Synthesized, I Want You Synthesized
Behind the Boards with Spoon, Bazan and Anohni

I love synthesizers.

I grew up in the ‘80s, so I appreciate the sound of synthesizers, when used well. I’m the guy who spent at least part of high school listening to Yanni and thinking he was pretty great. (His old stuff is much better than his later material. Yes, I am critically assessing the career of Yanni.) I wasn’t all that interested in Van Halen before “Jump.” I loved the Pet Shop Boys and the Art of Noise and anything with big, blocky keyboard chords. And don’t even get me started on “The Final Countdown,” which was actually considered awesome before Arrested Development got ahold of it.

I play keys, too, and have spent an awfully large percentage of my free time shaping new synth sounds and composing massive electronic music pieces, none of which really deserve to see the light of day. My first keyboard was a Casio SK-200, with tiny keys and an on-board sampler so I could loop my own voice. (Badly.) I made several instrumental albums full of goopy keyboards, and then in my twenties made many, many more, filling hours of tape with sloppily programmed beats and sloppily played keyboard leads right out of bad prog.

The point is, I love them. So it’s never struck me as odd for a rock band (or any band, really) to use them. Incorporating synths has become a bit of a cliché, something bands do when they need new ideas, but to me it’s always sounded natural. For instance, I barely even noticed that the new Spoon album, Hot Thoughts, makes much more use of keys than prior albums by the band. Only by putting this record next to older, more piano-driven ones like Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight did I register just how far they’ve evolved.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise – Hot Thoughts was produced by Dave Fridmann, longtime sound-shaper for the Flaming Lips, who guided OK Go, to name one, through a similar transformation recently. Fridmann loves his synthesizers, and loves that woozy, not-quite-distinct sound he creates. (He tends to overdrive the drums and vocals, and blur everything else.) Hot Thoughts sounds like you’d expect Spoon to sound when filtered through Fridmann’s prism, complete with an increased fascination with synth sounds.

But at its heart, it’s still a Spoon album. Britt Daniel still sports one of the best vocal swaggers since Jagger, and his songs are clap-along gallops. Only a couple tracks here – the six-minute shiver “Pink Up” and the closing saxophone-laden instrumental “Us” – sound like true experiments with form, and feel like Fridmann taking the wheel. The other eight tracks retain that essential Spoon feeling – just check out the slinky groove of “Can I Sit Next to You,” or the welcome return of the piano pounding in the slow burn “Tear it Down.” (And the bass line of “Shotgun” should have its own record deal.)

Hot Thoughts is a subtle enough transformation that it barely registers as one. Spoon makes judicious use of synthesizers, but incorporates them into their own template. They’re enhancements, not replacements for core elements of their sound. More interesting to me is when artists formerly known for guitars or other more organic instruments take the deep dive into cold electronics. That’s when you see how much of their humanity and warmth comes through.

David Bazan is an excellent example. The former Pedro the Lion frontman made his name by playing shambling guitar-driven indie rock, and his first solo albums stuck to that sound, with some electronic embellishments. But with Blanco, his third, he dove in, and his fourth, Care, continues that exploration. There aren’t any organic instruments on Care, as far as I can tell – it’s all computer beats and blipping synth sounds. “Disappearing Ink,” one of two previously released songs here, sounds like a dispatch from 1982, but it works. Bazan’s hangdog voice and melodies complement this instrumentation very well.

And like Spoon, Bazan hasn’t changed what he does, at its core. His songs are still Bazan songs – dark and memorable, filled with turns of phrase that are like twists of a knife. Care is one of his most optimistic, lyrically speaking – it’s full of love songs, albeit realistic ones. “Inner Lives” captures a domestic scene between two people not quite connecting: “Without a word you made coffee for us both, without thinking I sat down and made a joke, the way you laughed at me threw off a little spark, in an instant I remembered who we are…”

“Keep Trying” contains a rare (for Bazan) shaft of light, a sweet tableau (“Isn’t there something that we both like to do? That’s not what I was thinking, but as long as it’s with you…”) in which he admits that “sometimes love isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” but, he repeats, you “keep trying.” On “Make Music” he uses a band as a metaphor for a relationship, and brings that to its full flower on the closer, “The Ballad of Pedro y Blanco,” a beautiful series of letters from one partner to another through their lives. “Dreamin’ on in a hospital bed, I’m holding her hand and kissing her head, kids and grandkids in unison howl, ‘Put down your guitar, go enjoy her right now…’”

Care is another terrific Bazan album, and proof that this transformation into a homespun electronic artist suits what he does very well. The key to its success, though, is that Bazan truly hasn’t changed – the trappings are different, but the songs and sentiments are pure David Bazan, and if he were to play these tunes on guitar, they would sound like his older work.

No, if you want someone who has made a complete transformation, you need to look at Anohni. She was once Antony Hegarty, who sung torch songs and orchestral numbers with a haunting, unforgettable voice. That voice is the only thing connecting her work as Anohni to her past. With last year’s album Hopelessness, she emerged as a powerful electronic artist, and her new EP Paradise continues along that path. In fact, although it is only six songs and 22 minutes, Paradise is a stronger and more complete statement, I think, thanks in part to noisy production by Oneohtrix Point Never.

I remain amazed at how well Anohni’s utterly unique voice works in this setting. Jumping from strings to rapid-fire electronic drums and glittering synthesizers is like time travel for her, and on Paradise, she sounds energized, alive, angry, standing on mountaintops and harnessing lightning. Several of these songs explode into noise, and the darkness of the sound is tangible. “Jesus Will Kill You” is perhaps the darkest, a sustained torrent of rage aimed at our leaders. “Burning people, burning hope, burning planet, all for your wealth, your wealth is predicated on the poverty of others, others must be poor if you’re to be rich…”

“You Are My Enemy” is surprisingly gentle, Anohni’s astounding voice rising above the subtle organ sounds as she sings about being ready to “cast from this world.” The glorious harmonies in the chorus belie the rancor in the lyrics. “Ricochet” is a song about reincarnation – specifically, about how Anohni doesn’t want to be reincarnated, and will be mightily pissed if she is.  Final track “She Doesn’t Mourn her Loss” is an ode to her mother, and one of the saddest and prettiest things she’s ever given us. “She fed me all those years, and now she’s dry as her tears, and I’m asking, ‘Who will remember her if not her children?’”

Anohni’s cocoon-like transformation is so complete that she almost sounds like a completely different artist. This isn’t just a matter of adding synthesizers and tweaking her songwriting. This is a change of artistic outlook, a totally new skin, and it shines. Hopelessness and Paradise are the best work I’ve heard from her, and no matter how sad and dark this material gets, I can’t help but think that she sounds reborn through it.

Of course, while all these kids are finding keytars in their parents’ closets, the boys in Depeche Mode are sitting back and laughing. They’re early adopters of this sound, and are celebrating 37 years together with a new album called Spirit. And it sounds like Depeche Mode, through and through. Slow crawlers built on thumping drums and pulsing keyboard thrums, Dave Gahan’s deep voice (which also hasn’t changed a lick in nearly four decades), songs about liars and false religions and standing up for truth.

In short, it’s a Depeche Mode album, and in a column entirely about reinvention, they’re the counter-argument for consistency. Is it a strong argument? Well, it’s a strong album, though it doesn’t distinguish itself from the last one (or two, or…). I do find it ironic that the second track is called “Where’s the Revolution” (a plea for social change), and it sounds like every Depeche Mode song in recent memory.

Still, I quite like this record, and Depeche Mode in general, if for no other reason than as ongoing inspiration for the younger artists discovering how effective synths can be. But if you want a real revolution, look toward the likes of Bazan and Anohni, ripping up their own rulebooks and blazing new paths.

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the Magnetic Fields trace fifty years in fifty songs. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

It’s Been a Long Time
The Much-Anticipated Returns of Grandaddy and the Shins

This is a column about long-awaited returns, and while I was deciding on that theme, one of them happened.

In fact, it’s the most important of them – Fleet Foxes have ended their six-year exile with a nine-minute song and the announcement of their third album, Crack-Up. And good lord, that song, “Third of May/Odaigahara,” is excellent. Robin Pecknold’s merry men have kept everything I loved about them – the folksy timelessness, the unearthly harmonies, the soul-lifting tunefulness – and indulged in their ambition. Just listen to that propulsive space-rock section in the middle! Crack-Up is out in June, and it feels to me like the difficult third album, which means I’ll probably love it to pieces.

But the fact that Fleet Foxes resurfaced after six long years with a complex slice of folk-prog does lead to some interesting questions about artists going AWOL and what we expect when they come back. Pecknold has been promising new Fleet Foxes music for many of those six years, and you can hear in “Third of May/Odaigahara” just where those years went. Do we look to returning artists’ new music to justify the time they spent away? Do they owe us that time? Do we even deserve an explanation? I know it can feel like we do, but do we?

And I mean, of course we don’t, but I’ll admit to feeling relieved and more on board with this new Fleet Foxes because I can hear the steps forward the band has taken in the past half-decade. I’m one of maybe fifteen people alive who enjoyed Chinese Democracy, partially because the years of work that went into it were audible in every groove of that thing. (Whether it was overworked is another question for another day.) But is it necessary for a band to move ahead by leaps and bounds over a long absence? Or is it enough to just remind you of how good they were, and still are?

Take Grandaddy, for instance. The project of California songwriter Jason Lytle, Grandaddy emerged in the mid-‘90s, but made its mark in 2000 with an excellent second album, The Sophtware Slump. I originally heard that album while working at a record store, and I can still remember first experiencing the long, glorious coda of “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” Lytle and his comrades made two fantastic albums as Grandaddy after that, and called it quits in 2006 with a stunning denouement called Just Like the Fambly Cat.

Eleven years later, Lytle has revived the Grandaddy name for Last Place, the band’s fifth album. In truth, Lytle never went away – he delivered a few strong solo albums and produced records for others, including last year’s Band of Horses effort Why Are You OK. But bringing Grandaddy back isn’t just a matter of enlisting Aaron Burtch to drum on these songs. It’s an aesthetic, a point of view that is distinct from Lytle’s own work. And on Last Place, he ably recaptures not just the sound but the feel of classic Grandaddy. This may be a solo effort under the band name (like Fambly Cat was), but Lytle knows what makes Grandaddy special.

From the first notes of “Way We Won’t,” Last Place is a classic Grandaddy record. The ever-present quarter-note shimmy that propels the best Grandaddy songs is everywhere here, along with the low-tech synths, Lytle’s whispered vocals and the songs about how technology leaves us even more alone. Had this come out right after Sumday it would have fit right in with the band’s catalog. Lytle is cognizant of just how a song like “That’s What You Get for Getting Out of Bed” can and should fit in with the aesthetic he’s established, and a bona fide Grandaddy epic like “This is the Part” feels as comfortable as a well-worn suit.

Is this a good thing? I think so, in this case. It’s been 11 years since we had a Grandaddy record, and all Lytle had to do with Last Place is remind us how much we love and miss this sound. By album’s end, he’s done that and more. He resurrects Jed the Humanoid from Sophtware on “Jed the 4th” (this being the fourth song to bear his name), giving his story a tragic update, and then offers up what might be his best thesis on the mingling of technology and humanity, the piano-driven “A Lost Machine.” “Everything about us is a lost machine,” Lytle sings, his voice cracking and pleading, over and over. It’s beautiful.

And it’s 100 percent Grandaddy. If the goal of Last Place was to remind us that no one, not even Lytle on his own, sounds like Grandaddy, that mission was accomplished. I hope this return is a long-lasting one, and of course next time out I will be listening for growth and ambition, but for now this is exactly what I wanted after more than a decade away.

Perhaps it’s just a function of time. Eleven years is long enough that all I need is a reminder of how wonderful Grandaddy was. But five years – the amount of time between the new Shins album, Heartworms, and the last one – might not be enough to forgive a lackluster effort just because I miss the band. In fact, Heartworms, like Port of Morrow before it, makes me miss the band even more, since virtually nothing I loved about them is in evidence here.

That probably shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Shins effectively broke up after 2007’s delightful Wincing the Night Away. Since then, James Mercer has been offering solo efforts under the band’s name, and they’re decidedly lesser things. The Shins made their mark by merging Brian Wilson-esque melodies with shimmering lo-fi production, and even as their sound grew, the twisting, mesmerizing melodies remained. But when Mercer emerged as the Shins in 2012 with Port of Morrow, the writing had taken a dive into the average, the normal.

That trend continues on Heartworms, an album that sounds as overworked as it does underbaked. The album was written and produced by Mercer, and it is positively overloaded with sounds, mainly goopy synthesizers. The synths aren’t used for effect, as they are on the Grandaddy album, but to fill spaces left empty by the songs. Like the last Shins album, Heartworms sports some of Mercer’s laziest and least exciting songwriting. When one of the highlights is a simple one-four-five bit of blues-country like “Mildenhall,” something’s off.

And honestly, it’s only by comparison that Heartworms suffers. As an average indie-inflected synthesizer pop record, it’s not bad. It just doesn’t live up to the name it’s been released under. There are bits of it I like – the “ba-da, ba-da” bits of “Rubber Ballz,” for example, and the verse melody of “Dead Alive” – but there’s nothing that rises to the level of the band’s first three records. It’s slightly less underwhelming than Morrow, but still underwhelming. The Shins started off by creating Pet Sounds on a shoestring, and now Mercer is giving us the equivalent of Brian Wilson’s first few solo albums. This is his Imagination, a fairly uninspired effort drowned in keyboard sounds.

After five years away, I definitely hoped for more. I’m finding myself questioning why this took five years to make, whereas I was impressed with the sheer amount of work that went into the Fleet Foxes single. It is, of course, silly to expect that Mercer spent all five of those years working on Heartworms, or that Pecknold spent all six years crafting Crack-Up. We don’t deserve to believe that we own that time, or that we’re owed it. We get the music we get. But there’s no way to deny that absence sets expectation.

I’d be more forgiving of Heartworms had it come out three years ago, and I know that’s just my own desire for more and better Shins music. Life is short, time is finite, we’re only going to get to hear so much. That’s really at the core of my excitement over returns and reunions – the sense that I lived to hear this. I want to live to hear it all. I know I won’t, but I still want to. So I will wait however long I am able, and if what I’m given at the end of that wait isn’t enough, I will keep on waiting.

Next week, speaking of time passing, I’ll dive into the Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Brought to You by the Letter S
Silberman, Son Volt and Suicide Silence

I buy a lot of music. Most of it is mediocre, and gets played once or twice, shelved and forgotten. The albums that leave a mark on me are either very good or very bad, and perversely, I’m interested in both to an almost equal degree.

In fact, sometimes I’m more interested in the very bad. I love listening to train wrecks like a forensic scientist, poking through the wreckage to discover what went wrong, and how. I’m fascinated by records with terrible reputations, records that transcend the merely bad and become something else entirely, something legendary.

Case in point: I was watching a VH1 Behind the Music on Styx some years ago, for some reason. I’ve never been a fan of Styx, but have been aware of them, and the songs I’d heard that didn’t remind me of bargain-basement Asia reminded me of treacly late-period Chicago, so I never investigated further. But my interest was piqued by a segment of this episode that eviscerated the band’s 1983 album Kilroy Was Here. And I don’t mean the assembled panelists gave Kilroy a hard time. I mean they tore it to pieces, one after another calling it the worst album ever made.

And I thought to myself: Damn. I have to hear this.

So I did. I bought Kilroy Was Here that week, and lo, it is absolutely awful. Perhaps the best thing about it is how amazing it thinks it is. Kilroy tells the story of a dystopian future in which a fascist government has outlawed music, which is also the plot of both 2112 and Joe’s Garage, only Styx tells this story in the most heavy-handed and obvious way possible, set to some of the most cheese-tastic pop metal ever churned out. It is epically, catastrophically bad, and I treasure that kind of go-for-broke direness wherever I can find it.

Which explains why I recently picked up the self-titled fifth album from a California metal band called Suicide Silence. I’d never heard of this band before a few weeks ago, when I started seeing no-star reviews for this album, and was immediately intrigued. The metal community apparently believes this album is apocalyptically terrible, the worst pile of garbage in many years, a failure on every level. These are magic words to me.

Now, make no mistake – had these reviews simply said that Suicide Silence is bad, I would have ignored them. But no. One after another, they made the case for this record as radioactive, cancerous waste, as if some fateful wrong turn had been taken and now everything had fallen apart. As I investigated, I discovered that Suicide Silence had started off as a deathcore band fronted by lead screamer Mitch Lucker, who died in 2012. His replacement is Eddie Hermida, formerly of similar shouty band All Shall Perish.

It’s Hermida taking the lion’s share of the blame for Suicide Silence, which is definitely a departure. The band enlisted Ross Robinson to produce, which should tell you a lot about how it sounds – Robinson was one of the architects of the nu-metal sound in the ‘90s, and helped turn Sepultura (for one) from a straight-up metal band into a down-tuned groove monster. He’s done the same thing here, helping Suicide Silence essentially make a Deftones record. The riffs are simple, the drums slow and locked in, the grooves deep, and the feedback and noise quotient ratcheted up a hundredfold.

And there’s Hermida, who sings what I’m told are the first clean vocals in the band’s history. He sounds like Chino Moreno, or like someone trying to sound like Chino Moreno – he’s off-key a lot, but in that tortured, wobbly, I’m-trying-to-express-my-pain kind of way. I’m sure these vulnerable vocals are difficult for fans of full-on aggression to swallow, but they don’t sound out of place or particularly strained to me. I even like “Run,” which is all pained singing. It’s right out of the White Pony playbook.

So in a way, I’m disappointed that Suicide Silence isn’t awful. It’s fine, really, a pretty successful transformation from one kind of metal to another. I don’t know if I’ll buy another album from these guys, but this one doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it to. My quest for truly awful music goes on, however, and I’ll report back when I find it.

* * * * *

I had a discussion this week with several of my music-loving friends about Jeff Tweedy. He’s not an infrequent topic in my circle, since I find Tweedy alternately self-indulgent and boring, and virtually everyone else I know thinks he’s a genius. It has long been my belief that Tweedy’s best quality is attracting collaborators better than he is, and his worst quality is pushing those collaborators away.

One need look no further than Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy’s first band. I love Uncle Tupelo, but I found as I dug deeper that my favorite of their material came from Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s partner in crime (and songwriting). When Tupelo split, Tweedy formed Wilco (and if you don’t know my thoughts on Wilco, check the archive) while Farrar created Son Volt. Farrar’s work has always been the more traditional of the two, and in many ways the less exciting. Wilco takes enough risks that, in theory, they should never be boring, while Farrar sticks to more time-tested avenues.

And yet I’ve been happier with Son Volt’s output over the last 20 years. True, Farrar can’t boast a high water mark like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but he has no low one like A Ghost is Born to apologize for either. He’s a steady, solid, dependable writer, and his catalog is an argument in favor of keeping an even keel. The eighth Son Volt album, Notes of Blue, keeps the streak alive. It’s a brief brush with blues and Americana that makes fine use of Farrar’s distinctive voice and love of simplicity.

I’m particularly fond of the bluesier ones this time, like the raucous “Static” and the dark and dusty “Cherokee St. Girl.” A few years ago Farrar explored the country backwater of his sound on Honky Tonk, and he does the same for blistering electric blues here. “Lost Souls” is an elementary rocker, but he sells it, and the guitar tone he sports here and elsewhere on Notes of Blue is arresting. “Sinking Down” is a slide guitar ride into the swampland, and while it’s nothing new, it’s fun and well-made.

That pretty much sums up Son Volt for me. Farrar is probably never going to try anything as drastic as Suicide Silence has done, but that’s OK. Notes of Blue is another enjoyable Son Volt album, and that’s enough to get me to the next one, smiling and tapping my feet along the way.

* * * * *

Finally, for this week brought to you by the letter S, we have Peter Silberman, who has just made one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve heard this year.

If Silberman’s name is unfamiliar to you, I’d point you in the direction of his quietly consistent band, the Antlers. They began as a solo project, but in 2009, fully formed, they released an extraordinary album called Hospice, all about letting people in and letting them go. While Silberman has never quite captured that magic again, the next two Antlers albums (and two EPs) have been swell. They play a particularly dreamy style of art-rock indie that soars on Silberman’s powerful voice – it’s reminiscent of both Jeff Buckley and Jimmy Gnecco.

That voice is at the center of Impermanence, Silberman’s first true solo album, and it stands revealed as an incredible instrument. Where the Antlers piled on the instrumentation, Silberman cuts everything to the bone, leaving only his guitar and some percussion to carry most of this record. Opener “Karuna” is nearly nine minutes of nothing but guitar, voice and subtle drums, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite Silberman songs. It aches with loneliness, offering quiet catharsis with its round-robin chant near the end.

The rest of the album follows suit. “New York” nearly floats away, it’s so sparse, but it’s absolutely lovely. There are flutes and brass here, but they’re the softest, most ambient flutes and brass you’ve ever heard. This song directly addresses the tinnitus Silberman has been dealing with for years: “When my nerve wore down, I was assailed by simple little sounds, hammer clangs, sirens in the park, like I never heard New York…” This is a quieter record for a reason – he’s been recovering from hearing loss and an all-consuming ringing in his left ear, and Impermanence artfully dances around the subject.

The heartbreaking “Gone Beyond” is another eight minutes of glorious beauty, and its first verse tackles his hearing loss: “I’m listening for you, silence, but god, there’s so much noise, and now I fear I’ve found you, you’re partially destroyed.” Silberman’s voice is reined in here, his chiming guitar like ripples on a quiet lake. The entire album is a lovely meditation, and it plays like a single thought. Closer “Ahimsa” is the ray of hope the record needed: “Time is all we have, I hope I have enough, enough to show you love before my time is up…”

There may be more goosebump-worthy albums released in 2017, but right now, I’m not betting on it. Impermanence is the most delicate and gorgeous of Peter Silberman’s works, a record so ethereal that it sounds at times like Jeff Buckley come back to life, and yet so personal that it couldn’t be anyone else. Like Hospice, this is an album I’ll be listening to for many years to come, getting lost in its stillness. Despite his album’s title, I hope Silberman’s return is a permanent one.

Next week, a pair of longed-for returns. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am. See you in line Tuesday morning.

It’s All Too Much
Drowning With the 77s in Sight

There’s just too much music.

It’s a common problem for me. I want to buy more music than I possibly can, and I do buy more music than I can possibly absorb each week. This year is just starting to find its groove, and already I have bought more music than I have heard, with more (much, much more) on the way. It’s a curse, really. Just this week I have a two-hour Sun Kil Moon record to absorb, as well as the long-awaited solo album from Peter Silberman of the Antlers and a crazy (emphasis on crazy) new thing from Dirty Projectors. Each of those demands more time from me than I can feasibly commit, and it drives me mad.

I expect this is why people lose touch with current music. I’m feeling that way this week more than ever, since I’m not listening to any of the above right now, nor have I been for the past few days. Instead, I’ve been diving into an album from 1992, one that I’ve heard dozens of times in the last 25 years, but one that still resonates with me in ways that Mark Kozelek’s silken ramblings never have.

The album in question is Pray Naked, the fifth album by the 77s, and if you’ve read this column for any length of time, you have heard me talk about Michael Roe and the 77s. They’re quite possibly the best rock band you’ve never heard, and Pray Naked is one of their very best records. Jeffrey Kotthoff and Lo-Fidelity Records have just released an incredible remaster of this album on CD and vinyl, and I admit I’ve been lost in it for a while.

But it’s worth getting lost in. I brought my lovely clear-white vinyl copy of Pray Naked in to my local record store and played it for the owners (and a couple customers), and it got rave reviews. The sound of the new remaster is amazing – the bass pops for the first time, the ringing guitars sound better than they ever have, Roe’s voice is crystal clear, and the harmonies just burst out. Even the thunder sounds on “The Rain Kept Falling in Love” sound fantastic.

The album itself is a transitional one: the original 77s dissipated after their self-titled album in 1987, and Roe tapped members of fellow California band the Strawmen to form a new 77s. Mark Harmon and David Leonhardt would become vital members of the band, with Harmon still one-third of the current lineup and Leonhardt joining for tours. This is their first appearance on record, and man, it’s a great introduction. The album explodes to life with the powerful Zeppelin-influenced “Woody,” then settles in for a long run of sparkling, gorgeous acoustic pop numbers.

It’s hard to pick favorites from those, but “Kites Without Strings” has been a touchstone for me for years, its glistening guitar notes dancing around Roe’s falsetto to haunting effect. “Happy Roy” is exactly what it promises – a danceable, memorable tune about lost love in the style of Roy Orbison. “Phony Eyes” is wonderful, as is “Deep End.” The album gets heavier as it goes, with the boogie of “Nuts For You” giving way to the instrumental maelstrom of the title track, and finally the oppressive “Self-Made Trap.” It’s a fascinating journey.

And it’s one that only a few thousand people have ever taken, which is a damn shame. The 77s always pushed hard against the expectations of the Christian label they were on, preferring to write songs about life and pain and anger and doubt, and it was with this record that the relationship truly started to fray. The label did not allow them to actually call the record Pray Naked, and blacked out the title track on the cover, apparently refusing to buy into the band’s intention – they meant emotionally naked, of course, but were very happy with the double entendre. (The title is restored on this new version, naturally.)

This tension has always cost the band. They’re too church-y for the radio and too radio for the church, so they exist in a no-man’s land between the two. I’ve been on a crusade for two decades to get more people interested in the 77s, and gorgeous remasters like this one help the cause immeasurably. This new Pray Naked comes with two CDs of bonus material, much of it capturing this lineup of the band live, and a DVD of a concert from 1990. It’s all beautifully packaged, and in a few weeks, it will be available online at https://the77s.bandcamp.com. There are plenty of other great 77s releases there now, though, for you to listen to.

And yes, I know, I’ve just asked you to commit more time to more music, which hasn’t gotten any easier since I started this column. I feel your pain. I think I’m in a period of prioritization, where I’m choosing the music that I will devote time to, and letting other music fall by the wayside. That scares me a little, since I promised long ago that I would never be one of those old people who clings to the music of his youth and disregards all else. I’m still trying to stay up to date, even though it’s difficult.

To wit, here is what my March looks like. It’s insane. Just next week, we’re expecting the return of Grandaddy, a five-CD album called 50 Song Memoir by the Magnetic Fields, a solo album by Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers and new things from Colin Hay and Minus the Bear. And that’s the light week.

On March 10 we’ll get the new Laura Marling, the new one by the Shins, a solo album by Greg Graffin, the fourth solo album by David Bazan, a live record from Peter Murphy and massive reissues from Elliott Smith, Soundgarden and Fleetwood Mac. (The latter is Tango in the Night, which holds a special place in my heart as the first Fleetwood Mac record I heard.) March 17 brings us new albums by Spoon, Conor Oberst, Real Estate, Depeche Mode and Dug Pinnick’s KXM collaboration, along with an EP by Anohni and a live record from Regina Spektor.

March 24 will see the first Jesus and Mary Chain album in nearly 20 years, a new record by Aaron Sprinkle, the third solo album from the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, a four-CD and two-DVD live box set from Neal Morse and a sparkling reissue of Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt. (Strangely, Flowers was also the first McCartney album I heard.) And the month concludes with a killer week on March 31, with new ones from Aimee Mann, Mastodon, the Mavericks, a three-CD album from Bob Dylan and a six-CD live box set from Phish.

I will never listen to all of that. But I live in hope. It’s all too much, but I’m looking forward to trying.

Next week, who knows. Did you see that list up there? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Cuts Like a Knife
Ryan Adams Delivers a Heartbroken Return to Form

Recently Ryan Adams wrote this piece in the New York Times about the first time he was truly rattled by a heckler.

The story is legendary: he was playing the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2002 when an inebriated gentleman who had apparently just discovered that Adams’ name is very similar to that of a Canadian pop star, shouted for “Summer of ‘69” repeatedly. Adams threw the man out of the show (after refunding his money), but the press caught wind and the story spread so far and wide that Adams couldn’t escape the jokes, and it drove him to therapy. He’s made peace with this part of his life, even covering “Summer of ‘69” a couple years ago, and this article seems to be his final step toward putting it behind him.

But even if he hadn’t admitted to a greater appreciation for Bryan Adams, you’d be able to hear it in his recent work. Adams’ new record, Prisoner, is a sharp mix of ‘80s Tom Petty and ‘80s Bryan Adams, all reverbed guitars and downbeat pop about lost love. It comes three years after his self-titled album, itself a whirlwind of chiming jangle-pop right out of the Petty playbook, but this one is served with a helping of heartbreak – it grew directly from his divorce from Mandy Moore, and doesn’t hold back on the anguish.

That makes it sound like a slog, but in truth it’s another set of piercing, well-written work from Adams. He was once considered one of the finest songwriters around, particularly during his more country-inflected years, and though it has been a while since anyone talked about him in those terms, he rarely fails to impress. Prisoner is a fine return to form after the slight Ryan Adams (and the curious full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989), its 12 songs staring loneliness in the face and writing down what they see.

Opener “Do You Still Love Me” is the loudest thing here, its electric bursts underpinning Adams’ pleading voice as he repeats the title phrase. The organ and guitar work here is pure Heartbreakers, the lyrics pure diary entry: “I’ve been thinking about you baby, you’ve been on my mind, why can’t I feel your love, my heart must be so blind…” It’s not a strong couplet, but it sets the tone for the record – virtually every song is about dealing with emptiness and hoping for reconciliation, even when he admits (as he does on “Anything I Say to You Now”) that he doesn’t deserve it.

The focus on heartbreak does bring up that other Adams here and there, particularly on “Shiver and Shake,” which is reminiscent of “Run to You,” and on “Breakdown,” on which Adams laments the “pain he can’t hide” and his “black as coal” soul. Thankfully, Adams also sounds like himself frequently here. “To Be Without You” could have fit nicely on Ashes and Fire, its delicate acoustic foundation underpinning Adams’ sense of hopelessness: “Nothing really matters anymore.” “Broken Anyway” is a classic Adams ballad, as is “Tightrope.” When he strips it down, Adams shows he hasn’t lost a thing as a songwriter.

Prisoner is not an easy listen, and was obviously born from a lot of pain. But it’s a strong one, perhaps Adams’ strongest since his time with the Cardinals. Much of it really does feel like taking a Tardis trip back to the days of Cuts Like a Knife, but the style suits Adams, particularly this heartbroken version of Adams. I’m glad he’s made peace with his almost-namesake, and I hope he makes peace with his loneliness soon. But I’m grateful he captured both things on Prisoner. It’s one of his best in quite some time.

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I never know how to approach it when family bands break up or change lineups. Because of the deeper ties between siblings, these changes can’t just be business as usual, but my instinct is to treat them that way, and not think about family dynamics at all.

So when I tell you that Eisley, a band comprised entirely of siblings, now is fronted by only three of the five DuPrees, know that I am resisting trying to find out more about what could have driven this group apart. The core of Eisley has long been songwriting sisters Sherri, Chauntelle and Stacy, along with their drumming brother Weston and cousin Garron. But the Eisley that presents itself on their fifth album, I’m Only Dreaming, consists of Sherri, Weston, Garron and guitarist Elle Puckett. Chauntelle and Stacy, the band says, have left to pursue their own musical projects.

What does this mean for Eisley? Surprisingly, the change is not immediately apparent – I’m Only Dreaming contains the same lovely guitar-driven pop for which this band is known, and if it’s a little bit more subdued and dreamy, it’s only a little bit. Sherri DuPree-Bemis sings everything here (save for a quick featured verse by her husband, Say Anything’s Max Bemis), and she carries the record effortlessly. The songs are often memorable, and when they’re not, they glide by without leaving a mark.

I’m particularly a fan of “Rabbit Hole,” a quiet yet bitter moment played on acoustic guitar and little else, Sherri singing “so go and berate us, go underrate us,” then following it up with a plaintive “I love you.” I’m also big on “You Are Mine,” a circular pop song with charging guitars and a sweet chorus. I’m pleased to have a new record from Eisley, even this Eisley, and when I’m Not Dreaming is playing, it’s easy to forget that this isn’t the same band that recorded Currents and Room Noises. That’s the best one could hope for, and if the remaining DuPrees keep up this standard of quality, I hope they keep the band going as long as possible.

* * * * *

The Eisley album is pretty, but it loses out to Alison Krauss in this week’s beauty sweepstakes. Then again, most things would.

It’s been six years since Krauss graced us with her heavenly voice, and nearly 18 years since she did it without Union Station, her crack bluegrass band. That’s almost enough time to forget what a fantastic singer and interpreter she is, but Windy City, her fifth solo album, wastes no time reminding you. A collection of ten cover tunes of classic songs in several styles, Windy City is a brief yet beautiful thing.

At times evoking Patsy Cline and at others Dolly Parton, Windy City mainly straddles country and orchestral balladry, but is canny enough to include a full dixie band on the Osborne Brothers’ “Goodbye and So Long to You.” She goes to the Osborne well again for the title track, a straight-up classic country tune with pedal steel guitars brushing up against strings, and then delivers an absolutely crushing jazz-pop rendition of Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared for You.” Her crack band of Nashville musicians hits home run after home run on this material.

At the center of it all is Krauss and her voice, still an absolute delight. She manages to breathe new life into old chestnuts like Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” and positively shines on the piano-led rendition of Roger Miller’s gorgeous “River in the Rain.” She doesn’t play her fiddle as much as I would like, but her solo albums are almost always about that voice. They’re infrequent yet insistent reminders that Krauss is a pretty wonderful artist and a national treasure.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, man, so many options. I have no idea. Join me in seven days to find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Adapt and Survive
Andrew McMahon and Ace Enders Show Us How It's Done

Before we begin, a couple of album announcements that have made my February better.

Folk singer Peter Mulvey has been a favorite of mine since his first record label sent me a review copy of his dazzling third album, Rapture, back in 1996. I’ve followed him ever since – I was there that night at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in 1999 when he wrote one of his signature songs, “The Trouble with Poets,” and I marveled at his delightful “Vlad the Astrophysicist” months before the internet got ahold of it. Now he’s made a new record called Are You Listening with none other than Ani DiFranco in the producer’s chair, and he’s crowdfunding it as we speak. Mulvey’s bar is very high, but with Ani on board I’m expecting it to be set even higher.

And this weekend, my favorite married couple band Over the Rhine announced that they have three new albums in the hopper – a full band record, an instrumental piano album by the male half of the duo, and a collection of old hymns and spirituals. I’m jazzed about all three. The preorder is happening now, and we should start seeing the new albums this fall. Over the Rhine has been a constant musical companion for so many years now, and I’m beyond delighted at this chance to be part of the next stage of their journey.

If there’s anything Mulvey and Over the Rhine have in common (besides a keen eye for beauty and an affinity for poetic lyrics), it’s that they’re survivors. Mulvey started out in the early 1990s busking in the subway stations in Boston (known as the T by those who live there). Now here he is, more than 25 years later, working with Ani DiFranco and prepping his 14th album. Over the Rhine formed in 1989, and Linford Detwiler and Karin Bergquist are still making beautiful music together after nearly three decades. These are artists who believe in slow and steady, who believe in pushing themselves into new territories, who see the long arc of their career as the important thing.

Andrew McMahon is a survivor, and not only in the sense of having a long and varied career. In 2005 – on the eve of launching his second band, Jack’s Mannequin – McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia. He persevered, and wrote songs about it – the second Jack’s Mannequin album, the splendid The Glass Passenger, touches on his illness. And he’s still here, in remission, still writing songs, still making records. Three years ago he unveiled his solo project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, with a self-titled album performed largely by himself in isolation. It’s my favorite of his records, embracing synth-pop and exposing his raw feelings about parenthood, love and life.

I wondered if there would be a second In the Wilderness album, or if McMahon would resign that name to one-off status. He’s answered that question with Zombies on Broadway, a much bigger, fuller and more impressive In the Wilderness record. In contrast to the debut, this one was crafted with a cast of musicians and programmers – it’s the poppiest thing McMahon has ever released, diving deep into danceable synth grooves yet retaining his I-wrote-this-on-piano pop sensibility. The latter quality hasn’t changed at all since his time with emo guitar-rockers Something Corporate, and has always been his biggest strength.

If you’re a fan of McMahon’s hook-filled writing, you won’t be disappointed with Zombies. The album was recorded in part in New York, McMahon’s former home from the Jack’s Mannequin days, and he references both the state and the illness he was diagnosed with there on clang-and-clatter opener “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me.” McMahon speaks the rapid-fire verses, coming within inches of rap, and it works very well: “My heart is a troubled captain in poisoned television waters, I had this air-conditioned nightmare like that book you gave to me last summer…”

The hits keep coming and they never stop. “So Close” should be a worldwide smash, so irrepressible are its groove and its multiple hooks. (I notice with relish that it was co-written with the Click Five’s Ben Romans. My Click Five love continues!) “Don’t Speak for Me” and “Fire Escape” follow suit, McMahon’s bouncy keyboards underpinning some of his strongest melodies. “Shot Out of a Cannon” is a little wonder, its swaying beat dropping in out of nowhere, its chorus (and that little widdly keyboard thing that follows its chorus) unstoppable. And then there is “Walking in My Sleep,” one of McMahon’s very best. “I keep going back there to the crowded street where I could see you walking in my sleep,” he sings over an electro-pop powerhouse that will move your feet, whether you want it to or not.

Yeah, Zombies on Broadway is bigger, and it’s stacked with crowd-pleasers, but McMahon’s lyrics still pulse with the same charm they always have. This is an album of love songs right out of his diary, McMahon describing his love as his rock, his grounding influence, his reason for being. It’s an album about persevering, together. “Let’s hang an anchor from the sun, there’s a million city lights but you’re number one, you’re the reason I’m still up at dawn, just to see your face,” he sings on “Fire Escape,” and follows it up with this from “Shot Out of a Cannon”: “I’m defying gravity and you’re the drug that’s keeping me from landing, we could fall or we could fly or we could borrow wings, I’m tired of standing…” “Don’t Speak for Me” is the album’s only bitter tune, and it’s about looking for the love he seems to have found in nearly all the other songs.

Zombies ends with its two most heartfelt numbers, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that they’re the only two he wrote alone. “Love and Great Buildings” is a classic pop-punk ballad performed on keyboards, an anthem to survivors: “Love and great buildings will survive, strong hearts and concrete stay alive, through great depressions the best things are designed to stand the test of time…” And “Birthday Song” is a miniature epic about unremarkable life, about getting up and going to work on the most average of weekdays. It’s lovely, a paean to everyday courage.

Zombies on Broadway has clearly been crafted to expand Andrew McMahon’s reach. It’s a big, bright pop record full of supernaturally catchy tunes, yet as grounded and real as anything he’s done. I wouldn’t mind at all if this album took him to new levels of popularity. He’s deserved it for ages, and here he’s delivered some of his strongest and best songs. Getting to make a record like this one takes everything you’ve learned along the way, and it’s why you persevere.

Ace Enders is a survivor too, and to my mind, an unlikely one. I’m constantly thrilled by the fact that he’s still making music, both on his own and with his longtime band, The Early November. TEN had their moment in the sun in the early 2000s, as one of many sound-alike emotional rock bands on Drive-Thru Records. But in 2006, Enders proved his ambition with a triple-disc concept album called The Mother, The Mechanic and the Path. He was only 24 at the time, and it definitely feels like a product of youthful exuberance and confidence. The band broke up shortly after.

But Enders has kept on keeping on. He’s made eight solo albums and counting, and in 2012 he reunited the Early November, and they’re still going strong. If you want to hear how strong, pick up Fifteen Years, their new acoustic record. It’s a victory lap, recasting songs from all four of the band’s albums in quieter, more grown-up settings. Enders shows off what a good singer he’s become here, and the subtle touches of electric guitar and percussion set a meditative mood.

The album begins with “Narrow Mouth,” from the most recent Early November album, 2015’s Imbue. But it isn’t long before the band is catapulting back through time, rewriting some of their loudest and rawest tunes as hushed lullabies. “Outside,” from the first disc of The Mother, sticks to the bouncy tempo of the original, but feels more melancholy, more moody. “The Mountain Range in My Living Room” hails from the band’s 2003 debut, and it’s both unrecognizable and immediately familiar.

And of course, Fifteen Years ends with “Ever So Sweet,” the signature song from their earliest days. Only a young man would write these lyrics (“Ever so sweet that you baked it in cakes for me, what you left behind, it hurts my teeth”), but the older man singing them does so with honesty and affection. “Ever So Sweet” was always acoustic, so this new rendering is the clearest comparison – the only difference is that Enders is now 34, and is looking back instead of forward. It’s a lovely reminder of where he’s been, as he keeps pushing forward to new places. Persevering.

Next week, Ryan Adams and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

That Was the Month That Was
Five New Albums from the Last 30 Days

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Elbow is incapable of making a bad record.

In fact, they somehow seem to be getting better in their old age. I say that somewhat facetiously – lead singer Guy Garvey and I are the same age – but also with admiration. Since appearing with a whisper in 2001, Elbow has made seven fantastic albums, and now an eighth, and with each one they’ve shifted their patient, meditative style into new territory. With each one, they’ve been getting a little quieter, a little more varied, and with their eighth, Little Fictions, they’ve pushed forward even more. The arc of Elbow’s career is long, to bastardize a phrase, but it bends toward beauty, and Little Fictions is absolutely beautiful.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the main not-so-secret weapon in Elbow’s arsenal is Garvey’s voice, rich and silky and deep. I’ve sometimes chided him for sounding like he just woke up, but over time Garvey has honed that voice into a stunning thing, gliding atop his band’s musical landscapes. In 2015 Garvey issued his first solo album, Courting the Squall, and it contained some of the most aggressive material he’d ever sung over, and it suited him just fine. Little Fictions, on the other hand, is some of the richest, grandest Elbow music, and Garvey again rises to the occasion.

If you want a good example of how full Garvey’s voice can be, just listen to standout track “Gentle Storm.” It consists of nothing but a drum pattern, simple and spare piano chords, and Garvey’s voice. And it’s extraordinary. When he draws back for the big chorus (“Fall in love with me…”), it fills the room, even if the room is the size of Grand Central Station. I don’t know if there are other versions of this song with guitars and strings and other instruments, but even if there are, the band had the good sense to realize that the song needed nothing else.

That’s not to say that tracks here like the opener, “Magnificent (She Says),” are overstuffed. The pulsing strings do wonders for that arrangement, and the larger feel of sweeping songs like “All Disco” and “Head for Supplies” works perfectly. The title track is another highlight, stretching to eight minutes and packing an album’s worth of spine-tingles into that time. Elbow’s music always feels like it’s moving forward, albeit slowly, but “Little Fictions” feels like it truly takes you somewhere. That’s largely due to the varied sounds the band brings in – this is their most sonically adventurous album, yet the experimentation never overshadows the songs, and never dilutes the essential Elbow-ness of the whole thing.

In fact, my favorite here is “Trust the Sun,” which may be the most Elbow track of all. It’s remarkably still, like much of their best work, all but training you to wait for and appreciate the smallest of changes. Its chorus is a little thing – an extended note, some prime piano chords – but in the context of what Elbow is doing here, it’s hard to imagine anything more gorgeous. Little Fictions is a sublime record, one that unfolds slowly and subtly, and by the end, it takes its place among the band’s best work. Which is, frankly, just about all of their work.

* * * * *

The Flaming Lips are certainly capable of making bad records. And boy howdy, have they made a few.

I’m never certain what the Lips are going to sound like when they finally descend from their candy-colored mountain with new music. Lately it’s been even harder to guess. Just in the last 10 years they’ve covered Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, made a song that lasts six hours and followed it up with a song that lasts 24 hours, sold one-offs in gummy skulls and actual skulls, and backed up Miley Cyrus on an incredibly strange record. But in between all of that, they gave us a proper (and properly creepy) Flaming Lips album in 2013, called The Terror.

And now they’ve made another, and naturally, I had no idea what I’d be getting when I bought it. It’s called Oczy Mlody, which is a Polish phrase that translates to “the eyes of the young.” And if you can imagine an equal marriage between The Terror and The Soft Bulletin, that’s this. It often traffics more in soundscapes than in songs, but those soundscapes are pretty terrific. And when it does hit upon a melody, as it does throughout the back half, it soars. It doesn’t quite hit the heights we came to expect from this band in the ‘90s and 2000s – the hope, and there is plenty, is tempered by experience and gnawing uncertainty. But it still gets off the ground.

Before you get to the melodic denouement, though, Oczy Mlody hands you a heaping helping of weird. Just the six-minute “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill” would be enough, with its burbling synths and lyrics about force fields and severed eyes, but this album serves up plenty more. The seven-minute “Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes,” for instance, is a trip in more ways than one.

But the final three tracks make it all worth it. “The Castle” is classic Lips – strangely encouraging and brightly colored lyrics set to music that sounds like stars exploding in the sky. “Almost Home” follows suit, and the final track, the lovely “We a Family,” might be the most giddy and joyous tune the Lips have given us in more than a decade. Yes, this is the track that Cyrus features on, but she fits in perfectly, and the simple romanticism of the song bursts out of the speakers. It is, I hope, indicative of where their heads are now, because we could use more joyous Flaming Lips music.

* * * * *

I know what you’re thinking. What about the rock? When am I going to write about something that rocks?

If that’s what you’re looking for, I have two albums for you, and they illustrate two sides of the same question: what happens to rock and roll when you scrub it clean? Guitar-drums duo Japandroids have, for two albums, been the poster children for raw, scrappy rock, fierce and furious and optimistic. For their third, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, they opted for a slicker sound, one that feels immediate and close instead of half a mile of tunnel away.

The result lays bare just how simple and repetitive their songs are, and how indebted to Springsteen they’ve always been. “North East South West” could be a Gaslight Anthem tune, as could the epic “Arc of Bar.” The songs are rough and tumble, but in this shiny form, they just don’t do enough to keep my attention. The band’s energy is still in top form. That energy just seems to work better when it’s dirty and distant. All that said, my favorite thing here is the slowest – the heart-on-sleeve “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner).” It’s a delightful respite among the clatter.

Speaking of clatter, there’s Cloud Nothings, the scrappy band of noisemakers led by screamer Dylan Baldi. The band captured attention with their second album, Attack on Memory, a much louder and more fiery piece of work than their debut. There isn’t much to Attack besides fury, but it has plenty of that, and the barely-there production (by Steve Albini, of course) only added to it.

Their fourth album, Life Without Sound, is considerably cleaner-sounding, but no less furious, and it still works. Part of the success of this record is Baldi’s songwriting, which has grown in leaps and bounds. The intricacy of the songs matches the production, and the band is tight and powerful. Baldi’s singing has grown more complex as well. I don’t want to oversell this – it’s a rock record, not Close to the Edge – but Cloud Nothings is a band clearly intent on growing without losing any of its sheer reckless force.

* * * * *

All right, enough rock. Let’s end with some jazz and bluegrass.

I’ve been a fan of Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau separately for years now, so the thought of them joining forces on an album had me salivating. And it’s very good, but first, on behalf of everyone who still buys physical music, a gripe. There’s no reason this 64-minute record should be on two CDs and should cost twice as much as a standard album. There’s no discernible difference between the two discs – had the vocal tracks been sequestered on one CD and the instrumentals on another, I could have almost understood. But as it is, it’s just a ripoff.

That said, it’s a glorious ripoff. Thile is the mandolin player at the heart of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. He’s a once-in-a-generation kind of musician, and has reinvented the mandolin as a rock, bluegrass and classical instrument. Mehldau is at the forefront of a wave of new jazz players drawing from a contemporary songbook. His piano interpretations of modern songs, along with his own compositions and a healthy respect for the classics, have made him an important figure in jazz over the last two decades. It was without question that their collaboration – titled after both their names –  would be good.

And it very much is. Thile and Mehldau pick up each other’s groove particularly well. “The Old Shade Tree” is the only composition they wrote together, and it sounds like Punch Brothers to me, Thile wailing on vocals while Mehldau fills in for the rest of the band. Mehldau’s “Tallahassee Junction” is classic Mehldau jazz, and Thile’s strums fit in nicely. You can almost tell who suggested which covers: Thile leads on Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” while Mehldau does his thing on Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day.”

If I have a criticism of this collaboration, it’s that the two musicians spend so much time fitting into one another’s styles that they never really develop one together. But that’s OK. It’s their first stab at it, and for a meet-and-greet, this record is lovely. I’m hoping for more, but if this is all we get, it’ll do nicely.

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Look at that, a good old-fashioned new release roundup. Next week, the new one from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, among others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Circles, Cells and Scandroids
How Klayton Scored Himself the Best Year Ever

Hands up if you thought, one month into the new year, that you’d be pining for the halcyon days of 2016?

I’m exaggerating a little, and I’ll spare you the “it’s already worse than I expected” rhetoric that’s been running through my mind for weeks. But it’s pretty bad out there right now, and while I’m trying to keep my head up, I’m taking more and more solace in music. I’m hoping this column becomes a refuge for me, a few hours a week where I can escape and think about something besides the world falling apart. I predict quite a lot of the music that will find its way into this space this year will have something to say about that world, though, so maybe nowhere is safe.

Anyway, while I’m looking back fondly at last year, this seems to be the perfect week to do something I’ve been meaning to find time for since early December. I spent all of 2016 preparing for it, in a way, and never got around to it. Which is odd, since my year was very much colored by this man and his music. A lot of artists had a good 2016, but in a lot of ways, the artist known as Klayton had the best 2016.

Don’t believe me? This week, Klayton, who records under many names but most prominently Celldweller, released his first album of 2017. It’s the fourth volume of his experimental Transmissions series, and if you stack that up next to the albums he released in 2016, it’s his tenth project in 11 months. And all that follows the November 2015 release of End of an Empire, the epic third Celldweller album, which arrived as a five-CD box set. That’s a ton of music in a short period of time, and Klayton shows no signs of letting up.

So who is this guy? I first heard Klayton when he was going by the name Scott Albert and calling his recording project Circle of Dust. The first Circle of Dust song I heard was actually “Am I in Sync,” recorded for a tribute to relatively unknown genius Steve Taylor. (Yes, the Steve Taylor who rocketed into the public consciousness in 2014 with Goliath, one of my 10 favorite albums that year.) This was 1994, and I was in college, having recently discovered the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Machines of Loving Grace. So I was absolutely primed for new industrial metal sounds.

Circle of Dust delivered that in spades. I have the self-titled Circle of Dust album and the much heavier follow-up, Brainchild, memorized from repeated plays. It was doubly exciting for me having been released into the Christian market, since it pushed at the boundaries of what could be done in that space. Like a lot of bands on R.E.X. Records, Circle of Dust sounded no different from the more mainstream acts, and in fact seemed to thrive on the idea of kicking against those inherent roadblocks with real-world lyrics and shrapnel-sized riffs.

I remember reviewing the final Circle of Dust album, Disengage, for Face Magazine in Maine, and then I lost track. Klayton went on to a short partnership with Criss Angel, of all people, and then for me, he disappeared. Fast forward 10 or 12 years, and I found him again, recording as Celldweller. And to say he’d grown by leaps and bounds would be to understate the situation massively. Where Circle of Dust stuck to one style, for the most part, Celldweller is a crazy melting pot, jumping from electro-pop to metal to ambient to dubstep to soaring balladry. It’s music without boundaries – on End of an Empire, Klayton even mixed in some punk and synthwave.

In 2016, Klayton took time to look both forward and back. He finally got the rights to re-release his Circle of Dust catalog, reclaiming the name for himself. Five of his 2016 projects were these old records, remastered with oodles of bonus material (including new songs and remixes), and packaged in gorgeous sets. And man, did they take me back. There’s no joy in Circle of Dust – it’s all pain and suffering, set to jackhammer guitars and very ‘90s electronic drums – but I was a pretty moody kid, so it all worked for me.

The self-titled album is good, though Klayton is obviously feeling his way. It was released twice, with different track lists, reportedly because Klayton was unhappy with his first stab at it, and the 2016 re-release is a mixture of both. Two songs (“Technological Disguise” and “Senseless Abandon”) from the first release don’t appear here at all, and opener “Exploration” is here only in a brand-new re-recording. Frankly, though, this is the best of all possible worlds, and the most enjoyable version of Circle of Dust out there. The sound is tinny, the guitars far away, the drums clicking and thudding, and the influence of Pretty Hate Machine on much of this is pretty obvious. But it’s a good first effort, and the bonus disc is excellent, containing the first new Circle of Dust song in 18 years, “Neophyte,” and some delightful old cassette demos.

The second album, Brainchild, is where it’s at. This is where Klayton decides to go full-on metal, and in the process comes up with his first classic, “Deviate.” It is by some measure the very best of the old Circle of Dust songs, the one even casual listeners can recall. The rest of Brainchild is good too, albeit much heavier than its predecessor (or its successor). The second disc here contains another new song, the fabulous “Contagion,” as well as that Steve Taylor cover and some revealing live cuts.

The next two could be called side projects – Metamorphosis was a remix album on which Klayton chopped up and processed his own tunes and those of metal band Living Sacrifice, and Argyle Park was a strange offshoot teaming Klayton with someone called Buka. Their one album, Misguided, is pretty fantastic, actually, a mish-mash of styles and lyrics cut with real pain. The re-release of Metamorphosis includes further remixes, and the two discs of bonus material with the new Misguided contain a wealth of goodness.

Finally, there is Disengage, the last of the original Circle of Dust albums. Recorded at a time of great upheaval, when Klayton was rejecting the Christian market altogether, Disengage is a bitter record with an unfinished feel to it. “Waste of Time” and “Mesmerized” are terrific, but there are too many instrumental interludes and remixes to consider this a full final album. The re-release adds two discs of excellent bonus content, including the striking acoustic number “Your Noise,” which fully reveals the bitterness of these sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed a peek behind the curtain at an album that has fascinated me since I first heard it.

In the midst of all this, Klayton continued to give us new music in 2016, under three different names. There were two Celldweller projects: the third volumes of his ongoing Transmissions and Soundtracks for the Voices in My Head series. Transmissions remains some of his most interesting work – mostly instrumental, ambient space music, with beautiful production touches. Soundtracks is more explosive, and for this third volume, Klayton gave us instrumental versions of the fifteen interludes on End of an Empire, as well as five new tracks.

But the two I really want to talk about are the pair of brand-new albums Klayton released near the end of the year. (Yes, after 1,200 words, we finally come to what I really want to talk about!)

First up, Klayton unveiled a new identity: Scandroid. Well, I say unveiled, but he’d been releasing singles as Scandroid for more than a year, priming us for the self-titled album. Scandroid is his ‘80s-inspired synthwave project, set in a sleek retro-futuristic city right out of Blade Runner. If you liked the soundtrack to Stranger Things, you will love this. Scandroid is full of tightly written synth pop and just bursting with vintage sounds. Tunes like “Empty Streets” (one of my very favorite Klayton songs) and the instrumental “Destination Unknown” feel like riding one of those Tron cycles through a glass motorway high above civilization.

I’m honestly a little bit in love with the Scandroid album – it’s definitely my favorite of his 2016 projects, and I’m excited to hear more from him in this guise. The only problem I have with the album is the note-for-note cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout.” It feels unnecessary, particularly when Klayton’s own material, from the killer “Salvation Code” to the chill closer “Singularity,” is so strong. This one is worth hearing, and I’m hoping for a second album this year.

Finally, Klayton closed the year by fully bringing back Circle of Dust. Machines of Our Disgrace is the first CoD album in 18 years, and amazingly, it recaptures the sound and feel of those old albums while updating them for the 21st century. It’s basically a metal record with electronic drums, taking the aggression of End of an Empire (itself the most aggressive Celldweller album) and amplifying it. The title track is an absolute monster, lurching forward on a thrash beat and a shredding riff, mixed in with the dialogue samples that have been a Circle of Dust trademark.

Machines refuses to let up, too. It’s an hour long, and it rarely pauses for breath. “Humanarchy” is a powerhouse, “alt-Human” a techno-metal beast, “Hive Mind” a mid-tempo winner with a great Nine Inch Nails-ish chorus. “Outside In” is the one moment of respite, a Duran Duran-esque anthem with a lovely melody. But then it’s back to the metal until the final track, an ominous instrumental called “Malacandra.” (This is the third Circle of Dust song named after planets in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy.) It’s a lovely and fitting way to end not only this wholly unexpected new Circle of Dust album, but Klayton’s remarkably prolific year.

The main result of this year is that Klayton now has three viable musical identities to slip between, and they’re all fantastic. He’s built up a cottage industry around his work, issuing everything on his own label and delivering anything he wants, whenever he wants. There’s no reason for him to slow down at this point, so I’m hoping for another productive year. If this long and winding ode is the first you’ve heard of Klayton and his many projects, get thee to his website and try some out.

Next week, a roundup of new releases, including Elbow, the Flaming Lips and a duets record from Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Looking for the Light
Pain of Salvation's Grand Ode to Perseverance

It’s been a hard week.

I expect I’ll have the opportunity to say that a lot over the next four years, and I promise not to take every one of those opportunities. But I’m worn down. I’m angry and sad and feeling helpless. I know there will be plenty to do, plenty of ways to stand up and be heard and make a difference, and I’ll be right there in it. But every day there’s a new reason to despair, to feel like there is a darkness descending on us all.

And so we persevere. And some of us write silly music columns to get through the week. It’s fitting, then, that the first album I have been breathlessly anticipating in 2017 turned out to be about living through difficult times, and what it takes to carry on. It’s no wonder that I’ve responded so well to it, given my frame of mind lately. In fact, I’m about ready to call it 2017’s first great record.

I’m talking about In the Passing Light of Day, the tenth album by Swedish band Pain of Salvation. You may not have heard of this band, but they’ve been one of the mainstays of progressive music for 20 years. They’re led by a golden-voiced savant named Daniel Gildenlow, and as of this album, he’s the only original member of PoS remaining. Pain of Salvation has always been his show, though, a vehicle through which he creates massive concept albums of deeply personal music. And he’s never created anything quite as personal as In the Passing Light of Day.

This is the first new Pain of Salvation album in six years, and if you’re wondering why, Gildenlow lays it out for you in his liner notes: he was hospitalized for months in 2014 with a flesh-eating bacteria threatening his life. During that time he had a hole in his back deep enough to expose his spine, and underwent a series of chemical treatments that eventually sent the bacteria into regression. He’s been recovering since, and looks remarkably thin but much healthier than you’d expect in the photos that accompany the album.

In the Passing Light of Day is all about those four months, and the recovery period after. Gildenlow sums up its theme in his notes: “I did learn a lot. I did not, however, learn that I need to spend more time with my family. I did not learn that I should spend less time in life worrying and stressing. I did not learn that life is precious and that every second of it counts. No, I did not learn these things, simply because I already knew them by heart. We all do. Our priorities do not change in the face of death, they just intensify. We get reminded of them. Suddenly, painfully, honestly, we remember how to live.”

This is an album about remembering how to live. It’s dark and bleak in places, and so honestly and powerfully written that it moved me to tears, particularly the mammoth closing title track. Gildenlow exposes his soul as much as his spine here, and spares us nothing. “I was born in this building,” he begins on the opening track “On a Tuesday.” “It was the first Tuesday I had ever seen. And if I live to see tomorrow it will be my Tuesday number 2,119.” The song sets the scene – most of In the Passing Light of Day takes place in Gildenlow’s hospital bed – and the tone: “Will I change? I honestly can’t say, I have no promises to trade for the lord of come-what may, to provide me with another day, every promise that I make is a promise I might break…”

“Tongue of God” is extraordinarily frank, Gildenlow repeating “I cry in the shower and smile in the bed” while asking God to heal him with a kiss. “Meaningless” finds him calling out connection, sinking into loneliness, while the nine-minute “Full Throttle Tribe” balances details (“I turn the shower tap, turn it all the way up to burn this hole away”) with broader ruminations (“This has been my tribe, my family, this has been my flag and nation, this has been my creed, my legacy, now it’s only me…”) “Reasons” sinks to the bottom, awash in anger and recrimination.

He begins the long crawl back in “Angels of Broken Things”: “Fallen angels spread your wings, fly me across the seas of burning things, pills and needles, tears and stings, fallen angels save me from these things…” He decides he wants to live in the whisper-to-scream “If This is the End,” which slides into the 15-minute title track, possibly the best song Gildenlow has ever written. The passing light of day is our lives, here one second and gone the next, and he starts the song lamenting his own ephemeral nature: “You’re watching me slowly slip away, like the passing light of day.” He relives his regrets: “All those times when I failed you, all those times when I turned on you, I wish that I could take them back… because all those times are still here today, all those moments return today…”

But as the song continues, he’s made new, and it’s beautiful. His fear of death disappears, and his love of life returns: “All that matters is here today, all the thoughts that I think today, every word that we say today, every second alive today.” He ends the album accepting his own mortality: “And though I wish that I could stay, it somehow strangely feels OK, it is what it is, I’ll find my way through this passing light…” The song builds convincingly over its running time, and by the end, Gildenlow is giving it everything he has. The emotional catharsis is palpable.

I haven’t even mentioned yet what this album sounds like, so powerful are its lyrics and themes. It’s always a question – Pain of Salvation began with four very good yet unoriginal progressive metal albums, and then went crazy with Be, one of my favorite records ever. Be is a treatise on God and man, with song titles like “Imago (Homines Partus)” and “Lilium Cruentus (Deus Nova),” and its music aims to be all music, a hundred styles sitting next to one another. From there they embraced rap-metal on Scarsick and gritty ‘70s rock on the double album Road Salt, and went acoustic for Falling Home.

In the Passing Light of Day is billed as a return to their aggressive sound, and that’s partially true. “On a Sunday” begins with jackhammer riffs and explosive drums, and songs like “Reasons” are stripped-down metal. But there’s a lot more going on here, in the catchy vocal samples of “Meaningless” and the piano of “Silent Gold,” and especially in the operatic sweep and emotional power of the title track. This is a big-sounding album, although much of it feels raw and stripped back, and it’s louder than PoS has been in some time. But it’s reductive to call it metal, or even prog-metal. As always, the band adapts to the song, bringing to it whatever it needs, and this new Pain of Salvation is as nimble as the last incarnation.

We’ve seen a lot of final records, written with the knowledge that death is imminent. (The two most recent of note are David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.) I’m not sure I know of many other near-death albums, ones written at the brink before stepping back from the abyss. In the Passing Light of Day is the best one I can think of, a moving, difficult and ultimately rewarding journey to the edge and back. It’s the year’s first triumph, and just the parable of perseverance I needed. I’ll be listening to it for a long time to come.

Next week, what I wanted to do last week. After that, a roundup of January’s new releases. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Living in Discworld
Where Love of Physical Media Meets Fear of Missing Out

I like shiny plastic discs.

This isn’t a new development. I’ve been buying physical media for as long as I’ve been buying music. For most of my life, I’ve had no choice – we only had vinyl records and cassettes, and then along came the shiny plastic discs, which I actually resisted for a while. But now we’re in the digital age, with downloadable music available at the click of a mouse, and for the first time last year, streaming emerged as the number-one way people experience music.

I’m saddened by this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I want artists to get paid. But I also want to experience music in the best way possible, and for me that means with the full context of packaging and with the best sound quality I can get. CDs are still the best way to do both. In this era of surprise digital releases and instant downloads, I’m happy to wait to have the best experience I can.

What that sometimes means is that I miss the excitement over a new release, and I’m finding lately that the time between a new album hitting the interwebs and the buzz dying down is getting a lot shorter. There are so many new distractions popping up all the time that the collective interest of fandom in any one of those things only lasts a couple days, or a week at most. By the time manufacturing has caught up and my shiny disc is in my hands, that buzz is all but gone.

As an example, I totally missed the excitement over the surprise release of Run the Jewels 3 on Christmas Eve. I’ve never been the biggest fan, but even I almost streamed this thing just so I could join in on the fun. I didn’t do that – I waited for the CD, and I’m glad I did. But at this point no one is asking for my thoughts on Run the Jewels 3. The moment has passed. The zeitgeist has moved on. (For the record, I like it. It’s a non-stop powerhouse of socially relevant anger with some surprising and elaborate production touches. It’s the best Run the Jewels yet.)

I also held out for Kid Cudi’s new one to arrive on CD, which turned into a more agonizing wait than I expected. The release date was pushed back a number of times, so while Cudi fans were shouting about this new record as his best in years, I was trying hard to resist the temptation to listen to the whole thing online. Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ finally hit stores last week, and I’m happy to agree with everyone who praised it. It’s prime Cudi, for the first time in a while.

I think some people are surprised that I like Kid Cudi, but he’s never quite what you expect him to be, and I appreciate that. Some of his left turns are more ill-advised than others, particularly his last one, a rap-free double album called Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven that sounded like a no-talent grunge band’s home demos from the ‘90s. (He even commissioned Mike Judge to resurrect Beavis and Butthead for several between-song interludes. Seriously, the album is almost impossible to listen to.)

Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ puts Cudi back on track with 87 minutes of hazy hip-hop reminiscent of his early Man in the Moon work. Most of these 19 songs (divided into four acts) are slow and patient things, and they feel like waking up after a weekend bender. Cudi gets cosmic as often as he gets earthy here, and there’s a renewed sense of purpose to the whole thing that suits him. Guest spots by Pharrell Williams and Andre 3000 certainly don’t hurt, but it’s Cudi’s singular vision of hip-hop that guides this album. The closing song, the six-minute “Surfin’,” is a delightful release of built-up tension, ending things on a joyous note.

I’ll also say that on CD, this feels like a true double album, with Acts I and II on the first disc and Acts III and IV on the second. There’s a hard break after Act II, an intermission of sorts, during which you have to physically get up and change the disc to hear the second half. It may just be nostalgia, but to me this enhances the experience, and also breaks up what is a very long record into manageable chunks. Thinking of Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ in four sides helps to process it.

As much as I like waiting for the CD, though, sometimes I have no choice but to pay for downloaded music. It always feels strange, like I’ve just bought air. Music without context feels unmoored to me, like it doesn’t exist in the world I inhabit. I expect that I’ll be forced to purchase context-free music a lot in the future, and maybe it will start to seem less weird over time. But I doubt it.

However, as I said, sometimes I have no choice. Case in point: Not the Actual Events, the new EP from Nine Inch Nails. I’ve been a Trent Reznor fan for a quarter-century, and I’m always interested to hear what he does next. So I had to buy this EP, but Reznor didn’t make it easy for me. It’s available in two versions – a vinyl edition, or a download with a “physical component.” I have no idea what that “physical component” is or means, but I believe Reznor when he says “the intention of this record is for it to exist in the physical world, just like you.”

So I sprung for it, and I’m interested to see what I get in the mail. What I got immediately was the most interesting 22 minutes of NIN music in ages. Not the Actual Events is an unpleasant piece of work, unsettling in ways Reznor hasn’t been since The Downward Spiral. In fact, the moment when he whispers “yes, everyone seems to be asleep” on “Dear World” provided me with my first NIN-related chill up the spine since those early, heady days.

There are more ideas in these five songs than on all of The Slip and Hesitation Marks combined, as much as I liked both of those records. Reznor and Atticus Ross (his longtime partner in crime, recently welcomed to full band member status) are intent on setting moods this time. Melodies are tricky and buried under oceans of sound, and sung through shiver-inducing filters. Reznor reaches for his baritone on the deep crawl “She’s Gone Away,” and the effect is both exciting and unnerving. And he unleashes full fury on the final track, an abrasive ball of steel wool called “Burning Bright (Field on Fire).”

Nine Inch Nails slipped into a rut so slowly that I barely noticed, and it took something like Not the Actual Events, something that hearkens back to works like Spiral and The Fragile while upending the formula with new twists, to show me just how routine Reznor’s work had become. I’m glad I heard it, even if I had to download it, and I’m now even more excited for the two projects he has on tap for 2017.

And hopefully I’ll be able to buy those on CD.

Next week, either what I was planning for this week or the first new records of the year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

a column by andre salles