songs are unfailingly terrific, twisting and turning while remaining as catchy and infectious as possible. Their first two albums were revelations, and their just-released third, Punchbuzz, is easily as good, and better in a lot of ways. One day, Husky is going to make a bad record. This is not that day.

Punchbuzz is a different kind of Husky album, but one that nudges its evolution forward without forgetting what brought them to the dance. It’s a more plugged-in work, with programmed drums and keyboards and chiming, ringing electric guitar all over the place. A song like “Shark Fin” barrels forward with remarkable confidence, the band taking on this propulsive new sound like it’s second nature. “Late Night Store” is a stunner, shrouded in shadow, making full use of the new, fuller production.

But they don’t sound like a totally different band, and there are two reasons for that – Gawenda’s distinctive, even voice and his songs. The songs are uniformly excellent here, a little darker than they’ve been before but still rippling with melody, still tight and beautiful. The band indulges in an atmospheric jam at the end of the grand “Cut the Air,” and it is the first moment on a Husky album that sounds like it wasn’t mapped out in its entirety. Their trademark sure-footedness is all over this album.

They even save some surprises for the end. “Flower Drum” is as far-out as they’ve gone, sonically speaking – it takes the new wave dive, the way Keane did on Perfect Symmetry. And it’s awesome, zipping through its insidious chorus at a trot. Closer “Space Between Heartbeats,” similarly, pulls out the spacey keyboard drones and Phil Collins electronic pitter-patter, then augments them with pedal steel guitars. It shouldn’t work, but it does, wonderfully.

From the first time I heard them, Husky has been one of those tell-everyone bands for me. Punchbuzz has only solidified their stature. They’ll make a bad record someday, although I can’t imagine it. For now, though, they’ve made three great ones, and I cannot recommend all of them highly enough.

* * * * *

Next week, I’ll try my best to actually write short reviews. I’ll have a ton to choose from, including Fleet Foxes, Ani DiFranco, Jason Isbell, Phoenix and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium project. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Art of Selling Out?
Linkin Park Confounds on One More Light

When I was a kid, my father had a subscription to the Columbia Record Club.

I’ve told this story before, about how my dad, who doesn’t really love music, ended up with some of the best albums of the ‘70s on vinyl. I was obsessed with these records as a young boy, playing them over and over again until I had them memorized. The selection included Led Zeppelin IV and Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark, Don and Mel and Leon Russell’s Carny. And it also included one of my favorites: Eat a Peach, by the Allman Brothers Band.

I didn’t know anything about the Allman Brothers at the time. Eat a Peach came out two years before I was born, and I must have been three or four when I first heard it. I didn’t know it was the last Allman Brothers Band album to feature both Allman Brothers – Duane Allman had died in a motorcycle crash shortly after finishing the sessions. (I do remember my dad later telling me the legendary – and untrue – story that the album had been named Eat a Peach because Duane had crashed his bike into a peach truck.)

No, all I knew about the album was that I liked it, a lot. The twin guitar harmonies on just about every song, but especially “Blue Sky.” The gorgeous “Melissa.” The 33-minute “Mountain Jam,” my first real experience with epic song lengths. I remember “Mountain Jam” was broken up over sides two and four, and I remember how revelatory it was to realize that it was broken up that way for record stacking – you’d listen to sides one and three first, then flip them both over to hear two and four.

I kept up with the Allman Brothers Band, and of course bought all of their classics once I was old enough to know how classic they were. Gregg Allman was a legend, helping to invent southern rock and setting the standard by which it is judged. He was also a fantastic guitar player. I know all this now, but whenever I think of him, I’m transported back to four years old, watching the record with the peach on the label spin around and getting lost in the songs.

Gregg Allman died this week at age 69, another legend taken too soon. May he rest in peace.

* * * * *

I know no one really cares about my thoughts on Linkin Park.

Of all the bands I’ve admitted an obsession with here in this column, it might be Linkin Park that has generated the most backlash. My insistence that there is something worth paying attention to behind Chester Bennington’s screams and Mike Shinoda’s raps has all but ensured my eviction from the cool kids’ club. Between that and my ongoing praise of Hanson, I’m pretty sure I won’t be invited to write for Pitchfork anytime soon.

But for real, there’s something worth paying attention to here. Linkin Park’s first album established a core sound that mashed up rap and rock for, like, the millionth time, and their second followed suit, so I’m not surprised that people wrote them off. But those people need to hear 2010’s A Thousand Suns, an absolutely extraordinary inversion of that sound in service of a conceptual piece about injustice and love. They’ve yet to top it, but Linkin Park has steadfastly refused to make the same album twice – 2012’s Living Things builds on a foundation of electro-pop, and 2014’s surprising The Hunting Party goes full-on into thrash metal.

That’s one thing I love about them – they’re never afraid to alienate their audience. Hybrid Theory remains their best-selling effort, and they refuse to go back to that sound. They’re restless, challenging themselves and their fanbase as much as possible, never worried about sales or chart placement. And it works for them – they routinely hit number one on the Billboard chart, and in countries around the world, by doing whatever they want.

All of which makes their seventh album, One More Light, so mystifying. By every outward sign, this is a complete sell-out. The songs are all polished radio-pop, with virtually none of the raging guitars or abrasive synth sounds that have marked Linkin Park music since they started. Professional songsmiths share co-writing credits. Teen pop singer Kiiara duets. Cheesy pop drums click along as Bennington sings atop tracks that could have gone to Justin Bieber or One Direction.

And yet the band swears they worked just as hard on this one as they always have, and took this new direction seriously as an artistic choice. And it is only the fact that they have proven so restless, been so willing to throw caution to the wind, that I’m even thinking about this record in those terms. Everything about this record screams “we would like some hits, and we would like some money.” Which is odd, since they have been doing just fine, sales-wise. They don’t need to sell out, and they’re treating this obvious sell-out as genuine. So I almost have no choice but to believe them.

But man, listen to “Nobody Can Save Me,” the opening track. They’ve made this as safe as possible in every single way, from the fluttering keyboards to the snap-sound percussion to Bennington’s voice, smoothed out and supple, singing “I’m dancing with my demons” in the most radio-friendly way he can. “Battle Symphony” is even worse, a song of empowerment that even Katy Perry might have rejected, Bennington singing “if my armor breaks, I’ll fuse it back together” as if it were a strong lyric. This one is even more insidious because I can’t stop singing it in my head. As a pop earworm, it does exactly what it’s supposed to. “If I fall, get knocked down, get myself up off the ground…”

I could chalk all this up to maturity, to a desire to stop making angry, shouty records. Bennington is 41. Musical mastermind Mike Shinoda is 40, and you can hear those years on “Invisible,” a song of reconciliation and hope that features one of his best vocals. I’ll be 43 next week, so I appreciate a good maturity story, and that might be why I feel compelled to keep listening to this. Yes, “Heavy” sounds like every radio pop song from the past 10 years, and it’s hard for me to think of it as anything but pandering. But songs like “Invisible” work for me, even though I know they shouldn’t.

The title track, then, tips the scales in this record’s favor. It’s remarkably subtle – a faintly pulsing keyboard, some clean guitars, and Bennington at his most restrained – and God help me, I think it’s beautiful. It’s a song of compassion, reaching out to those who feel alone, those contemplating darkness: “Who cares if one more light goes out, well I do…” I could listen to this one for hours. It’s the best argument they have that One More Light is a true artistic statement.

I still don’t know whether to believe them. This is the most unabashedly radio-ready and inoffensive album they’ve ever made, and it only feels like Linkin Park in that it is typically uncompromising. There are virtually no nods to their previous sounds, no olive branches to fans of their louder material, no indication that they have ever been any more than a glossy pop act. Like it or not, this is the new Linkin Park, and the best I can tell you is that they never stay in one place very long, so this should be out of their system soon.

* * * * *

I don’t know how this shoegaze revival got started, but I’m ready to give whoever got the ball rolling a wet, sloppy kiss.

Shoegaze has been part of my musical vocabulary since high school, when my good friend Chris introduced me to an entire gaggle of bands that remain favorites. Some are well-known, like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, some more obscure, like The Moon Seven Times and Kitchens of Distinction. In our entire friendship I think the only shoegaze band I ever introduced Chris to was Starflyer 59, which certainly doesn’t balance the scales. I owe him, is what I’m saying.

One of the bands Chris brought into my world was Slowdive, whose 1993 album Souvlaki has gone on to be considered a gem of the genre. (It didn’t do quite as well upon release, when Britpop was all the rage.) Slowdive was led by singer/guitarists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, and their intertwining voices were their trademark, along with their chiming guitars and cloudy, beautiful atmospheres. Their third album, 1995’s Pygmalion, was altogether stranger and darker, and it crashed and burned, seemingly taking the band with it. Halstead and Goswell formed Mojave 3, an earthier combo, and even that faded out by the late 2000s.

I never in a million years expected Slowdive to reunite. I got to see them on tour in 2014, and they were magical, and I figured that was probably it. But no, here we are in 2017 with a brand new Slowdive album, 22 years after the last one. And it’s fantastic. It’s a little smoother, a little more grown-up, but it handily sidesteps all the perils of a creaky old band trying to recapture their sound. Slowdive feels effortless, like it could have come out in 1997, or even 1991.

This record is obviously Halstead’s baby. He wrote most of the songs, except two he co-wrote, and he handles the majority of the singing and the production duties. I’d love to hear more of Goswell, but that’s literally my only complaint with this record. The glorious clean guitar sound is here, weaving its brilliant spell, and the band locks into its familiar groove on songs like “Star Roving” and “Everyone Knows,” both of which feel like rebirths. The epics (“Go Get It” and “Falling Ashes”) that close the record are monumental pieces, simultaneously crashing and soothing.

But it’s “Sugar for the Pill” that all by itself makes me overjoyed to have Slowdive back. This is a classic, deeply melodic and atmospheric, like floating and falling at the same time. It’s a song that makes me stop everything I’m doing and listen. It’s just the most beautiful thing, and it comes with seven other beautiful things on an album I never thought I would live to hear. Slowdive’s return is complete, and completely magnificent.

* * * * *

I was hoping to get to the new Alarm album this week, but I’ll save it for next week. I’ll be 43 on Monday, and it feels like a good time to reflect on a childhood favorite. Talk to you then. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

a column by andre salles