Keys to the Kingdom
Exploring the Ebonies and Ivories on Three New Records

I’m a keyboard player.

Sometimes I say piano player, but keyboard player is really what I mean. I grew up learning from Yanni and the dude from Journey. Keith Emerson was a hero of mine, from the time I heard “Touch and Go.” Van Halen never did it for me until “Jump.” I thought keytars were awesome, and wanted one desperately from age 10 to probably age 16. In high school I made several (terrible) albums of solo keyboard music. During the years after college, I made several more.

I say all that to point out that when bands get all keyboard-y – even bands that, from the outside, really shouldn’t – I don’t mind it. It’s a bit of a cliché at this point, so I’m likely to let out a sigh or two for that reason, but for the most part, I’m on board with the synth sounds. If an artist wants to explore new territory, and this is the territory they choose, I’m willing to find out why. Sometimes the reasons are compelling – see the aforementioned Van Halen as a prime example. Sometimes they’re not so much.

I’m afraid I’m still not sure which way I’m leaning with the Decemberists. If you’d asked me two years ago to write out a list of bands most likely to turn to the keyboards, I would never have included them. Somehow not even the prog-rock Jethro Tull-isms of The Hazards of Love seem as full-on a left turn as I’ll Be Your Girl, the venerable Portland band’s eighth album. There’s nary a trace of the serious folksy band they’ve been, even on 2015’s underrated What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.

Instead, the band approaches new wave on single “Severed,” and while the rest of the record doesn’t go quite as Flock of Seagulls as that one, there are synthesizers everywhere. Opener “Once in My Life” is a simple folk tune – almost too simple – except for the thick John Hughes-style keys that envelop the strumming acoustic guitars and Colin Meloy’s pleading voice. A seemingly sparse ditty like “Tripping Along” brings in an army of watery synth sounds on sustained chords. None of this is bad, it’s just very different.

I like the fact that very little of I’ll Be Your Girl sounds like the Decemberists. I’m not sure I like what it does sound like very much, but I applaud Meloy and his merry band for stretching out. “Your Ghost” is perhaps the most successful thing here, a galloping fantasia of surf guitar sounds, harpsichords and eerie la-la-la vocals. It brings the first half to a lively end, and sets you up for the sillier, looser second half.

“Everything is Awful” is something you come up with when you’re drunk and maybe demo it, but here it is in its full glory. “Sucker’s Prayer” and “We All Die Young” remind me of the filler tracks on the White Album, especially “We All Die Young,” with its “Revolution #1” guitar sounds and thudding beat. Meloy has called Girl a reaction to the 2016 election, and aside from a general sense of foreboding on tracks like “Starwatcher,” it’s hard to hear that, except in these sillier tunes. “Everything is Awful” is exactly what it sounds like, a declaration of terribleness set to giddy music: “What’s that crashing sound that follows us around? That’s the sound of all things good breaking…” The protagonist of “Sucker’s Prayer” tries to pray away his troubles, and then tries suicide, unsuccessfully. “We All Die Young” is, of course, about how we’re all going to die.

Still, I found little to love on this album until the final two tracks. “Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes” is the eight-minute epic, a mash-up of two John Lennon-ish tunes with simple backdrops and orchestration, and this is the one that sounds the most like the Decemberists of old. After nine tracks of experimentation, this is a confident piece of old-school drama, and the keys are largely unobtrusive until the proggy ending. And the title track, all two and a half minutes of it, is surprisingly tender and sweet, its lyric a lovely spin on Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” “And when the tempests rage and all the oceans roar at your door, I could be your man but I’ll be that much more…” Like a lot of this record, there isn’t much to this song, but it’s got a good heart, and that counts for a lot.

I’m still not sure what to make of I’ll Be Your Girl. In some ways, it’s a bold reinvention of the Decemberists sound, shaking up their formula once again, and I’m always here for that. But in many ways it’s their worst record, especially when those experiments fall flat and you’re left with some of the band’s least inspired writing. I’ve come around on Decemberists records before, and I hope I come around on this one. For right now, it’s not doing it for me as much as I would like.

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Of course, as much as I like big ‘80s synthesizer sounds, I’ve grown into a much deeper fan of the piano as I’ve aged. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved the instrument, and I’m always learning how to play it better. Bruce Hornsby was among my first piano idols, and I still love the way he voices chords and works his hands independently of one another. That list of piano idols has grown immensely since then, and now includes Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Ben Folds, the still-brilliant-when-she-wants-to-be Tori Amos and countless others.

Recently I wrote a glowing review of the new Bad Plus album, their first with new pianist Orrin Evans, and I’ve been delighted to check out his back catalog. He’s awesome. And now I have a new record from another piano-bass-drums trio that I adore, Manchester’s GoGo Penguin. They’re quite different from the Bad Plus, in that they steer clear of traditional jazz forms as much as possible, but they’re just as exciting.

GoGo Penguin is pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner. The music they create together is atmospheric and purposeful, setting a mood with a few well-placed notes and riding that mood as long as they can. There’s an electronic edge to much of their work, but it’s mostly backdrop – Turner plays electronic drums here and there, and keys are used to fill out the sound, but the focus is truly on the three players.

And they’re great players. Their fourth album, A Humdrum Star, is a bit more reserved and score-like than their third, Man-Made Object, but as before, they find grooves and explore them, with an eye toward beauty and space. Illingworth never solos, and keeps himself to captivating arpeggios, playing to the song. Blacka takes the most improvised bits – he owns “Strid,” an eight-minute prog-jazz monolith, smacking his strings while the rest of the band lays back. But the best moments of this album come when all three are playing in delightful tandem.

I will admit that sometimes, not enough is happening in GoGo Penguin songs to keep my melody-focused brain on task. But then they’ll hit upon something like “Transient State,” which explodes with sheer musicality. The slower, more ambient pieces I can get lost in, and the more intense ones I study. It’s a win-win. A Humdrum Star is another strong release from a band increasingly unlike any other.

But if we’re gonna talk about piano, I’m going to have to mention one of the most prominent names on my list: Brad Mehldau. I first gravitated to Mehldau for his jazz piano takes on Radiohead songs, mainly because I’m always gratified when musicians of Mehldau’s caliber notice the compositional skill needed to write something like “Paranoid Android.” Like the Bad Plus, Mehldau has made a side career out of digging deep into pop songs and finding the hidden complexity and melodicism. Two years ago, he put out a four-CD box set of solo piano performances, and it includes epic takes on Stone Temple Pilots, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Beatles and Sufjan Stevens.

That box set has been a touchstone for me since it landed on my desk. It’s utterly astonishing, from first note to last, and I feel like I could spend years studying it, unfolding it, peeling back its layers. I love Mehldau with a band – his trio recordings are magnificent, and his more layered solo work is great. But my favorites of his works are the ones he performs alone, just the man and 88 keys. His new one, After Bach, is another solo work, and it’s typically excellent stuff.

This one has a fascinating concept. It contains Mehldau’s dexterous readings of six Bach pieces (four preludes and two fugues), each one followed by an original that was inspired by the Bach before it. In some cases you can hear the moments he’s riffing off of, the Bach lines he’s following down the rabbit hole. In all cases you’ll be blown away anew at Mehldau’s ability. He’s not only an extraordinary player, he’s a stunningly emotive one, listening closely to what he has just played and responding to it intuitively. He takes Bach’s cleaner, brighter lines into darker places, muddying them up with colors and shades, tracing their arcs as they descend, then allowing them to burst upward as something else entirely. The five “After Bach” pieces here are all wonderful.

I’m not absolutely sure what the final song, “Prayer for Healing,” is doing on this record, but oddly, it’s my favorite thing here. Over eleven gorgeous minutes, Mehldau restrains himself, playing the sparsest, most delicate chords and lines, and you can hear him feeling every one of them. I hear more of a reaction to the world since November 2016 in this piece than I do in the most politically charged songs of the past year. It imagines the world the way it should be, and Mehldau plays it like he’s spinning that vision into reality. It’s so, so beautiful.

And I will likely spend a lot of this year just studying Mehldau’s work on this record, as if I could figure it out just by listening more closely. I’m happy to stay lost in it, mystified by what I’m hearing. Mehldau is an absolute master, and the more I hear from him, the more I want to hear.

That’s it for this week. Next week, some brave souls volunteer as tribute. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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The Kid Gets Heavy
Metal, That Is, with Between the Buried and Me and Deliverance

I’m occasionally asked how heavy I get, musically speaking.

And the answer is pretty damn heavy. Usually when people ask me this, they’re wondering what I think about bands like Metallica or Mastodon, concerned that I seem to devote an enormous amount of time, energy and love to quieter, more meditative artists. I do rock sometimes, yes. But when I hear “how heavy do you get,” my mind moves in a more extreme direction, to bands like Meshuggah, well beyond the tolerance level of a lot of people I know.

So it was a great experience to be in a room last week with thousands of people who were similarly excited to see one of the heaviest bands I love: Between the Buried and Me. They played the House of Blues, and packed the place – I spent most of the show pressed up against the sound booth, trying not to get beer spilled on me as person after person nudged and shoved their way past me. That I enjoyed the whole show anyway is a testament to the bands.

And yeah, at least 50% of my excitement was about the opening act, The Dear Hunter. I will never again pass up a chance to see them. They’re one of the best bands in the world right now, and their catalog of amazing songs keeps growing. Casey Crescenzo was in fine voice, in contrast to the last time I saw them, and the band slammed through several selections from the latter three Acts, plus a couple tracks from their great new EP All Is as All Should Be. I believe we got the first ever live outing of “Witness Me,” which was pretty cool. Anyway, The Dear Hunter. I continue to evangelize for them, because they’re incredible.

But I was also excited to see how Between the Buried and Me would pull off their devilishly complicated progressive metal live. I’ve described them as Frank Zappa’s death metal band. They started off their career playing raw metal, but quickly grew more cerebral, and have for some time now only been crafting conceptual pieces that play like single 70-minute songs. Their albums are so wildly complex that I don’t know how they keep track of them while playing – I half expected them to use sheet music. The most labyrinthine of their records is the one that got the most play: The Parallax II: Future Sequence, an astonishing science fiction narrative set to jaw-droppingly heavy music that is insanely difficult to play.

And they were awesome, of course. Playing this music for any length of time must be simply exhausting, and they gave us nearly 90 minutes of blistering, yet painstakingly accurate performance. Tommy Rogers was the revelation for me – I knew the band would be tight behind him, but Rogers played all the keyboard parts while slipping effortlessly from his death growl to his strong melodic voice. The set closed with perhaps its most challenging piece, the 15-minute “Silent Flight Parliament,” and it was amazing to see them navigate its twisting passages.

I mention all of this because Between the Buried also played three songs off of their new album, Automata. They opened with one, in fact, throwing the crowd off guard right at the start. And while these songs didn’t inspire any particular reaction live, I’m happy to report that the first half of Automata in its recorded form is excellent. In fact, if the second half continues in this vein, I’ll happily put this record among my favorites from this band.

Wait, wait. First half, I hear you asking? Yes, for reasons that thoroughly escape me, BTBAM has decided to split Automata over two releases. The first is out now, the second will follow this summer. When I first heard this news, I thought they’d delivered a lengthy double album. But no, Automata will reportedly run 67 or so minutes when it’s complete, and this first half contains only 35 of those minutes. It’s only half a story I could easily read in one sitting.

And it is a story. Automata is a spiritual sequel to Coma Ecliptic, their previous album, in that it tells another futuristic sci-fi story about people and technology. The new record is about a man whose dreams are broadcast to the entire world as a form of entertainment, and presumably will tell the story of how he breaks out of this enslavement. But we have to wait until summer for that.

Which will actually be difficult, because Automata I is so good. Musically it feels like an arrival point. Coma Ecliptic sometimes felt confused to me, like the band wasn’t sure whether their excursions away from their metal roots would work. In some cases, they were right to be worried, but I applauded their willingness to take so many risks. Automata finds a way to incorporate everything Coma struggled to include, and sounds a lot more natural doing it. There’s just as much David Bowie and Pink Floyd here, but it sits nicely next to the other styles they’re going for, including a healthy dose of head-spinningly fast death metal.

The record opens the same way the concert did, with “Condemned to the Gallows.” It begins slowly, but soon erupts into a maelstrom of shouts and growls, guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring parrying and thrusting around one another, like a violent dance. “House Organ” brings the keyboards in for long stretches, while the nearly nine-minute “Yellow Eyes” is a true epic, erupting with volcanic power but always returning to the clean melody. The EP (for that’s what it is) ends with “Blot,” which we also heard live. It’s a ten-minute excursion that slows down to a crawl in places, and ends abruptly.

That ending is the only problem I have with this record, in fact. The space between “Blot” and the next song should have been only a couple seconds, but now it will be months before we hear where it should have picked up. I hope there’s some reason not yet apparent to me why the band would cut their album in half, beyond (of course) the monetary one. Automata I is the first Between the Buried and Me album to leave me wanting more, and not in the good way.

I only complain because what we have is so awesome, though. I don’t know any other band quite like this one, where all five musicians have mastered their craft to such a level that they can create albums like Colors and The Great Misdirect and then leave them in the dust, as if they’re bored with them and looking for new challenges. I’m still catching up with those older records, still reveling in their pleasures, and BTBAM has moved well beyond them. They’re one of the best heavy bands in the world, and they somehow keep getting better. Bring on Automata II, because part one is fantastic.

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I’m glad we’re talking about heavy music this week, because it gives me a chance to review the new Deliverance.

I’ve been a Deliverance fan since I understood what metal was. My teenage metalhead phase coincided somewhat with my teenage Jesus phase, and Deliverance was the perfect band for 15-year-old me to discover. Their first two records, Deliverance and Weapons of Our Warfare, were absolute classics of the Christian thrash genre, which was just feeling its way into existence in 1989. “Weapons of Our Warfare,” the song, got some MTV airplay, which was exciting to teenage me, because I thought it meant something.

As I grew up, so did Deliverance, leaving behind their strident Jesus-ness for a more mature and progressive approach. Leader Jimmy P. Brown became like a heavy metal Bowie, shifting styles album to album and working with Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos to create more layered, nuanced music. I’d stack albums like Learn and River Disturbance up against a lot of progressive metal, and I still admire their shift into industrial dance music with Assimilation, an album none of their fans were asking for.

Along the way, Brown launched a few other projects, most notable among them Jupiter VI, which has become his full-on prog band. Five years ago, Brown announced Hear What I Say, the final Deliverance album, and it was… OK. It was a summary of sorts, including some heavier material and some slower, keyboard-driven stuff, but it all seemed kind of half-hearted. Not the way I would have wanted a band with such a long and interesting history to go out.

Which is why I’m so glad The Subversive Kind exists. The new Deliverance album, their eleventh, is a gift to longtime fans like me. It’s a return to the full-on heavy thrash that I first loved, burning through eight tracks in a compact 31 minutes. It’s basically their Reign in Blood – fast, angry, with screaming solos and pounding drums. It’s classic metal, and Brown has convened some old-school players to pull it off, from bands I love but most of you have never heard of, like Tourniquet and Vengeance Rising. I know, I know, but if you’re into this corner of the music world, those names mean something. And I’ve been into it since I was in high school.

The Subversive Kind is pretty vague in its spirituality, which is fine with me. It’s mostly about living in a dark world and looking for the light, which is pretty relatable stuff. “Concept of the Other” takes aim at the idea that any of us should be shunned or mistreated because of who we are: “We’ve clearly drawn the line of who to justify to hate, reasoning by law and love, the blindfolded one has sealed their fate…” Otherwise it’s mostly your standard metal songs about overcoming pain and continuing the good fight.

Musically, though, it’s an eruption. I’m super happy with how heavy and intense it all is, and how focused its attack remains. There are no ballads, no quiet parts, no acoustic guitars anywhere. It’s just one loud, fast bit of molten awesome after another. These guys all have to be in their 50s now, and they still jam like teenagers. I never thought I’d get another Deliverance album at all, but to get one this committed, this energized, this electric, well, it’s a treat. Long live Deliverance.

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Next week, I have no idea. Pop by in seven days to find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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I’m With Them
Three New Records from Some of My Favorite Women

Thursday is International Women’s Day. So what better time to talk about the welcome return of Kim Deal?

If you wanted the absolute definition of cool in the ‘80s, it was Kim Deal. As the bassist and sometimes songwriter for the Pixies, she joined Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth in obliterating the sexist idea of what a female musician could be. But it wasn’t until she emerged as the voice and vision behind The Breeders that Deal truly shone.

She formed the band with her identical twin sister Kelley, and the two of them were a force to be reckoned with. Their debut album, Pod, was written and recorded during a Pixies hiatus (with Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses as a member), but it was their second, Last Splash, that truly made them. Deal’s first album after the Pixies disbanded, Last Splash is a classic, and its single “Cannonball” belongs on any short list of great songs of the ‘90s.

Since then, Kim Deal has remained the only consistent member of the band. We haven’t heard the Last Splash lineup since 1993, and we haven’t heard from the Breeders since 2008. All of which makes the release of All Nerve, the fifth Breeders record, something of an event. It features that classic lineup: Kim and Kelley Deal, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson. For those of you holding your breath for a return to ‘90s glory, this would seem to be it.

And in classic Kim Deal fashion, the album itself does everything it can do to work against the idea that it’s any kind of (forgive me) big deal. The cover is nondescript. The album is a scant 33 minutes long. One of its songs is a cover. There’s almost no sense of urgency to it – it’s a slow burner of a record that takes multiple listens to appreciate and love. But given those multiple listens, it emerges as a worthy next step in Deal’s evolution.

If you spend All Nerve looking for the killer riff, you’ll probably be disappointed. These songs are subtler than that, surging forward on a couple chords and a simple melody, but hiding some interesting arrangements and treatments. Deal’s sarcastic “Good morning!” at the top of “Wait in the Car” sets the tone for that song’s two minutes of jackhammer two-note riffing. “Taking a nap ‘cause strategy’s for punks,” she shouts in that instantly recognizable voice, still strong at 56.

I’m a fan of the songs that aim for moments of beauty. The title track is one, the Deals’ clean guitar parts chiming out around the din. “Spacewoman” is an atmospheric mini-epic, vast for the Breeders at 4:22, with some buzzing synths and subtle electric piano. Wiggs takes the lead on “MetaGoth,” an ominous piece of work with slashing guitars and eerie harmonies. “Dawn: Making an Effort” is the prettiest thing here, Deal’s voice grounding what is a nearly ambient piece of lovely noise.

There’s a lot to appreciate in these 33 minutes, even if I sometimes wish the songs were more complete and immediate. It’s just so good to have Deal back. I hope All Nerve signals her desire to stick around. We need her and more like her.

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Speaking of amazing women, there are three of them in the newly minted folk supergroup I’m With Her. And while their name is always going to remind people of a certain time (and a certain election), the music these three make together is as timeless and beautiful as the music they make separately.

I’m With Her brings together Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, and if you know your folksy singer-songwriters, you either already own their debut album, See You Around, or you’re racing out right now to buy it. So I guess the following words are for everyone else who has somehow avoided all three of these tremendous performers.

So here we go. Watkins is best known as one-third of Nickel Creek, but has made some fantastic solo records, including 2016’s Young in All the Wrong Ways. Jarosz is a stunning songwriter from Texas who, over four superb records, has established herself as one of the most promising voices around. Her fourth, Undercurrent, was particularly excellent. And O’Donovan is a great singer and player from the bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why with a couple swell solo records under her belt, and a frequent collaborator with some of the finest musicians in the world.

You’d expect these three to make magic together, and they do. Best of all, there appears to be no ego involved here – the trio wrote all the original songs together, they take turns on lead vocals, they harmonize like angels, and they give each other plenty of space to shine instrumentally. If you could imagine the perfect combination of Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan, that’s what you’ll hear on this record. It’s another short one – a mere 40 minutes – but there isn’t a second of it I don’t love.

Yes, you can tell that some songs are more in line with one of the songwriters here. Opener “See You Around” is Jarosz without a doubt (and how gorgeous are those harmonies), while “Game to Lose” certainly sounds like Watkins to me, its mandolin and fiddle foundation straight out of her work. But really the best thing about See You Around is how well the trio works together. “I-89” is a simple ditty that they elevate with their intertwining voices. “Waitsfield” gets all three involved in a delightful little instrumental. “Close It Down” is an absolutely beautiful piece of music, each of our three players/singers contributing to the whole, laying back when needed, stepping forward – as Watkins does with her colorful fiddle playing – only when the song calls for it. It’s perfect.

I’m With Her close their debut record by paying tribute to another extraordinary woman, Gillian Welch. Their nearly version of Welch’s “Hundred Miles” is haunting, showcasing how well their voices work together. It’s a great capper to a lovely first record from what I hope is not a one-off collaboration. I want more, and I want it as soon as possible.

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As you read this, news has just broken that WLUP, a well-loved classic rock station that has served Chicago for 40 years, has been sold to Christian broadcaster K-LOVE. It will switch formats next week, replacing a playlist that includes some of the best and most iconic music of the past few decades with one that only includes “positive and encouraging” bland Christian pop. This has naturally caused some outrage here, and a lot of that outrage is leveled at K-LOVE, who already has a station in this market. (I guess they’re going for 100% market saturation.)

And it’s always tough for me when things like this happen, because when I tout the Christian artists I love, what people think I’m talking about is the stuff K-LOVE plays – surface-level, safe, all sounding the same, geared toward soccer moms and worship leaders. I generally can’t stand that stuff. There are certainly musical reasons for that, since all of that stuff sounds the same to me, with the same production value and same chords. But there are more personal reasons too. Generally I want the same thing from music based in faith that I want from all the music I listen to: an authentic perspective. I want to see the world through the eyes of songwriters. The music on K-LOVE is, by and large, part of a system that squeezes all that authenticity out, leaving hollow praise and platitudes.

Taken on a spectrum, most of the Christian music I adore is as far from K-LOVE as possible. But there are other artists who are trying with all they have to redeem the industry from within, working in a similar sound but bringing a true perspective and real heart to it. Audrey Assad is one of those, and I’ve been all but obsessed with her new album, Evergreen, since receiving it in late January. (I pledged money to help make it, and in return got the download more than a month early.)

Assad is a stunning singer, a good piano player and a very fine songwriter. She has the ethereal quality of someone like Enya, but a more heightened melodic sense, writing flowing melodies often over odd time signatures. Evergreen is the 34-year-old’s fifth album, and hidden in its backstory is a crisis of faith, a deconstruction of a lot of what she has held fast to for her whole life. But unlike records from similar places by the likes of Derek Webb and David Bazan, Assad’s is reaffirming, coming through a painful time with the core of her faith intact.

And while some of these songs, like the fairly typical “The Joy of the Lord,” don’t betray any of that backstory, there are some that bleed with genuine pain. “Unfolding” is one of my very favorites, Assad laying down a spare piano backdrop to ask piercing questions: “How do I grieve what I can’t let go, how do I mourn what I cannot know?” The chorus is a prayer of confusion and doubt: “Oh my God, I don’t know what this was, am I the child of your love or just chaos unfolding?” “Irrational Season” follows the same path: “Over the skyline to see the spheres, I lift my eyes to the heavens, nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season…”

This may not seem like anything controversial, but these songs with these sentiments would be banned from K-LOVE. You just wouldn’t hear this level of human uncertainty, this sheer broken honesty. These songs and others like them on Evergreen lay the foundation for the broader ones, like the bright “Deliverer,” or the title track, on which Assad sings, “Out past the fear, doubt becomes wonder.” That’s such a great line, especially for someone like me trying to turn doubt into wonder on a daily basis.

The songs of reconciliation here are the best ones, for my money, and none of them strike me quite as hard as “Drawn to You,” the extraordinary closer. It’s a psalm, as if from the pen of David himself, sung from the depths of despair, and it doesn’t offer anything simple. It does offer possibly the best musical depiction I have heard of that inner ache, that pull toward the divine, toward something bigger than ourselves: “After everything I’ve had, after everything I’ve lost, Lord I know this much is true, I’m still drawn to you.” It’s a ton-of-bricks song for me, and I probably won’t be able to articulate why.

I know most people reading this will probably not be able to tell the difference between Audrey Assad’s work and what you hear on K-LOVE. But to me, the difference is enormous. Evergreen is an intensely personal record, its songs of joy earned through tears, its songs of faith drawn from a real place. Her work is as close to the modern Christian realm as I can stand. But there are songs on here I love like I wrote them, songs that speak to me the way they clearly spoke to her. K-LOVE is pushing a product. Audrey Assad is making art, and I love her for it.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, the kid gets heavy. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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In Pieces
Reading Great New Records a Chapter at a Time

Last week Marillion came within walking distance of my hometown. So of course I went to see them.

It was my ninth Marillion show, counting the three performances at the 2016 Montreal Weekend separately, and I’m still not tired of seeing this band do what they do. This show was at the small-ish Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, a venue that books a lot of specialty prog acts, and I guess that’s what Marillion is. But to me they’re so much more than that.

To me, they’re one of the most emotional bands I’ve ever heard. Where prog-rock is often full of soulless instrumental acrobatics, Marillion music takes its time, unfolds patiently, lingers on beauty. Steve Hogarth has one of the best, most impassioned voices I know of, and when he lets loose, as he does on powerful epics like “The Invisible Man,” it sends chills.

Last time the band toured the U.S., we elected Donald Trump president. (Seriously, they played New York City on election night.) This time, they opened with “El Dorado,” a stunning piece about how money makes us all worse, with a section about how letting in refugees is the most human and humane thing we could do; followed it up with “Living in FEAR,” about melting all our guns down; and followed that up with “Seasons End,” a sad piece about climate change. It was like their letter to America, much like their brilliant 18th album, Fuck Everyone and Run, was their warning to the world.

And we also got “The Leavers” for the first time, and this performance solidified it as one of my very favorite Marillion songs. Nearly 20 minutes long, constantly changing, unfailingly emotional, it’s basically the best life-on-the-road song ever written, and a real showcase for the entire band. I brought my long-suffering girlfriend to this show, and she enjoyed it. I’m not sure I could have asked for a better setlist for her first show, and even though I found the crowd subdued in comparison with other Marillion gigs I have been to, she remarked on how appreciative the audience was, clapping for individual parts of songs and offering three standing ovations.

That’s all part of being a member of this family. It’s not a large family over here, although I’m told that a pre-show meet-up that I wasn’t in time to attend attracted 60 people. But it is a dedicated one. We love having this secret between us, this band who clearly isn’t for everyone, but is absolutely for us. I’m already looking forward to Montreal next year. Thanks for a great show, guys.

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Back in 1996, Stephen King decided to release The Green Mile in monthly installments.

This was nothing new for literature – Dickens wrote almost all of his novels this way, in pieces delivered one by one through magazines and newspapers. But for me, a high school kid with a definite fascination for King, it was (please forgive the pun) novel. I played his game: I bought each part of The Green Mile as it came out, and though I have since read the whole thing as a single work, the experience of following along, of hitting King’s cliffhangers and not being able to turn the page, was pretty exciting.

I’m a sucker for anything released in pieces. I love trilogies, a fascination I can trace right back to Star Wars. I read comics, which are long stories released in monthly chunks. And so it’s no surprise that I am always interested in music that comes at me in puzzle pieces, waiting to be connected. The best example I can give you is The Dear Hunter’s extraordinary Acts series, a six-album story that only needs its final installment to be completed. Hearing the climax of the plot in Act V, after living with the story for years, was an astonishing experience.

I’d never suggest that Belle and Sebastian’s new album is anything like that, but they did issue it in three pieces, one a month since December. And it’s been fun trying to figure out how it would sound as a whole. Naturally, I did not buy it in installments – it was released only on vinyl and download – but I did buy the compilation CD, which connects all 15 songs in the order in which they first appeared. And I have no doubt that this collection of songs was originally conceived as an album, and broken up into chunks only for marketing reasons.

Which is fine, but it works so much better as a whole. The album, the long-running Scottish outfit’s 10th, is a long and flowing thing, but it still feels tightly controlled. It’s the band’s most consistent set of songs since probably Dear Catastrophe Waitress, all of 15 years ago, and has so many pleasures it’s almost hard to count them. I’ve liked a lot of their work over the last decade or so, but I’ve felt like they’ve been running in place, turning out pleasantly twee, danceable tunes without really trying.

How to Solve Our Human Problems (for that is the name of the record) breaks them out of that rut, and if the process of recording and releasing these tunes five at a time helped them get here, then I’m all for it. Leader Stuart Murdoch, who will be 50 this year, hasn’t sounded this energized in a while, and the multitude of producers and guest musicians seems to have pumped new blood into this enterprise. I mean, just listen to “We Were Beautiful,” which starts off sounding like Pet Shop Boys hitting the drum-and-bass club (with a lap steel), but then explodes into a chorus so awesome that I haven’t stopped singing it.

What I can say about the decision to break this album up into thirds is that each of the first two thirds made me want to hear the rest. The first installment includes not only “We Were Beautiful” but the delightful “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” a full-on synth-y dance tune, and “Everything Is Now,” a big, expansive showcase that sounds like the sun rising over the cliffs. The second volume opens with a bracing “na-na-na-na-na” that introduces the very ‘60s “Show Me the Sun,” which for long stretches is as minimalist as this band has been in ages. (Admittedly, there is an insistent, awesome drum beat that runs for the duration.) We also get the terrific, sweet, oboe-driven “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” the odd yet compelling “Cornflakes” and closing ballad “A Plague on Other Boys,” another one that sounds right out of the Summer of Love.

And if all that made you want to hear the third part, it won’t disappoint. “Poor Boy” slinks in on a funky bass line, Sarah Martin’s voice dripping down over it beautifully. There’s a second part to “Everything is Now,” one that is just as lovely, and there is “There Is an Everlasting Song,” possibly the prettiest thing here. Closer “Best Friend” is goofy and sugary, ending in joy. In pieces, these three EPs are swell slices of Belle and Sebastian in their prime. Collected together as their 10th album, it’s their best in more than a decade. While I think it holds up better as a single work, if you’re a fan of this band, you should hear this in any form you can.

I expect the new Oh Hellos project will hold up nicely as a complete work as well, once it’s done. But we’re in that sweet spot, following along as they give us their new songs in smaller pieces, and we’re only halfway through. Last year the Texas ensemble gave us Notos, the first of four 20-minute EPs full of new songs. It was classic Oh Hellos, folk music as played by what sounds like 300 people, rising as one to sing the heavens down, and just as enamored with moments of quiet beauty as with rousing anthems.

Now we have Eurus, the second EP, and it’s just as good. Like Notos, it plays like a single piece, a suite connected by short instrumentals. The songs held together by those instrumentals are wonderful. Opener “O Sleeper” is wider than the ocean, huge and all-encompassing. “Grow” is amazing, morphing from a boom-bam beat into a massive anthem, and it slides right into the down-home acoustic title track. You’ll fly right through that, and before you know it, you’ll be on the superb closer, “Passerine.” And three minutes later, you’ll be hungry for more.

I’m very much looking forward to having all 80 or so minutes of this new Oh Hellos project, but I am very much enjoying hearing it in chapters. I have no idea when the next one will be available, either, so I keep looking out. If you’ve never heard the Oh Hellos, you need to. Bonus: this new EP contains a track called “A Convocation of Fauns (A Faunvocation, If You Will).” How can you not love that?

Hear and buy the Oh Hellos here:

Next week, the Breeders return. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Men of the Woods
Timberlake Fakes It, Mallonee Lives It

Ever been taken in by marketing?

It’s not the most pleasant of feelings. I tend to avoid hype like the plague, so when it works on me, it doesn’t thrill me. I tend to do the opposite of what hype wants me to. I didn’t read the Harry Potter books for years, just because everyone else was raving about them. (That turned out to be a mistake, since everyone else was right.) I haven’t watched a single episode of This Is Us, partially because it looks awful, and partially because of the constant bombardment of that show on my eyeholes and earholes.

Anyway, Justin Timberlake’s new album is called Man of the Woods, and I have to admit, the marketing worked on me. I’ve always kind of liked Timberlake, but wished he would break out of his apparently fervent desire to be Michael Jackson. Calling an album Man of the Woods felt like a good first step. The accompanying photos were right out of an L.L. Bean catalog, too, with Timberlake dressed in flannel and outdoor gear, surveying the wilderness thoughtfully. Of course, it’s all image manipulation, but I thought perhaps this would signal the sonic shift I’ve been looking for, and open Timberlake up to more honest and interesting music.

Yeah, I’m a sucker. By now you’ve probably all heard the wretched singles “Filthy” and “Supplies,” and they unfortunately set the tone for the first half of this album. Timberlake is still working with Timbaland and the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), and what changes there are to his basic sound are for the worse. The first three songs, including “Filthy,” are the same kind of Michael Jackson pop that he’s given us for years, with a surfeit of inspiration. “This ain’t the clean version,” he croons on “Filthy,” giving us yet another entry into the “songs that describe themselves” genre.

The title track is so much worse, though, bouncing along on a kinda goofy groove, Timberlake proclaiming himself a man of the woods while singing over programmed drums and synthesizers. It just doesn’t work. And “Wave” is even worse, the Neptunes laying down a canned Caribbean strum while Timberlake tries very hard to sound natural over it. On the bright side, this is a definite curve ball for him, but it’s pretty poor stuff. And then comes “Supplies,” which is just plain bad.

So the first half is hard to get through, but on the second half, Timberlake’s idea of mixing in more acoustic folk with his usual electronic groove begins to bear fruit. I can’t really fault “Morning Light,” a soulful duet with Alicia Keys, but it is with “Say Something,” Timberlake’s collaboration with country-rocker Chris Stapleton, that the shift happens. “Say Something” isn’t a great song, but it does shift Timberlake into new territory, and it also seems to be about not centering cultural conversations on oneself, which starts to address the issues of appropriation that have dogged his career.

From here, Man of the Woods turns into more of a folk record, and believe it or not, Timberlake sounds much more comfortable singing these songs than something like “Filthy” or “Sauce.” “Flannel” is particularly silly, but it’s also sweet, and while I’m sure Timberlake has never in his life lived off the land, “Livin’ Off the Land” does mix up the guitars and dance grooves nicely. “The Hard Stuff” might be my favorite thing here, despite its John Mayer-ness, and closer “Young Man” is the personal connection I spent the whole record looking for. It’s a positive, upbeat letter to his son, and it’s catchy and cute.

Is catchy and cute enough? I’m not sure. I ended up liking the second half of Man of the Woods more than I expected to, but it’s certainly not the stripped-down affair the marketing blitz might make you think it is. Justin Timberlake is no more a man of the woods than I am, and the record only gently tweaks his musical direction, rather than rewriting it. On that score, it’s a disappointment.

If you’d like to hear a real man of the woods, may I suggest Bill Mallonee. There’s no image manipulation with him. When you see photos of Mallonee with his long beard, taken out in the wild, you know this is how he really lives. Mallonee has been plying his trade for nearly 30 years, first with the Vigilantes of Love, and then solo. He has something like 40 solo records, and he’s been cranking them out at a rate of at least one a year for a long time. Lately they’ve been true solo records – just Bill in his country house, overdubbing drums and bass and guitars and then singing in his world-weary, wise voice. His records are dispatches from his soul, and they feel like them.

His latest is called Forest Full of Wolves, and like much of his recent material, it’s somewhat dark and bleak. Mallonee believes in facing darkness full on, and wringing whatever hope he can out of it. I sometimes criticize Mallonee for writing the same kind of great song over and over, and he makes no strides in another direction on Forest. It’s just another ten really good Bill Mallonee tunes, poems set to jangly American rock and roll.

That said, there’s nothing here I don’t like. I’m a particular fan of “In the New Dark Age,” which is subtitled “The Best Thing You Can Do is Fall in Love.” It’s kind of the perfect Mallonee song, taking an unflinching look at broken lives and bringing them courage. “Changing of the Guard” is a surprisingly political number: “Now the devil pays for your allegiance, hiding behind stars and stripes, he speaks his piece through the lips of the elite and appears as an angel of light…”

There are more than a few excellent turns of phrase on this record, some of them exactly what a poet like him should be speaking into the world right now. “Before the Darkness Settles In” is another one that doesn’t flinch: “Now the milk of human kindness is curdled to the bone, and the autumn light is paler than I’ve ever known, pull on your heavy coat before the howling wind, before the darkness settles in…” “I Know, I Know” is about lies, and twists the knife with this verse: “Now I know a good joke, and I’ll share it with thee, what’s a hundred politicians at the bottom of the sea?”

But of all of his hymns of hard-fought hope, it’s “Trimmed and Burning” that most does it for me this time. The final verse: “I hate to end on a sober note, but there are spirits who won’t survive, in a world of meanness and cruelty, they won’t get out alive, so hand the world an olive branch, and hand yourself one too…”

Bill Mallonee has been as honest a songwriter as one could hope for (as well as a heck of a guitar player) for decades now, and each new record just solidifies that legacy. I’m happy he’s still at it. I’m happy I get to pay for a new set of songs every year (at least), and happy that this music still feeds him, both physically and spiritually. Forest Full of Wolves is another in a long line of really good Mallonee records, and if you want to start somewhere, this is as good a place to begin as any.

Listen and buy online:

Next week, Belle and Sebastian for sure, and who knows what else. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Brought to You by the Letter F
February's Finds: Franz, Fallon, Field and Frank

I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that Franz Ferdinand was a flash in the pan.

They first burst onto the scene in 2004 with a sound that was like four glitter cannons going off at once. I described them then as Morrissey’s dance band – leader Alex Kapranos has a particularly Mozz-like voice, disaffected and droll, and Franz themselves were equal parts punk and disco, even then. It was a novel sound that I dismissed as a bit of a novelty.

But fourteen years later, here we are. Franz Ferdinand is one of the hardiest survivors of the 2000s, and they’ve proven remarkably adaptable. Over time they’ve added more and more dance elements to their style, and while they are still determinedly quirky, they’ve carved out their own niche. I think a lot of what they’ve been trying to do crystallized when they collaborated with Sparks in 2015, creating a wild record called FFS that played to both bands’ strengths. Franz is far more like Sparks than any of their peers from 2004, and hopefully will be similarly long-lived.

Their fifth album, Always Ascending, continues their streak. With the addition of programmer/producer Julian Corrie to the ranks, the band’s sound has become even more keyboard-driven, and they’ve taken on some Duran Duran overtones here and there. But they still sound like Franz Ferdinand. Kapranos still sounds like he’s commenting on the music while singing it, and the band sounds even more like a danceable Smiths in places here.

And as always, the most damning thing you can say about a Franz record is that it is too short. The songs on Always Ascending are tight and full of hooks. I’m particularly fond of “Finally,” Kapranos floating above a constantly morphing groove, celebrating having found his people. “Lazy Boy” dares you not to take it seriously – it is perhaps the one here most influenced by their time with Sparks.

“Lois Lane” seems to be an earnest tribute to Superman’s girlfriend, lauding her for her journalism career. “Huck and Jim” finds Kapranos going darker, trying his hand at half-speaking, half-rapping, and dropping this chorus: “We’re going to America, gonna tell ‘em ‘bout the NHS, and when we get there we will all hang out, sipping 40s with Huck and Jim.” The album closes with ballad “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow,” and I always like it when Kapranos takes on these more melodic pieces – he stretches his tenor and delivers with sincerity.

Always Ascending is yet another swell little Franz Ferdinand album. I feel pretty silly for dismissing them at first. They clearly have a strong and solid idea of who they are, and now that I have a bit of a better idea of it too, I’m looking forward to hearing more as they evolve.

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About ten years ago, a friend of mine suggested I listen to The ’59 Sound, the second album by New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem. I enjoyed it like crazy – it was like the punk version of The E Street Shuffle, raucous and hopeful and fun. I wish I’d known then that the band and its leader, Brian Fallon, didn’t have any other tricks up their sleeve, and would be riding that sound out forever.

Three Gaslight albums and two solo records later, here is Fallon with Sleepwalkers, another dozen songs he dug out of Bruce Springsteen’s dumpster. (I wish that were my joke.) I don’t hate this record, but I’m not finding a whole lot to hang my ear on either. It’s breezy and amiable, hoping to make friends wherever it goes, but it kind of sits there for me, never accomplishing too much.

I like the opening song, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” well enough – it has a sharp little guitar part, and the organs are pleasant. But then “Forget Me Not” barges in, sounding exactly like Born in the USA-era Bruce, and the momentum collapses. “Come Wander With Me” could be Bryan Adams, so complete is its ‘80s anthemic sound. I like the mandolin on “Proof of Life,” even if the song leaves me cold. “Little Nightmares” works in an Elvis Costello-style guitar-and-organ riff and some swell double-time drums. That one’s probably my favorite.

Throughout this record, Fallon sings his little heart out, and his working man’s poetry is the same as always. I’m sure his heart is in the right place, and he seems invested in the characters he creates and the stories he relates. Of course, those characters and stories are right out of Springsteen, and I wish someone with Fallon’s passion and intensity had it in him to break out of his influences and give us something original.

Sleepwalkers isn’t that. It’s a very well-produced pastiche, a wasted harnessing of forces to create a mediocre copy of better work. Fallon’s singing voice is exactly what it should be, but his songwriting voice is still stuck in the same rut. I’m sure it’s working for him, sales-wise, but he’s leaving a trail of empty art behind him, and that’s a shame.

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Field Music never has that problem. They are unfailingly original, fascinating and captivating. There’s just one problem I have with them: I never remember their songs. Like, ever.

I’ve bought every Field Music album – the new one, Open Here, is their eighth, not counting their b-sides collection – and I’ve loved every one of them. Field Music is, at its core, brothers Peter and David Brewis, and they’re steeped in Supertramp-style progressive pop and English folk music. Their songs are tricky and twisty, but unfailingly melodic and catchy. The brothers Brewis clearly labor over these records, and Open Here is no exception.

I just have some kind of resistance of memory to their work. I’m listening to Open Here for the fourth time right now, and it’s like I’m discovering it again for the first time. I love it – six-minute opener “Time in Joy” is pretty much the perfect Field Music song, with a Steely Dan groove, a pure prog riff that holds the whole thing together, and an absolutely delightful full-harmony chorus. There’s even a flute. It literally could not be better. And next time I hear it, it will be like stumbling across how wonderful it is all over again.

The rest of Open Here is similarly awesome, its 39 minutes flying by in a rush. “Count It Up” sounds like Gary Numan joining 10cc and then ranting about Brexit – the brothers hail from Sunderland, England, the first town in the UK to vote for leaving the European Union, and much of Open Here takes on a renewed political focus. “Goodbye to the Country” is the angriest this band gets, and “Checking on a Message” ably captures the pins-and-needles feeling of waiting up for election results, certain that things are about to go very badly.

I’m also a big fan of “No King No Princess,” a letter to the young Brewis children about rejecting stereotypical gender roles. The horns here are classic Field Music – they almost don’t fit in with the early-XTC-style groove the band lays down. Closer “Find a Way to Keep Me” is a plaintive plea, leaving things on an uncertain note. I love the way it builds and builds, strings and woodwinds winding around it, until it delivers a final pirouette.

Open Here is a great record, just like the last seven Field Music records, and I genuinely would love to remember that it is. My inability to recall how excellent it is has nothing to do with the band or the songs. The brothers Brewis did everything right, as always. I think the key might be to listen over and over, almost obsessively, until this complex yet fully alive music settles into my brain. Wish me luck.

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For all the new music brought to you by the letter F, the thing I’ve been listening to most lately dates back 45 years.

Frank Zappa was a musician like no other, and to be in his band, you had to follow two rules: no drugs allowed, and you had to be able to keep up. He was a musical machine, creating new songs and arrangements at a stunning pace, and he only employed the best of the best to realize his visions. And one of his very best bands played with him from 1973 to 1975, creating some of his best-loved records.

One of those records is called Roxy and Elsewhere, and it features performances captured at the Roxy in Los Angeles over a weekend in December, 1973. It also features a raft of overdubs and studio tweaking, as was Zappa’s wont, and it blurs the line between a live album and a studio creation. The Zappa family has, of course, been milking that weekend of performances, issuing Roxy By Proxy (a collection of other performances not on Roxy and Elsewhere) in 2014, and Roxy the Movie and its soundtrack a year later.

And now they’ve given us the motherlode – a seven-CD box set called The Roxy Performances that includes every note played during that weekend. It’s eight hours long, and contains four full shows, a recorded rehearsal, a studio session and a filmed sound check. (Never let it be said that Zappa didn’t work his musicians.) This might feel like overkill to anyone not steeped in Zappa, but trust me when I tell you it’s not nearly enough kill. I could listen to this incredible band play this incredible material for twice this long without getting bored.

The four shows are amazing, of course. It’s great to finally hear how familiar songs like “Village of the Sun” and “Cheepnis” fit in with the overall arc of what Zappa was trying to do, and to hear them stripped of studio sweetening only emphasizes how fantastic this band is. It would be pointless to call out individual players, since they’re all so good, but I’m always amazed by percussionist Ruth Underwood. She’s flawless, and Zappa gives her some impossibly difficult material to play. Just listen to her showcase on “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” presented here three times. (The 13-minute take from the second show is my favorite.)

The rehearsal is fun – it’s not some hissy-tape document, it’s a crystal clear opportunity to hear the band working out parts of this tricky material. I’m not sure what its replay value is, but I’m glad to have it. The rehearsal tapes also include a new version of “The Idiot Bastard Son” with lyrics about Tricky Dick, called “That Arrogant Dick Nixon.” It’s a technique Zappa would use to full effect on his 1988 tour, which took aim at Jimmy Swaggart and his fellow televangelists.

The studio session is interesting in the same way, as a historical document. Zappa leads the band through some of the best-known material of this era, including the full “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite, and most of this is Zappa giving notes to his players and fine-tuning these pieces. The final disc contains the sound check/film shoot, recorded a day before the first show in front of a select audience. The band vamps on “Pygmy Twylyte” for 35 minutes, gives us a typically great “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” and closes with quick run-throughs of some extremely difficult pieces (“T’Mershi Duween,” “Dog Breath” and “Uncle Meat”). There isn’t much here that isn’t represented elsewhere, but it’s great to have even more stunning performances of these songs.

There’s so much here, it’s almost impossible to absorb it all. The Roxy Performances is one of the most welcome pieces of Zappa history, finally available in a beautiful box for a decent price. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you love hearing real musicians playing truly astounding music live, you, like me, won’t be able to get enough of this.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, Justin Timberlake meets Bill Mallonee. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Not the Usual Voices
Listener Refines and the Bad Plus Regenerates

The first time I saw Listener, I had no idea what I was witnessing.

It was at the AudioFeed Festival, of course, where I have discovered most of my new favorite bands for the past few years. Listener was a buzz band there, meaning the kids at the fest were positively giddy at the notion of seeing them play. I’d never heard of them, but had committed early on to trying as many new bands as I could over that weekend. I got maybe three songs in. I had no idea what to think.

They don’t seem that strange to me now, after years of immersion in their work. But that first exposure was something else. Listener is a rock band with a sometimes slow and abrasive edge, and they exist as a delivery method for Dan Smith’s poetry, which he spits out at a snarling, frantic pace. Honestly, there is no frontman in the world like Smith. Imagine if Craig Finn of the Hold Steady grew up on Fugazi, and you’re close, but not quite there.

One of my favorite things about Listener is that they’re already unique, but they keep growing. Each album has expanded their reach, aiming for new sounds and ideas. Their new one, Being Empty: Being Filled, is their most adventurous, and their best. Eight of its songs were released on seven-inches over the past few months, but the full album has just arrived, and if you’ve never heard Listener, I think this is a great starting point.

For one thing, if you want a basic idea of what this band does, you can’t ask for a better introduction than the first two songs here. “Pent Up Genes” is a simple rocker with some spit-fire lines from Smith and some robust horns (at one point playing “Taps”), and “Little Folded Fingers” might be the perfect Listener song – its insistent rumble reminds me of Shellac, it has a memorable chorus (which Listener songs sometimes eschew), and everything fires on all cylinders. I love how it dissipates, then comes roaring back at the end. This one’s going to kill live.

But for another, Being Empty finds the band staking out interesting new territory, and delivering the most complete vision of who they are. “There’s Money in the Walls” is a slowly unfolding undercurrent to Smith’s poetry, fired at you like bullets over the ocean. “Bloodshot/New Love” does interesting things with its vocal arrangement, finding Smith singing the choruses, speaking the verses and then shouting the bridge, while the music constantly shifts under him.

Even when they’re not innovating here, they’re delivering the best realization yet of Listener’s signature sound, as on “Shock and Value” and the immense “A Love Letter to Detroit.” This is their most polished record, and yet there’s a determined rawness to the best moments, the grooves connecting like gears made of sandpaper. While the more traditional Listener tracks are comforting, in their way, the album feels most dangerous when it steps outside that, most notably on closing track “Plague Doctor.” A true epic, this song begins with an explosion of drums from Kris Rochelle, fires some math-rock at us, then stops short, bringing in synthesizers, guitar choirs, space-y vocal effects and a whole ton of noise. It’s the most interesting song they’ve ever given us.

Your enjoyment of Listener will depend on whether you can roll with Dan Smith’s voice. The first time I heard a Listener album (the exquisite Time is a Machine), I was convinced he was yelling at me for the whole thing. It took a while to realize he was yelling with me. His lyrics are beautiful poems of encouragement, of recognition, of worth and value. Shouting along with them has become a particular pleasure of mine at AudioFeed. This is music made for shouting along with, for seeing yourself in, for feeling part of. It’s unfailingly earnest, heartfelt and powerful.

Being Empty: Being Filled would get my vote as the Listener album everyone curious about this band should hear. You can check it out at the band’s site. And you should also come to AudioFeed, where you’ll likely get the chance to see this material played live. I can’t wait.

* * * * *

As any player can tell you, you don’t need to sing to have a voice. Instrumentalists have their own voices, their own telltale touches that make their sound their own. And if your instrumental band consists of, for instance, drums, bass and piano, changing the piano player can be just as wholesale a change as swapping in a new lead singer.

That’s exactly the situation the Bad Plus find themselves in, after parting ways with founding pianist Ethan Iverson in December after 17 years together. Iverson, along with drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson, created a wholly individual sound for their band – not quite jazz, not quite rock, not quite prog, but with elements of all three liberally mixed together. They made their name covering rock, pop and prog tunes with instrumental flair, crafted sterling original tunes, worked up a trio take on The Rite of Spring, and worked with saxophonist Joshua Redman and vocalist Wendy Lewis.

After all that, you’d think that any one member of this group would be irreplaceable. But like everything else, the Bad Plus has made welcoming aboard a new lead player look easy. Orrin Evans is a well-respected jazz pianist, having recorded more than two dozen albums as a leader since 1994. He’s known Anderson and King for many years, and on the band’s new record, Never Stop II, he steps right in as if he’s always been there. From the title on down – it references the band’s 2010 album, their first to consist entirely of originals – this is a continuation of the Bad Plus, not a reboot of it.

That’s a good thing, in case it wasn’t clear. Never Stop II is chock full of the fascinating time signatures, memorable melodies and superb improvisation that has been this band’s trademark. Some of these songs – “Trace,” with its difficult-to-count single-note chorus, for instance, or “Safe Passage,” a beautiful, tricky, energizing thing – are classic Bad Plus. Evans contributes two songs, including “Boffadem,” on which he plays toy piano, and they sound tailor made for the Bad Plus, despite being older tunes repurposed for the band. “Commitment,” a ten-minute suite on Evans’ own Meant to Shine LP, here is a lean and languid four minutes, containing the most straight-up jazz improv section on the record.

Are there differences? Sure. Evans has a lighter, more immediately pleasing touch than Iverson, so when he plays the blockier, more prog-like tunes, they don’t sound quite as heavy. But when he improvises, his ear is more on melody than Iverson’s was. The result is more accessible without losing the edge they’ve always had. Evans is a terrific player, more than up to the challenge, and while he’s not doing an Iverson impression by any means, he slides into the Bad Plus style perfectly. Evans, steeped as he is in a hard bop style, will clearly bring a different outlook to the table, and I’m excited to hear his vision for where the band can go.

As for Never Stop II, its quick release – only 19 days after the band’s last gig with Iverson – is clearly intended to relieve those nervous about the change. It’s a terrific Bad Plus album, different in some ways but consistent in most. It begins the next chapter in this extraordinary band’s story with grace and confidence. I’m glad this next chapter exists, and I’m jazzed to read further.

Check out the Bad Plus here.

Next week, lots of options, from Franz Ferdinand to Brian Fallon to Frank Zappa. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Moving Forward and Standing Still
Tune-Yards Innovate While the Shins Stagnate

Last week I talked about They Might Be Giants, a band that is routinely dismissed as a novelty act despite decades of well-written and serious-minded music. Although they haven’t been around nearly as long, I can see the same thing happening to California’s Tune-Yards, and I hope it doesn’t. Their biggest hit so far, “Water Fountain,” might be a goofy and danceable thing, but to dismiss them as only that would be criminal.

Tune-Yards is Merrill Garbus, a certified wunderkind from Connecticut, and her partner in crime Nate Brenner. Together they make… well, music that’s nearly impossible to describe. I barely know where to begin, so let’s just start with the first track on their excellent new record, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. The song is called “Heart Attack,” and at first glance, it’s another catchy ditty on par with “Water Fountain.” It begins with dissonant piano, then Garbus’ insidious vocal line: “You’re giving me a heart attack-ack-ack…”

But man, listen to the places this goes. The soulful verses, made up of nothing but percussion and bass. The stunning jazzy chords under Garbus’ wordless vocals. That moment when everything else disappears except a haunting string section, as Garbus sings “I’m only human.” The awesome dance music keyboard lines, leading to a huge crescendo that explodes as Garbus sings “don’t let me lose my soul.” It’s a complete journey in three minutes and 43 seconds, and it’s only the opening salvo.

The whole of Private Life is like this. Much of it will make you move – the bass lines are particularly slinky. But every few seconds, it goes somewhere new, giving your ears little gift-wrapped presents. None of this is empty studio wizardry. The songs come first, and every bit of stunning soundcraft is in service to them. Quite a bit of this reminded me of Esperanza Spalding’s bass-driven, jazz-inflected rock, but with much more electronic goodness sprinkled throughout.

Private Life is also a much darker and more political record than Tune-Yards’ previous efforts. This one seems to have soaked up the thick, depressing atmosphere of 2017, breathing it through its lungs and processing it in only the way Garbus and Brenner can. Take a straight-up masterwork like “Now as Then,” one of several songs about white privilege and its odious effects. “I am exceptional, I am an exception, I am the exception,” Garbus intones over the clattering intro before adding “that’s for me, that’s also for me.” As the music builds, a hundred Merrill Garbuses sing out the chorus: “Don’t trust me that I won’t take all the money and run.” The solo piano that breaks through the din is chilling.

“Colonizer” is darker and even more self-critical. Its opening beat sounds like a factory machine stomping on frogs, but as the nimble bass line kicks in, Garbus sings this: “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men, I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially for me…” The music becomes as uncomfortable as the words, the whirring percussion and Garbus’ nearly-muted screams take over. After that, you need the full-on beat-crazy chant of “Look at Your Hands,” which serves as a perfect release of tension.

The second half gets even darker, with slower crawls like “Home” and “Hammer” hopefully dispelling any remaining notion that Tune-Yards are purveyors of silly ditties. Even a closing track called “Free” is full of tension, its halfway-jubilant vocal cascade drowned out by an overdriven bass. “I’m alive and seething and I’m coming back for you,” Garbus sings before shouting “Don’t tell me I’m free.” It’s unsettling, like itchy skin, and somehow the perfect conclusion to this tricky, fantastic little record. (As a final grace note, the last few seconds find Garbus counting in the opening of “Heart Attack,” bringing the album full circle.)

I know it’s January, and this is a ridiculous statement, but I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is my favorite album of 2018 so far. Garbus is a one-of-a-kind wizard, and she and Brenner have made their best, most pointed, most powerful record here, one that is as easy to admire as it is to love.

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While Tune-Yards keep moving forward, the Shins seem stuck in place. And I don’t just mean because their sixth album is their fifth album all over again.

When James Mercer and his band burst out of the underground in the early 2000s, they were a breath of fresh air. Here was a delightful combination of lo-fi indie-pop and Brian Wilson grandeur, with indelible melodies to match. Even as their budgets grew and their ambitions skyrocketed, they made terrific records. 2007’s Wincing the Night Away is a highly underrated piece of work.

And then Mercer dismissed the entire original band and re-cast the Shins as a one-man show with a rotating cast of assistants, and the bottom fell out. I probably gave Mercer a lot more credit for the early Shins material than I should have, considering how boring his work since has been. His voice is still distinctive and compelling, but his songs have all but evaporated, leaving empty shells of the music he once made. Before revisiting it for this column, I could hardly remember last year’s Heartworms. I again found it typical and lazy.

So why would I be interested in a second version of that same album? I have no idea, but Mercer believes I should be. The Worm’s Heart is a “flipped” re-take of Heartworms – it features all the same songs with new arrangements, sequenced in reverse order. Press materials for the album made it sound like the fast songs had been rendered slow while the slow songs played faster, but there aren’t slow songs and fast songs. The whole album is a mid-tempo mush, and it remains that way on The Worm’s Heart.

Some of the new takes feel like they should be interesting. The title track is given an ‘80s makeover with buzzing synths and harmonies. “Dead Alive” is played with pianos and keyboard strings. “Cherry Hearts,” still the most memorable thing on the album, has a live-band, almost garage-y feel. Country stumble “Mildenhall” is here rendered as an organ-driven bit of rock and roll that is somehow more annoying than the original. My favorite part of Heartworms, the “da-da, da-da” refrain of “Rubber Ballz,” survives intact, here accompanied by acoustic guitar. Obviously a lot of thought has been put into new ways to play these tunes.

But I can’t help but think that all that effort should have been put into writing better songs. I’d care more about The Worm’s Heart if I liked the source material, and this backwards walk through it didn’t deepen my appreciation for it. Instead of a revelatory document, I now have two versions of 11 songs I don’t care about, and two versions of that garish cover. And I’m still hoping that the next Shins release will be better.

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That’ll do for this week. Next week, the new Listener, and whatever else strikes me over the next seven days. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Year Gets Underway
2018's First Great Records With They Might Be Giants and First Aid Kit

There are some bands that evoke a place and time in your mind, and you can never quite separate them from those memories. For me, the Cranberries were one of those.

I went to a small college in Maine, and I worked at the radio station. B-91 was unlike any other college radio station I have ever seen – its format was top 40, and it was intended as a proving ground for people studying radio as a career. During regular hours (especially drive time hours), we were only allowed to play songs from a list provided by the station managers, a list that drew from the biggest hits of the day. And we’d play those songs repeatedly, like any other top 40 radio station.

And that’s how I came to hear “Linger” by the Cranberries 10 or 12 times a week for almost my entire second semester of freshman year. There’s nothing I can do now – that song automatically triggers thoughts of snowy treks to the cafeteria and long weekends reading comic books. Since that time, the Irish quartet has been in the back of my mind. I haven’t kept up as well as perhaps I should have – I didn’t know they had an album last year, for instance – but they’ve always been on my radar.

One thing I didn’t realize about them was that they were very close to my age when they hit it big. Dolores O’Riordan, she of the powerful and distinctive voice, was only three years older than me. I know this now because O’Riordan died suddenly a week ago, of causes that have still not been made public, and she was 46. For me it was a sobering reminder of how young 46 truly is, and how we should be grateful for every day.

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What a difference a couple weeks makes.

Back on Jan. 9, I published a column called 18 Reasons to Love 2018. I worked with the information that I had at the time, of course, and while I was happy with the result, I have two more weeks of album announcements to draw from now. So here are a bunch more reasons to love 2018.

Start with the return of the Breeders on March 2 with All Nerve. I hinted at this when talking about the Belly reunion – Tanya Donnelly has reignited both of her most famous bands, and we’re getting new records from both within a couple weeks of each other. Belly’s Dove is slated for April 6. March 2 will also give us new ones from ambitious punkers Titus Andronicus and the golden-voiced Tracey Thorn.

A week later, in addition to the Ministry release, we’ll get new things from David Byrne, Editors and Of Montreal, as well as the first of a two-part album called Automata from Between the Buried and Me. I need to catch up on BTBAM’s output, since the first Automata single is a nervy, complex beast, and they’re touring with the Dear Hunter this spring. Speaking of bands I love and will see live soon, Marillion will also give us a five-disc remastered re-release of their 1994 masterpiece Brave.

On March 16 the Decemberists return with I’ll Be Your Girl, and the single piles on the synths, which is an odd move for this folksy band. Yo La Tengo returns on that date as well. One week later we get Jack White’s new solo effort, Boarding House Reach, and believe it or not, the return of Squirrel Nut Zippers with Beasts of Burgundy. I always enjoyed their work, especially as they struggled with staying outside the swing revival in the ‘90s.

What else? The Eels return on April 6 with The Deconstruction. Juliana Hatfield has apparently made an album of Olivia Newton-John covers. Gaz Coombes of Supergrass will give us a solo album called World’s Strongest Man on May 4. And in the craziest news I have heard, Derek Smalls, the bassist for Spinal Tap, is readying a solo album called (get this) Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). This is really just Harry Shearer having a ball, and I’m excited to hear it.

In the meantime, if you want to hear something that will be available quite soon, check out the new single from the Oh Hellos.  Yes, I did just review their new EP. Yes, this is from a newer one, out on Feb. 6. Life is good. It’s going to be a weird year, but by all indications, a strong one musically.

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And hey, I even have some new records to review this week. The 2018 release schedule has begun in earnest, and the pile of discs I have next to me will carry me through this week and next. We’re well and truly underway.

As I mentioned earlier, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was first out of the gate with Wrong Creatures, their eighth album. If I say this one is of a piece with the other seven, I don’t want you to take that as a criticism. Because it is the sort of thing I am likely to say – BRMC staked out their territory early, drawing from The Jesus and Mary Chain as a primary influence, and haven’t moved too far away from it. But there’s still some gold in them thar hills, so they keep digging.

This time, they’ve focused a bit more on the dark atmosphere than on the blistering rock, and song after song in a creepy, slow tempo can feel weighty after a while. But they’re still the masters of that guitar-echoing-off-an-endless-tunnel sound, and when they bring the big noisy freak-outs, as they do at the end of “Ninth Configuration,” they really bring them.

Still, when the band shakes things up in the final third, they deliver the best stretch of the record. First they step up the rock on “Little Thing Gone Wild,” a no-brainer of a single. Then they take an odd detour to the big top on the oddly frightening waltz “Circus Bazooko,” dive deep into shoegaze on “Carried From the Start” and end things with a gigantic piano anthem called “All Rise.”

The material they fill the first two-thirds of Wrong Creatures with is their stock in trade, and it’s tough to begrudge them a slithering monster like “Haunt.” But I vastly preferred the songs here that stepped outside their comfort zone, and I admire them for taking those steps on their eighth record. BRMC have long made better Jesus and Mary Chain records than the actual Jesus and Mary Chain, and Wrong Creatures is another one. It’s worth hearing.

First out of the gate, though, doesn’t mean best. That honor is split among my next two entries, both of which hit stores this week. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re both excellent.

I say this every time, but it still bothers me that They Might Be Giants are dismissed as some kind of novelty act. John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been writing and playing songs together for more than 35 years, long after any novelty would have worn off, and the just-released I Like Fun is their 20th album. Twentieth. They’re a bona fide classic band at this point, having done only and exactly what they’ve wanted to do for more than three decades. Respect, is what I’m saying.

And if you still need convincing that TMBG is an extraordinary band, even this far into their long career, just spin I Like Fun. The title is ironic – this is one of the darkest TMBG albums ever, but as always, that darkness is wrapped up in devilishly melodic, even jaunty tunes, played with verve with their longtime bandmates, drummer Marty Beller, guitarist Dan Miller and bassist Danny Weinkauf. This is a classic TMBG rock record, with some quirky detours along the way.

Opening song “Let’s Get This Over With” is a classic, driving forward on a bouncing piano line and Linnell’s one-of-a-kind voice. The Johns have always been masters at memorable vocal melodies, and this one’s a doozy. It’s awesome. And of course it sets the tone: we’ll spend the next 45 minutes working through feelings of dread and loneliness and despair in the cleverest ways we can.

Some examples. “By the Time You Get This Note” is a missive from a past civilization to a future one, hoping that all the evils of the world have been taken care of by the time the note is read. Of course, we find out that it’s not our civilization writing the note. We’re reading it, and none of the listed evils are gone. The great “Mrs. Bluebeard” begins like this: “I want to say I learned something valuable today, alas, my murdered remains are incapable of learning anything.” “Push Back the Hands” is, of course, about slowing down time, and it starts this way: “You would give your right arm to go back to when you had a right arm.”

It’s an album in which “The Bright Side” blinds our eyes, we may or may not see the lights come on again, and, in the strange, funny and chilling interlude “The Greatest,” people are relentlessly cruel: “People call me the greatest because I’m not very good, and they’re being sarcastic.” It all leads to the apocalyptic “Last Wave,” perhaps the band’s finest ode to existential despair. The rousing chorus is a singalong, only these are the lyrics: “We die alone, we die afraid, we live in terror, we’re naked and alone.” Did I mention it rocks?

It’s hard to believe I Like Fun is the 20th They Might Be Giants album, especially since there isn’t an ounce of fatigue or sense of obligation to it. It’s another terrific set of songs only this band would write, and the result is among their finest efforts, music to play as the darkness encroaches and the world falls apart.

Swedish duo First Aid Kit hasn’t been around nearly as long – their new one, Ruins, is their fourth. But they’ve certainly made their mark in the ten years they’ve been working. First Aid Kit, a name that belies this group’s otherwise impeccable taste and judgment, consists of sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg, but even the fact that they’re sisters doesn’t explain the magical way their voices sound together, as if they were born to harmonize with one another.

Every First Aid Kit album has centered those voices and made glorious use of them, and Ruins is no different. In fact, this one isn’t much different from their delightful 2014 effort Stay Gold. It’s a little bigger, and it makes a little more use of the studio (the album was produced by Tucker Martine, who has helmed swell records by the Decemberists, Beth Orton and Neko Case, among others), but for the most part, it’s ten more sad and lovely acoustic folk songs sung by angels.

The Soderbergs do embrace classic country more completely on this record, particularly on tracks like “Postcard,” and their voices bring out the sweet sadness. My favorites here are the more melodically surprising ones, like opener “Rebel Heart” and the superb “My Wild Sweet Love.” I adore the big, crashing choir that comes in at the end of the otherwise Patsy Cline-esque “Hem of Her Dress,” and the sisters end this album with a bona fide epic, the sweeping “Nothing Has to Be True.” It’s here that the classic country leanings perfectly balance out the studio ambitions.

But you won’t care about all that. If you choose to listen to Ruins – and you should – you’ll just be swept away by these lovely songs, and the unearthly beautiful voices singing them. I remain glad that I took a chance on a Swedish act with a funny name all those years ago. Ruins is another delight in what I hope will be a long, long line of them.

That’ll do for this week. Next week, more new stuff with Tune-Yards and the Shins. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Ghosts of 2017
Eminem, Esperanza and the Oh Hellos

We’re in that weird part of the new year that still feels like the old year.

New music has started to come out. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has given us Wrong Creatures, their eighth album, which I will get to next week, and NPR is already offering a first listen to I Like Fun, the swell new They Might Be Giants record. But it’s not enough to really feel like 2018 is in full swing yet. Meanwhile I am still catching up with things from the end of 2017, records that slipped out in the last weeks of December and are still awaiting my attention.

So consider this the last column of 2017, even though you’re reading it in 2018. Keep in mind there are still a couple dozen albums from last year that I bought and didn’t find time to hear, and that this column is not about those. It’s about latecomers, records that made it onto store shelves while I was in my annual top 10 list cycle and couldn’t devote attention to them. Although I am happy to hear recommendations for albums I missed from last year, should you want to send them my way.

We’re going to start with Eminem, just to get it out of the way. Seventeen years ago I called The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, and it’s a decision that has weighed on me ever since. I’d like to think I’m a different person now, one who would listen to Marshall Mathers’ misogyny and violent fantasies and find them repugnant, not envelope-pushing. Eminem, when he began, was conducting a large-scale experiment on irresponsibility and audience response, gleefully lighting fuses and then dropping cop-outs and wry “who, me?” grins. His early records are dangerous, manically vile things, but crafted with a satirist’s heart and the mind of a lyrical genius.

Since then, I have applauded every step Mathers has taken away from his Slim Shady days and toward becoming a real, honest artist. And over his last two albums, he’s done that. Recovery was his first stab at apologizing for his past mistakes and trying to atone, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was unlike any sequel I’ve heard. It was almost a point-for-point rebuttal and update, including an apology to his mother and some genuine emotional moments.

So why do I think Revival, Em’s ninth album, is so bad? I think it’s at least partially because I’m a different person than I was when I became invested in Mathers as an artist. I hear some of his worst qualities come to the fore here, and they’re no different than similar moments on the last two records, but now I find them inexcusable. Mathers addresses his own failures of character and personality on opener “Walk on Water,” and then apparently considers that carte blanche to display them.

Which is a shame, since the best moments of Revival continue his growth as a person, if not as an artist. The opening trilogy finds him grappling with self-doubt, then overcoming it. “Bad Husband” is the rawest and most real admission of guilt he has made to his ex-wife. Several songs detail bad relationships, and whether they are stories or diary entries, the lessons learned from them are made clear.

And the closing trilogy is remarkable, reflecting on his 2007 overdose and the impact it has made on his relationship with his daughter Hailie. “Castle” takes a trip through time, starting with Hailie’s birth and detailing letters he wrote her throughout her life. He dramatizes his own overdose at the song’s end, and then on “Arise” talks about the healing process he’s undergone since then. The ending is a head-turner – he rewinds the tape, literally, and raps the last part of “Castle” again, this time flushing the drugs down the toilet and seizing his second chance at life.

All of that is well worth praising, even if the music is somewhat lackluster. I also can’t fail to mention “Like Home” and “Untouchable,” songs on which Mathers aims his considerable lyrical skill at Donald Trump and systemic racism. His heart is in the right place on these tracks, and their up-front nature should please people who were surprised and elated at his anti-Trump freestyle. But all told, I’ve just described about half the record, and had he stopped there, I would think of Revival as another step in his rehabilitation.

But he didn’t, and the other half of the material sinks the first half like a stone. I won’t go into detail, except to say that Eminem is always at his worst when he thinks he is being funny. “Remind Me” samples “I Love Rock and Roll” for a bit about how he is only interested in a woman because she reminds him of himself. “Framed” brings Slim Shady back for a murder fantasy in which Shady is accused because his lyrics match the crime.

“Heat” includes this choice rhyme, which all but negates his anti-Trump stance from earlier in the record: “Grab you by the (meow), hope it’s not a problem, in fact about the only thing I agree on with Donald is that, so when I put this palm on your cat, don’t snap, it’s supposed to get grabbed, why do you think they call it a snatch?” One track later, on “Offended,” he turns positively childish, concluding a chorus about hoping people are offended at his rhymes with a promise to make them “eat my turds.” (That one has some rape lines that make my stomach turn, too.)

OK, so I did go into detail, but not nearly enough. The tragedy is that Eminem remains one of the most lyrically interesting rappers in the game. (Here’s a line from “Heat” I quite liked: “That’s just the thoroughbred in me, ain’t a better breed, my dog thinks so too, look at my pedigree.” Pedigree, pet agree? You groaned, but you respect it.) On about half of Revival, he harnesses that power for good, and despite some lazy, downbeat music (Ed Sheeran?) and lame sample choices, this material shows how far he’s come. And then on the other half, he proves he’s still a misogynistic jerk, reveling in his least appealing qualities and spitting out shamelessly awful sex and death fantasies. I’ve given him a pass on this material before, but I just can’t anymore.

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I spent way more time on that record than I intended to, so I’ll keep the next two short. Which is fine, because the records themselves are pretty short.

I wonder if the people who voted for Esperanza Spalding to receive the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011 knew how right they were. I hope they’ve kept up with her career as she’s driven it down amazing new roads. Spalding was always brilliant – a bass-playing musical prodigy, she understands jazz in ways I never will, and can compose stunning, complex pieces in a number of idioms. But it’s the material post-Grammy that has captivated most, from 2012’s sparking Radio Music Society to the unstoppable power of 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution. Her early fans probably freaked out a little at the acid metal and power trio rock of that record, but her innate sense of musicality was never absent.

If people freaked at that, I can’t imagine what they thought when Spalding announced Exposure, her latest project. Over 77 hours last year, she composed and recorded her sixth album live on the internet, working feverishly with no breaks. She entered the studio with no concrete ideas, and emerged with ten songs that are remarkably intricate and enjoyable. Yes, you can tell she was up against the clock here and there – two songs have no lyrics, and the last track is a bit of a jam. But Exposure is far better than its origins would suggest, and it shows just how good Spalding is, even under pressure.

My favorites here are, of course, the more complete ones, like “Heaven in Pennies,” which features piano by Robert Glasper, and “I Am Telling You.” Spalding never sings what you expect she will, aiming for notes that shouldn’t work, but do, and ending up with what sounds like deliberately arranged scat singing. Her band is tight, her bass playing extraordinary as always. I even like her sweet little duet with Andrew Bird, “The Ways You Got the Love,” evidently written and recorded in a few hours.

Exposure was only available for a limited time from Spalding’s site, and I ponied up for it. The resulting package is a delight, with a fragment of lyric sheet glued to the front cover (she made 7,777 of these, which means she and her team glued 7,777 fragments of paper to CD wallets) and a second disc of unfinished ideas that arose during the sessions. I don’t know how often I will listen to that second disc, but it provides an interesting insight into Spalding’s process. She’s like no other artist, and I’m happy I jumped in on this experiment.

Texas collective The Oh Hellos are conducting their own experiment, releasing their new songs as a series of EPs. The band remains independent, working for themselves and releasing music to their growing legion of fans. I’m definitely one of them – the brother and sister team of Tyler and Maggie Heath write astoundingly beautiful music, and the musicians they have assembled bring it to sparkling life.

The first of these new EPs is called Notos, and it’s just as good as I was hoping it would be. There are so many perfect little moments in these 21 minutes – my current favorite is when the drums kick over to double time on the previously lilting “Constellations” – and the band never puts a foot wrong. Their harmonies are gorgeous, the string arrangements thick and powerful, the songs compact yet as wide as the sky. I’ve yet to hear a song about our national discourse that puts as fine a point on it as “Torches” does, and yet they deliver it with grace.

If you don’t know the Oh Hellos, well, you’re in good company. But if you’d like to join us, check them out here.

That’s it for this week. Next week, 2018 begins in earnest. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles