Okay, Fine
Good Records I Wish Were Great

So there’s this new Ben Folds single.

It’s called “2020,” and it’s his first new song in almost two years. I’ve not heard whether this is the first rumblings of a new Ben Folds album, but if it so, it will be his first in five years. He’s spent that time writing a memoir and working as the artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., so he hasn’t been idle by any means. But this is the first real Ben Folds single in some time, and I was excited to hear it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like this song a lot. It’s got a classic Folds piano foundation, a sweet melody and a good hook. But it also sounds like a tune Folds could have written in five minutes. (I know it’s a product of his regular quarantine live shows.) It sounds very much like the b-sides he used to write quickly, like “One Down.” It makes its singular joke a couple times, takes a bow and leaves.

I want to reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s fun, it’s of the moment, it’s well put together. But for a songwriter known for his observational skill and incisiveness, this one doesn’t rank among his best. It’s perfectly fine, and I’m happy to hear it and happy that it exists. But will I remember it fondly in ten years? Probably not.

I mention this because this is how I am starting to feel about the new Rufus Wainwright album, Unfollow the Rules. Wainwright’s story is similar to Folds’ – Rules is his first new album in four years, and his first pop album in eight. He’s spent a lot of that time writing his second opera and re-staging his first, and it feels like his heart is truly in these projects. I’m glad we got at least one more glittering orchestral rock record from him.

And the album itself is quite good. Let’s start off by saying that I would listen to Rufus Wainwright sing my tax returns back to me. His voice is absolutely flawless, and at 47 he hasn’t lost an iota of impact from that instrument. He sounds amazing on Rules, from first song to last. The production by Mitchell Froom is as big and ornate as you could want, and these songs are treated lovingly.

The songs themselves, though? They’re fine. They’re good, even. The opening one-two punch of “Trouble in Paradise” and “Damsel in Distress” draws you in nicely, the title track builds convincingly over six and a half minutes (and that falsetto in the climactic minutes is lovely), and tunes like “Romantical Man” sound like they were lifted right from a Broadway show. Wainwright indulges his funnier side on “You Ain’t Big,” and it’s a hoot.

I had a really good time listening to Unfollow the Rules, even when it started to drag in the middle. I especially appreciated the final act, where things get dark – “Early Morning Madness” and “Hatred” are minor-key powerhouses, and the wild bridge of the former may be my favorite moment on this album. The closing track, “Alone Time,” is a perfect comedown after that. The third act contains the rise and fall of emotion that I missed in the previous two acts, and when it arrives it’s a nice surprise.

So yes, this is a good record, and I’m happy to recommend it. But as I listen to it again, I’m struck by how often these songs are content to stay within the realm of good, and don’t break out into great. If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you know I think Rufus Wainwright is one of the best songwriters in the world, and that Poses and the two Want records are close to perfect in my mind. This one doesn’t do it for me quite as much as those masterpieces did. It reminds me more of Release the Stars, a record I like but don’t often return to.

That is, of course, fine. These 12 new songs are pretty and dramatic, and as I mentioned earlier, Wainwright sings them like a dream. If they don’t match up to his earlier material, well, his earlier material is almost impossibly good. Unfollow the Rules is a fine record, and I hope I grow to eat every critical word I’ve said about it here. But as of right now, I like it a lot, but I don’t love it like I used to love Wainwright’s work.

I can say the same about the new Ray LaMontagne album Monovision. Like with Wainwright, I’ve been a fan of LaMontagne’s for a long time, back to his first record, 2004’s Trouble. He’s got one of those husky yet silky voices and his catalog is impressively restless, moving from the orchestrated folk of Till the Sun Turns Black to the pop of Supernova to the electrified psychedelia of Ouroboros. I’ve liked most of it, but loved his work only sporadically.

In case you couldn’t see this coming: I like Monovision, but don’t love it. For this record – actually recorded in mono – LaMontagne challenged himself to play every instrument, which results in a stripped-back, breezier affair. There’s little but acoustic guitar and vocals on several of these tracks, like the Robert Plant-ish opener “Roll Me Mama, Roll Me,” which is fine, because he’s a serviceable drummer at best on tracks like “Strong Enough.” The focus here is on his voice, and it’s stunning as always.

But am I going to remember these songs next year? I don’t think I am. The whole record feels somehow weightless. “Summer Clouds” is nice but a little formless, while the Western-tinged “We’ll Make It Through” is very pretty but very surface-level. I admire LaMontagne for making an album so steeped in positivity and peacefulness during these times, and in many ways it’s exactly what I needed right now.

But it wafts away on the wind as soon as it’s done playing, and I don’t know how much of it will stick. LaMontagne’s best work is indelible – I can still remember the first time I heard “Be Here Now” – and this sweet little thing makes as little noise as possible, almost apologetic in its slightness. I hope LaMontagne got what he wanted to out of it. For my part, I like Monovision, but don’t have a lot to say about it. It is, in the words of one of the songs, here and gone again.

Next week, probably a few records that have no discernible connection. Come on back to find out what they are.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Road to Awe
Michael Gungor Continues His Spiritual Journey as Weiwu

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of isolation.

As David Lee Roth once sang, I ain’t got nobody, so I’ve been riding out this pandemic on my own. Some days I’m totally fine with it – I’ve always enjoyed my own company, and I certainly have enough books, movies, TV shows and music to keep me busy for ten or so years. Some days (and even weeks), though, it all gets to me and I find it hard to motivate myself to do anything.

June, as I may have mentioned last time, was one of those days extended to a whole month. Getting out of bed felt like a triumph some days. With the world on fire and Corona still raging and my health fluctuating and having had no human contact since March, I honestly give myself credit for seeing the other side of the month. I tell you all this not because I want pity, but because I made a bit of a mistake last week and I want to put it in perspective.

I forgot an album on the Second Quarter Report, one that undeniably belongs there. I’m not sure how I did it – my only excuse is that there’s no physical version of this album yet, and I do sometimes find it difficult to bring download-only efforts to the front of my mind. (Although Fiona’s record is download only too, so whatever with all that noise.) This is my issue, definitely, but it’s another reason I don’t like paying for air, and will hold out for a CD release from all but the most important artists to me.

Michael Gungor is one of those, though. I think I hesitated all of five seconds before paying to download his new solo project under the name Weiwu. It’s called Are You Perfect Yet and it’s absolutely stunning. And I can’t believe I forgot about it.

You may remember Michael Gungor as one-half of the band that shares his last name. Quite a lot has happened since I named their album I Am Mountain the best of 2013. The band made a trilogy of excellent records after Mountain and then went on a farewell tour. Michael, who started his career writing liturgical music, underwent a deconstruction of his faith, exploring Buddhism and Hinduism. He now calls himself Vishnu Dass, partially because his own name, Gungor, is so entrenched in the music world he left behind.

His journey continues, but Are You Perfect Yet provides a musical and spiritual touchstone, giving you a glimpse of where he is now. And it’s far, far away from the music and spirituality he used to traffic in. It’s also far, far away from 90 percent of the music I own. It’s electronic at its base, full of programmed drums and synth washes, but it’s difficult to describe it from there. It’s an insanely complex electronic symphony with Eastern overtones and lots of beautiful melodies, and it is clearly meant to be experienced as a whole.

I say that because these songs bleed into one another, but also because they turn on a dime, going different places every few minutes, and the joyous disorientation feels like the intention here. No individual track – not even the catchy single, “Ya Wei,” the closest this record comes to a complete done-in-one tune – can give you the effect Gungor is hoping for. Are You Perfect Yet is a meditation, carrying you through from first note to last, and it is like taking your soul for a long drive.

Sufjan Stevens might be the best touchstone for this, and that is not a name I invoke too often. Are You Perfect Yet has the same electronic glitchiness and miles-wide grandeur of The Age of Adz, and it changes dramatically every few minutes, as if Gungor can’t wait to get to his next idea. “She’s Fire” is almost a pop song for a minute or two, but it lasts for six, and flips itself upside down more than once, crashing its own momentum to head off in new musical destinations.

There isn’t much linear about this record, but from a 30,000-foot view, it moves from laments like “Growing Tired” to joyous spiritual dance parties like “Ya Wei” and “Shiva.” And like most stories, it ends in death – the concluding trilogy, beginning with “Color on a Pale Dark Ground,” is among the most beautiful in Gungor’s arsenal. The closing track, “Stillness,” is six minutes of ethereal vocals surrounded by chimes and gongs, and it sends this out on a note that feels bigger than a mere set of songs. It’s clear we are meant to connect with something deeper, something eternal, through this music.

I still have a lot of listening to do before I can claim to fully understand Are You Perfect Yet, but that’s my failing, not Gungor’s. He certainly put a lot into this, and even in my half-dozen listens so far I’ve gotten a lot out of it. But this is the rare record that feels like it has only just begun to share its secrets. Luckily continuing to explore its contours is not even remotely a chore. I can’t believe its existence slipped my mind, because it’s easily one of the most memorable albums of 2020 so far.

If you’re wondering, Are You Perfect Yet would slot into the top 10 list at number four, dropping everything else down one notch. Hopefully I’ve made you want to listen to it, and if so, check it out here.

Next week, we have a ton to choose from, including the first new Rufus Wainwright pop album in eight years.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Flaming June
What I Listened To While the World Burned

If I needed any further indication that ending Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. this year is a good decision, this month did it for me. I just haven’t felt like writing one of these for the past four weeks, and as I watched the days ticking by, I felt less and less like catching up. When I started this thing I couldn’t imagine going seven days without wanting to write about music. But lately I’ve had more important things on my mind.

One of them is my health, which has been an interesting roller coaster for the past few months. Suffice it to say that the doctors looked for cancer and didn’t find any, which was a huge relief. So now we have to figure out what is causing the symptoms I do have. I’m all right, I feel good, nobody worry. But it’s been on my mind a lot.

Another, of course, is the fact that the world is on fire. I’ve written and erased a couple columns about the murder of George Floyd and the protests that ensued, but decided in the end to listen rather than speak. I hope no one is turning to a silly music column to hear that Black Lives Matter. Similarly, I hope that no one who knows me would expect me to say anything else. I’ve been quiet here but not on my personal page, and not with people I know. I’ve also been donating to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and I’d certainly recommend giving to them or to the racial justice organization of your choice.

I also made my own album, which took some of my attention away from other projects. It’s a strange, homemade set of songs about living in quarantine. It’s called A Dream of Outside, I’m pretty proud of it, and you can have it for free if you want it.

And I’ve been listening to music. It’s been strangely freeing to hear a new album and not think about what I want to say about it. (Yet another indication that it’s time to let this column go.) There have been so many good records in the past 30 days, and I’ve been trying to soak them in. Just this week I added a ton to my to-listen pile, including Elbow’s acoustic live album, Ray Lamontagne’s one-man Monovision and a four-CD box set of Frank Zappa’s 1970 iteration of the Mothers. I hope to pick up my weekly schedule after this and straight on to the end, so I’m listening.

I thought what I would do this week is give a brief rundown of some of the records I have enjoyed, and then cap it off with my traditional Second Quarter Report. (Truth be told, it’s the report that brought me back – I didn’t want to miss my last opportunity to compile one of these at mid-year.)

I guess we can start with Bob Dylan, since everyone’s talking about Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th album. I’ve never been the Dylan fan that a lot of my friends are, and the gushing over this thing leaves me a little mystified. I do like it – Dylan returns to the bluesy rock and slower-paced shuffles of Tempest, his last album of originals. (He’s since made three records of Sinatra covers, of all things. One of them a triple album. Gah.) I know people like to pore over Dylan’s lyrics for the secrets to the universe. I found the poetry on Rough and Rowdy to be, you know, fine, and the music adequate. I still can’t quite make it through the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul,” his eulogy for John F. Kennedy – it sounds like the Muppets teaching history to me. Thankfully, that song is on its own disc, so it’s easy to skip.

Stephin Merritt is a much less celebrated songwriter, but I’ve always liked him. In his guise as The Magnetic Fields he has made some undeniable gems, including his two multi-disc endeavors, 1999’s 69 Love Songs and 2017’s 50-Song Memoir. His latest is called Quickies, and it’s fun once, maybe twice. It’s 28 short songs – the longest is 2:35, the shortest 17 seconds – and it goes for cheap and easy laughs more often than not. These feel like sketches instead of the full-blooded pop songs Merritt usually gives us.

Another one everyone seemed to talk about for five minutes this month is Lady Gaga’s Chromatica. I liked it. It’s shorter than her average, and its pure synth-pop feels like what Madonna should have been giving us for the past 20 or so years. Nothing here stands out, but nothing feels out of place either, and it moves like a rocket. If we’re talking about short records made up of short songs, I vastly prefer this one to Merritt’s effort, and I’m surprised to hear myself say that.

But ah, now we’re into the music I have loved, that has sustained me for the past few weeks. Start with Look Long, the delightful 15th album from the Indigo Girls. It’s hard to believe they’ve been at it this long – their self-titled record, the first one I heard, came out 31 years ago – and even harder to believe that they still sound this good. Their voices have aged, but still blend beautifully, and their songwriting styles still push and pull against each other perfectly. It’s Emily Saliers who takes this one for me. She’s just on fire here, from “When We Were Writers” to “Feel This Way Again” to the gorgeous picture postcard of “Country Radio.” They’re so good, still.

It’s been a while since Norah Jones knocked me out, but her eighth album, the fittingly titled Pick Me Up Off the Floor, is superb. It is dark and full-bodied and atmospheric, and not even two duets with Jeff Tweedy can deter my love for it. I have similar feelings about Teddy Thompson’s sweet Heartbreaker Please, an old-school country-pop record of great songs sung in his rich tenor. Thompson hasn’t sounded this focused in a while. Sarah Jarosz made a swell little return with World on the Ground, too. It’s not as life-changing as her earlier material, but I like it.

The biggest surprise (well, until last week, but we will get to that) has been Phoebe Bridgers’ new one, Punisher. I’ve been aware of her work in boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, but nothing on those records quite prepared me for the dark dream that is her second album. This one deserves a full review at some point, because it heralds the arrival of a major new talent. The songs are nicely written, but it’s the production, the sheer sound of the thing, that really makes this one. It’s a headphone folk album, and a beautiful one.

I’ve also been loving the new ones from instrumental collectives Unwed Sailor and Gogo Penguin, and I thought I’d have to rely on them to scratch my big-weird-music itch. That is, until last week, when Hum – Hum, of all bands! – returned out of nowhere with a masterpiece of a new album called Inlet. I don’t know if you remember Hum, but they made two albums in the ‘90s that combined stoner metal, alt-rock and My Bloody Valentine shoegaze in a way no one had quite done before. Downward is Heavenward remains one of the finest records from that era, up there with OK Computer. No, I’m not kidding.

Inlet doesn’t do anything different, despite the 23-year absence, but it doesn’t have to. No one else sounds like this. Its eight songs stretch to almost an hour, with half of them topping eight minutes each, and it’s clear the band felt free to dig into their sound, to build on it without changing its essence. It still sounds like the loudest thing you’ve ever heard, and still feels almost impossibly fragile at times too. I’ve been used to saying that Hum was a great band. Now I get to say that Hum is a great band, still. Listen here.

And a couple days ago Semisonic made a surprise return as well with their first song in 19 years, “You’re Not Alone.” It’s from a new EP out in September. I can’t get enough of this song. Classic Dan Wilson.

OK, let’s do the Second Quarter Report. It’s changed drastically from the first quarter, as you’ll see, and a lot of the names from the paragraphs above found their way onto the list. Here’s my top 10 as it stands right now:

10. Indigo Girls, Look Long.
9. Vanessa Carlton, Love is an Art.
8. Derek Webb, Targets.
7. 
Watkins Family Hour, Brother Sister.
6. 
Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground.
5. 
Nada Surf, Never Not Together.
4. 
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher.
3. 
Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.
2. 
Hum, Inlet.
1. 
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

I cannot even picture in my head the album amazing enough to knock Fiona off the top spot this year. But I’ve been surprised before.

Anyway, hope to be back and riding this train to the final station. Next week, more music. We’ll see what strikes my fancy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

No Missing Pieces
Memories of Old Days with Gentle Giant's New Box Set

In order to tell you about what I have been listening to for the past week, I have to tell you about someone I haven’t spoken to in 20 years.

As most of you probably know, I began this column with Face Magazine in Portland, Maine. Face was an independent music mag that came out every two weeks. it had a gritty, homemade quality to it that mirrored the DIY scene it covered. The Face folks hired me right out of college, and I spent four years with them, asking people what they’ve been listening to and writing features on local artists. Two years in I noticed that while we had a lot of regular columns, none of them were dedicated to the new music that drove my interests. So I started one.

But I don’t want to recount all of that here. I do want to tell you about one of those regular columnists, a guy named Seth Berner. Seth wrote the punk column, called Undertones, and he was pretty much born for that. His tastes tended toward the fast and sloppy and counter-cultural, and he happened to encounter me at the height of my “social context doesn’t matter, it’s the MUSIC, man” late adolescence. I argued with Seth about a lot of things that, these days, I would not, and he was right about much more than I ever told him.

Anyway, the one time Seth ever surprised the hell out of me was when he recommended Gentle Giant. I had been so used to him extoling the virtues of six-minute seven-inches made by people who just learned their instruments an hour ago, and so used to him dismissing the (I thought) extraordinary musical skill of my favorite musicians. I thought I had him pegged. So when he, of all people, introduced me to one of the greatest obscure progressive rock bands in history, I was gobsmacked.

And I remain grateful to him. My two-decades-strong Gentle Giant fandom is entirely down to Seth, who made me cassette copies of his favorite albums. Tops on his list was their fifth, In a Glass House, and I can’t argue. (The fact that it had never been released in the United States at that time, I’m sure, only made Seth love it more.) Glass House was the first one I heard, and frankly, I’d never encountered music quite like it. Can you imagine music that is equal parts Yes and centuries-old folk? I couldn’t either, but that’s what much of Glass House sounds like.

Why am I telling you about a band that broke up in 1980? Well, a couple weeks ago I received something I’d been eyeing for months – an all-in-one Gentle Giant box set called Unburied Treasure. This thing represents the most money I’ve ever dropped on a single item of music, and I thought I’d missed out on it – the first pressing came out in December and sold out almost immediately. The band organized an even more limited second pressing, and that’s the one I picked up.

And I’ve spent the last week or so listening to it. This is no mean feat – Unburied Treasure is 29 CDs, consisting of all 12 officially released albums, 15 full live shows (most of which were unreleased) and a disc of rehearsal recordings. It also includes a gorgeous hardbound book with a full history of the band, a tour book with notes on every show the band played, several other mementos, including a puzzle with a missing piece (produced to promote 1977’s The Missing Piece) and a full giant-head mask. All of this is packaged in a beautiful box that is the largest brick in my collection. Seriously, it’s so much bigger than I expected it would be.

After listening to all of it, I can only say that this extravagant package feels like giving an unjustly ignored band its due, finally. Gentle Giant grew out of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound in 1969. Its core was the Shulman brothers: Derek, Ray and (for a time) Phil, along with Gary Green and Kerry Minnear. There were a few drummers through the years, but when they found John Weathers in 1972, they stuck with him. The Shulmans, Green and Minnear were all multi-instrumentalists, which means on stage they would swap constantly, or bring out the horns or vibes or other orchestral elements.

I can’t say I’m surprised that this music has largely been lost to the winds of time. Almost none of it is what you would call accessible. Gentle Giant began and ended their career playing more straightforward rock, but in between constructed songs like no one ever has before or since. Complex multi-part harmonies, ornate arrangements, demanding instrumental sections, melodies that only step forward and make themselves familiar over time. It’s incredibly demanding stuff, both to play and to listen to, but it’s also immensely rewarding once its contours and shapes map themselves out for you.

I won’t go album by album here, but I will mention some songs that stood out to me this time. Before acquiring the box I’d never heard Acquiring the Taste, the band’s second record, and it’s easily one of their weirdest and least inhibited. But here’s the thing about Gentle Giant – their music never feels self-indulgent. Their records hover around half an hour in length, their songs usually about four minutes. Acquiring has a few longer ones, but the longest is seven and a half. This album is pure artistic freedom, and I’m still parsing it, but the string section on “Black Cat” is a firm favorite already.

Anyone who wants to call 1972’s Octopus the band’s best will get no argument from me. I have loved songs like “The Advent of Panurge” and the insane, harmonically dizzying “Knots” for years, but this time the standout was “Think of Me With Kindness,” Kerry Minnear’s gorgeous song of separation. (I requested a cover of this from my friend Ian Tanner, and he obliged, and it was lovely.) Man, this melody is unbelievable. It’s on Brian Wilson’s level, and if you know me you know what a compliment that is.

I still think In a Glass House may be their best. The folksy elements are played up here, and good lord, does this stuff sound timeless. Out of time, really. There’s never been an album quite like this one, and the band would emphasize the rockier and funkier parts of their sound on subsequent efforts like the great The Power and the Glory. If I had to pick one song from this middle period, I would choose “His Last Voyage” on 1975’s Free Hand, though. Imagine a prog-rock Enya. That’s what this haunting acoustic tune is.

Of course, if I had more to choose, I’d throw in “Experience” and the dissonant “So Sincere” and “On Reflection” and “Timing” and and and. It’s really an unassailable run of records, through 1976’s Interview. This is not to say that the final three albums are bad, they’re just more straight-ahead. The Missing Piece contains a side of rock and a side of proggy folk, and that second side includes “Memories of Old Days,” the band’s last real classic. 1978’s Giant for a Day is the band’s worst, but it’s still a fun rock record, and 1980’s Civilian(which I had also never heard) goes out with a bang, bringing Gentle Giant roaring into the new wave moment. “All Through the Night” should have been a hit.

But it wasn’t. Gentle Giant had no hits, and went away as quietly as they’d arrived, as far as the general public is concerned. Those who got to see them live, however, know that there was nothing quiet about them. The 15 live shows included in Unburied Treasure span their entire existence, and range from audience recordings to the beautiful multi-tracks used for the four shows that were edited into their only official live album, Playing the Fool. Listening to these in chronological order was a treat – they prove beyond a doubt that the albums only tell half the story.

Gentle Giant live was loud and jammy, in ways I did not expect. Much of their more complex material never made it into their setlists, since it would have been nearly impossible to replicate night after night. Instead, the band picked a few favorites and messed with them throughout their live tenure. There are 14 renditions of “Funny Ways” here, for instance, and each one evolves into a fascinating vibraphone solo that is different every time. “Nothing At All” becomes an excuse for the whole band to play drums in an extended midsection. Octopus is mashed together into a 15-minute medley that changes over time, and is just maddeningly complicated.

Above all, Gentle Giant was fun live, something that may not come across on their studio records. They kept the joy of performing all the way to their final show from 1980, documented here on the set’s final disc. The band blasts through the Civilian material and mixes in some older classics (like “The Advent of Panurge,” played in full for the first time in ages), and they sound like they’re ready to go on and on, not call it quits. “We’ll see you again” is the last thing Derek Shulman says before leaving the stage for the final time.

The Shulmans, especially, have gone on to have quite an impact on the music world. Derek Shulman became an A&R representative for PolyGram and Atco, signing (among others) Bon Jovi, Dream Theater, Pantera and Slipknot. (And my boys Enuff Z’Nuff.) Ray Shulman produced albums from the Sugarcubes, the Sundays and Ian McCullough, to name a few. The rest of the band has pursued various and sundry musical projects, but none with the scope and breadth of Gentle Giant.

It would have been so easy for me to live my entire life without hearing a note of this band’s work. I imagine roughly 90 percent of the population remains unaware of them. So I am grateful for a big, lavish box like this one celebrating a catalog unlike any other I’m aware of. And I’m grateful to Seth Berner for making sure I heard In a Glass House all those years ago. My life is richer with this music in it.

There are still copies of Unburied Treasure left. Pick one up from Burning Shed here.

Next week, back to the new stuff. Indigo Girls, Lady Gaga, the 1975. So much to choose from.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Past Is the Enemy
On Lesser Works and Listening Anyway

I had an interesting realization while listening to the new Jason Isbell album: I am guilty, often, of victimizing artists for their own success.

I can name a million examples. I haven’t truly loved a Radiohead album in 20 years, mainly because I cannot get past how good OK Computer is. Kendrick Lamar’s perfectly respectable DAMN got a lower grade from me because To Pimp a Butterfly was so defining. Do I need to bring up Tori Amos? Three immortal albums that changed my life, and nothing since has measured up for me.

The problem is that I miss a lot of what is good about these later records by comparing them to their authors’ best work. In some ways that’s the job of a reviewer. The number one question I get, when people care about my opinion on things, is some variation of “Is this one as good as the last one?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but sometimes the answer is “no, but listen anyway.” Still, that “no” at the start there, that turns a lot of people off.

So my initial take on Reunions, Isbell’s seventh album (and second in a row to be credited to him and his band, the 400 Unit), was disappointment. Isbell is one of the best songwriters in the game right now, and his last three records, starting with the incredibleSoutheastern and continuing through 2017’s great The Nashville Sound, have been pretty close to perfect. I could name highlights, but I’d just be copying and pasting full track listings. These three records have been showcases for a songsmith at the absolute height of his powers.

Reunions isn’t quite on that level. I posted my first-blush opinion online, and it got a lot of pushback. That opinion was that when a writer as good as Isbell makes something that is merely great, instead of transcendent, it feels like a dropoff. I tried to emphasize that Reunions is really good, but some still took it as a harsh criticism. So let me be clear now: Reunions is really good. Nashville is full of songwriters who will never make a record this good. These ten songs would be the envy of most people with recording contracts. It’s honestly really good.

We can talk highlights of this one, no doubt. Start with the overall tone – Isbell’s guitar has rarely sounded better, and the 400 Unit has rarely sounded more live on record. The first song is a six-minute mantra called “What’ve I Done to Help,” about the personal responsibility we all share to make the world a better place. (It’s one of the songs here that I think is a little simple and a little on-the-nose for Isbell.) The highlight of this track is how it takes its three-chord structure and makes something gripping out of it. And man, don’t even get me started on the lead guitar work on “Overseas” and the slinky Tom Petty groove of “Running With Our Eyes Closed.” Mwah. Beautiful.

“Running” is another example of a song that could have used more – the chorus repeats the title four times, the exact same way, and I get that the music Isbell is homaging here does the same thing, but I wanted it to go a few more places. I know Isbell can give us perfectly formed songs, because he does it here several times. “It Gets Easier” might be the album’s masterpiece. It finds Isbell looking back on his own alcoholism – he’s been sober for years – and admitting that it’s a daily struggle. “It gets easier, but it never gets easy, I can say it’s all worth it but you won’t believe me…”

I’m a huge fan of “Be Afraid,” which treads similar ground. “Every one of us is counting dice that we didn’t roll and the loser is the last one to ask for help,” he sings, before hitting the hook line: “Be afraid, be very afraid, but do it anyway.” The band is on fire on this one. “Overseas” tells two stories about people in different countries, and Isbell melds these tales expertly. “St. Peter’s Autograph” is a delightful love song (“What can I do to help you sleep, I’ll work hard and work for cheap”), and the closing track “Letting You Go” travels with Isbell as he brings his newborn daughter home from the hospital and imagines the day he will have to give her away. (“It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going, the hard part is letting you go…”)

These are all great songs, and the rest of Reunions is very good as well. Taken on its own, and not compared with Isbell’s past musical miracles, it’s excellent. So what’s the point of comparing it, then? I don’t really know anymore. Everything I’ve said is true, but it all kept me from really digging into Reunions and hearing it on its own terms. It’s a lesson I need to learn. I can get caught up in the rankings, in the which-one-is-better game, and miss the charms of the music in front of me. Don’t let any such comparisons stop you from hearing Reunions. Even if it isn’t Isbell’s best, it’s well worth your time.

* * * * *

If you think I hold Isbell to a high standard because of his past work, you can imagine my expectations for a Jellyfish reunion.

For those who know, you know. For those who don’t, Jellyfish was one of the best pop bands to ever walk the earth. I don’t say that lightly. I own very few perfect albums, ones about which I would change nothing. Jellyfish’s two records – 1990’s Bellybutton and 1993’s Spilt Milk – are perfect. They are perfectly written, they are perfectly arranged, they are perfectly performed and recorded. My sole complaint about Jellyfish’s output is that there is not more of it.

Alas, the band broke up in 1994 after touring Spilt Milk, a tour I got to see as a very excited 19-year-old. I’ve followed the musical adventures of the Jellyfishers through the years, always getting a little thrill when I see Roger Manning’s name pop up on an album, or see that Jason Falkner has released another record in Japan. It’s been 26 years, and the possibility of a reunion grows ever dimmer. And I wonder if a reunion could even live up, honestly. Jellyfish was a once-in-a-lifetime lightning-in-a-bottle kind of thing, and comparing anything to the two records they made together would be a fool’s game.

But of course I’m doing it anyway. Three months ago I heard about The Lickerish Quartet, a trio (ha!) named after a 1970 erotic movie from Italy. The three members of the trio are Roger Manning, Eric Dover and Tim Smith, all former members of Jellyfish. This is probably the closest we will ever get to a true-blue Jellyfish reunion, a truth only magnified by their first EP, Threesome Vol. 1. These four songs come nearer than almost anything I’ve heard since to capturing the spirit, sound and style of that band.

To be clear, this is not Jellyfish. You’d need the voice and drums of Andy Sturmer for that, at the very least. But this is lovely, silly, ornate pop music, made with undeniable skill and a sense of history, just like Jellyfish. This EP is beautifully arranged, candy-coated and sparkling. In true Jellyfish tradition, opening track “Fadoodle” makes me think about how much painstaking work went into constructing a song this silly. It’s about a guy asking for sex, but it’s charmingly ridiculous. You could listen to just the backing vocals (“Buzz buzz! Beep beep!”) and have a great time.

The rest of Threesome is more serious in tone, but no less glorious. “Bluebird’s Blues” is a gorgeous pop song. Those harmonies! Those guitar lines! The vibes! It’s all wonderful. “There Is a Magic Number” is a dark and terrific strummer, Manning providing keyboard accents over a swaying groove. And the EP concludes with its finest moment, the six-minute epic “Lighthouse Spaceship,” which is like Queen, ELO and Stevie Wonder all at once. It’s amazing, and it catches the spirit of Spilt Milk wonderfully.

I had very high expectations for Threesome Vol. 1, and even though it’s not Jellyfish, I loved it anyway. My main complaint about it is a familiar one – there isn’t enough of it. Four songs is barely a taste. I’m hopeful that there will be further volumes, and that the Lickerish Quartet spins this melodic gold for a long time to come. Listen and buy here.

Next week, a deep dive into the catalog of an obscure ‘70s prog band. That sounds exciting, right? If you answered yes honestly, come back in seven days.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Dry Season
A Eulogy and a Look Ahead

We lost Little Richard this week.

If your tastes tend toward the more theatrical side of rock ‘n’ roll, you owe Little Richard basically everything. While Chuck Berry and Fats Domino pioneered the art form, Richard Penniman was the one who gave rock its wild and unpredictable quality. He himself once said that if Elvis Presley was the king of rock ‘n’ roll, he was the queen.

Dressed to the nines, Little Richard burst out of nowhere (actually Macon, Georgia) with “Tutti Frutti” in 1955, playing piano like a wild man. Imagine hearing “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-wop-bam-boom” on the radio for the first time. It must have been like hearing a bomb go off. Richard had hit after hit in the late ‘50s, from “Long Tall Sally” to “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and earned the nickname “the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.” Certainly no one else from those early days embodied the danger and freedom of rock the way he did.

You can draw a straight line from Little Richard to Prince, with a million little points in between. Like Prince (and like James Brown, who counted Richard as an influence), Richard was an electrifying live performer. Like Prince, he was sexual while also being sexually ambiguous. Like Prince, Richard struggled with the ramifications of his Christian beliefs, taking a hiatus from music in the ‘60s to become a traveling preacher. That struggle felt intrinsic to his music, which paired the energy of black gospel with the down-and-dirty feel of the blues. He was a man torn between two worlds.

His influence is undeniable and wide-reaching. Every flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll performer owes him a debt, for starters. His songs landed him in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and Paul McCartney has said that “Long Tall Sally” was the first song he sang in public. (The Beatles’ version of it came out on an EP of the same name in 1964.) He’s in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But more than that, I think, he crossed racial and sexual lines, bringing people together over music that was deeply fun and immensely historically significant.

Little Richard died of bone cancer on Saturday, May 9. He was 87 years old.

* * * * *

I mentioned this last week, but for real, I don’t have anything in particular to talk about this week. It’s one of those rare weeks in which I didn’t buy a single new album. I’ve been listening to old stuff while I work – I made my way through Suzanne Vega’s whole catalog in two days, for instance. My major recent purchase was the Gentle Giant box set Unburied Treasure, but I just received that on Friday and haven’t even begun to explore its riches.

So I guess I can talk about what’s coming up, as a way of rounding off this week’s missive. I’ll contain myself to five or six things, but there’s quite a lot of interesting music coming our way in the middle third of 2020. A balm for the continued insanity that is our world. (Murder hornets? I mean, of course there’s murder hornets now.)

Next week is the new Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album Reunions. I’ve liked what I have heard, especially “Be Afraid,” though some of it seems like a different style for him. Isbell is one of the most consistently satisfying songwriters we have, and I’m hopeful that streak will continue. Speaking of great songwriters, one week later we’re getting Look Long, the 15th Indigo Girls album. Emily Saliers’ songs from this one have hit me so far, from the pensive “When We Were Writers” to the timely “Country Radio.”

There’s lots of stuff coming in the following weeks, from Lady Gaga to Haken to the Magnetic Fields, but I’m probably most excited about Sarah Jarosz’s new one, World on the Ground, out on my birthday, June 5. Jarosz is a stunningly good songwriter – her last album, Undercurrent, made my top 10 list – and while I liked hearing her in I’m With Her, I’m jazzed to get another ten songs from her.

I suppose I should mention Bob Dylan, who announced his 39th album (and first in eight years that isn’t a collection of Sinatra covers), Rough and Rowdy Ways, out June 19. As many of you know, I struggle with Dylan, both as a writer and a performer. I’ll buy this and try it, but I have to say I made it only a few minutes into his 17-minute ramble about the Kennedy assassination, “Murder Most Foul,” before having to shut it off. Thankfully that song is on its own disc here, so I can safely just ignore it.

I’m very much looking forward to the return of Rufus Wainwright, though, whose tenth album Unfollow the Rules hits on July 10. It’s been a long eight years since Out of the Game, Wainwright’s last pop record, and I’m very much looking forward to another set of ornate, glittering orchestral wonderment from him. We’re also getting a new Jayhawks, a new Margo Price and the second album from Chip Z’Nuff’s incarnation of Enuff Z’Nuff on that day, so it’s a pretty good one.

For archival material, you can’t beat the recent announcement of Mothers ’70, a four-disc collection of unreleased material from Frank Zappa’s 1970s band. This lineup was the first to feature Flo and Eddie, and the only released remnants from them ended up on Chunga’s Revenge. This set is four and a half hours of live and studio tracks, another treasure trove of Zappa vault material. I am also giddily anticipating the 17-disc Book of Iona box set, including every album and hours of unreleased stuff from one of the most overlooked progressive folk bands to ever walk the earth.

But all that’s in the future. For now, listen to what you can find, stay safe and be good to one another. Next week, Isbell. And probably one or two others.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Not to Be Missed
Catching Up with the Watkins Siblings and Vanessa Carlton

We’re in a bit of a dry season this week and next. There was some decent new music out last week, including the new Man Man and ten new songs by Damien Jurado, but nothing to get the pulse quickening. And I currently have nothing slated for this week at all.

As always when I hear a great, year-defining record – and Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is certainly that – new music has to fight for space in my consciousness. So even if I were expecting some revelatory new works over the next couple weeks, chances are good that I’d only half-heartedly listen anyway, intent on returning to the seismic powerhouse Apple has delivered. So in a way, this is a good thing – had the universe chosen this week to give me something world-class, I may have missed its magic.

I’m glad to have the opportunity instead to point out a couple records that may have slipped through the cracks, but which brought me (and continue to bring me) joy. I’ve been thinking about the first one I have for you because I’ve been reminiscing about the two times I have seen Fiona Apple live. (Aw, remember concerts? Remember seeing other people in person?) The first was just after her debut album Tidal came out, when she joined Sarah McLachlan and others on the inaugural Lilith Fair. I liked her performance a lot, and enjoyed that she and her all-male band all wore dresses.

The second time was five years ago at City Winery in Nashville, as part of the Watkins Family Hour. Sean and Sara Watkins are two-thirds of bluegrass wonders Nickel Creek, and the Watkins Family Hour was their traveling sideshow of like-minded performers. They played mostly covers, as heard on their eponymous debut album, and Apple was one of the singers they tapped. (Others at the show I saw: the great Buddy Miller, the great Benmont Tench and the Secret Sisters. It was awesome.)

It also felt like a one-off, with both Watkins siblings exploring solo work in its wake. (Sara is also in supergroup I’m With Her.) So imagine my surprise when a second Watkins Family Hour album, called Brother Sister, showed up on my radar screen. This one is a lot different – where the first record felt more freewheeling, more ramshackle, this one plays like a polished suite of songs. Where the first record dove into influences, this one is mostly original songs. Where the debut was often more about the guest players, this one is about the Watkins siblings and how they work together.

But forget all that, because this record is gorgeous. However we get these songs, under whatever name the Watkinses want to give them to us, it’s a beautiful gift. “Just Another Reason” is a perfect reason all by itself to treasure this record. Written by the siblings and featuring drums by the superb Matt Chamberlain, the song is a sprightly ode to burning down what holds you back, and leaving it behind. Sean and Sara intertwine their voices beautifully. This one takes flight at the first note and never comes back down.

The seven original songs on Brother Sister run the gamut of emotions. Opener “The Cure” is a slow, folksy number about rising up despite oneself. The wonderful “Lafayette” aches with nostalgia and regret, the harmonies slipping right into your heart. “Fake Badge Real Gun” is as angry as its title, taking on vigilante justice with some sharp verses: “You only see a battle won, you’ll never know the damage you’ve done…” And there are two instrumentals, which showcase the siblings’ interplay on their instruments, Sara’s fiddle snaking around Sean’s guitar, the two acting as one. (There’s a jam at the end of “Miles of Desert Sand” that shows this off as well.)

Three covers round things out, and my favorite of them is Warren Zevon’s classic “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” Zevon’s version is rougher around the edges, but somehow Sara evokes more emotion from one of Zevon’s best lines: “The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder.” The siblings close things out with Charley Jordan’s “Keep it Clean,” which has the live-in-a-room feel of much of the first record. This one even brings John C. Reilly (yes, Dewey Cox himself) in to shout along.

Brother Sister is short – just over half an hour – but it covers a lot of ground, and by the end of it I’m ready to take the ride again. If this is the start of a new collaborative effort between Sean and Sara, focused on their own songs and performances, consider me on board. I love to hear these two play and sing together, and these songs are so good that I want more right away. I hope we get more soon.

I’ve also been thinking about artistic evolutions, and about songwriters who grow up before our eyes. Naturally I’m referring to Apple again, who has come to her own summit with Bolt Cutters, maturing as a writer and producer in surprising and delightful ways. But I’m also thinking about our second contestant this week, Vanessa Carlton. Among my friends I have a reputation for sticking with artists long after most people forget about them, and I do that to track evolutions like the one Carlton has undergone. In this case it has been more than worth it.

Eighteen years ago, Carlton burst onto the scene with “A Thousand Miles,” as perfect a pop single as I have ever heard. She was 22 at the time, and from the evidence of her lavishly produced debut Be Not Nobody, she was intent on making a splash. And I think she kept that idea of her own work in her mind through her third album, the energetic Heroes and Thieves, five years later. Her first three records are of a piece, and while they are fine slices of piano-pop, she hasn’t sounded like “A Thousand Miles” since.

No, since then, Carlton has focused on making strange, intimate, singular albums of uncommon beauty. Her sixth, Love is an Art, is one of her strangest, most intimate and most beautiful. Produced by Dave Fridmann, who has spent much of his career capturing the odd whimsy of the Flaming Lips, Love is an Art takes a few listens to truly sink in. Nothing here does what you expect it to, songs are built on the smallest and most minimal of foundations, then build to towering climaxes. Carlton’s still-youthful voice never drives this thing – her vocals blend into the beds of pianos and synths, part of the sound instead of apart from it.

In short, it sounds nothing like anything she’s done. But sink into it, allow its many detours to map themselves for you in your mind, and it reveals itself as her finest work. Its songs are small things, tiny dollops of wisdom with strong melodies that don’t trumpet themselves. If you’re looking for a pop hit, there isn’t one. But if you want little moments of stunning beauty – the harmonies on “Back to Life,” for instance, or the swirling crescendo in “I Know You Don’t Mean It” – well, this album is full of them.

The individual songs are much less emphasized than the whole experience here – witness the minute-long “Patience,” and how it leads perfectly into the pretty “The Only Way to Love” – but multiple listens will show the songs to be uncommonly strong too. I’m a fan of “Die Dinosaur,” her fierce anti-boomer anthem, but I’m more a fan of the in-love-with-life pieces here, like “Companion Star” and the title track. The aforementioned “The Only Way to Love” has one of the record’s most soaring choruses, but a song like the closing “Miner’s Canary” ends up sticking with you just as much.

Carlton will be 40 this year, and she has grown into an artist who doesn’t care whether you like her work or not. You can hear that freedom from expectation all over this record – she’s grown beyond the twenty-something pop star she once seemed to want to be. You just don’t make a record like Love is an Art if you’re invested in popularity or acclaim. You make a record like Love is an Art for yourself, because you have to, because this is how the world sings its song through you. I’m so glad she’s following her own muse, and I hope to follow her for many years to come.

Next week, I have no idea. It’s the rare week with no new music I’m interested in. We’ll see what I come up with.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

All Shook Up
On Danzig, Elvis, Hospitals and Health Scares

I had a health scare last week.

No, it wasn’t COVID-19 related, but having any kind of health scare in the midst of a global pandemic is truly terrifying, let me tell you. If you hear that people are staying away from hospitals and emergency rooms even when they need life-saving care because they are scared they will get this virus, believe it. I went through the same mental back and forth.

Last Saturday I started experiencing chest discomfort. I wouldn’t call it pain – on that vaunted 1-10 scale, it was about a 1. But it was really uncomfortable. I looked up the symptoms of a heart attack, and then – I think partially because I’d looked them up – I started experiencing them. I was fatigued. I had a spell of lightheadedness followed by sweating. The discomfort felt like it was radiating.

So after two days of hoping it would get better, I went to the emergency room on Monday night. I had my own mask, but the kind nurses gave me a medical mask on my way in. I had a chest x-ray, some blood work and an EKG. All of them showed no problems, and they were about to let me go home and figure it out when my second EKG turned up something irregular. The reading showed an inverted T wave, which could mean a lot of things. But one of the things it could mean is that my heart was not getting the oxygen it needed to keep functioning properly.

I knew when they sent the supervising physician to tell me this that things were potentially grave. (I’d also just heard the patient in the next exam room receive his positive COVID-19 diagnosis, so that only added to my unease.) The hospital staff kept me overnight, hooked up to a heart monitor. That was definitely not an easy night’s sleep, and I only managed a couple hours. I don’t remember my dreams, but I probably dreamt of angiograms and open-heart surgeries.

On Tuesday I had what’s called a stress echocardiogram, which is basically an ultrasound of your heart. The lovely staff (and I must emphasize that I got great medical care, as safe as possible) took little videos of my heart, then made me run for 10 minutes on a treadmill and took more videos. The idea is to force your heart to work hard, because it is only then, when it is pumping hard, that the doctors can see whether there are blocked arteries or damaged areas.

And after four more hours of waiting and stressing, I learned that my heart looked fine. I still have no idea what that second EKG turned up – I have read stories of faulty EKG readings, and I hope this was one – but my chest discomfort was not caused by any kind of heart failure. I cannot even describe to you the relief I felt at that news, since of course my major worry was needing open-heart surgery during a pandemic. Catching COVID while my heart was weak and recovering from major surgery sounded like a death sentence to me.

Long story short, with heart issues ruled out, my doctor and I have been trying to track down the problem. Digestive issues and muscle inflammation, combined with crazy amounts of stress, seem to be the culprits. All of those things can feel like a heart attack, and I’m happy I went in and got checked out. Another week or so and I’ll be certain I didn’t catch COVID-19 while I was there, too. Fingers crossed.

So, that was frightening. Coming home after my hospital stay felt like getting a second chance at life, or at least at avoiding heart disease. Everything felt new, in a way. I started thinking about all the new music I wouldn’t have had the chance to hear, that now I would get to enjoy. And then I started considering which album would be the first one I experienced after my health scare. What new music would I use to welcome myself to this next chapter of my life?

Of course, I knew it had to be Danzig Sings Elvis.

I mean, just look at those three words together. Danzig. Sings. Elvis. Truly these are the days of miracle and wonder. I assume Glenn Danzig needs no introduction. Founding member of the Misfits, leader of Samhain and of his own eponymous band, the guy who sang “Mother.” Danzig’s place in punk and metal history is assured – he’s an absolute legend.

He’s also one of the least self-aware human beings on the planet. For a couple decades now he’s been on a steep decline, and he still acts like the Glenn Danzig of the ‘80s. He still takes “scary” photographs with scantily clad women at age 64, and he still believes people take him seriously as some kind of horror-punk auteur. Last year he premiered his directorial debut, Verotika, and he was stunned that the audience laughed at it. By all accounts it’s terrible, much like Danzig’s albums since the original band broke up.

One way or another, Danzig Sings Elvis was bound to be enjoyable. Either it would be a fun little romp, or it would be a glorious train wreck. I don’t think anyone is surprised that it turned out to be the second one, but it’s pretty stunningly bad. Danzig has somehow produced 40 minutes of music that even defy the kitschy thrill of Danzig singing Elvis songs. This is utterly impossible to enjoy, even as a winking joke. And it’s Danzig’s total lack of self-awareness that does him in here, repeatedly.

The first thing Danzig should know about himself is that he can no longer sing. This has been evident for a while, at least since Circle of Snakes, but here the voice is on full display, and it’s painful. Gone is that magnificent bellow that burst out from the din of the Misfits, or that drove the original Danzig band’s gothic metal blues. He literally cannot hit or hold notes any longer. You may think I am exaggerating, but I am not. His voice is spent, shot, completely destroyed.

But he clearly doesn’t know this, or can’t hear it, because he spotlights that voice here, giving himself minimal instrumentation to hide behind. Danzig produced this album and played almost every instrument on it, so he has no one to blame but himself. There’s almost nothing to these tracks – some minimal electric guitar, single piano notes, occasional hi-hat. Nothing to distract from the creaking, blown-out voice. It’s even in the title. Danzig wants you to hear him sing these songs, as clearly as possible.

His lifelong Elvis Presley fandom works against him here, too. If you’re expecting an album of revved-up rockabilly covers, you’re in for a major disappointment. Danzig has scoured the Presley catalog for unlikely song choices, and nearly all of them are slow ballads. I’m talking songs like “Pocket Full of Rainbows” and “Lonely Blue Boy,” tunes that Presley could truly dig into as a world-champion crooner. But as we’ve previously established, Danzig is no longer any kind of crooner, and the slower and more plodding the song, the worse Danzig sounds trying to sing it.

Which leaves us with two kinds of outcomes here: the merely bad, and the utterly atrocious. “Fever,” for example, is merely bad. Popularized by Peggy Lee, the song was covered by Presley on his 1960 album Elvis is Back. Danzig’s version is the worst I’ve ever heard, but by comparison it’s listenable. “First in Line,” on the other hand, is abominable. This ballad, from Presley’s second album Elvis, finds Danzig simply unable to meet the melody line. Like, at all. It’s like those early-in-the-season episodes of American Idol, where they bring out the horrible singers and humiliate them on television. It’s that bad.

What’s worse is that this should have been an easy win. Had Danzig made this album in 1993, with the original Danzig lineup, it would have been unstoppable. Even with his current capabilities, if he’d just chosen songs with a pulse and rocked this up a little more, it would have been better. But he’s so self-serious that he simply couldn’t play this concept up. And by the end, I was thankful that Elvis was not around to hear it. (Or is he…?)

So yes, Danzig somehow made an album on which he sings Elvis songs, called Danzig Sings Elvis, and did so without any irony or humor or even any recognition that this should be fun. It’s a slog, a dire mess, a hunk-a hunk of burning crap, and I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do not put yourself through it. And yet even this – even this unbelievable misfire – even this made me feel grateful that I get to hear music for at least another day. Even terrible music. It’s all a gift.

Or something. There’s no real lesson here, I guess, except that life can change in a minute. Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

Next week, I get to play catch-up with some decent recent releases.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Now I Only Move to Move
Fiona Apple's Amazing Fetch the Bolt Cutters

“On I go, not toward or away
Up until now it was day, next day
Up until now in a rush to prove
But now I only move to move…”

Have you ever had a deep-diving conversation with someone you’ve known for a while? A conversation that brings so many new things to light, that offers you so many new windows into this person’s mind and heart that you feel like you’re seeing them for the first time?

That’s the experience I had listening to Fiona Apple’s extraordinary new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Apple has been making great music for a long time – I saw her on the first Lilith Fair in 1997, a year after she issued her still-celebrated debut, Tidal. I’ve enjoyed all of her work. But nothing – not even 2012’s fantastic The Idler Wheel… album – prepared me for Bolt Cutters. It is the sound of a supernaturally talented artist finally taking control of every element of what she does, and finally feeling free enough to be exactly who she is.

The result is like meeting her again for the first time. This is a jaw-dropper of an album, so far-and-away the best thing I have heard in 2020 that it’s almost comical. Its spirit is summed up in the lines I quoted from the final track, “On I Go.” This is a record about liberation, about freeing yourself from the shackles that bind you, even and especially if those shackles are other people. Its title comes from a line spoken by Gillian Anderson’s character in The Fall, as her investigations lead her to a captive kidnapping victim. But it’s about escaping every abusive relationship, every bad situation, even every mental weight holding you down.

True to that theme, this record sounds liberated. Apple recorded it at home, with help from her bandmate Amy Aileen Wood, and you can tell she reveled in the complete freedom. The Idler Wheel was recorded similarly, with drummer Charley Drayton, but even that album sounds self-edited compared to this one. Fetch the Bolt Cutters presents us with an artist entirely unafraid to be herself on record. There’s a spontaneity to it, but also a sense that she’s in total control of every element of it. It sounds ramshackle but also perfectly realized.

Like Idler Wheel, this one is percussion-heavy, but in addition to your standard drums, Apple and her cohorts play chairs and silverware and other household objects. The percussion bed on the title track is intricately arranged, but it’s also clearly made by banging found objects. It supports a bass and an organ, and that’s all it needs. And then guest vocalist Cara Delevigne’s dogs start barking for a full minute and Apple leaves it in, and it works. The whole record sounds like that, like a complex patchwork carefully assembled from unplanned moments.

And I can’t adequately describe how joyfully free that sound is. This is a record that tackles some heavy subjects, from Apple’s own rape to the way men come between women and keep them from being allies, and you can feel how much work Apple has done to get to the point where she can write these songs, where she can process these topics musically. Somehow she has crafted a record that sounds like the process, that sounds like what it feels like to deal with trauma and see the light on the other side.

This is definitely an album hitting the women in my life a lot more deeply. Part of it is the particular issues she addresses. “Under the Table,” for example, is a very specific song – it’s about a dinner party Apple didn’t want to attend, and her refusal to be shushed instead of calling out another guest for saying something offensive. But its repeated mantra – “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up” – is basically “nevertheless, she persisted” in song form, a singalong anthem for every woman ever talked over in a meeting, or in a relationship. (The song begins and ends with another great one-liner: “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me.”)

“Newspaper” broaches a topic I’ve never heard in song before. It’s a letter to an ex-boyfriend’s latest girlfriend, forging bonds of solidarity between them. “I watch him walk over, talk over you, be mean to you and it makes me feel close to you,” she sings. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure we’ll never be friends.” It’s a chilling song – she yells herself hoarse on it – and there’s a sense of desperation to it. Whatever this man did to both of them, they are the only ones who know, and this song is one woman reaching out to the only other one who understands.

And a song like “For Her” hits even deeper. Arising in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last year, this piece details a friend’s slow realization of her own rape at the hands of a similarly powerful man. It’s a symphony in 2:44, from the intake of breath at the beginning (as if to say “here we go”) to the multiple drum-driven sections, culminating with the album’s bluntest and sharpest line: “Good morning, good morning, you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”

It is impossible to hear that line – to hear the way Apple sings it, putting every ounce of the fury and pain and floodgate-opening relief inherent in that line into her explosive delivery – and not be affected by it. But “For Her” is not a weighty song. It’s not “Me and a Gun,” as much as I love the way time stops when that one plays. “For Her” rocks, from the rapid-fire vocals to the drums, as if celebrating the hard-won freedom to look one’s rapist in the eyes with clarity. It ends with a choir of layered Fionas singing “you were so high,” and it’s almost breathtaking in its beauty.

This is an angry record, but its genius is that, like the music itself, it is not just that one thing. Apple allows herself to be complex, to contain multitudes, to be fully human in a way we often do not allow our female artists to be. Bolt Cutters is angry, and sad, and joyful, and screamingly funny. (Seriously, this is the funniest record Apple has ever made. I dare you to listen to “Rack of His,” in which she pokes at boasting male musicians, and not crack up. “Under the Table” is funny. The claustrophobic love song “Cosmonauts” is funny. Yes, “For Her” is funny.)

And best of all, it is all of those things all at once.

So while it is steeped in pain, it is also hopeful and empathetic. This is an album about coming through dark experiences and growing from them, so where it is full of rage it is also full of kindness. Opener “I Want You to Love Me” is one of the most open and straightforward love songs Apple has ever written, which means it is also about death and about feeling invisible and being seen. But it’s gorgeous and warm-hearted. “Relay” juxtaposes a line she wrote at 15 – “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch” – with her more adult insights: “I see that you keep trying to bait me, and I’d love to get up in your face, but I know if I hate you for hating me I will have entered the endless race.”

And then there’s the monumental title track, which tumbles down Apple’s timeline from middle school (which the glorious “Shameika” also references) to her early career to her bad relationships. She dissects her own self-image, noting what she allowed others to do to her, but she also shows kindness to herself: “I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet, so all I could hear was the noise that people make when they don’t know shit, but I didn’t know that yet.” Even as the song culminates in a grand Kate Bush reference, Apple keeps the message clear: you are not trapped. You are not stuck, no matter what situation you are in. No matter what is holding you down. Know yourself, be kind to yourself, free yourself.

Fetch the bolt cutters. I’ve been in here too long.

This record is astonishing, and I could talk about it forever. Having heard it on repeat for several days now, I cannot help but think of it in relation to her previous work. Her catalog now feels to me like a series of steps away from her male collaborators, from record companies who didn’t understand her, from anything and everything that kept her from the driver’s seat. This feels like Fiona Apple becoming who she was always meant to be, both as a person and as an artist. It’s the sound of overcoming, of growing beyond, of rising up as a whole and beautiful human, unafraid to be everything she is.

It’s like seeing her for the first time. I’m immensely glad to have met Fiona Apple, finally, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say next.

* * * * *

Of course this middling review doesn’t quite say everything I wanted to about this album. I’m still processing it and will be for some time. I want to thank the various women I spoke to about this record, especially Erin Kennedy and Andrea Munday, who shared extensive thoughts on it.

If you want to read Apple’s own words about each song – and I highly recommend you do – check out this enlightening article. (Thanks again to Erin for the link.)

Next week I will still be listening to this, so I have no idea what I will be writing about. Let’s learn together.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Keep On Keeping On
Pearl Jam and Phish Keep the '90s Alive

And now we’ve lost John Prine.

I’m not sure I have the energy to give Prine the eulogy he deserves. Many others have already done him justice. If you haven’t seen Elvis Costello’s tribute, for instance, it’s very much worth reading. Prine has long been one of those songwriters that other songwriters love and point to as an influence. His work has always been deceptively simple – his chords are generally basic, his observations straightforward. But dig into his lyrics and the way he delivers them, and you’ll find entire worlds there.

My favorite Prine song is on his first album. I normally resist any suggestion that an artist’s best work is on their debut, since that often indicates that a lifetime of work that followed couldn’t measure up. I don’t think that’s the case for Prine – his songwriting remained consistent, even through his final record, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness. Nevertheless, “Sam Stone” is on Prine’s debut, and no other song he’s written hollows me out like that one does. The unflinching story of a war veteran who dies of an overdose, it’s simply a perfect lyric, and when he sings “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose” in his matter-of-fact tone, it hurts even more than if he’d gone for the emotional jugular.

That was Prine through and through. He was never overly sentimental – he was wry and clear-eyed, describing the world he saw. A two-time cancer survivor, Prine was hospitalized on March 26 with COVID-19 symptoms and he succumbed on April 7. His loss is incalculable, and I expect we’ll be hearing about it from the songwriters he inspired, young and old, for a long time to come.

* * * * *

I guess I have to get back to reviewing music at some point, right?

Luckily, we have some. In fact, we have two pretty damn good new records from some old favorites who keep soldiering on. In this time of uncertainty I’m not sure I can think of anything more fitting, in fact, than to talk about bands who just keep at it, year in and year out. I fell for both of these bands in the early ‘90s, which doesn’t seem like that long ago to me. But of course it was. I’ve been a fan of both of these bands for longer than I lived without them, which is strange to think about. They’re both like old friends at this point.

They’re also two of the best live bands anywhere on the planet, which is a sad fact given our current stay-at-home status. I’ve never seen either one live, which is somewhat criminal given their reputations. I’ve based nearly 30 years of fandom at this point on the studio albums, which fans of both bands will tell you is only about a quarter of the story. I know they’re right, and I have no excuse, except to say this: the studio albums have been enough for me for more than two decades, so they must be pretty good in their own right, no?

I’d say so. It was a trilogy of studio albums – Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy – that cemented my lifelong love of Pearl Jam during my high school and college years. Ten came out just before my senior year of high school began, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I was a teenage metalhead just getting into R.E.M., and this didn’t fit into either one of those boxes. Pearl Jam were broody and dark, but ferocious, and in Eddie Vedder they had a singer the likes of which I’d never heard.

Vedder’s low-moan rumble has remained the most compelling aspect of Pearl Jam’s sound, even as they dove back and forth between straightforward rock and interesting experimentation. Their new one is called Gigaton, and it’s their first in seven years, following a decent string of back-to-basics stompers, so you’d expect this to be one on which they stretch out more. At 57 minutes, it’s their longest record to date, and it may be the one with the most swings in style and mood.

Anyone put off by the first single, the Talking Heads-inspired “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” should not worry. It’s the only song like it on the record, and in context it sounds even more awkward than it does on its own. This is the furthest the band reaches here, and the one low point. Everything else, from the whirling dervish of “Quick Escape” to the electro-tinged soundscape of “Alright” to the killer garage rock of “Take the Long Way” to the slower epics that make up the final third, works remarkably well.

There are times here when the band is on fire, and Vedder’s razor-sharp roar matches their intensity. He’s on a tear lyrically, seeking a “place Trump hasn’t fucked up yet” on “Quick Escape” and raging against complacency on “Who Ever Said.” He spits his way through “Never Destination,” which clearly takes further aim at the occupant of the White House: “Some resolution, some justice tied to this collusion hiding in plain sight…” For a band in its 30th year making its 11th album, Pearl Jam sounds recharged here, alive with purpose.

As much as I like all of that material, it’s the closing four tracks that elevate Gigaton for me. The jaunty waltz of “Buckle Up,” the folksy sway of “Retrograde,” the expansive “River Cross,” these songs are among the prettiest the band has given us, and they show just how supple Vedder’s voice still is. But it’s “Comes Then Goes” that does it most for me. It’s the loveliest and simplest acoustic piece since “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” and every bit of it works.

Thirty years in, they’re still Pearl Jam, still sticking to their guns when it comes to the foundation of their sound. Gigaton is their most experimental, most diverse work since No Code, but it still sounds like Pearl Jam. They’ve remained remarkably consistent for their three decades, and Gigaton is no exception. Sometimes you just want to hear a long-running band do what they do, and there’s enough of that on this record that it sits nicely next to their best.

Also delivering one of their best is Phish, who surprise-dropped their 14th album Sigma Oasis back on April 2. With Phish I know – I know – that I am not getting the full experience just listening to their recordings. Even their live box sets don’t take the place of being there on the night and watching this band do their thing. I know this. I really only have part of the story.

But I’ve loved this part of the story since I first heard A Picture of Nectar my freshman year of college. People concentrate on the jam-band aspects of Phish, but what I think most people miss is that they’re also kind of a prog band, with intricate arrangements and compositional heft. These four guys can really play, and like one of their biggest influences, Frank Zappa, they feed equally off of tight, difficult arrangements and wild, throw-out-the-map improvisation.

The first four Phish albums bear this out better than any that have come after. 1993’s Rift remains my favorite for its conceptual through-line and its perfect balance of tight composition and spontaneous jamming. Sometime around 1996’s Billy Breathes Phish decided to draw a strict demarcation between their studio and live identities, reserving the thrilling improv sessions for the stage and concentrating on shorter, smaller, even folksier songs for their records. It’s something I’ve grown used to – if I want anything-can-happen abandon, I will listen to a live album.

All of which makes Sigma Oasis such a pleasant surprise. It is the most live-sounding record they have made in many years. I should clarify – the sound here is still crisp, and there are strings and choirs and all kinds of accoutrements here, just as there have been on every album since the late ‘90s. But the feel is surprisingly live, surprisingly alive. And not just in the extended jam sections, although the second half of the 12-minute “Everything’s Right” is pretty spectacular.

This is the first album since Farmhouse to consist entirely of songs written by Trey Anastasio and his frequent lyric partner Tom Marshall, and there’s a maturity and a consistency to these nine songs that hasn’t been present on a Phish record for some time. Better, though, this feels like a single set at a show, each song handing off to the next. There are no throwaways, no novelties. “Leaves” is beautiful, the multi-part “Mercury” shimmers, “Shade” might be Trey’s prettiest soft-rock AM radio winner, “Steam” is a dark shimmy down a smoky alley, and the closer “Thread” plays out half of its 11 minutes with a jam in 15/8. Everything here is serious in intent and execution.

It is, paradoxically, the most grown-up Phish album in ages and the most youthful. I don’t know what happened to spark the band’s reinvigoration here, but this is as good a Phish record as there ever has been. It feels as spontaneous as the decision to release it earlier this month, ahead of schedule, as a way for the band to stay connected during this strange distance. Both in form and content, this is the nicest surprise of my quarantine so far, and I’m grateful for it.

Next week, more music. More music!

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles