Heavy With a Twist
New Metal Albums Rewriting the Rulebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

A More Thoughtful Way to Go
Florence and Dawes Take the High Road on Lovely New Records

I think I’ve been waiting for the anger.

Ever since November 2016, I’ve been looking to art (as I always do) as a way of figuring out how to cope with the world and what it has become. I’ve spent a lot of that intervening time feeling helpless and angry, and I think I’ve been expecting the music made during the Trump era to feel similarly helpless and angry. Marillion’s FEAR remains the bleakest and most forthright piece of work about this worldwide wave of hatred, and I think I’ve been waiting for more like it.

But with rare exceptions, like Ministry’s juvenile AmeriKKKant, the anger just hasn’t been as prevalent as I thought it would be. Instead, I think we’re seeing a different angle of the Trump phenomenon: our artists have grown thoughtful and contemplative. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer leads this pack – it’s a phenomenally well-considered set of songs about not allowing prejudice and oppression to define you or hold you back. It feels like exactly the kind of record we need now, defiant and celebratory, but in a beautifully thoughtful way.

We’ve since had albums by Frank Turner and Darlingside and others that have approached Trumpworld with graceful reflection and a sense that we can all be better, that we can all do better than this. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the new trend: albums that try to make sense of our dark times, ones that slowly work their way toward shining a light.

I think it’s possible to be optimistic these days, but only if you don’t really see what’s going on, or let it affect you. That’s not what I’m talking about here. These are albums by very aware artists, and instead of miring in muck or lashing out, they have decided to work through their pain in song, and share their contemplation and encouragement.

Case in point: From the first song of Florence and the Machine’s new album High as Hope, it feels different. Florence Welch is well known for building huge songs out of heartbreak, for crafting anthems that build and crest like waves. Her first three albums have all been stirring, massive affairs, so when High as Hope begins with the gentle, insistent “June,” you know something’s up. “June” is a song of encouragement for the LGBTQ community – June is Pride month, and Florence sings about the day of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and about living in a world that despises you for who you are. “Hold on to each other,” she sings in that powerhouse voice as the music finally reaches a crescendo.

Most of High as Hope follows suit. It is Welch’s most subdued record, tackling personal issues and extrapolating them out into messages of strength for the world at large. “Hunger” is deeply intimate, despite its galloping beat and bright piano – it finds Welch admitting to her eating disorder, and using her hunger as a metaphor for the emptiness inside us all. It’s the closest thing here to a pop single, and it’s uncommonly powerful. “Big God” finds Welch looking to give her worries and inner turmoil to a higher power as she suffers through a breakup. “Patricia” is dedicated to Patti Smith, but talks about toxic masculinity and the Me Too movement.

I’m more than fond of “Grace,” a song named after Welch’s sister. It’s a specific song: “I’m sorry I ruined your birthday,” Welch sings at the start, and she uses the song’s gorgeous chorus as a way of apologizing and letting her sister know how much she is loved. But it feels universal, this song. It’s absurd that it does – this is very clearly a letter written from one person to another, meant for an audience of one – but it does. Its message of reconnection and enduring love makes me cry each time.

I’m also quite fond of “100 Years,” which includes Welch’s response to the direction of the world: “I believe in love, and the darker it gets, the more I do, try and fill us with your hate and we will shine a light…” It’s a deliriously empowering song, marking the 100-year anniversary of women being given the right to vote in Great Britain. With all of that, she ends the album with “No Choir,” a metatextual number about her fear that happiness will ruin her songwriting, and her full acceptance that happiness is worth that price. If this were to be the last Florence and the Machine song, it would close the book on her body of work nicely.

I have no reason to believe it is, of course, which is the best possible news. I’ve been a Florence Welch fan since “Dog Days Are Over,” but High as Hope is my hands-down favorite of her records. It’s obviously the product of a great deal of thought about how to respond to a world gone mad, and she landed on empowerment, encouragement, hope and togetherness as the antidotes we need. High as Hope is not a joyous record, but it feels like a beautiful and difficult journey toward joy, which mirrors the tenor of the world. I hope we can get there.

I don’t think anyone was expecting anger from Dawes, the breezy Los Angeles band led by brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith. And of course, they have not delivered anger on their new album Passwords. But what they have given us is their most thoughtful record, a mostly slow and meditative work that finds the Goldsmiths surveying the wreckage of the world and trying to offer peace and hope. Happily, Passwords sidesteps every cliché that could have tripped it up, and instead goes for deep feeling, making this probably the strongest Dawes album.

Opener “Living in the Future” is the only one that cranks up the amps, and it sports a tricky, twisty riff and lyrics about wishing the world were simpler. “Stay Down” follows up on this line of thought directly – it’s a strummy acoustic ditty about hiding your head in the sand. But thankfully, that’s not the course of action the band recommends, as the next song, “Crack the Case,” makes clear. A delicate song about sitting down with one’s enemies, “Crack the Case” is the emotional core of this record: “Countless revisions of history, trying to tell us the future between each commercial break, I wanna call off the cavalry, declare no winners or losers and forgive our shared mistakes…”

From there, Passwords steps into more familiar territory with songs about love and loss, but even these are more thoughtful than the band has been in the past. “My Greatest Invention” is a well-observed tale of a man who spins stories of his lover to mask his loneliness. “Telescope” might be the best song on this record, marrying its bubbling riff to a story of an abandoned child searching for his father. The song revolves around the line “the stronger the telescope, the more stars there are,” and it’s a wonderful metaphor.

I’m a fan of the final song, “Time Flies Either Way.” It’s about working through fear and confusion and trying to accept life day by day, and the song is as gentle and breezy as Dawes has ever been. The final verse emphasizes connection between us as the way forward, and it’s lovely. I would never suggest that a band like Dawes has created a treatise on Trumpism and a healing balm for our times, but I do see evidence of a more thoughtful nature on this album, and I think that’s becoming the de facto response. I may have been waiting for the anger, but the artists I love have surprised me with a better approach, and I’m thankful for it.

Next week, I’m not sure yet. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Thank Heaven for Little Records
New Tunes in 30 Minutes or Less

This week I bought Kamasi Washington’s new album Heaven and Earth.

Washington, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, is one of the most celebrated of the new vanguard of jazz visionaries. He first came to prominence with a nearly three-hour album called The Epic, which incorporated choirs and orchestras and all manner of sonic coloring into a strikingly traditional jazz odyssey. It was, in short, really good stuff. Heaven and Earth is presumably similar, and all of the reviews have been excellent.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s a double album, running to more than 140 minutes, with separate “Heaven” and “Earth” discs. And hours after it was released, reports started coming in of an unlisted, unheralded third disc hidden within the packaging of Heaven and Earth. One quick slice with a knife later, and there it was, nestled in the center panel of the CD wallet: “The Choice,” a 40-minute supplemental disc that brings this album well over the running time of even The Epic. (Kudos for an impressive bit of fan service there, Kamasi.)

I’m very excited to hear this thing. I have no idea when I’m going to find the time.

Long records still excite me. I’m thrilled whenever I have the chance to dig into a true musical journey, to hear a long-form statement from an artist flush with confidence. I used to be able to carve out those hours and then some, and welcomed albums that ran two, even three hours. These days, though, I’m starting to warm to the bite-sized burst of music. We’ve somehow decided as a culture that 20-30 minutes is a fine length for an album, instead of a by-definition EP, and while my checkbook is annoyed at shelling out full price for less music, my day planner is happier.

Initially, for example, I was surprised and irritated by Kanye West’s recently-completed five-albums-in-five-weeks blitz, since each of those albums runs between 22 and 26 minutes. All told, West has given us about two hours of new music (most of it produced for other artists), and charged us $50 for it. But even with my busy schedule, I managed to listen to all five of these things, and found that I cared about three of them enough to buy them. It was nice to be able to digest these quick paragraphs, as opposed to trying to dig into a novel.

Doing so confirmed for me that I don’t care about Pusha T – his drug dealer persona and willingness to go lower by putting a photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-laden bathroom on the cover of Daytona turned me off completely. The music on Daytona is fine, but Pusha himself isn’t worth even the 21 minutes it takes to get through this record. And while I was initially interested in Teyana Taylor, the one R&B artist in this lot, her album K.T.S.E. is basically one long sex romp, and it isn’t strong enough to stand up to repeated listens. (Not that I’ve listened to it repeatedly to make sure, but my first two runs through it weren’t promising.)

But hey, I wouldn’t have even listened to Teyana Taylor if not for this five-album initiative, so that’s a net positive. And the three albums I enjoy are all worthwhile. Yes, even Kanye West’s Ye, a far more mature and interesting piece of work than anything he’s done since 808s and Heartbreak. I’ve grown more and more disgusted with West since 2013’s Yeezus, with its rape fantasies and vile content, and 2016’s The Life of Pablo was better, but not by much.

So Ye is a mostly pleasant surprise, a low-key and, in the case of “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Ghost Town,” actually kind of sweet affair. Sure, it starts with a song called “I Thought About Killing You,” which is really just a short spoken therapy session with watery keyboards beneath it, and it ends with a song for his daughter (“Violent Crimes”) that steps into creepy territory, but for the most part this tiny little record is enjoyable. West remains a visionary musician, and his eerie, deceptively minimalist production is top notch.

The same holds for Kids See Ghosts, the best of this five-album salvo. It’s a collaboration between West and his former protégé, Kid Cudi, and it’s strikingly good. I’ve been a Cudi fan for his entire career, and West brings out the best in him. His vocals on “Feel the Love” are instantly memorable, his “mmm-mmm-mmm”s underscore the bluesy “Fire” remarkably well, and his raps on that and other tracks are sharper than he’s sounded in some time. West, meanwhile, sounds energized and inspired by Cudi, and Kids See Ghosts is musically the best thing he’s given us in years and years. The sound of this record has as many colors as its Takashi Murakami cover art, dipping into prog and folk and pop in equal measure. If you only hear one of these five albums, it should be this one.

I really thought my favorite would be Nasir, the first record from rap legend Nas in six years, but this 26-minute visit with one of New York’s finest is just pretty good. I’ve always liked Nas, but his top-notch records are few and far between, and he’s rarely risen to the heights of his celebrated debut, Illmatic. Nasir isn’t one of his best, but even middling Nas is worth hearing, and West, who has long dreamed of producing for Nas, knocks himself out on this thing.

Sonically this is the most varied and energetic album Nas has delivered in a while, and as it goes on, it gets deeper, with “Everything” and “Adam and Eve” rising to the top of the heap. Nas is still one of the best in the game, even if there are only a few moments on Nasir when he proves it. But those moments make this quick burst of a record worth it. (Nas’ failure to respond to allegations of abuse from his ex-wife Kelis leave a bad taste as well. I just found out about those allegations, and cannot fail to mention them when discussing Nasir, an album that does not acknowledge them whatsoever, but speaks out – perhaps hypocritically – on several other social issues.)

I’ll skip the rant about Kanye West making album releases by four other artists all about him, and recommend Kids See Ghosts, if nothing else. This five-week blitz was interesting for marketing reasons, but it also offered the opportunity for West to once again prove that he’s one of the best producers currently working. He’s a lousy human being, at least publicly, but he’s a compelling musician – even the records I don’t care about sound great – and this experiment showcases him at his best.

* * * * *

There were several other short records that I managed to absorb and form thoughts about. Lykke Li’s So Sad So Sexy (34 minutes) is better than I expected, though certainly her bid for more radio-ready pop stardom, and the title sums up her brand in four words, so that’s nice. (Also on point for her image is a song called “Sex Money Feelings Die.”) Panic at the Disco’s Pray for the Wicked (also 34 minutes) is pretty killer – ten sharp, danceable pop-rock songs with hooks for days and one pretty piano ballad. I’m not sure how Brandon Urie keeps getting money to make these records, but I’m glad he does.

But if I’m being honest, there’s only one half-hour statement that I’m interested in talking about here, and that’s Bad Witch, the third in a trilogy of short records from Nine Inch Nails. I’ve been a Trent Reznor fan since his debut in 1989, and I still can’t believe it’s been that long. For that entire time, he’s been one of our most remarkable sonic architects, tearing up the NIN framework again and again, rarely giving his fans what they say they want. Along the way he became David Fincher’s go-to composer, and won the Academy Award for his score (with NIN bandmate Atticus Ross) to The Social Network.

Reznor is 53 now, and has grown far beyond the initial electro-rants of Pretty Hate Machine. His latest NIN project is a trio of EPs, and now that all three are here, they present a unified, bleak vision of the world we live in. 2016’s Not the Actual Events looked inward for hope and found only rage. 2017’s even better Add Violence looked outward, seeking solace in a world of presumably good people. And now Bad Witch completes that trip with a song cycle that dismisses humanity as totally depraved and not worth putting faith in.

The lyrics here are beyond bleak, spitting fire at our “celebration of ignorance” and shouting “When we could have done anything, we wound up building this.” If these three records are meant to depict a search for truth, then the moment in “God Break Down the Door” when Reznor sings “There aren’t any answers here, no, not anymore” is the true climax of the piece. Closer “Over and Out” ties right back into “Branches/Bones,” the first track on the first EP, and states that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over and over.

It’s a despairing piece of work, and the music is unsettling in the extreme. Very little of Bad Witch sounds like you’d expect Nine Inch Nails to sound. Opener “Shit Mirror” (and man, it’s hard to make a case for an album as nuanced and sonically interesting as this one when the first song is called “Shit Mirror,” but what can you do) seems like it’s going that direction, but stops halfway through to present a clap-happy beat topped by a spoken mantra. “Ahead of Ourselves” drops a propulsive beat, but offers distorted wiggles and whispers in place of anything solid. Reznor sounds enjoyably unhinged here, especially when the bursts of guitar come in.

And from there, it’s all new ground. Reznor plays saxophone on the remainder of Bad Witch, and his low moan style only adds to the creepy factor of instrumentals like “Play the Goddamned Part” and “I’m Not From This World.” “God Break Down the Door” sounds like an outtake from David Bowie’s Blackstar, like some unearthly form of electro-jazz. And when Ian Astbury of the Cult chimes in with spooky vocals on “Over and Out,” he fits the strange and shiver-inducing musical soundscape perfectly.

There is no one else making music quite like this. That’s been true for most of Reznor’s career – probably since Broken, but certainly since The Downward Spiral. The fact that he keeps evolving, that Nine Inch Nails has been able to shift into something so different as Reznor has aged, is remarkable. Bad Witch is the capper to three years of intense activity (during which Reznor and Ross also scored Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary), and concludes the EP project (and the 78 minutes of music it produced) with absolute horror, but also with his trademark inventiveness and sonic meticulousness. It’s totally Nine Inch Nails, in that Nine Inch Nails has grown to encompass nearly anything.

* * * * *

All right, it’s the end of June, which means it’s time for my Second Quarter Report. Basically, this is what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. You all know the drill, and I’m sure, if you’ve been paying attention to my reviews, you know what’s going to land at the top. I’m pretty pleased that this second-quarter list is 100% different from my first-quarter one. It’s been a very good three months, in retrospect. Here we go.

#10. Laura Veirs, The Lookout.
#9. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
#8. The Choir, Bloodshot.
#7. Kevin Max, AWOL.
#6. Sleep, The Sciences.
#5. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.
#4. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs.
#3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.
#2. Darlingside, Extralife.
#1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.

I expect the bottom nine will change, but it’s going to take a lot to supplant Dirty Computer as the year’s best and most important album. I know there are a couple here (Kevin Max and Derri Daugherty) that I haven’t talked about in this space yet, but those reviews are coming, I promise.

Next week, no idea, but probably some longer records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Now Playing
What I Listened to on My Two-Week Break

Well, hello. Welcome back. You look good. Have you lost weight? I like that color on you. How is life?

This is my first column after my first-ever two-week break from Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., and, well, I don’t feel any better. Life has remained just as hectic as it was, and I’ve found only a few opportunities to listen to anything. There’s plenty I’m excited about. In my listening queue right now are the new Laura Marling project, the joint album from Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck, the first solo record from Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, and that surprise record from Beyonce and Jay-Z. I haven’t heard anything from any of these.

There are others, too, that I know I will want to write more about. Kevin Max’s fabulous AWOLis one of my favorite things of the year right now. It sounds like the second coming of Duran Duran, with Andy Rourke of the Smiths playing some top-notch bass lines. It’s really wonderful, and I want to write more about how Kevin Max used to be in a Jesus-y hip-hop group and how his solo career has been the best kind of constant surprise. I’m hoping to find the time to do this.

I have a few others in the hopper that will require more time and concentration than I have right now to fully explore. At some point I want to listen to and write about that absolutely ridiculous three-hour Therion rock opera, because it seems so ludicrous that it actually exists. I have another column about the Choir in the works, because they’ve released not one, not two, but three new records this summer, including Derri Daugherty’s solo album, and it’s an amazing time to be a Choir fan. I would like to at some point fully examine Jandek’s oeuvre here – his 89th record just came out, and it’s as surprising as most of what he’s done in the past 10 years. And there’s an album I downloaded recently that I am kind of obsessed with, and I’m certainly looking forward to writing about that.

But none of those things will happen this week. I’m tapped out, my head is throbbing, and I haven’t really listened to any of those albums in the depth needed to really write about them. This week I’m getting a bunch of potentially great stuff, from The Sea Within to Kamasi Washington to Nine Inch Nails to Ben Rector, and I hope I can soak some of those in soon as well. But not now.

So what have I been listening to? Well, whenever I reach for music lately, it’s stuff I already know and love. It’s easier than trying to concentrate on music I haven’t heard. I’ve been playing the hell out of some of the best music of this year, from Janelle Monae’s amazing Dirty Computer to Jukebox the Ghost’s delightful Off to the Races to Darlingside’s almost impossibly beautiful Extralife. All of these are going to show up next week in my Second Quarter Report, and you can believe that I have fully absorbed them at this point and can unconditionally recommend all of them.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of Doctor Who audio plays, but you don’t care about those. Though I may write about them in this space sometime soon, because I’m fascinated by them and I think any true fan of the series ought to check them out. I’ll warn you before I take up this space to do that.

So that’s a lot of ideas for the future, and I’m still left with the same problem: not enough time to listen to the music, form thoughts about it and write about it coherently. I am working very hard to find space for my obsessive love of music amidst a flurry of new activities, and I would like to continue writing this column. I will work on it. You’ll have something here once a week for the foreseeable future. Whether or not that thing will be worth reading, I can’t promise.

I thought I would wrap this up by talking very briefly about a few albums I did make time to listen to (but only once). None of these deserve their own write-up, but I can say all I want to say about them in a paragraph each. Call it a warm-up for something more substantial next week.

We can start with the Dave Matthews Band, and I will turn in my cool kid card right now, because I have always liked them. It’s been a tumultuous time for the band, with the death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore, the onboarding of new sax guy Jeff Coffin, and now the sexual misconduct accusations leveled against violinist Boyd Tinsley and his subsequent firing from the group. And now here is their ninth album, Come Tomorrow, six years after their last, and if you’re looking for signs that the band may be on its last legs, you won’t find them. Some of these songs are so old that Moore plays on them, despite dying in 2008, and the sound of the record shows off its careful construction. But this is a thoughtful album of love songs from the perch of middle age, and the band sounds comfortable. I liked this one well enough – it’s not quite as good as the last one, Away From the World, but it certainly makes the case that the Dave Matthews Band should still be a thing in 2018.

If there’s a ‘90s band I want back in action in 2018, it’s Keane. But I will take what I can get, especially when what I can get is Tom Chaplin’s superb solo career. (Honestly, “Midnight Mass” is one of last year’s best songs, and one of the best ever from the Keane camp.) I’ll also take the revival of Mt. Desolation, the side project of Tim Rice-Oxley and Jesse Quin, even if I don’t like it as much. Billed as a country act initially, Mt. Desolation emerges on second album When the Night Calls as a moderately engaging pop band. Rice-Oxley can still write a pretty good song – “How to Fly” stands out, as does the title track. But his voice isn’t a patch on Chaplin’s, and the whole thing kind of glides by without consequence. It isn’t bad, it just isn’t better than not bad.

Speaking of resurrecting ‘90s bands, there’s Circle of Dust. The man who goes by Klayton now was once Scott Albert, and he was a one-man industrial metal master. Two years ago Klayton regained control of the Circle of Dust catalog and, in a surprise move, resurrected the moniker for a swell new album, Machines of Our Disgrace. Now, with new Circle of Dust music on the horizon, he’s issued Alt_Machines, a terrific remix album that, in the best tradition of these things, finds his collaborators creating entirely new songs around his vocals. Most of these recreations are from Machines, but label-mate Blue Stahli reworks four tunes from the classic era as well. You can get this (and Klayton’s other Circle of Dust work, and his music as Celldweller and Scandroid and FreqGen – yeah, the guy never sleeps) at his label site, www.fixt.com.

And finally, there’s Colin Stetson. I saw the movie Hereditary recently, and it was a suspenseful and horrific ride, made ever more so by the dark, unsettling score. I will admit to not listening to all of Stetson’s score on its own, because it’s damn creepy. I could actually feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as I listened. Stetson is a saxophone player, and one of the most innovative to come along in ages. Here he morphs that multi-tracked sax sound into something indescribable. The movie is pretty good. The score is terrifying, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to listen to the whole thing.

All right, there you go. That’s about all I can say about any of those. Here’s hoping next week I can find the time and energy to really dig into something. Fingers crossed. Thanks for coming back, and thanks for reading.

Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Prequel and the Sequel
Von Strantz Takes Us Through the Looking Glass

Good lord, am I busy lately.

I’m not one to complain about having a lot to do. I’ve been working since I was 15 years old, and I’ve never gone more than a month or so without some kind of work. Six years ago I managed to get hired by one of the best science laboratories in the country, and as befits the job I have, a lot falls on my shoulders. Lately it’s becoming absolutely crazy, though, and while I remain incredibly grateful for the employment, the sheer amount of it is wearing me down.

Why should you care? Well, it’s affecting my ability to listen to, process and write about music, which in turn affects the quality and timeliness of this column. I don’t want it to, and I’m taking steps to ensure that it doesn’t, but in the past few weeks I’ve had a tough time even listening to the new stuff I’ve bought, never mind analyzing it in print. Don’t worry, these musical missives will keep coming, but I might need to punt one every once in a while. And if you make it to the end of this one, you’ll see another thing I’m doing to keep my sanity over the next two weeks.

I tell you that partially so I can tell you this: for the first time since the inception of the festival, I will not be going to AudioFeed this year.

My consolation prize is a work trip to France over the same weekend, so don’t cry for me Argentina. But I’m still sad that I will miss what has become my favorite festival, with some of my favorite people. I’m sad I’m going to miss a Friday night show by Propaganda, one of my favorite rappers. I’m sad I will not be there to hear Derri Daugherty of the Choir play songs off of his long-awaited solo album for the first time. I’m sad I won’t get to see Marah in the Mainsail live again. I’m sad I will miss both Gungor and their offshoot band The Brilliance. I’m sad that I won’t see my friend Matthew Welchel perform as Theatre of Magic for the first time.

And I’m sad that I’m going to miss out on discovering whatever incredible new bands the 2018 festival has in store. While I first attended AudioFeed because of the better-known acts (like the Choir, the 77s and Steve Taylor), I go now because it’s the best place I’ve ever been to find new music I love. Over the past five AudioFeeds I have found innumerable bands and artists, all of them below the radar, and most of them better than anything you’ll hear on the radio. The festival has, pound for pound, the best unsung music anywhere.

Case in point: One of my earliest AudioFeed discoveries was Von Strantz, led by a tremendous singer and songwriter named (at the time) Jess Strantz. They began as a folksy outfit with a down-home acoustic feel, but over time they’ve evolved into a wildly innovative band, awash in synthesizers and vast, quirky arrangements. Their second record, the brief yet devastating Apple of Your Eye, underlined this transformation with remarkable production by John Vanderslice.

Now Von Strantz has returned with their third long-player, Through the Looking Glass, and even though I am reliably informed that it was recorded before Apple, this album cements the band’s growth into a truly amazing modern pop wonder. Jess has a new last name (although she still goes by Von Strantz, as does her bandmate Kelsey), but her songwriting skills remain as sharp as ever. Every song on Looking Glass is a powerhouse, and very few of them sound like anything Von Strantz has given us before. This record exists halfway between Fiona Apple and Chvrches, all dark and delicious melodies with thick keyboards swirling all over it.

Highlights? Sure, there are plenty. The opening title track is pure Fiona, Jess’ rich and powerful voice instantly locking into place over the pizzicato-and-piano arrangement. The keys come in full force on the great 76, which sounds like retro-futuristic marching music. Single “Way Down Here” is a swaying delight, while “No Time to Die” picks up the gospel influences from “Nothing Good in Me” and takes them for a speedy ride. Of all of these, though, “Basement Lyfe” is my favorite, a catchy-as-all-get-out pop song that sounds like it could have stepped off the soundtrack to Stranger Things.

OK, that’s half the record, and I’m supposed to just list highlights. You can see my dilemma, since there is no filler here whatsoever. The second half is just as strong, if a bit more melancholy. A lot of these numbers sound like precursors, emotionally speaking, to the tearing apart on Apple of Your Eye. “Run” examines infidelity over an insistent, awesome piano figure, while “In Your Arms” is an all-kinds-of-awesome pop number about the exact opposite.

I may as well mention them all, right? “Wait for You” and “Where You Are” make wonderful use of Kelsey’s violin, and both songs are powerful pieces of work. And the final track, “Holding On,” steps up into “Sometimes It Hurts” territory, picking at Jess’ former marriage over pianos, plaintive strings and a cornucopia of synth sounds. It’s just a beautiful little song, both bitter and triumphant. Through the Looking Glass is an album about holding on, about waiting for a relationship to get better, and realizing that it won’t. It’s a strange experience, because emotionally it’s a prequel to Apple, but musically it sounds so much more advanced.

I’m sure most of you reading this have never heard Von Strantz, because most of you reading this have never been to AudioFeed. I highly recommend rectifying both of those situations, of course. You can start right now by picking up Through the Looking Glass on iTunes or Apple Music or your streaming service of choice. (It’s the first one that is not available direct from the band, or in a physical format, which makes me sad. But I paid to download it, and I don’t regret it, so that should tell you how good it is.)

It took me weeks to listen to Through the Looking Glass and formulate the above thoughts on it, which means to me that I need a break, and I need to carve out some listening time. If you look on the “new readers” section of my website, you’ll see that I planned originally to take two weeks off a year, once at Christmas and once around the first week of June, for my birthday. I’ve pretty much never done the second one, and I think I’m owed. So I’m taking next week off for my birthday, and probably the week after as well, so I can catch up on my music consumption and come back refreshed enough to keep this thing going.

So come back in two weeks, and if I’m not here, come back in three. Hopefully things will have died down a little by then, and I’ll be back to bringing you this silly music column for as long as I can. This is my 890th column, and I certainly don’t want to stop now.

I will be right back, I promise. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning,

New England in the Summer
Ray LaMontagne and Darlingside and the Prettiest Music You'll Hear All Year

Ray LaMontagne is from Lewiston, Maine.

I have mentioned this before, but I’m not sure I mentioned the fact that I was living in Portland, Maine while he was coming up as a singer/songwriter. LaMontagne played his first shows around the southern Maine area in 1999. I left at the end of summer 2000. That means I probably had more than a few chances to see him perform right in my own back yard. But I never did.

Four years after I left Maine, LaMontagne released Trouble, his absolutely delightful debut album. He got the chance to record it after a label exec discovered him at a Maine music festival. Because Maine is awesome, and has a music scene greater than anyone would believe. Even so, I don’t think I ever saw anyone quite like Ray LaMontagne during my sojourn in the pine tree state. He’s part Joe Cocker, singing from his gut and putting every ounce of himself into his songs. But his voice also carries with it a rare beauty, and his musical taste is as varied as it is wonderful.

He kept that varied taste under wraps for a while, giving us four records of earthy, soulful folk music. Along the way he crafted one of the most beautiful songs I know (“Be Here Now,” from his second, Till the Sun Turns Black), delivered a wedding staple that will outlive him (“You Are the Best Thing,” from Gossip in the Grain) and made a full-band record with the Pariah Dogs that built on his rustic charm.

But lately he’s been doing everything but what made him famous, and I have to give him respect for it. I still don’t like Supernova, his too-slick fifth record, but the trippy Ouroboros is awesome, and now with Part of the Light, he’s dipped his toe into ‘60s psychedelic folk. This is an album that returns him to more familiar ground in places, but in others, it digs through hidden corners of his record collection and unearths some surprising influences.

Perhaps none is more surprising than the opener, “To the Sea,” which sounds like Nick Drake and Syd Barrett hung out and jammed for five minutes. There’s a child-like yet ages-deep quality to this melody, and when LaMontagne does that ‘60s trick of whispering along to his own vocal line, it’s fascinating. This sounds like he stepped into a time machine and popped back to the paisley-colored past, and I’m surprised at how completely he managed this imitation. I’m not sure where LaMontagne himself can be found in this music, but as a love letter, it’s heartfelt.

Part of the Light doesn’t dive that deeply into this style again, but the Syd-ness colors the entire record. “Paper Man” is a sweet ditty with some very Pink Floyd chord changes, the title track is an absolutely beautiful slice of acoustic balladry, and “It’s Always Been You” is a floating-down-the-river bit of gentleness that comes and goes like a lazy afternoon.

The entire first half is so quiet, so easygoing, that it’s almost a shock when LaMontagne shatters that mood with the big rock intro of “As Black as Blood is Blue.” But this song continues the ‘60s psych feel, turning up the amps for a darker few minutes. He’s adapted the swirl from Ouroboros into something more classic rock here, and it works. It also presages the pitch-black blues of “No Answer Arrives,” an organ-drenched stunner, and the ever-growing seven-minute folk-rock epic “Goodbye Blue Sky” that closes the record. (If you remember that “Goodbye Blue Sky” was also the name of a Pink Floyd song, you win.)

I’ve talked a lot about how Part of the Light fits in with the musical tradition it’s drawing from. What I haven’t really talked about is how lovely the whole thing is. This is another step down an idiosyncratic musical path for LaMontagne, who rarely gets to do his full-throated thing here, but you can tell how focused he was on making the prettiest record he could. Some of this album is so pretty I can barely stand it, and LaMontagne’s singular voice makes it all the sweeter. I could listen to “Let’s Make it Last” on repeat for days and never feel anything but bliss.

It’s that commitment to beauty that gets me, that ensures that I am down for whatever Ray LaMontagne decides to do next. He could work with a kazoo orchestra and I would be there, because I know he would try his very best to turn that into something fragile and lovely and aching and amazing. I missed his club days in the great white north, but I’m certainly not going to miss out on anything else he’s done or will do.

* * * * *

If you’re looking for the prettiest record of 2018 so far, though, I’m afraid LaMontagne is in second place. The prize goes to another New England treasure, Boston’s Darlingside.

I shamefully cannot remember which of my friends recommended Darlingside to me (UPDATE: It was Alex Caldwell, as he gently reminded me), but I remain eternally grateful. I enjoyed the first couple records quite a bit, but it’s this new one, Extralife, that has grabbed hold of my heart and refuses to let go. I’m not even sure if the members of Darlingside understand how uncommonly gorgeous the music they have made here is.

That music can certainly be termed folk – they’re in the same vein as Girlyman, a band I miss desperately. But it’s the voices that turn this into something magical. The four members of Darlingside all sing, and there’s rarely a moment on this album that is not embraced in glorious, unearthly harmonies. There’s something about the way these voices combine that taps into a well of sadness and joy that I’ve not heard in a while. The songs on Extralife are largely simple things, but sung by these voices, they sound timeless and perfect.

As for those songs, I think “Hold Your Head Up High” might be my favorite, but it changes day to day. That song certainly gets under the skin with its lilting French horn line and its message of positivity in the face of awfulness. But the two before it are equally wonderful. “Singularity” floats effortlessly on a high and lonesome vocal line and some mandolin from Auyon Mukharji, and “Futures” is slightly reminiscent of the chorus of “Happy Together,” but is its own beautiful thing, with its Simon and Garfunkel-esque acoustic figures revolving around the line “it’s not ever too late.”

But wherever you look here, you won’t be disappointed. Even something like “Eschaton,” which starts with jarring carnival sounds, turns into something sweet and pretty. “Lindisfarne” is a warm blanket of a song, wrapping you up tight against the cold. “Indian Orchard Road” brings back that French horn and adds a cello for the full Brian Wilson experience, and its syncopated chorus is tremendous. The album ends with a brief uptick in tempo called “Best of the Best of Times,” and It kind of leaves you on the side of the road while it charges on, but it’s honest in its assessment: “We’re a long way from the best of the best of times.” I can see why they ended with it, but I can also see why they shouldn’t have.

But no matter. It’s great, and the eleven songs before it are great too. I’ve tried to put Extralife down and turn to something else, but its no use. The extraordinary beauty of this record pulls me back in. I was a fan before Extralife, but now I’m in it for life, if not a little extra. You can be a fan too. Check them out at http://www.darlingside.com.

That’s it for this week. Next week, I have no idea. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Moon is In the Water, the Sun is On the Rise
Digging Deep with The Choir's Bloodshot

So I guess I have to talk about Scott Hutchison, but I don’t really want to.

The truth is that most days I am fine. But some days (fewer and fewer lately, which is good) I feel like I’m staring down into an endless dark hole of nothing. And on some of those days, I have to fight not to jump in. That’s just life with depression, and I’ve gotten used to it. But hearing about the deaths of other people who struggle with similar issues is sometimes enough to disrupt my balance. It’s hard to explain. Hearing stories like Wil Wheaton’s of working through depression and continuing to live life are like seeing a light ahead, and hearing stories like Scott Hutchison’s are like that light snapping off.

Scott Hutchison was the singer and main writer for Scottish band Frightened Rabbit. I have a complex history with them, only truly getting into their work with 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and absolutely adoring its successor, 2013’s Pedestrian Verse. But even the albums I like are painful listens, Hutchison seemingly clawing at the edges of his own sanity, desperately looking for purchase. Their fifth record, 2016’s Painting of a Panic Attack, was so bleak and dour that I had a hard time even getting through it (I described it as “a dark cloud that the band sounds lost in”), and I don’t think I have revisited it since.

Turns out these were all warning signs. A few days ago Hutchison went missing, after some alarming messages on Twitter. A day after that, his body was found and identified. He was 36 years old, and it’s just awful. All of it. Last year we lost Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington to suicide, and every indication is that this year we have just lost Scott Hutchison to the same. I feel the same way every time, reaching back to Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain and too many others. It rocks me off my axis, sends me towards that dark hole, and I have to talk myself back.

There isn’t much I want to say about Hutchison, partially out of respect for those who knew and loved him. But I will say this to anyone feeling like I do: Life is worth the fight. Keep fighting. And reach out for help. You are not alone. You are never alone.

* * * * *

There are few things that pull me back from the brink like music, and few bands who consistently make my world a better place like the Choir.

If you’ve been reading my silly music column for any length of time, you’re probably aware that the Choir is my favorite band. I don’t mean they’re the best band I know, or that they’re the first band I recommend to someone looking for new music. But I have been a Choir fan for 28 years now, and followed them through the ups and downs of their career, from their label days to their independent years to their current fan-funded renaissance.

More than that, as the band’s two main songwriters are constantly writing about their own lives, I feel like I have followed Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty through triumph and tragedy, through the births and childhoods and now adulthoods of their children, through love songs and prayers, to pinch the title of their best-of collection. There are very few bands I know as well as I know this one, and none that I love knowing as much as this one. Steve and Derri write with such honesty, such openness that I feel like they’ve invited me on these journeys with them, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

So when my favorite band asks me to put up money for a new album a year in advance, of course I’m on board. The last time the Choir asked for my money and my faith, they gave me Shadow Weaver, one of their finest works. It’s the perfect late-career Choir record, straightforward when it needs to be and strange whenever it can. “What You Think I Am” is a classic, the kind of song that bands making their 14th album don’t usually find waiting for them. Shadow Weaver came out nearly four years ago, and I haven’t stopped listening to it.

So of course I ponied up for Bloodshot, the Choir’s 15th album, when the band asked me to more than a year ago. I knew nothing about it except the title, and there are only a few bands that have earned that measure of trust from me. I’ve had the download of Bloodshot for a week now – the CD will follow in a month or so – and I’ve listened probably 15 times. Everything else has taken a back seat. Usually I wait until albums like this are available for the public to buy, because I want anyone inclined to pick it up from my review to be able to. But I literally haven’t listened to anything else this week, so you get to read my thoughts right now.

The first thing I want to say is that I am so grateful for a new Choir record. This one is as honest and powerful as anything they’ve done. It’s also a rawer and more difficult listen, depicting broken and shattered relationships and the need for forgiveness, not just of others but of oneself. It is, in many ways, the most straight-ahead record they have made, the most down-to-earth. So many of their albums leaven the pain of life with the joy and hope of faith, but this one stays with its feet on the ground.

That’s not to say there isn’t joy here, because there certainly is. The sequencing of the album puts a lot of the more painful songs in the first half, and leaves the romps for the back third, and the effect is like going through hell to get to the promise of redemption. But it’s a tough record to process, which might be why the music is the most earthy ever on a Choir record as well. Choir albums are weird – they’re known for taking catchy songs and producing them in off-kilter ways, letting bassist Tim Chandler have free reign to sound like a rubber elephant beneath Daugherty’s reverbed guitar paintings and Hindalong’s exotic percussion.

Not so here. Bloodshot is a straight-up rock record, for the most part, with some country overtones. The soundscape element of the band is still here, but subtler, present mainly in Daugherty’s guitar tones. Hindalong plays a kit throughout, banging out 4/4 grooves. Chandler barely sounds like Chandler, playing simple bass lines. I hate to use this word, but this record sounds normal, more so than the Choir ever has. Part of that likely has to do with the fact that it’s the first one since 1984 to be produced by someone outside the band: Nashville pro Stephen Leiweke. He incorporates string sections and session pianists, and the whole thing sounds mixed for radio.

This takes some getting used to, but given the raw nature of these songs, perhaps Bloodshot might have been too difficult to listen to otherwise. As it is, the songs go down like sugar-coated pills, more pleasant on the outside than they really are. Opener “Bloodshot Eyes” sets a somber tone, a sad acoustic strum giving way to one of Hindalong’s most poetic choruses: “The moon is in the water, the sun is on the rise, you’re every bit as beautiful through bloodshot eyes.” You can just see the two people at the song’s center, staying up until dawn, crying and talking things through.

This is merely the first of a series of songs about frayed and tearing love. The great “Birds, Bewildered” finds those same people letting each other go, and hoping for the best for each other. “We can’t untake bad medicine we swallow,” Daugherty sings (beautifully). “If I could I would rewind the hands of time.” “Only Reasons” is one of the best lyrics Hindalong and Daugherty have ever written (and the melody is lovely too), a mea culpa so devastating it hurts to listen to. “I don’t believe you should forgive me for my treason, the man who hurt you was no stranger to myself, I won’t offer bad excuses, just bad reasons…” It all comes down in “House of Blues,” burned to the ground: “Not gonna live in a house of blues, you know I love you way too much to die here with you…”

I’m making this sound like a heavy record, and it is, but the songs are so catchy that it’s not oppressive. It’s clear that the band’s heart is in these darker songs this time, though, because they miss the mark on some of the more joyous ones. (And it’s so rare that the Choir misses the mark that it’s notable.) “Californians On Ice” is a silly bit of observational humor that never sounds like anything but a b-side. “The Way You Always Are,” sung by Hindalong, is almost gratingly simple, a campfire tune saved by its funny-yet-true lyrics. “We’ve Got the Moon” is another simple one, and by the time it rolls around, the earthy sound starts to feel homogenous.

But that’s OK, because the Choir does turn out three absolute feel-good classics, more than fans of any band have a right to expect. “Summer Rain” is a delightful single, one that, in a just world, would be setting the airwaves on fire this summer. This is pure Choir – a driving beat, some atmospheric yet rocking guitar from Daugherty, and a chorus that could repeat for hours without boring you. Almost as good is “Magic,” one of the pure rock songs here, which finds Daugherty, Chandler and Hindalong locking into a sun-through-the-clouds groove. (And there’s a reference to Will Ferrell in Elf. For real.)

But the top prize for me goes to the finale, and the beautiful ending to the album’s wounded-heart narrative. “The Time Has Come” is a shimmering anthem of forgiveness, even the most difficult kind: “We can’t undo the damage done, the day is new, here comes the sun, the time has come to forgive your sorry self…” Hindalong cuts to the bone here (“The man of sorrows dances on the ocean, I’m still too faint of heart to leave the boat…”), but offers generous helpings of hope as well: “A song of mercy resonates inside you, listen close, be still, live and learn, red blood flows through your veins like healing rivers, redemption every time the planet turns.”

There’s a simplicity to this song too, but every element of the production sounds like their lives depended on it. As the last chapter in a story that moves from regret and pain to love and grace, it’s spot on. But I still find Bloodshot as a whole to be hit or miss, and I think part of that has to do with the physical sound of it, with the band’s tendency to play everything straight here. By the time we’re halfway through, I want it to sound more like the Choir, or like the Choir I’ve known and loved. Most of these songs are very good, and the through line of the album is magnificent. I just wished they had taken a bit more time to find a weirder way into these tunes.

But half a dozen classics is more than enough for me. I’m over-the-moon happy that this exists. How many bands get to their 15th album, let alone get there riding a creative head of steam this impressive? We’re not nearly done yet this year, either. Daugherty has a solo album, The Color of Dreams, coming next month, and the band has just launched a Kickstarter to record an acoustic version of their great Kissers and Killers album from 1993 (and to put the original on vinyl at last). There’s really never been a better time to be a Choir fan, and should they ask for my money again to make album 16, I will gladly give it.

Learn more about the band at www.thechoir.net. Hear the acoustic version of the Kissers and Killers title track here. And look out for Bloodshot on June 1.

Next week, some pretty tunes from Darlingside and Ray Lamontagne. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Like a Lighthouse I Will Shine
Frank Turner Hopes We Can Be More Kind

It’s a good time to be alive.

Last Sunday, thanks to the generosity of some terrific friends, I got to see John Williams conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through a program of his work. I’m saying this very matter-of-factly, belying the fact that I was jumping out of my skin with excitement and overcome with emotion throughout. I was 30 feet from John Freakin’ Williams as he led a collection of astounding musicians through music I have loved for nearly 40 years.

The Star Wars material was a definite highlight (especially “Rey’s Theme,” a great example of Williams writing new themes that slot into the canon brilliantly), but the tears welled up for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” a score I have loved since I was eight years old. I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater, and owning the score on cassette, and riding my bike up and down the driveway, pretending to be Elliott while the beautiful strains of Williams’ music blared from my little boom box. For about ten minutes I was back there again. The entire show was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.

And then, two days ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Dweezil Zappa and his top-shelf band absolutely demolish a nearly four-hour set of Frank Zappa’s music. This is my fourth time seeing the Zappa Plays Zappa project, which is dedicated to preserving Frank’s work through live performance. It’s not as easy as it sounds – there aren’t a lot of people who can play this stuff with precision. Dweezil and his band don’t shy away from the more complex pieces, and seeing, for instance, “Drowning Witch” or “Dog Breath/Uncle Meat” played with such care and skill is always a treat. And of course, since we were in Illinois, we were treated to “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Because of course we were.

If all that weren’t enough, it’s entirely possible that by the time you read this we’ll have the new Choir album, Bloodshot, and I get to go to Nashville later this year to see the Choir open up for the Prayer Chain, a legendary band in my house. The Prayer Chain is reuniting for two nights only to play all of Shawl, the album that made me a fan. It is such a great time to be alive, I can’t even tell you.

* * * * *

Of course, I’m being relentlessly sunny for effect. Life since November of 2016 has been markedly more difficult, and thus little escapes from it (like the musical wonderment of the past two weeks) much more crucial. Like many people, I have found myself surveying a new landscape lately, and having serious trouble dealing with it in an open-hearted way. It’s been a rough year and a half for someone who wants to think the best of everyone.

The rising tide of hatred has obviously changed Frank Turner as well. The English troubadour is best known for his punky-folky songs of self-determination, the apex of which was his 2015 album Positive Songs for Negative People. That record was such a perfect mix of fist-pumping exuberance and gentle encouragement that it served as a pre-balm for the events of the following year. If Turner spent the whole of his solo career refining his therapeutic shout-along style, then Positive Songs was the record on which he perfected it.

So naturally, it’s time to do something else. It’s a softer, wiser Frank Turner who appears on his seventh album, Be More Kind, and he’s turned his lens outward. If Positive Songs was an accidental balm, Be More Kind is an intentional one, an extended letter to people who feel hopeless and angry about the world situation. His most direct advice gives the record its title. Over an instantly appealing acoustic pulse, he sings this: “In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind.” He laments that we’ve stopped talking to each other, and plants himself as a lighthouse: “Like a beacon reaching out to you and yours from me and mine, be more kind…”

This is the tone of the whole record. It’s also the most polished and pop-oriented work he has made, full of hooks and production tricks and keyboards, and it suits him well. “Little Changes” is a pop hit if I’ve ever heard one, with its indie clichés (there’s a chiming keyboard sound that accents the guitars, there’s a “whoa-oh” refrain, there’s a plucked violin, etc.), and it’s about altering small things to affect the bigger picture.

The deliriously pop “Blackout” shimmies and shakes, telling the tale of a neighborhood suddenly without electricity, and the uneasy interactions that happen. When he sings “meet me in the middle, bring a burning candle with you,” it’s warm and delightful. Songs like “Brave Face” and “Common Ground” are exactly what you think they are, and the record ends with “Get It Right,” a spare plea to stop assuming and start listening: “Take a breath, try these for size: I don’t know, I’ve changed my mind…”

It’s a strong message, delivered with love. But…

(You knew there had to be a but.)

It’s probably a coincidence that Turner’s album landed just a week after Janelle Monae’s masterpiece, but the timing certainly underscores the chief problem with Be More Kind: it’s a privileged white guy positing that the lack of civil discourse is the biggest problem facing us. He’s not wrong, but someone like Monae would say she is fighting for her very life, and the gentleness of Be More Kind has the unfortunate effect of minimizing the struggle of people like her.

And I know that is not Turner’s intention. He straddles the line of resistance a couple times here – one of the few pieces of concrete advice in the oddly toothless “Make America Great Again” is “making racists ashamed again,” and “1933” is the most pointed thing here, painting a picture of America and Britain slipping back in time: “If I was of the greatest generation, I’d be pissed, surveying the world that I built slipping back into this, I’d be screaming at my grandkids, ‘we already did this!’” In the face of all this, the sweet exhortation of “Common Ground” to “meet on the bridge and forgive” is simultaneously too easy and the hardest thing we could do. And Turner knows the hardest things are often the best things.

For everything else here, I think the masterpiece of this album is “The Lifeboat,” a story of leaving the old world behind as it burns. It’s a haunting piece, with subtle strings and brass adding atmosphere, and parts of it sound like setting out to sea, the destination unknown. “There is hope now, in the wind, in the millions who are marching demanding we be kind, in the new lands the lifeboats might find…” Turner has very slowly been inching toward a song like this, and it’s a joy to hear him finally write it.

The social justice concerns weigh heavily over this record, but if Be More Kind helps just one person feel less hopeless, then I think Turner would call it a success. It’s an album full of messages I need to hear, most potent among them the idea that while we cannot affect massive changes on our own, we can improve our little worlds with the way we talk to people, the way we treat them, the way we help them. While there is no way they planned it this way, Dirty Computer and this show two ways of responding to the horror our world has become, and if we can do both things – if we can fight for everyone’s right to exist while also being as kind as possible – I think we’ll have it right.

* * * * *

Just enough time left this week to talk a bit about Leon Bridges, the man with the most buttery soul voice I’ve heard in many years.

Bridges is a mere 28 years old, which is remarkable given the oceans of feeling he pours out with that voice. It’s also remarkable because he writes old soul songs, numbers that sound right out of the ‘50s and ‘60s. His first album, 2015’s Coming Home, sounded vintage, like Bridges fired up his own Wayback Machine and swiped ten soul sides from the Motown offices, calling them his own. I liked the record, but I found Bridges’ songwriting a little weak, and the record more focused on its sound than on its melodies.

But that voice. That voice! I’m in for anything that features that voice. And I’m thrilled to report that Bridges’ second album, Good Thing, is superior in every important way. Fans of Coming Home might be upset that he’s updated his sound – this record feels a lot more ‘70s and a lot more modern at the same time, with samples and electronic drums making their debuts. But I think it works beautifully – it’s a testament to the richness of his voice that Bridges can take whatever his producers throw at him and make it sound old-school.

Bridges also decided to collaborate with a whole slew of co-writers and record makers, most prominently Ricky Reed, who has worked on hits for Meghan Trainor and Phantogram. Reed co-wrote and co-produced every song here, bringing Bridges into the late 20th century with aplomb. Justin Tranter co-wrote “Beyond.” Dan Wilson co-wrote the wonderful “Shy.” It’s really a dream team.

And this team has delivered at least one absolute, stone-cold classic. It’s called “Bad Bad News,” and it’s the single, so you may have heard it already. If it’s on the radio, I swear, there’s no way they could overplay it enough to make me sick of it. The song has a killer bass line and organ groove right out of classic soul hip-hop, some tasty horns and a hook big enough to reel in Moby Dick. There are plenty of good songs on here, from the sun-is-rising piano-pop of “Forgive You” to the killer funk of “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” to the jazzy finale “Georgia to Texas,” but over all of these, “Bad Bad News” stands tall.

Before Good Thing, I didn’t imagine that leaving his carefully curated sound behind would be the key to longevity for Leon Bridges. But here it is, a second record far better than the first, capturing more of what makes him special. Most artists don’t get one classic their whole careers. Bridges has one now, and nine other songs that prove he’s in this for the long haul. I’m excited to see where he goes.

* * * * *

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the Choir. The Choir! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles