I Feel the Earth Move
Music for Uncertain Times

It’s no new thing to point out that we’re living through a time of great upheaval.

Not just here in Trumpland, either, but all over the world. Fear is taking root, uncertainty is in the air, the earth is moving beneath our feet. And I think we’ve been living in this state for so long now that it’s becoming background. The tectonic plates shift and we barely notice anymore, but the atmosphere of dread and anxiety just hangs over us all the time. We could be plunged further into hell at any moment, and I think we’re all becoming inured to that feeling.

So I’m not surprised that this atmosphere is seeping into the music that is coming out now. I don’t even mean music that is specifically about the world situation, or music that is trying to capture the age of Trump. I’m talking about the overall tone of a lot of the music I’m hearing these days. It’s fractured and broken and unsteady. It’s music that is raising bulwarks against a storm.

And I’m not sure I’m even going to be able to describe what I mean. I’m going to start with an album that is responding to a specific tragedy, just to see if I can isolate the tone and feel I’m talking about. That album is the difficult yet beautiful one from Polish band Riverside. It’s called Wasteland, and it’s their first album since the tragic death of their guitar player, Piotr Grudzinski, in 2016. To say Grudzinski was a big part of their sound is to understate by miles – his lead playing characterized much of this band’s work, which lives in that no-man’s-land between prog, metal and melodic rock.

Riverside’s music has always had a bleak edge to it, but Wasteland is something else. The band has continued on as a trio, with leader Mariusz Duda taking on the guitar parts, and while the album still sounds full and rich, it also feels diminished somehow, like a recent amputee. The songs are unfailingly gray, like the cover art, and speak of dark days, waiting for a sunrise that never comes. This is an album that begins with Duda singing these lines a cappella: “What if it’s not meant to be, what if someone has made a mistake, what we’ve become, there’s no turning back, maybe it’s time to say that out loud.” And it starts like it means to go on.

And it’s stunning stuff. The old Riverside crunch is still there – see the opening of “Acid Rain” and the riff of “Vale of Tears” – but even the loudest songs dissolve into quieter acoustic passages. The chorus of “Vale of Tears” (“I am wading through the desert to the promised land you burned to the ground”) is haunting, Duda sounding like he truly is making the pilgrimage he describes. “Guardian Angel” is quiet and delicate, while “Lament” balances its drive with a spectral violin. Even the nine-minute instrumental “The Struggle for Survival” builds slowly, interlocking its pieces carefully. (It’s the one track on which Duda gets to cut loose on guitar, too.)

Wasteland could not have been an easy record to make. It captures this band crawling back from their lowest point, dealing with their pain and grief in song, and in the process making one of the most darkly beautiful sets of songs they have ever given us. There isn’t much hope here, even in closing piano lullaby “The Night Before,” and in that it fits the mood of the world we’re in very well.

But that isn’t specifically what I’m talking about. I mean, it is, but the fact that Wasteland so aptly fits both the personal tragedy it is about and the worldwide sense of despair complicates it. So here’s an example that is far removed from that one: The Joy Formidable’s fourth record, AAARTH. I adore this band. They came screaming onto the scene in 2008, and solidified their attack with their 2011 debut album, The Big Roar. I have often said that early Joy Formidable is what the Smashing Pumpkins might have sounded like if they let D’Arcy sing – gigantic guitars creating a massive wall of distortion, Ritzy Bryan’s voice floating over the top. (But don’t let her dulcet tones fool you. Bryan’s a badass – she’s responsible for all those noisy guitars too.)

I love the title of this album, too. “Arth” is Welsh for bear, but they’ve written it as if to say “BEEEAR!” Like a shouted warning. That sense of dread follows the record from first song to last, and has crept into the way these songs are written and structured. AAARTH still sounds like the Joy Formidable, but whereas in the past they’ve built up these massive structures of sound, these unbreakable towering things, here the songs sound like they could topple at any time. They’ve done this without sacrificing the power of their sound, too.

Listening to AAARTH is like getting the rug pulled out from under you every few minutes. It starts with the sound of a CD skipping, then plunges you into the weird, off-putting “Y Bluen Eira,” sung in Welsh while the band feels like it’s falling apart and crawling back together. It’s like they’re saying right up front “here, deal with this.” A song like “Go Loving,” with its double-time drums and layered guitars, should be an easy win, but the band drops the floor out a couple times, as if sabotaging it.

I mean, just listen to “Cicada.” This song is awesome, creeping along on a slithering riff, and the arrangement just never lets you get a handle on it. “All In All” should be an acoustic ballad, but its production is otherworldly, in an uncomfortable way. In fact, uncomfortable is a good description for most of this album. It has an uneasy, unsure feeling to it, one that keeps me riveted. It’s clear that all of this uncertainty is baked in – this is exactly the album Bryan and her bandmates wanted to make, and they worked hard to make it this way. The result is a record that refuses, at every turn, to be reassuring. It’s a record that takes a familiar sound and pushes it oddly out of reach.

And I think that’s what I’m talking about. It’s subtle, like the wind changing, like the curb not being quite where you expect when you step down. While AAARTH fits that bill, I think the best recent example I can come up with is Double Negative, the amazing new album from Low. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Rogers have been making music under the Low name since 1993 and they’ve never done anything quite like this, their 12th long-player. The pair made their name as a guitar band, playing slow, spare music that moved at a snail’s pace. They’ve evolved considerably since then, but Double Negative is still something of a shock.

This is the most uncomfortable listen of my year, and I bought four Jandek albums. This record is built on drones and thuddingly repetitive loops, and while you can hear Low in there (on “Fly,” for instance, which Rogers sings with gusto), most of it is either enrapturing or off-putting. Often both, at the same time. “Dancing and Blood” is six minutes long, two of them at the end taken up by competing drones that are out of tune with each other. The other four conjure a post-apocalypse of reverbed drums (mixed so loud they clip the speakers) and Sparhawk’s fragile voice, processed beyond recognition.

Even a song like “Always Trying to Work it Out” feels shaky on its feet thanks to the production. It’s a gorgeous little number, but the explosive bass drum that pounds every four beats renders everything else inaudible, like it wounds the rest of the instruments and they have to climb back each time. Sparhawk’s voice sounds like he’s singing through a laundry chute, and everything crumbles under waves of noise and static. It’s an absolutely incredible experience, like all of this album. You really need to listen from beginning to end, and allow yourself to get lost in it, no matter how much your skin crawls.

The final track, “Disarray,” might be my favorite, as it juxtaposes the gorgeous and the guttural extraordinarily well. The music, such as it is, on this track is a repeated pulse of noise and tones that is mixed so loudly that it bursts out of your speakers. Over this, Sparhawk and Rogers spin a glorious web of harmonies, singing about how it’s too late to make things better. This should be beautiful, but it’s just ear-splitting enough that beauty remains out of reach.

And it’s that, that sense that these things should be beautiful, that I’m really talking about here. That’s what anxiety feels like – you can see how everything should be beautiful, and you know it isn’t, and you can’t quite put your finger on why. Double Negative captures this, whether purposefully or accidentally, better than anything I’ve heard recently. It’s a difficult time, a fearful time, an uncertain time, and this album (well, all three of the albums I have talked about this week) underscore that perfectly. The earth keeps moving, our steps remain unsure, and our future remains up in the air. And this is what it sounds like.

* * * * *

In such times it’s good to have traditions to hang on to. I know I broke with one of those traditions last week, and I’m sorry. I’m still pretty far behind in my listening, but here’s the Third Quarter Report anyway. It’s not drastically different from the Second Quarter Report, though it does show that I have reconsidered some of the albums that made it onto that list, pushing them up or down or off. If I had to run my top 10 list right now, here’s what it would look like:

10. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
9. Sleep, The Sciences.
8. The Choir, Bloodshot.
7. The Boxer Rebellion, Ghost Alive.
6. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.
5. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call the Faster It Runs.
4. Low, Double Negative.
3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.
2. Darlingside, Extralife.
1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.

Monae is so far out in front of everything else I have heard this year that it’s almost embarrassing. Looking at my notes for the rest of the year, I don’t see anything coming out that will challenge it. We’ll see about the rest of the list.

Next week, could be anything. But probably some thoughts on the new Doctor Who. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

For Crying Out Loud
Adam Again, the 77s and the Raw Pain of Real Life

I’m in the worship band at my church.

I know, I know, it was a big surprise to me too. I grew up in a church, but high-tailed it right around the time I started asking questions that have no answers. Honestly, it wasn’t the lack of answers that bothered me, it was the absolute certainty of those who tried to give me those answers. I was able to poke holes in everything people said they believed, and I began to see the harm those beliefs do and have done. So I walked.

But the yearning never went away. For 25 years I kept one foot in the spiritual, mainly through music. I’ve talked a great deal in this space (and will talk more in a moment) about the extraordinary spiritual rock bands that have changed and reshaped my life for nearly as long as I can remember listening to music, and if nothing else, they kept me trying out churches and reading all I could about the ineffable and the divine. I minored in philosophy and religious studies in college, covered every story about churches I could during my journalism career, and kept whatever it is that drew me toward faith alight, if only barely.

Long story short, I found a church that fits my idea of what church ought to be, which for me, mainly, means allowing me to grow at my own pace. I’m still not sure what you’d call me, but I’m happier not putting labels on things anyway. I’m different than I was just a couple years ago, though. Regardless, I told you all of that to tell you this: each Sunday I get up early and head to church to practice really Jesus-y songs with a group of other musicians. And what we play is what everyone thinks of when I say “Christian music.”

I’ve come to grips with the reason we play what we do in church, and in doing so have come to terms with so-called worship music. I generally hate the stuff – it’s so cloying, so simple, so surface-level. It’s never the sort of thing I would put on to listen to of my own free will. It works in the setting we play it in, because that setting is not about music in any way. What I really needed (and in some ways still need) to come to grips with, though, is the fact that when I talk about some of my very favorite bands, people automatically think I’m talking about something with the musicality and depth of, say, Matt Redman or Hillsong.

And I’m not. When I talk about spiritual pop bands like the Choir or Daniel Amos or Lifesavers Underground, I am describing something wholly different, something that would never be played on K-LOVE or added to the usual rotation at churches. What I like about these bands and artists is the same thing I like about any band or artist: honesty. Combine that with some serious musical chops and I’m all yours. Songwriters like Steve Hindalong and Terry Taylor are brutally honest about their faith, their doubt, their pain, their lives. That’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what I can’t find in worship music.

If you don’t believe me that spiritual music can be just as raw and ragged an emotional experience as any other kind, I have two albums you should hear. And thankfully, both of them have just been reissued in gorgeous expanded and remastered CD and vinyl editions by Lo-Fidelity Records. Lo-Fidelity is run by my friend Jeffrey Kotthoff, and for more than a decade he’s been keeping this little corner of the music world alive and kicking, supporting not only these beautiful reissues of barely-known records but new works by those musicians as well. I’m eternally grateful to him for loving what I love and putting his money and time into sharing it.

Two bands who have found a loving home on Lo-Fidelity are the 77s and the late, lamented Adam Again. I adore both of them, and I’m in the process of buying both of their catalogs again as they are re-released. (And on vinyl for the first time. They look amazing.) We’re up to the mid-‘90s with both bands, and perhaps coincidentally the latest reissues from both are the most twisted and pain-filled they ever released. These are albums without easy answers, with complicated emotions warring over abrasive and difficult music. In short, they’re ‘90s rock albums, but very, very good ones.

Michael Roe and his 77s have always been about honestly reflecting where they are as people, and the band’s 1994 opus Drowning With Land in Sight is no different. Take a second to deal with that title. The cover, as originally released, depicts a playground slide in the middle of the ocean, basically a short ride to nowhere. You can feel the hopelessness just radiating off this thing. And it makes sense – Drowning catches the 77s as guitarist David Leonhardt began his battle with cancer and Roe watched his marriage fall apart.

The album is in no way a slog, but it is difficult. It opens with a note-for-note cover of Led Zeppelin’s rewrite of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Roe performing the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page parts himself. It’s a track the band didn’t want to include here – the record company made them – but it sets the tone well. What follows is a barrage of fiery ‘90s-style guitar rock with titles like “Snowblind” and “Snake,” and it’s some of the most vicious material Roe and his band have ever put down on tape.

The record gets more diverse as it goes along, with the pretty “Film at Eleven” (a heartbreak song that could have fit on the previous album, Pray Naked), the instrumental “Mezzo” and the Rolling Stones riff “Cold, Cold Night” coming in rapid succession. But it never gets less bleak, and this reissue restores it to its even more bleak original running order, removing “For Crying Out Loud,” the one ray of hope. (Like “Nobody’s Fault,” its inclusion was mandated by a nervous, meddling record company.) Drowning now ends with its two saddest songs, “The Jig is Up” and “Alone Together,” both of which are about Roe’s divorce. Both of these songs are almost inhumanly beautiful, too, and the record leaves you hollowed out. (Don’t worry, “For Crying Out Loud” is included as a track on the bonus disc.)

The 77s, at this point in their evolution, were an incredible rock band, and Roe has always been one of the world’s most underrated guitarists. And it’s a good thing, too, because the powerfully alive music keeps you going through one heartbreaking sentiment after another. “Dave’s Blues” is a shimmying powerhouse that hides a tough lyric about Leonhardt’s cancer, punctuated by the line “this ol’ world has kicked my ass,” an honest assessment that the record company censored. (The line is here in all its glory on the reissue.) “The Jig is Up” marries a swaying folk melody to lyrics of absolute isolation.

There is no light at the end of this tunnel. Drowning With Land in Sight documents a spiral, catching Roe and his cohorts at a moment in which they didn’t know what to believe, or why. It’s a record full of turmoil, one with no easy answers, so you can imagine the disdain with which it was greeted in the Christian marketplace. But that honesty makes it one of my favorites in the band’s extensive catalog. It’s a searching, difficult piece of work, and I love it for that.

I have a tougher time loving Adam Again’s swan song, Perfecta, released in 1995. In some ways, it’s the most powerful thing this band ever recorded. It’s a sloppy, abrasive snapshot of the aftermath of frontman Gene Eugene’s divorce from his bandmate Riki Michele, and it contains little of the polish and danceable joy of the band’s previous works. It’s also the last one Eugene finished before his death from a drug overdose in 1999, and it’s a wrenching, dark way to go out. Like Drowning, it offers no light, no escape, just a suffocating bleakness over 64 devastating minutes.

If you care about Gene Eugene as a person, Perfecta is a very difficult listen. Songs like “Relapse” and “Harsh” and “Dogjam” air his darker thoughts over steel wool guitars and plodding, despondent grooves. “All Right” is a pitch-black masterpiece, like crawling through a darkened tunnel, waiting to hear the rush of water. The record’s one danceable piece is “Strobe,” and it’s over early, leaving you with nearly an hour of the hard stuff. The band is so good that even when they’re being deliberately loose and messy, they’re locked in somehow, finding the essential melodies within the noise. But it might take a couple listens to really appreciate that, and this isn’t a record that invites repeated listens.

So why do I love it? Why am I recommending it? Because it’s amazing in its honesty, its willingness to plumb the depths without needing to leaven the pain with platitudes. Sincerity was always Eugene’s hallmark – his masterwork, Dig, contains at least three songs that I would rank with the best I know, and they are powerfully honest things. But here it’s like he ripped himself open and laid himself bare. He doesn’t come out of this smelling like roses – “Harsh” especially casts him in a, well, harsh light – but that’s all part of the package. Perfecta is about cutting yourself and letting it bleed onto tape, and wherever the drops land, so be it.

The album ends with one of the saddest songs I know, “Don’t Cry.” It’s almost laughably simple in its sincerity, a song of parting with words of resigned encouragement, but it makes me tear up each time. Part of the reason is that this is the last song on the last Adam Again album, and I miss Gene Eugene’s singular voice something fierce. But part of it is the song itself – Eugene sings it with such heaviness in his voice, as if he knew he’d never be back here, making another Adam Again album, and Michele’s harmonies match him. It’s one of those songs I think everyone should hear, and it works best at the end of this emotionally ragged experience. That worn-out feeling you get as the album shudders to a conclusion is the point.

Some may certainly say that albums like Drowning and Perfecta don’t offer the redemption inherent in spiritual music, and in isolation, they would be right. But what I don’t get from worship music is the understanding that redemption doesn’t mean anything if you don’t feel the pain of existing without it first. This is why I love records like this, that drag me through the mud alongside hurting and broken people. I need this for the joy of salvation to make any sense. I need the full spectrum, the full experience of life, reflected in the art I love, and I’m grateful beyond measure to the artists I have found who give me that.

In short, buy these albums and all the others you can find at Lo-Fidelity’s website. You won’t regret it.

* * * * *

It’s the end of September, which means it should be time for the Third Quarter Report. But here’s the thing. For various personal reasons, I am ludicrously behind in my music purchasing and consumption. I’ve heard barely half of the records I bought in September, and I need another week to put together anything resembling a competent list. So, next week.

I’m not even sure what I’m going to review next week, either, so we’ll both be surprised. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Missed Again
Two Great Records that Nearly Got By Me

I keep up with a lot of bands. Or at least, I try to.

When I say a lot of bands, I mean a lot. Literally hundreds. And while the internet has made it easier in some ways to stay on top of what my favorite musicians are doing, it has also made music a lot less centralized. I check a number of websites that tell me what I can expect to find in stores each week, but at this point about half of my music purchases are made online, direct from the artists themselves. And often those artists don’t have any kind of marketing budget or infrastructure, so it’s up to me to remember to check their sites and social media on the regular to find out what they’re up to.

Here’s a case in point: on Friday, the great Scottish singer Fish is going to release a new record called A Parley with Angels. It features three songs from his upcoming double album (the last one he plans to record before he retires) and four live tracks from December of last year. It’s not exactly an indispensable piece of his collection, but I want it. And the only way I know about it at all is through Fish’s Facebook page. He has no marketing, particularly outside of Europe, and is dependent on his fans to find him. This is becoming the way of things, and it’s forced me to dedicate much more time and effort to keeping abreast of announcements.

All of this feeds into my fear of missing out, which is a very real thing. I’m a collector as much as I am a fan, and I hate it when releases get by me. Even one-off live records or four-song EPs. My collection isn’t complete unless I have all of that stuff, and trying to feed my completism by checking literally hundreds of websites is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. I’m going to miss stuff.

Most of the time, though, I catch up eventually. For example, up until two weeks ago, I had no idea that The Boxer Rebellion, one of my favorite discoveries of the past ten years, had released a sixth album. I don’t know how this slipped past me, given how much I like this band. I first heard them in 2011, when their third effort, a stunning piece of work called The Cold Still, caught my attention. The Cold Still was everything I have always wanted The National to be – slow and atmospheric, yet yearning and full of life. While I enjoyed the two follow-ups, the more scattered Promises and the somewhat synth-y Ocean by Ocean, they didn’t quite measure up to me. The Cold Still remained my favorite.

And it probably still is, but the new one, Ghost Alive, is the closest they have come since to matching it. I have since discovered that it came out in March, but only across the pond, and physical copies seem to have dried up from all but one source: the band themselves. So of course I bought from them. And I’m so glad I did. Ghost Alive could be seen as a retreat in some ways: it dispenses with the synthesizers that the band never seemed all that committed to, and even walks back from the grandiose soundscapes of Promises. It is their quietest, most organic record, and in stripping back they have recaptured their essence.

Of course it starts with a curveball. “What the Fuck” is an angry lyric sung with sadness over a strumming acoustic figure, and it’s a hard thing to figure out. When Nathan Nicholson sings “who do you think you are to talk to me, to look the way you do,” I am not sure who he is addressing, or if he is being ironic. The song is pretty, and the out-of-nowhere rage at its core is surprising. I’d like to know more about this one. The band never steps off the path again for the rest of Ghost Alive, which only makes “What the Fuck” stand out even more.

But from there it’s one lovely tune after another, and I want to give this album a warm hug. “Rain” is a gentle song of encouragement through hard times. “Love Yourself” is similar, a sweet ode to what Whitney Houston called the greatest love of all. These songs feature big strings and horns, but somehow even these accoutrements are subtler, taking the place of the electric guitars that used to lie at the heart of the band’s sound. “Don’t Look Back” is almost a pop song, with an insistent tom-tom drum beat – it is closest to “No Harm,” the grand opener of The Cold Still. But once that has faded, the rest of the album is almost delicate.

I’m a massive fan of “Lost Cause,” on which Nicholson embraces his own broken state while moving toward wholeness: “I am not a lost cause, even if I’m not yours.” “River” is wonderful, its rolling acoustic guitars feeling like rushing water. “Under Control” is beautiful, all pianos and drums, and closer “Goodnight” is as delicate as you’d hope.

But the gem of this album is “Here I Am.” Like many songs here, it’s about offering encouragement and hope, but this one is special somehow. When Nicholson reaches for that falsetto over the subtle guitars and single-tom drum beat, something magical happens. I can’t explain it, but at least for right now, “Here I Am” is my favorite Boxer Rebellion song, and I can’t stop playing it. And each time I do, I think about the fact that I may never have heard it. I’m beyond glad that Ghost Alive didn’t pass me by.

A band I like just as much as The Boxer Rebellion, if not more, is Husky. I owe Rob Hale for turning me on to this Australian quartet. They have three albums, and each one has been magnificent, drawing from a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous melodies. They’re a band I don’t mind paying import prices for – their third, last year’s Punchbuzz, was only released in their home country, but it was absolutely worth the extra shipping cost and the two-week wait to get it here.

The fact that Husky only seems to operate in Australia these days makes me feel a tiny bit better about totally missing the follow-up EP, which also came out last year. It’s called Bedroom Recordings, and it evenly splits its four songs between acoustic readings of Punchbuzz tunes and fascinating covers. It only exists digitally, but it’s so lovely that I don’t mind paying for zeroes and ones in this case.

These tunes were recorded by Husky Gawenda and Gideon Preiss, half of the band, and if the title leads you to expect laptop electronics with acoustic guitars, that’s what you get. The two recastings are “Late Night Store” and “Splinters in the Fire,” two of the singles from Punchbuzz, and in these settings they’re even prettier. I’ve heard “Late Night Store” probably 60 times now, and I still feel a million miles from tired of it. I’m glad to have this chance to hear it again for the first time.

The covers are the heart of this, for me. Gawenda strips both Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers” and Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” down to their organic essences – guitars and pianos. In doing so, he finds the sweetness and sadness in both songs. “Let It Happen” has undergone the greatest metamorphosis here – Kevin Parker (a fellow Australian) built his version around an insistent electronic beat and waves of synthesizers, and Gawenda has removed all of that, yet still kept every melodic element of the original arrangement. It’s pretty fantastic.

I probably could have remained ignorant of these four tracks and not really felt their absence, but I’m overjoyed that I did find them, and that they’ve become part of my picture of this band. The fact that both of these records turned out to be so enjoyable only fuels my FOMO. And so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, trying to keep track of all of the music I want to hear, and chasing down the ones that get by me. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.)

Next week, I swear, a couple things from Lo-Fidelity Records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

We lost Aretha Franklin this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

I hate saying “you had to be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles