April Showers Part Two
A Rocker, Two Crooners, a Noise Band and an Enigma

Every new Starflyer 59 album feels like a gift.

It’s been 25 years since Jason Martin wrote “Blue Collar Love,” the opening track on SF59’s astonishing debut album. This is a fact Martin reminds us of on Young in My Head, his band’s 15th (!) long-player, and each time I hear that line, it pulls me up short. I vividly remember discovering the first Starflyer album after stumbling across their entry on a Steve Taylor tribute, and getting lost inside it. The record with the solid silver cover is still a favorite – each time I play it, I forget how thick and powerful those guitar sounds are, and I’m blown away anew.

Martin has taken SF59 through several phases, moving away from the sludgy shoegaze of his earlier records into a more keyboard-driven indie-pop period with stopovers in new wave and straight-up rock. Latter-day Starflyer has been a mix of rock and Cure-like textures, and the new one is no exception. Jason Martin can really write a song, though, and after a quick sojourn with David Bazan in Lo Tom, he’s back here with ten more of them, each one a winner.

True to its title, Young in My Head is about growing old. He begins the album asking “Hey, Are You Listening,” which is a legitimate question 25 years in, and then gives us song after song about life passing by, and about disappointment and despair. In “Cry” he seemingly tries to outrun death: “Now I see it coming, coming behind my back, so I just started running, running to make it last…” “Remind Me,” the song with the “Blue Collar Love” reference, finds Martin lamenting that his time is over: “I had my turn, stayed longer than most, longer than I should have…”

All of this feels like Martin telling us that Young in My Head is the last Starflyer album. But given how good it is, I sincerely hope that isn’t the case. There’s a lot on this album about hanging it up and just being with family – Martin’s 16-year-old son Charlie plays drums on this record – and I would never begrudge him that, if that’s what he wants. But as I listen to the ins and outs of this thing, especially a masterpiece like “Wicked Trick,” I can’t help thinking that the world would be much poorer without new Starflyer 59 records every few years. I hope this isn’t the end, but if it is, it’s a strong last chapter.

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The cover of Jonatha Brooke’s new EP, Imposter, is garish and ridiculous. I hope it sells some copies for her, because the music contained within is her usual wonderful chamber-pop.

This one’s a bit more chamber than usual, too, with a bunch of orchestral players pitching in on strings, horns and flute. You can hear this right away on the title track, as it opens with accordion and violin and its chorus is punctuated with muted trumpets. The song is exactly the kind of melodic beauty that made me fall in love with Brooke in the first place, back in the ‘90s, and I’m so glad she’s still here, doing her thing.

The other four songs are similarly wonderful. “Fire” is a come-and-get-it female anthem with some tongue-twister verses that she handles with ease. “Twilight” brings the flutes in to join the strings on a sweeping acoustic piece about human failings: “I love you, not perfectly, not well, but I love you…” “Revenge” is quieter and happier than its title might indicate, its narrator content to let her rival get the last laugh.

Closer “True to You,” written with the late Joe Sample, is the biggest surprise: an honest-to-God gospel song. Brooke sings it with all her heart, and it’s achingly beautiful. It’s the first one of its kind in her catalog, and she handles this style brilliantly. This is the first album she has made with a grant – she thanks the McKnight Foundation for making the album possible – and I sincerely hope that whatever financial hoops she has to jump through (including crowdfunding, for which I would gladly contribute), Jonatha Brooke keeps making music. She’s wonderful.

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From someone I have loved for 20-plus years to someone I have just discovered.

Natalie Mering records under the name Weyes Blood (it’s a play on “wise blood”), and she’s just released her fourth album. I’m working on getting the previous three, because her new one, Titanic Rising, really does it for me. Her voice has an Aimee Mann quality, her songs have a timeless feel, her album has a grandiose sheen with some delightful ‘70s soft-rock touches. Songs like “Everyday” are right out of Carole King’s playbook.

That’s a lot of references, but then, this is an album about nostalgia. It is inspired not by the actual Titanic, but by Mering’s memories of seeing the movie Titanic in the ‘90s. (She’s 30, so she would have been eight when the movie came out.) “Movies” is the one song that makes this plain, but much of Titanic Rising is about living on a fault line, as she sings in “Something to Believe.” It’s about trying to find love and life knowing that at any time an iceberg could tear it all away.

Yeah, that’s pretty melodramatic, and the album lives up. Most of these songs are piano ballads with big orchestration, there’s an instrumental interlude and a reprise at the end, and songs like the aforementioned “Movies” take their time, building slowly, wave after wave. But this is melodrama that gets under your skin, that feels genuine, that has been lived through. A song like “Picture Me Better” comes from the soul, and there’s no disguising that.

I’m glad to have found Mering and her work, and I’ll be keeping up from now on. Titanic Rising is a strange record, but a lovely one, and I’m finding more to appreciate about it each time I listen.

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In my first draft of this review, I opined that Weyes Blood is at the exact opposite end of the musical spectrum from Sunn O))). But that’s not really true.

I don’t mean to imply that they sound alike – they don’t, at all. But both Natalie Mering and the two core members of Sunn O))) use broad canvases to create massive emotional music. The emotions aren’t even all that different – Sunn O))) music conveys a sense of living under a shadow, of something bigger than we can comprehend coming to change everything. In Mering’s case it’s an iceberg, in Sunn O)))’s case, it sounds to me like a dying star.

Their eighth album is called Life Metal, and I love that title. It’s a nice swipe at death metal, and an indication of their intentions: to make something brighter and less doom-y while keeping the Sunn O))) sound intact. That sound features guitars that sound bigger than anything you’ve ever heard, and a complete disregard for rhythm and melody, and those elements are still here. But they’ve enlisted cellists and vocalists and synth players to fill this out and give it more of an energized feel.

I think I might have been expecting a greater departure from this thing, but the changes they have made are more textural than alchemical. Life Metal contains four long drones, the longest, “Novae,” coming in at more than 25 minutes, and the always-mighty guitars are at the center. It’s engrossing, wrapping you up in a rarely-changing river of sound. I understand this is just the first of two Steve Albini-recorded albums coming this year, and if the second one is more of the same, I won’t be surprised. Sunn O))) has done the thing they do very well for 20 years now, and Life Metal is another sterling example of it.

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I’ve been listening to all of the above, but if you asked me to pick the one record I’ve been obsessed with lately, it’s Jandek’s The Ray.

I’ve mentioned Jandek a few times here in the past, and I’m gearing up to write a full-on examination of all of his work, since I find it endlessly fascinating. Jandek is a limited musician with no limits – he isn’t trained, he has developed his own style based on not really being able to play instruments with any classical ability, but he’s produced one of the most expansive and artistically restless catalogs I’ve ever encountered. That catalog numbers 94 albums now, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Thirty-eight of those albums are live recordings, performed with a variety of musicians around the world. The Representative from Corwood (we believe the man at the center of the Jandek project is named Sterling Smith, but there has been no official confirmation of that) surrounds himself with people willing to roll with his improvisational vibe, and I’ve been deeply impressed with his willingness to try various musical guises. We’ve had country Jandek, jazz Jandek, disco Jandek, funk Jandek, incredibly loud noise-rock Jandek and folksy Jandek, and I know he’s Jandeked up other styles in concerts that haven’t been released on CD yet.

For five years, this is all we’ve been getting. Jandek released 17 live albums between 2015 and 2019, and considering that this is a guy who recorded for 26 years without playing live or giving any interviews, that’s shocking. I’d resigned myself to never hearing another Jandek studio album again, which of course means he surprised me with one.

I’ve never been much for the mystery of Jandek – I think the music is fascinating enough on its own – but the sudden appearance of The Ray set me thinking. When I buy an album these days, I know a lot about it, usually. I’ll know the track listing, the length of the record, usually the length of the songs, who produced the album, who plays on it, and generally what I should expect from it. Normally I’ll have heard one or two songs and read a review or two. Not so with Jandek releases. He still runs his own label and website, and when I buy a new Jandek record, especially a studio one, I only know the title and what the cover looks like. That’s it. There’s an excitement that comes along with having no idea what you’re about to get, and Jandek is the only artist who truly delivers that for me right now.

What does The Ray sound like? It’s a single hour-long track that I have been describing as an acid-rock nightmare. There are drums and bass and at least two guitars. The song is a thick, slow dirge, performed as if the players were all in separate rooms. (My theory is that this one is entirely the Rep, oberdubbing himself.) Atop all of this, the Rep intones a poem about love and loss in his inimitable, atonal style. I wouldn’t call it chaotic, but it does feel like disparate parts forming a weird tunnel of sound. I’ve made it all the way through once, and I’m not sure when I will have the time and patience to do so again.

But it’s utterly fascinating. I know of no one else who would make a record like this one. I’m not even sure making a record like this one is anything to aspire to. But I remain happy to have found the one person on the planet who would make a record like this one, and who continues, against all reason, to create this stuff and share it with the world.

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That’s it for this week, and for April. Next week, something much shorter. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

April Showers Part One
Three Solo Artists, Two Bands and a Boatload of New Music

I owe Javi Terrazas for getting me into Anderson Paak.

Truth be told, Javi is my in for most modern R&B, since I don’t have my finger on the pulse of that world. I heard of Lizzo years before the moment she’s having now, for instance, thanks to Javi. He was singing the praises of Tierra Whack before anyone else I know. And three years ago, Javi urged me to try an album called Malibu by a then-unknown Paak. So I did, and I really enjoyed it.

I think what I like best about Paak is his equal commitment to two musical worlds. At his best – and he is at his best on most of his just-released fourth album, Ventura – he marries hip-hop with old-school soul without succumbing to the temptation to mess with either sound. What we have here is straight out of Motown, horns and strings included, with modern touches confined to their own spaces. The grooves here are so 1960s and 1970s, and the hybrid he generates sounds entirely new without sacrificing any of the vintage feel. (I mean, not many albums can sequence guest spots by Andre 3000 and Smokey Robinson back to back seamlessly.)

Ventura is a looser, airier record than his fussier third, Oxnard, and I like this one quite a bit more. The first four songs here represent one of my favorite opening salvos on any album yet this year – the grooves on “Reachin’ 2 Much” and “Make it Better” are sweet delights. “Yada Yada” takes a Lil’ Stevie Wonder vibe and turns it into a swear-y half-rapped rant, with a quick stop-off to enforce a climate-conscious message. “King James” just kills, dropping its justice-minded verses over a superb funk beat. The hip-hop influences come to the fore during the album’s back half, but Paak never loses his focus on organic, soulful instrumentation.

There isn’t much about Ventura I don’t love. It vies with Malibu as Paak’s best, and hopefully will draw some much-deserved attention. It’s a compact 39:36, and each time when it ends (with the killer horn-driven “What Can We Do”), it leaves me wanting more. That’s always the mark of a good record to me, and of an artist to watch.

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Bruce Hornsby has been one of my piano-playing idols since I first heard “The Way it Is,” his ubiquitous hit single from 1986.

As is my way, I’ve followed him since then, while the rest of the world seems to have forgotten him, aside from that one song. If this is you – if, when I said Hornsby’s name, you sang the piano figure to “The Way it Is” in your head – I’m here to tell you that you’ve missed a lot. Hornsby’s musical evolution has been amazing to watch, and as he gave us jazz-pop and electronic folk and jam-band workouts and bluegrass and even straight-up jazz, he grew into one of the musicians I most look forward to hearing from.

His unpredictable career continues with Absolute Zero, his eleventh album (not counting collaborations) and his first without the Noisemakers since 1998. I never know what to expect, but I don’t think I could have predicted what he’s given us this time. This record is downright weird, mixing up a lot of Hornsby’s previous work into a strange goulash of pianos, strings, electronic beats and odd arrangements. Oh, and Justin Vernon is on it, too, much to the surprise of people like me who would never have imagined those two together.

But here they are, trading verses on the meandering “Cast-Off” while Hornsby plays his signature chord voicings and sings about being a discarded chew toy. That’s just one of the strange moments on an album full of them, as Hornsby revels in full creative freedom. Listen to the joy in his playing on the mathematically complex “Fractals.” Just check out “Voyager One,” with its stunning horn and string arrangement courtesy of yMusic. Listen to the dusty weirdness of “Echolocation,” on which Hornsby plays dulcimer.

It took me a few listens to even figure out what Hornsby was trying to do on this record. I’ve found it an enjoyable listen since then, even though it still keeps me at arm’s length here and there. I love the theatrical flurry of “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” though, and have been singing along with the anthemic closer “Take You There” on my last few listens. I like that Absolute Zero is difficult. I like that it’s taking me time to absorb it. It’s further proof that Hornsby is a remarkably creative musician, one willing to take risks no matter the reward.

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Speaking of taking risks, here’s Norah Jones.

Jones was originally typecast as a piano-playing singer of jazz standards and soft-focus pop, thanks to the smashing success of her debut album Come Away With Me in 2002. It took her a while to break out of that mold, but ten years later, on an album called Little Broken Hearts, she did. Now she seems to be jumping back and forth between playing it safe and striking out without a net, and I tend to like her riskier material better.

Which is why I am definitely digging Begin Again, her seventh record. Ostensibly a compilation of singles, Begin Again documents seven collaborations with other artists, most of which fall outside Jones’ usual purview. Opener “My Heart is Full” finds her working with Thomas Bartlett, otherwise known as Doveman, on a chant-like piece that floats on an ocean of electronic sounds. The title track reminds me of Hornsby, with its slinky jazz beat courtesy of celebrated drummer Brian Blade.

She co-writes two songs with Jeff Tweedy, one of them featuring his son Spencer on drums, and they’re stark folk pieces. “A Song With No Name” is a lazy ramble, but Jones’ heavily reverbed voice makes it work, and “Wintertime” is a jazzier thing that makes me believe I might like Wilco more with someone else singing. It is “Uh Oh,” her second collaboration with Bartlett, that truly stretches her style, with a breakbeat and lots of dissonant keyboard noises.

Overall Begin Again is another nice departure for Jones, providing new contexts for her gorgeous voice. I hope at some point she takes this ball and runs with it, committing to a more challenging and interesting career. But even if she heads back to standardsville next time, I’ll be there.

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I saw someone ask the other day whether the Chemical Brothers had even made music beyond 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, and if so, why? I hope it’s not news to people reading this that the answers are yes, and because their work has been almost uniformly excellent.

If you don’t include DJ mix record Brothers Gonna Work It Out or their score to Hanna, the just-released No Geography is the ninth Chemical Brothers album. In the 21 years since Dig Your Own Hole Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have taken their beat-heavy style through the realms of psychedelica, produced superb collaborations with Beth Orton and Richard Ashcroft and delivered one mesmerizing electro-rock journey after another. They’ve expanded and refined what they do, sticking with the core of it – big beats and bass lines surrounded by sounds that fold space and time around you.

No Geography finds them doing what they do, which is basically soundtracking late-night drives between galaxies. There aren’t a lot of surprises here, just ten more danceable excursions into other realms. But this doesn’t need to be surprising to be enjoyable, and it is, from first note to last. I’m a big fan of the opening three-part suite that ends with the title track, and of the loping groove of “The Universe Sent Me,” with vocals by someone named Aurora. “We’ve Got to Try” is a soulful anthem, while closer “Catch Me I’m Falling” repurposes Snowbird’s “Bears on My Trail” to wonderful effect.

If you’ve kept up with the Chemical Brothers, the quality of No Geography won’t be a shock. If you haven’t, this is as good a place to start catching up as any. They still ply the same trade, but with nearly 25 years under their belts, they’ve gotten quite a bit better at it. “Block Rockin’ Beats” fans should check it out.

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Finally, I owe Chris Prunckle for turning me on to the Yawpers.

A three-piece from Denver, the Yawpers play a wildly energetic form of country-inflected rock, like a punk version of Uncle Tupelo. Chris, who writes and draws a comic strip review column called Wannabe, named the Yawpers’ third album Boy in a Well his favorite of 2017, so I had to check it out. And it’s really good, a conceptual piece about… well, a boy in a well, delivered with undeniable passion.

Their fourth, Human Question, is even better. My lord, this thing rocks. The band comes out swinging on the runaway train that is “Child of Mercy” and rarely lets up. The electric guitars are off the leash here, bursting out of the speakers to light your hair on fire, and the rhythm section propels this along at high speed. When things do calm down a little, it’s like cool water on a hot day. But of course they never calm down for long.

I don’t know if this is the first existential country-punk record, but Human Question tackles themes of suffering and hard-won hope. The title track asks “what can we hold up beneath an empty sky,” and there’s a novel in that one line alone. The absolutely killer “Earn Your Heaven” begins with these lines: “My head is empty, the center cannot hold, I’m studying solitude and I’m the only one enrolled.” These are songs of struggle, both internal and external, and when a quieter song of reliance like “Carry Me” comes along, it earns its grace notes. The record ends with the thoughtful, hopeful “Where the Winters End,” which feels like shaking off a lot of what has come before.

“Thoughtful” is a good word for what the Yawpers do. Their songs are generally simple things, musically, but they have a lot on their minds, so when you’re done being blown backwards by their sheer ferocity, there’s still quite a bit to dig into. I’m still doing that digging, but on first listens the Yawpers have impressed me again. Hear and buy their stuff here.

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Next week, more music! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Clock’s Already Ticking
Counting Down to the 2019 Marillion Weekend

I said at the beginning of the year that I wanted to make tm3am more of a chronicle of what I am actually listening to, as opposed to a series of reviews I feel obligated to write. With that in mind, here’s what I feel like I should be writing about this week: Bruce Hornsby, the Chemical Brothers, Norah Jones, John Paul White and the first Unwed Sailor album in 11 years. These are all new records I have enjoyed, to one degree or another.

But if you want to ask me what I’m listening to? I mean, really, obsessively listening to? That’s easy. It’s Marillion.

There’s a good reason for that, too. In a month’s time, I will be in Montreal with thousands of fellow fans for the 2019 Marillion Weekend. It’s the first such weekend on this side of the Atlantic since 2015, and I went to that one too and had an amazing time. This go-round I am staying in an Airbnb with friends I made last time, and I’m excited to see them again and catch up. I’m excited for the whole thing, though, and I’ve been listening to the band almost non-stop for weeks in preparation.

What is a Marillion Weekend? It’s a gathering of fans for three concerts over three consecutive nights, celebrating this band we all love. This year promises to be special, since we’re also celebrating Steve Hogarth’s 30th anniversary as frontman. (He joined in 1989 after original singer Fish lit out for a solo career.) Hogarth has been an absolute godsend for this band – his extraordinary strong-yet-vulnerable voice remains as supple as ever, he’s become a truly remarkable lyricist, and with him at the helm, the band has explored dozens of styles with no fear.

Part of what makes the Marillion Weekend special is the sense of togetherness, of having found our people. Marillion isn’t for everyone, despite the fact that I think they should be. Their work crosses a lot of genre lines, they aren’t afraid to write songs that stretch more than a quarter of an hour, and they’re a very patient band, content to create an atmosphere and live in it for as long as possible. Hogarth’s voice is, for some reason, divisive – I’ve tried to turn some people on to the band and heard an earful in return about the vocals, which to me are a main selling point.

Long story short, it’s a lonely fandom, and being in a room with thousands of people who love the band as much as I do is euphoric in a way I can’t even describe. You have to be there. So I will be there.

In the meantime, I listen. I know what we’re getting this year – the setlists are generally the same for all of the Weekends held around the world – and it’s nothing less than a victory lap, touching on all eras of Hogarth’s three decades with the band. I’m excited to hear songs I’ve never heard live, but I’m more excited to revel in some older favorites and some newer masterpieces. On Sunday we will get all of Essence, the first half of 2008’s Happiness is the Road double album, and it’s basically a 50-minute song that I am so looking forward to getting lost in.

As if the band just knew I would be in the mood to buy new stuff from them, they’ve just released five new albums and a new Blu-Ray/DVD. Three of those albums and the film document the 2017 Marillion Weekend in Santiago, Chile, the first such weekend in South America. (This was the tradeoff for skipping the Montreal Weekend that year.) And it’s lovely stuff.

The Friday night set seems like a best-of, which I am sure the Chile audience appreciated. It spans 1991’s Holidays in Eden to 2012’s Sounds that Can’t Be Made, including rarely-played gems like “A Collection” and “Faith.” There’s a fantastic run-through of the acoustic version of “Hard as Love,” an astounding “A Few Words for the Dead” and a final encore of the 17-minute “Gaza” that offers further proof of this piece as a modern classic.

On Saturday the band dipped back to the Fish era for a selection of songs from 1987’s Clutching at Straws and 1985’s Misplaced Childhood. These are songs Hogarth rarely sings, and for good reason – they’re not his, and there’s 30 years of material from his tenure to choose from. But the fans love this material, and Hogarth puts his all into it. The band also played all of FEAR, their latest album, but apparently were not happy with the recording, so those songs sit out this collection. That’s fine – I love FEAR, but I have a few different renditions of it now, and they won’t top the Royal Albert Hall recording of it from last year.

On Sunday the band played all of 1999’s Dotcom, an album that does not get enough love. I think it’s an underrated gem, seven lovely songs (including “Go” and “Enlightened” and “Tumble Down the Years,” all favorites) and two epics. The extraordinary “Interior Lulu” remains stunning no matter how many times I hear it, and I love the chilled-out “House” for its unique vibe. A few great encores, including the new anthem “All One Tonight,” round this off and end things on a high note.

I’ve been so immersed in the Chile records that I haven’t yet listened to the other two, but I will soon. They are the next two installments in the band’s series of audio documentaries, chronicling the making of Happiness and of 2007’s Somewhere Else. As a process junkie, these artifacts – which start with the unformed jams that led to the songs, and then build to full demos – are fascinating. At nearly five hours, these two releases will definitely give me enough to listen to before the weekend.

I know I will not be able to explain the experience of being there for you, just as I have not been able to explain what this band’s music has meant to me over the 20 or so years I have been listening to them. It’s a lonely fandom, but it’s an important one to me. In 30 days I will be in another country, in the company of friends, reveling in the fact that this band exists. And I’ll keep on talking about it until I find the words.

Next week, some of those records I listed up top. But just know that in between all of those, I will still be listening to Marillion. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Authentic Experience
Sara Bareilles and Mike Mains Take Different Directions

I’ve been thinking about what a strange beast authenticity is.

I know some people for whom authentic expression is the most important element in music. If the artist is putting on a show, or putting up walls of artifice, these people would say the music is worthless. I, of course, disagree with this – I love the artifice sometimes, and enjoy trying to crack the code of artists like David Bowie and Beck, who throw up persona after persona, and yet create very personal art in the process.

Like a lot of things, authenticity can be bought. Or rather, the appearance of authenticity, since it’s sort of a genre unto itself. People often assume that if something sounds naked and full of soul and emotion, it must be. I don’t think that’s true. I think artists can deliver irony with an acoustic guitar just as easily as truth, and can speak with piercing honesty behind the gaze of a mask.

I don’t say this to make you distrust every troubadour with a six-string. I just find it fascinating that the physical sound of some styles of music seem to speak directly to the heart, because those sounds and styles can be created at will. I don’t at all, for instance, doubt that Sara Bareilles is an honest, earnest songwriter. I’m a fan. I like her work immensely. I just think it’s interesting that you can tell when she’s aiming for pop hits, and when she’s delivering a singer-songwriter work like her new one, Amidst the Chaos.

For this one, she worked with T Bone Burnett, who has made a career out of capturing authenticity, both in style and in substance. Together they’ve crafted something beautiful – this is one of Bareilles’ best records, if not her best. They assembled an army of fantastic players, from drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner to guitarist Marc Ribot to keyboardist Patrick Warren, and this dream team has coaxed the best out of this set of pretty terrific songs.

Amidst the Chaos was written as a reaction to the first two years of the Trump administration. Several songs here are disguised as longing odes to lost loves, when they are in fact nostalgic yearnings for the Barack Obama years. Splendid first single “Armor” is a #metoo-inspired anthem of womanhood: “You think I am high and mighty, mister? Wait ‘till you meet my little sister.” Album closer “A Safe Place to Land” is about the migrant crisis at the border, Bareilles and John Legend standing in solidarity with those looking for the security of our land of plenty: “So say the Lord’s prayer twice, hold your babies tight, surely someone will reach out a hand and show you a safe place to land…”

Other songs are less overtly products of our times, but they’re no less well crafted. “Miss Simone” is, of course, about Nina Simone, who provides the backdrop to a perfect romantic evening: “On the rooftop thinking no one needs to know a thing but Miss Simone.” The absolutely delightful “Poetry by Dead Men” sports my favorite vocal melody here, and offers a well-observed snapshot of a lost relationship: “I wanted to be your girl with your hands on my skin, stirring in the cinnamon while you read me poetry by dead men…”

The production here is organic and folksy, with some dips into rock (“Eyes on You”) and soul (“If I Can’t Have You,” one of the Obama songs, and it’s so much better when you know that). I don’t know if the sound of this thing will earn Bareilles more respect than her more pop-oriented records have, but she has always been this good. Her voice is strong, her songwriting voice even more so, and she shines in this setting. If Burnett’s participation brings in more fans of thoughtful, well-written songs, that can only be a good thing. Those of us who have been here for a while already know what a treasure Bareilles is. But don’t worry, we’re a welcoming bunch.

Mike Mains has gone in the opposite direction, sonically, and that’s equally interesting to me. Mains and his band, the Branches, knocked me out when I saw them at Cornerstone in 2012 – they were a scrappy rock band with a shout-along style, and their first two records, Home and Calm Down Everything is Fine, captured that feel. Guitar-heavy and propulsive, galloping from song to song, Mains and his cohorts sounded barely restrained on those albums, just a hair less explosive than they were on stage.

So how to explain When We Were in Love, the third Branches record? It’s a naked bid for wider exposure, full of keyboards and pop production. The shout-alongs have become singalongs, the energy has been replaced with a more danceable vibe, and just about everything that made Mains unique has been scrubbed away. This sounds like something you’d hear on Alt Nation six times a day.

And I have no doubt that was the point. Songs like “Endless Summer” and “Live Forever” sound like they were crafted to capture that particular audience. It’s taken a few listens for me to hear past the sheen to the songs, and they’re not drastically different from the ones Mains gave us in the early years of his career – I quite like “Holy Ghost,” which riffs on the old Catholic school maxim for school dances (“Leave room for the holy ghost!”), and closer “Swamp” is pretty swell.

Some of these songs, in fact, are as good as anything Mains has given us. I’m listening to the aforementioned “Holy Ghost” now, and it’s great. “Around the Corner” is a rousing positivity anthem that I could see catching fire, given a chance, and that one begins with the line “Do you feel like hanging from a cross, do you feel like paradise is lost?” What’s missing is the edge, the live band feel, but it sounds to me like Mains believes these songs as much as anything he’s done, and it’s only the production that makes them sound inauthentic.

Which is fascinating. While Bareilles has consciously chosen to aim for an audience that respects respectability, Mains is specifically looking for some of that alt-pop superstar attention. I really hope this record makes him famous. It sounds like it was crafted to do just that, and he’s toiled in the trenches long enough to deserve it. I don’t love this record, but I bet these songs are better live, and I’d like to hear them recorded in the same edgy style I’ve grown to expect. I’m pulling for this band, and this record makes it a little harder to do so, but I’m still on board.

That’s it for this week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Let Us Begin to Live Again
Devin Townsend's Incredible Empath

Have you ever intensely looked forward to something, and then when that thing arrives, it’s even better than you hoped it would be?

I know, this is not the way it usually goes. I’ve written a lot in this space about expectation, and how it changes our perception of art. I can’t count the number of times I have waited breathlessly for an album or movie or book, then had to deal with the reality of that work falling short of what I wanted it to be. It’s a process, in my mind, to separate the art itself from the expectation of it – to say that no, this isn’t what I wanted, but in going a different direction, the artist has created something special.

Prolonged expectation really skews that process. The most prominent example I can think of is Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. It’s no exaggeration to say that I waited 16 years for that movie, and as reports of its filming and post-production leaked out over the years leading up to its release, my excitement grew and grew. I waited in line for something like 18 hours to buy tickets to the midnight premiere, and I don’t regret a minute of that. It was so much fun. But the movie was something else, and it took many repeat viewings for me to separate the actual Episode One from my thoughts and ideas of what it should have been. (I have ended up liking it, despite its many and obvious flaws.)

But sometimes – very rarely, but sometimes – a movie or a book or (in this case) an album not only meets those expectations, it surpasses them. And when that happens, I spend days upon days just reveling in it, absorbing it, learning its contours. Of course, you’ve all figured out that I’m not speaking hypothetically. I do have an album to talk about this week that blew past all of my hopes for it, and that album is Devin Townsend’s Empath.

I’m sure many of you are Googling Devin Townsend right now. He’s a Canadian musician with more than 25 albums to his name, and he’s been plying his trade since the mid-‘90s. Still, I’m not surprised when people haven’t heard of him. Devin’s work is intense, in all the best ways, and he’s been evolving as an artist, rarely putting out the same type of album twice. He began as the sole member of extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad, eventually adding musicians and producing five vicious, impossible-to-play albums under that name. His solo material began as a wall-of-sound version of metal, with so much under the surface that it almost seemed like very loud ambient music, but has grown into something much bigger and harder to describe.

Lately he’s been working with a core group of conspirators on the Devin Townsend Project, sorting his various influences into boxes and spotlighting them. This has brought us from the insane Zappa-metal extremes of Deconstruction to the glorious atmospheres of Ghost to the pop powerhouses that make up Epicloud. It’s been a great run, but in 2017 Devin disbanded the Project, looking to bring all of his styles together in one massive solo album called Empath.

That album is now here, and it’s astonishing.

Nothing I say in the next few paragraphs will be any kind of substitute for hearing this thing. Empath is a sonic sculpture, a triumph of production. There’s so much going on here that I could spend the next three pages just describing the first song. (I won’t do that, but I could.) As a record maker, he’s outdone himself here, and if you’re familiar with Devin’s work, you know what a statement that is. It almost feels like he spent the last 20 years learning how to make Empath, from a production standpoint.

This album feels like an arrival point for Devin as a songwriter, too. The DTP certainly showed off his range, and gave him the opportunity to grow in a dozen different styles. As promised, Empath brings all of those styles together, and it fully knocks down the walls between them. These songs jump styles and genres like they’re hopscotch squares. This thing opens with ambient music, glides into steel-drum island sounds, then blossoms into a full choral arrangement before the loudloudLOUD guitars even come in. Then that first song, “Genesis,” takes us from groove-rock to blast-beat extravagance to video game music to 1920s balladry, complete with strings and choir.

Honestly, it’s almost too much to take in, and there’s 74 minutes of it. “Spirits Will Collide” is a pop song designed to give your ear something to hang on to, but it’s early, and the album never gets that accessible again. When I heard the oh-my-god-how-did-humans-play-this explosion of “Hear Me” slip effortlessly into the Disney-esque orchestrations of “Why,” my jaw dropped. Devin can really sing all this material, too, from full-throated screams to sweetly melodic passages, but he brings in a small army of collaborators to vocalize as well. (Evidently fellow Canuck Chad Kroger of Nickelback is somewhere in the chaos of “Hear Me,” but I haven’t been able to find him.)

After 50 minutes of mind-melting music, which wraps up with the beautiful “Requiem,” Empath closes with a monster. The 24-minute “Singularity” is Devin’s most accomplished extended composition, rising slowly over its first movements and earning its massive catharsis. Only its abrupt ending keeps me from swooning entirely, but I can forgive that for the genre-destroying mastery that precedes it. In many ways that ending feels like a “to be continued” card, pointing forward to whatever Devin can possibly do to follow this.

There’s another aspect of Empath that I love, and it only comes from following Devin’s career and listening to him change and grow as a person, not just as a musician. His early work is ugly on purpose, exorcising his anger issues and his addictions, and some of it is difficult to listen to. Over time he has devoted more and more of his music to joyous celebrations of togetherness, and Empathis the culmination of all of that. This is a relentlessly positive album, even in its more aggressive moments, and it’s all about spirituality and community and, well, empathy. And it’s a great pleasure to hear him arrive here, both musically and personally.

I don’t know if I’ve said enough to sell you on this experience. I hope I have. Empath is amazing. It’s the kind of album artists spend their whole lives pursuing. Devin Townsend is a one-of-a-kind musician, and Empathis the most Devin Townsend album he has ever made. It’s an exhausting thing to listen to, an excessive outpouring of complexity and sheer sound, and I mean that in the best possible way. Very few people on the planet could have made an album like this, and no one else would have. It’s pure, uncut Devin, and it makes me giddy. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever given us.

* * * * *

Speaking of insane complexity, I just got the 40th anniversary edition of Zappa in New York.

My admiration for Frank Zappa as a composer and a player is well known, I expect. There will never be another like him, and any attempt to squeeze his work into a box and market it is doomed to failure. But while he was alive, record companies were tasked with doing just that. The most famous story of Frank’s inability to play by record company rules concerns a four-disc set called Lather, and Warner Bros.’ insistence that it be cut down into several smaller bites for public consumption.

One of those bites was 1978’s Zappa in New York, which documented a 1976 run of shows at the Palladium in New York City. Most of the material on the album was new, debuted and recorded live, and it includes such Zappa classics as “The Black Page #2” and “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” It also originally contained an 11-minute stunner called “Punky’s Whips,” detailing a strange relationship between drummer Terry Bozzio and a publicity photo of Punky Meadows, guitarist for the band Angel. Warner Bros. really didn’t like “Punky’s Whips” and forcibly removed it from the original issue of the album. (It was restored for a 1991 reissue that included four bonus tracks as well.)

Zappa gets the last laugh here, though, with this extravagant and extraordinary new edition. Let me just describe the packaging first. The whole thing comes in a New York-style pizza box with the familiar Zappa in New York marquee logo printed on it. When you open the box, you see the second box – a metal canister shaped like a New York City hubcap. It is, frankly, beautiful, and when you open that canister, you get an expansive booklet, a replica of a ticket to one of the Palladium shows, and five (FIVE) CDs of material.

I know this isn’t exhaustive – only a complete recording of the 1976 concerts would be – but it’s plenty for me. In addition to the original Zappa in New York, appearing here in its 1978 vinyl mix for the first time, you get almost three and a half hours of additional performances from the Palladium shows. These are unedited and unsweetened live recordings of one of Zappa’s best bands, with special guest Don Pardo having the time of his life, and hearing them wind their way through so much complicated material is a treat. The fifth disc contains some additional gems from the vault, and a brand new recording of a piano arrangement of “The Black Page #2” performed by the incredible Ruth Underwood.

Suffice it to say that I have been making my way through this mammoth set since it arrived, and I’ve been marveling at the performances Frank always managed to get from his players. I wish I could have seen him live – I was two when these concerts were recorded, alas. It’s not the same, but listening to the stunning work captured on the new Zappa in New York set will have to do.

Next week, Sara Bareilles and Weyes Blood, I think. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Foals, Lines and Some Guys
Plus the First Quarter Report

We seem to be losing music legends at the rate of one a week lately. This week we bid farewell to the amazing, enigmatic Scott Walker.

In my eulogy for Mark Hollis, I mentioned that he perfectly executed one of the most radical left turns, musically speaking, I had ever heard, evolving from pure pop to meditative and beautiful sonic landscapes. Scott Walker is another textbook example. Walker hit it big in the ‘60s as the frontman of the Walker Brothers. (None of them were actually brothers, and none were named Walker – Scott’s given name was Noel Scott Engel.)

With Scott’s deep baritone up front, the Walker Brothers scored with some traditional pop ballads, and when he went solo, Walker stayed in the same vein, eventually indulging a fascination with the songwriting of Jacques Brel. Walker even had his own late-‘60s TV show on the BBC. He probably could have remained in that mode forever, but in the ‘80s he decided to move in a darker, more idiosyncratic direction.

The resulting run of solo albums contain some of the strangest and most compelling material you’re likely to encounter anywhere. Climate of Hunter and Tilt set the stage for 2006’s The Drift, a stunning off-kilter masterwork. These records paired Walker’s dramatic voice with nightmarish soundscapes and bleak, progressive compositions that could not have been further away from his matinee idol past. He remained an uncompromising artist until his death – 2012’s Bisch Bosch, 2014’s collaboration with Sunn O))) and his subsequent film scores are among his strangest works.

Along the way, Walker served as an inspiration to many artists, including David Bowie (whose final album, Blackstar, is basically Bowie does Walker), Radiohead, Leonard Cohen, Steven Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, and the list goes on. Walker died on Friday, March 22, at age 76. For lovers of music without boundaries, he will be sorely missed.

* * * * *

I love sinking into a lengthy double album. But lately I feel like I’m probably alone in this feeling, since it seems to be the in thing to split up double-length projects into two separate releases. The only reasons I can think of to do this are financial – you get to charge two single-disc prices instead of one double-disc price, which certainly brings in more cash. If there’s an artistic reason for dividing a single project into two releases, and then separating those releases by months, I haven’t thought of it.

But to be fair, I’ve only heard the first half of the latest project to do so, Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will be Lost. And if there’s a band I trust to have an artistic reason to split up their new songs onto two separate volumes, it’s this one. Since first emerging in 2007, this Oxford quartet has been on an upward trajectory, finding equal space for their math-rock and dance-groove sides. 2015’s What Went Down was a clear victory point for the band, especially the shout-along single “Mountain at My Gates,” and tackling a double album seems like the next logical step.

The band has been clear that while the two volumes of Everything Not Saved are companion pieces, they will be very different. The first volume, which came out on March 8, is the keyboard-y one, with the second containing more guitar-heavy material. At least, that’s what the band says. This first volume certainly seems to have more synthesizers than I am used to hearing in Foals music, but there’s a lot of superb guitar work as well, and when this record locks in, the band is as organically danceable as they have ever been.

While this entire first set is excellent, especially big-beat winners like “White Onions” and “Exits,” it reaches its zenith with “On the Luna,” perhaps the band’s best ever single. It’s head-spinning – the guitar part is in 9/4, everything else is in 4/4, and it’s seamless, stomping from one end to the other with determination and purpose. “Luna” is where the record begins to lose energy, and it slows down dramatically for the lovely final two tracks, closing with the lament “I’m Done with the World (and It’s Done with Me).”

At 39 minutes, the first volume of Everything Not Saved Will be Lost feels complete in itself, and so I am left to wonder if its second half will seem like a separate album. Would combining these two efforts into a single thought have proven detrimental to either one? We’ll see in September. For now, I can say that this first volume is everything I wanted it to be. It’s so good that even if there were not a second volume on the way, I’d be satisfied.

* * * * *

It’s taken Jenny Lewis’ swell solo career to make me realize why I never quite liked Rilo Kiley.

Lewis has a crystal clear, Patsy Cline-like voice that worked fine in her indie-rock band, but works wonders on her more traditional folk-pop solo material. In retrospect, Rilo Kiley was an exercise in finding the right vehicle for that voice, and the band never really hit upon it. In contrast, I have adored everything Lewis has done on her own, from the pure folk of her debut with the Watson Twins to 2014’s beautifully crafted The Voyager.

And now she’s made what is probably my favorite of her records, On the Line. Its cover art mirrors that of its predecessor, letting you know right up front that this one will be in the same vein. It’s certainly a refinement of a sound that went down a treat last time – this one is also largely produced by Ryan Adams, a fact that Warner Bros. would probably have made more of a few months ago, and includes contributions from Beck, Ringo Starr, Benmont Tench, Don Was, Jim Keltner and other country-tinged folk-pop royalty.

Together, this dream team has fashioned a perfect setting for Lewis’ voice, which remains her strongest asset. Right behind it, though, are her songs, and these are without a doubt among her best. Hopefully you’ve heard “Wasted Youth” and “Red Bull and Hennessy,” two of the strongest singles she’s ever released. The album doesn’t falter from there, sticking with its simple, elegant melodicism. Beck produces three of these songs (with the great Jason Falkner on guitar), and they fit right in, so consistent is the writing.

This is also Lewis’ most personal work, dredging up relationships (she just ended a 12-year one with former songwriting partner Jonathan Rice) and addictions, and dedicating one song (the lovely “Little White Dove”) to her always-strained relationship with her late mother. “Party Clown” is worthy of Aimee Mann – it’s so detailed in its despair. (“I took a weightless bath until my own laugh gave me the creeps.”) Only the final track, “Rabbit Hole,” finds Lewis asserting control again: “I’m not gonna go down the rabbit hole with you again,” she sings, putting paid to at least one of the spiraling relationships she discusses here.

If nothing else, On the Line should cement Jenny Lewis’ reputation as a songwriter and an artist. She’s left her band far behind on this one, standing on her own and plumbing the depths of her heartache to emerge with her strongest set of tunes. Here’s hoping she can keep this streak going, because as a solo artist, she’s something to behold.

* * * * *

I’m still not sure what to make of Jonathan Coulton’s new album, Some Guys.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it, even if I don’t understand the impetus behind it. Coulton, you may remember, is a self-styled internet superstar who made his name writing wonderful songs about geeky things. Robots, vampires, zombies and aliens all made appearances in Coulton tunes, and he often wrung gorgeous emotions from his fanciful subjects. (“I Crush Everything” is a cry of anguish from a self-loathing giant squid, for instance, while “I’m Your Moon” is a euphoric love song to Pluto from one of its moons, consoling it on the loss of its status as a planet.)

Coulton has been on an upward trajectory for years, writing more and more earnest material, and 2017’s incredible Solid State is his finest – it’s a concept record about the internet of the future, with some of his sharpest and most melodic songs. For his follow-up, Coulton has decided to ditch that trajectory, at least temporarily, and take a sharp left turn. But he’s done so with all the charm and energy and wonder he injects into everything.

Some Guys finds Coulton covering 14 soft-rock hits of the 1970s, from Bread’s “Make It With You” to the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” Even weirder, these tracks have been perfectly aped – Coulton not only does nothing to change the songs, he goes to great pains to make sure these new recordings sound exactly like the originals, save for his voice.

He’s framed this as a statement on masculinity – when he was growing up, he said, these softer, more emotional songs gave him a framework for how to be a tender and considerate man. That’s laudable, and I love it. But I’m not sure anyone listening to this record will enjoy it as much as Coulton enjoyed making it. I really like all of these songs, from America’s “Sister Golden Hair” to Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” and I enjoyed hearing Coulton sing them. But these are such perfect carbon copies that I feel like I have already wrung all of the joy out of them that I am going to.

But hey, I love supporting Jonathan Coulton, and thankfully, I’m not alone – the Some Guys Kickstarter asked for $20,000 and raised more than $150,000, all of which goes to JoCo. I hope people like this record enough to support his next one, whatever it may be. Coulton’s independence, both financial and artistic, means that he can do anything he wants. Sometimes what he wants to do is create an astonishingly original piece of work like Solid State, and sometimes what he wants to do is smash the patriarchy with soft rock. I’m on board for everything he’s done, and anything he chooses to do next.

* * * * *

Hey, it’s the end of March, which means it’s time for the First Quarter Report. This year is flying by already. If you’re new to these quarterly reports, they are basically my year-end top 10 list in progress. Below is what that list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. This is guaranteed to change dramatically in the next nine months, so don’t read a lot into it. But here is the list as it stands:

10. Copeland, Blushing.
9. All Hail the Silence, Daggers.
8. Jenny Lewis, On the Line.
7. Joe Jackson, Fool.
6. Foals, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1.
5. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.
4. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix.
3. David Mead, Cobra Pumps.
2. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.
1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.

Honestly, looking at it now, that’s a really good list. I hope the year continues as it began.

Next week, something that I’m sure will shake up the list above: Devin Townsend’s Empath. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Bigger on the Inside
Amanda Palmer's stunning There Will Be No Intermission

Another week, another loss. This week we said goodbye to Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar.

I first heard Dick Dale’s music the same way many of my generation did: watching the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Dale’s rocking version of 1920’s tune “Misirlou,” released as a single in 1962, set the tone for the ultra-cool gangster movie that followed. It also showcased his innovative guitar style, with its fast, aggressive picking. He pioneered that style with songs like “Let’s Go Trippin’,” and with his Del-Tones, made five killer records full of it between 1962 and 1964.

Dale kept on playing even after surf rock fell out of favor, and made several albums in the ‘90s on the back of Pulp Fiction. He continued touring in his later years, he said, to afford mounting medical costs. Dale died on Saturday, March 16 at the age of 81, after being treated for heart and kidney failure. There aren’t many people who can say they invented a genre, but Dick Dale was one. May he rest in peace.

* * * * *

Amanda Palmer seems to make people upset.

I don’t mean her work, although that sometimes does the trick too. I mean Palmer herself. The very existence of Amanda Palmer on this planet is enough to drive some people to genuine fits of anger. I’m not exactly sure why that is, although I’ve heard a lot of reasons. Some people find her gift for self-promotion annoying. Some find her use of crowdfunding – and her constant sloganeering about it, i.e. “we are the media” – to be somehow detrimental to other working musicians. Some just don’t like her seemingly inborn ability to be provocative. (And I’ll admit to a certain wariness about her for that last reason, too.)

But I would push back against the assertion that Palmer is not genuine. I’ve heard that too, that the theatrical nature of her work and persona somehow precludes her from creating honest art. I’ve been an Amanda Palmer fan since the first Dresden Dolls album, and I sincerely think the picture of her as some kind of button-pushing artifice machine is thoroughly mistaken.

In every one of her incarnations, from the German punk cabaret of the Dolls to the Ben Folds contemporary who made Who Killed Amanda Palmer to the grand orchestrator behind Theatre is Evil to her varied collaborations with husband Neil Gaiman and Jason Webley and Edward Ka-Spel and even her dad, Jack Palmer, the emotional underpinning has been real. Just behind the facepaint is a fully formed human being yearning to share herself through art.

That’s never been more true than on her third solo album, There Will Be No Intermission. I don’t want to give the impression that Palmer has given up her penchant for the provocative here. Just one look at the cover, on which she appears naked, balanced on a tree stump and holding a sword above her head, should put paid to that notion. But Intermission is her most naked, open-hearted and earnest album. It’s also the most emotionally potent thing she has done. Listening to all 78 minutes of this in a row is almost exhausting, so raw are the feelings it evokes.

Yes, I said 78 minutes. Intermission consists of ten songs and ten interludes, and the songs are often extended pieces – two of them break ten minutes, and a third tops eight. Its messy sprawl is part of what makes it so effective, though. A shorter album, one more sensitive to the nearly nonexistent attention spans of the modern audience, wouldn’t have nearly the impact this one does. Palmer knows this record is imperfect, but she invites you to love it anyway, in all of its fumbling glory. In a way, that’s the point – this is a record about being perfectly human, about how we’re all struggling through and should show each other grace.

I think Palmer’s right that no major label would have paid for this thing, which makes me happy once again that crowdfunding exists. These songs were financed through Patreon – Palmer has thousands of patrons who pay a minimal monthly sum to support her work, and she’s used that money exactly the way I would hope she would: by creating art that only she could create. The list of artists who would make a record like Intermission is exceptionally small. The list of artists who would make this record, just like this, only has one name on it.

Intermission is a quiet thing, despite its length. Most of it was performed on piano (with a couple songs on ukulele), with minimal additions. The more full-sounding tunes (“Drowning in the Sound,” “Machete”) are the obvious singles, even though both stretch to six minutes. Elsewhere, though, Palmer counts on her audience to stay with her as she navigates these longer stretches, these outpourings of herself through 88 keys. She doesn’t couch that experience, either – she opens with it, putting the ten-minute “The Ride” right up front. This turns out to be the perfect place for it. “The Ride” is a more general song about life and death, like a slow-motion opening of the gates, ushering you in.

And it’s wonderful. She was right to trust us, because this long and sparse poem draws you in and guides you through. “Drowning in the Sound” is more compact and louder, with drums and everything, and it’s as strong a minor-key pop song as Palmer has ever written. It’s a reaction, as much of this record is, to the dark political climate we find ourselves in, and to climate change in particular: “And your body is a temple, and the temple is a prison, and the prison’s overcrowded and the inmates know it’s flooding, and the body politic is getting sicker by the minute, and the media’s not fake, it’s just very inconvenient…”

Every song here is a highlight, so I won’t go through each one. I’ll mention a couple, though, that stand out from a very strong pack. “Judy Blume” is a gorgeous paean to a writer who inspired millions of girls Palmer’s age, specifically mentioning events from Deenie and Tiger Eyes and of course, Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret. The final verse is just lovely: “Judy, I can’t believe sometimes that I’m an adult, and girls like I was think that I have this shit figured out, you and me lying together at night in my room, you’ll be inside them forever, Judy Blume…”

“A Mother’s Confession” is another ten-minute piano piece, and it’s even more captivating. It’s straight out of Palmer’s diary as she screws up time and again while trying to keep her newborn son Ash safe. He takes a tumble in a public bathroom and Palmer feels the weight and guilt of it. She gets pulled over for speeding because the baby was crying and she was trying to get to her destination quickly. The song is a stunning bit of empathy for every hard-working mother trying to get through each day, and when a choir joins in on the refrain (“At least the baby didn’t die”), it’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and joyous.

And speaking of empathy, there is “Voicemail for Jill,” probably my favorite thing here. It’s an absolutely apolitical song about abortion, which by itself is a miracle. It’s about how we treat women making the hardest decision of their lives: “No one’s gonna celebrate you, no one’s gonna bring you cake and no one’s gonna shower you with flowers, the doctor won’t congratulate you, no one on that pavement’s gonna shout at you that your heart also matters…” It’s a stunning piece of graceful humanity, a reminder that behind the arguments are real women going through real heartache. I think it’s one of the best songs Palmer has ever written.

But really, it’s the cumulative effect of this thing that sets it apart. This is an album that asks you to go through “The Ride” and “Judy Blume” and the hypnotic, circular, eight-minute “Bigger on the Inside” and “Voicemail for Jill” and “A Mother’s Confession” and THEN two more songs before reaching the end. I’ve done it a few times now, and each time my heart swells and breaks and is torn open. By the time the final chord of the wry “Death Thing” is fading out, I feel like I’ve lived a full life inside these songs.

I don’t know that I can ask more of that from any artist. As I said, I have been a fan for a long time, and I expected There Will Be No Intermission to be good. I did not expect it to be an experience of this magnitude. I certainly hope this astoundingly good record puts paid to the notion that Palmer is not an honest, genuine, powerful songwriter. There isn’t a false note here, and taken all together, this is one of the best records of 2019 so far.

* * * * *

Next week, probably Foals and Jonathan Coulton, plus the First Quarter Report. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Weezer Keeps Delivering in a Post-Pinkerton World

We lost Hal Blaine this week.

Even if his name is unfamiliar, I guarantee you have heard Blaine’s work. As the drummer for the Wrecking Crew, a legendary group of Los Angeles-based session musicians, Blaine played on literally thousands of songs. He provided the backbeat on an astonishing 40 number one singles, including songs like “I Get Around” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Be My Baby” and “I Got You Babe” and “Mrs. Robinson” and “Monday, Monday” and “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” and on and on.

The songs, of course, are his legacy, as well as his ability to provide exactly what those songs needed. He’s not listed among the flashiest or most adored drummers of all time, but he was one of the first to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and there’s a reason for that. A couple hundred reasons, in fact.

Blaine died Monday of natural causes at age 90. May he rest in peace.

* * * * *

I know most people buy music online these days, but if you happen to see Weezer’s new self-titled album on CD or vinyl in an actual record shop, you’ll see it’s adorned with a sticker. And that sticker is adorned with a pull quote: “They’re doing some cool things right now,” credited to Todd, Weezer Ride or Die.

Who is Todd, you ask? He’s Matt Damon’s character in this absolutely hysterical Saturday Night Live sketch about the implacable divide between Weezer fans. I have probably watched this sketch 30 times, and the last time (a few minutes ago) was just as enjoyable as the first. It’s also given me a new shorthand for my thoughts on the band: I’m Team Damon. Which is a pretty lonely team, most of the time, since almost everyone I know is Team Jones.

If you don’t have time to click on the link, let me explain. The sketch accurately depicts the central argument between fans of this band. One faction – the larger, louder faction – believes Rivers Cuomo and his merry men made two classic albums at the start of their career and have produced nothing but garbage since. The other faction will defend almost everything the band has done. In my case, I’m willing to go to bat for every record except Make Believe and the Red Album, and I like parts of both of those.

I used to stake out some middle ground in this debate, suggesting that Weezer’s first two records – the Blue Album and Pinkerton– are wildly overrated, while their later work is wildly underrated. I still agree with this, but as the post-Pinkerton catalog continues to grow, I find it harder to consider that a middle-ground statement. Blue and Pinkerton are now looked upon as life-changing masterpieces of perfection, when they are manifestly not that. They are very good pop albums that have been elevated to godlike status for some reason.

And they’re no better or worse than a lot of what the band has done since. Suggesting that only Blue andPinkerton should count dismisses a dozen albums – a dozen! – as lacking any value. I see the issue as one of mischaracterization. Weezer has always, always been just a pop band making catchy pop songs (often with cringe-worthy lyrics), and fans on Team Jones believe they used to be something more than that. Somehow they listened to “Undone” and “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” and heard the voice of a generation.

When really, it’s always just been the voice of Rivers Cuomo, and he has always just done what he wants. No two Weezer albums are alike, save for the abundance of catchy choruses on each of them. Lately, though, Cuomo has truly buckled down and delivered a series of records that stand tall with his best work. I’m willing to say the hot streak started with 2009’s Raditude, a knowing, winking collection of teen-pop anthems, but as that one’s a bit controversial, I’ll play it safe and say the renaissance began with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End.

If you haven’t heard that one, you’re missing a classic, full of strong power-pop hooks and beautifully written songs like “Cleopatra” and “The British are Coming.” Since then, Rivers has delivered some superb work, from the sun-dappled Brian Wilson-isms of the White Album to the perfect pop of Pacific Daydream. I listened again recently, and I think Pacific Daydream is the most underrated Weezer record – its grand pop sheen gussies up some of Cuomo’s most hummable tunes.

And honestly, that’s all I want from Weezer – catchy, hummable tunes. Cuomo is a master of them, and each time out he gives me just what I want. The band’s latest self-titled effort, colloquially called the Black Album, is no exception. It’s one of the oddest records the band has created, thanks largely to producer Dave Sitek of TV On the Radio and to Cuomo’s adventurous spirit. But even with all the bells and whistles, it’s an album full of catchy, hummable tunes.

Naturally, the Team Jones-ers hate it. They were primed to hate it when the band surprise-released the Teal Album a couple weeks before, writing aghast think-pieces about the sheer audacity of a once-beloved-by-them band turning out covers of old radio hits because their fans on Twitter asked them to. I mean, the nerve, right? (I kinda love the Teal Album, especially the band’s takes on “No Scrubs” and “Billie Jean.”) But the actual Black Album itself didn’t help matters, as it’s about as far away, stylistically speaking, from the first two records as this band has ever journeyed.

If you’re expecting darkness from something called the Black Album, you’re gonna be disappointed. Rivers swears here, for the first time on record, but that’s about as dark as things get. Instead, he’s turned out ten fun tunes, adorned with computer-enhanced beats and synth horns and all sorts of other pop accoutrements. Opener “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is probably the record’s most intricate production, a tale of life on social media set to a danceable beat, a vaguely Mariachi feel, and a refrain of “hasta luego, adios.” By the end, I can’t help singing along.

I have the same trouble with “Zombie Bastards,” which starts out sounding like something Sugar Ray might have turned out, but ends up an infectious singalong. One read of this song is that it’s a smack-back at Team Jones, people who only want to hear the first two records, when Rivers is more interested in uncharted waters. “We know what you want,” he sings, before turning introspective in the bridge: “If I die it means that I lived my life, and that’s much better than hiding in a hole…” He follows it up with a classic: “High as a Kite” is a McCartney-esque ballad about leaving the pressures of life behind, and I think it’s one of Cuomo’s best songs.

It’s also the last bit of real emotion on the record, which I’m sure will annoy people looking for the next Pinkerton. The next five songs are all fun slices of electro-tinged power pop, from the super-danceable “Living in L.A.” (with its obvious Police tribute on the line “I’m so lonely”) to the dumb-clever “Piece of Cake” to the killer “Too Many Thoughts in My Head,” on which Cuomo rhymes “Mary Poppins” with “Netflix options.” “I’m Just Being Honest” is a good tune hampered by its lyrics, which depict Cuomo dissing a young band’s demo before uttering the title phrase, and I’m not sure what he’s getting at with his tribute to the Purple One, “The Prince Who Wanted Everything.” But the latter song’s glam-rock riffs are convincingly crunchy.

The last two songs are surely destined to drive Team Jones nuts. “Byzantine” is a folksy wisp of a thing, co-written with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me, and its bongos-in-a-box beat and goofy melody find Cuomo jumping from Brian Wilson to Mike Love. (Repeat listens have elevated this one in my mind, I must say.) And closer “California Snow” is kind of… Drake, maybe? It’s the most hip-hop song here, Rivers half-rapping lines like “This is the definition of flow” before launching into (you guessed it) another super-catchy chorus. It’s the least convincing thing here, and I still like it.

The Black Album is weird, certainly, but Cuomo’s penchant for well-crafted, memorable tunes keeps all of his (and Sitek’s) experimentation grounded. His mission statement is the same as it’s always been: here are ten more songs you will get stuck in your head. That is all he’s trying to do, whatever form his songs take. Purists and Team Jones-ers will balk at the pop sounds here, and at Rivers’ attempts at sounding hard. (His “don’t step to me, bitch” on “Hustle” is just funny.) But those of us on Team Damon, who approach each new Weezer album with an open mind, will find a lot to like here. The Black Album is fun and catchy, and if that’s all you want from Weezer – and it should be – you’ll enjoy it.

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Next week, the extraordinary Amanda Palmer. Also looking forward to writing about Foals, Jonathan Coulton and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

And Have You Changed Your Life?
Peter Mulvey's New Record Arrives at Just the Right Time

Mark Hollis died last Monday. I found out while at work, and was immediately stricken with the strange sadness I detailed last week. And when I arrived home, through sheer coincidence, I found Peter Mulvey’s gorgeous new album There Is Another World waiting for me.

I don’t want to suggest that Mulvey was influenced by Talk Talk, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was. His work doesn’t immediately suggest it – Mulvey is a folk singer with a deep, sonorous voice and a strong command of the acoustic guitar. But there’s something about There Is Another World that just fits perfectly with my mood since I learned of Hollis’ death, something about this 33-minute suite that feels in line with the otherworldly sounds conjured up on Laughing Stock.

And it may just be that mood talking, but I think There Is Another World is one of Mulvey’s very best efforts. I’ve been a fan for a long time – since his then-label, Eastern Front, sent me Mulvey’s third album, Rapture, in the mail in 1996 – and I’ve been with him through the ups and downs (though mostly ups) of his discography. He came close to losing me with 2014’s slight Silver Ladder, but then he connected with fellow folkie Ani DiFranco, signed to her label and asked her to produce 2017’s Are You Listening. And the results were revelatory. Listening is a superb record from start to finish, a return to form (and an exploration of new forms) for this always-intriguing songwriter.

He’s kept it in the DiFranco family for the follow-up – it was produced by Ani’s longtime bassist, Todd Sickafoose, who basically takes Mulvey’s sparse acoustic sounds and adds interesting sonic atmospheres to them. He knows the basics of these songs are worth leaving alone, and that Mulvey’s performance will carry them. The songs on There Is Another World grew out of a hard winter, and the record has the feel of a snow-covered landscape, and a wind that makes you pull your coat tighter. It’s hard for me to call it dark, though, as there’s a lovely vein of hope that runs through all of it.

But it is a record of hardship and heartbreak, and though I cannot directly connect it to the horrors of the outside world, it feels the way I feel. “Who’s Gonna Love You Now” is one of the most hopeless songs in Mulvey’s catalog, leaving the title as an open question: “When there’s no way through, the only way is out, when it’s all over but the shouting and you’re too tired to shout, who’s gonna love you now?” Both “Fool’s Errand” and the amazing “To Your Joy” are about the pain of regret, and the brief “Nickel and Dime” puts a cap on that theme with these lyrics: “All those years I had in my pocket, I spent them, nickel and dime.”

But don’t despair, because Mulvey ends this suite with light peeking through. “All Saint’s Day” takes the Yeats line that gives the album its title (“There is another world, but it is in this one”) and uses it to beckon us outside, into the hard cold, to face the day. “The Cardinal” wraps all of the album’s themes of loss and regret and turns them around with one line: “You must change your life.” These five words feel like the record’s mission statement, pulling itself up and dusting itself off, and heading into the snow-covered distance.

It’s lovely, and the beautiful journey of the album is only enhanced by the production. Mulvey has called it the most striking soundscape his songs have ever had the privilege to receive, and he’s not wrong. There are violins, organs, accordions, prepared pianos, water glasses and clarinets here, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice how intricate the sound really is, since it is all in service to the songs, the voice and the guitar. The clarinet arrangements in particular make me think of Mark Hollis, but there’s a real sense of wonder and patience to the sonics on display here that feels right in line with Talk Talk’s influence.

Regardless of whether Hollis was on anyone’s mind when making There Is Another World, it was exactly the album I needed at exactly the right time. Even a week later, this suite of songs is still resonating, still taking me places. It’s yet another high point in a catalog full of them, and further proof that Peter Mulvey should be much more widely known. There Is Another World is a crisp chill wind of an album, perfect for this lingering winter, and I’m grateful it arrived when it did.

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Of course, sometimes I want to shatter whatever mood I’m in, and this week two progressive metal albums helped me to do that. Both are new efforts from long-running bands that I have loved since high school, which certainly makes me feel old, but would probably make the band members feel older.

Luckily neither of these acts sound past their prime here, although Dream Theater comes closest. A new DT album used to be an event in my house, but since original drummer (and band visionary) Mike Portnoy left, their output has been a little lacking. New drummer Mike Mangini is very good, but he clearly doesn’t control the creative side the way Portnoy did, which leaves guitarist John Petrucci in the driver’s seat.

Last time out, Petrucci led the band through a 130-minute pastiche of Broadway musicals called The Astonishing. I was fascinated by it when it came out – I mean, who wouldn’t be – but it hasn’t held up. It’s the DT album I reach for the least. Clearly their attempt to shake things up didn’t go as planned, so now it’s time for the retrenching: Distance Over Time, the band’s 14th album, is a conscious return to prog-metal with big riffs and head-spinning instrumental prowess.

Which means that some of this sounds generic, particularly the first few tracks. “Untethered Angel” could be on any DT album, so obvious is its thudding riffery. But as Distance moves on, it gets more exploratory. “Barstool Warrior” and “S2N” are intriguing shifts in sound, while bonus track “Viper King” is nearly full-on blues-rock. No song here breaks 10 minutes, which is a rarity for DT, and the two more compact epics, “At Wit’s End” and “Pale Blue Dot,” earn their space. This isn’t an amazing, career-defining work for Dream Theater, but it’s much better than I expected, and hopefully bodes well for their future.

As long-running as Dream Theater is, Queensryche has run even longer. Two members of the band are originals from 1983, and with the introduction in 2013 of new singer Todd La Torre, the band has only felt more alive and more vital. The Verdict, their 15th album, is the strongest of this new-model Queensryche, and now that they’ve put all the ugliness with previous singer Geoff Tate behind them, they’re clearly ready to get on with the business of being a great metal band.

I remain gobsmacked by La Torre’s voice – it’s high and powerful, like Bruce Dickinson in his prime, and surprisingly supple for a guy who is my age. (He also played all the drums on this record, which, wow.) He just nails it on opener “Blood of the Levant,” about conflicts in the Middle East, and never lets up. The band is clearly inspired by his presence. “Man the Machine” is their sharpest single in years, “Dark Reverie” is the kind of crawling work the band used to be known for, and with “Bent,” “Inner Unrest” and “Launder the Conscience” they’ve turned in one of their best three-song stretches in ages.

My main complaint about The Verdict is the same one I’ve had since La Torre joined: without distinctive melodies these songs all kind of run together. But that’s long been a Queensryche problem, and this new incarnation knows enough to solve it with sheer heaviness. If all you remember Queensryche for is “Silent Lucidity,” the speed and power of this record will surprise you. Speaking as a longtime fan, I am enjoying the heavy direction Queensryche has chosen, and I hope they keep it going.

Speaking of keeping it going, I’ll be back next week with some thoughts on the new Weezer. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Now That It’s Over Rest Your Head
Mark Hollis, 1955-2019

Ignore that date up there. It’s taken me almost a week longer than usual to get it together enough to write this one. Which means I’ve had almost a week to mull on the death of Mark Hollis.

I like to think Hollis would appreciate the disconnect between the dates, as if this column in his honor exists out of time. That’s the best description I have of his music: it feels out of time, so much so that listening to it, for me, makes the lightspeed whir of daily life just… stop. Like a still frame of the most beautiful, quiet vista you can imagine, waiting for unpause, patiently, unhurriedly. Hollis not only made beautiful music, he made music that all but forces you to breathe more slowly and appreciate how beautiful everything else is.

I honestly cannot remember the first time I heard Talk Talk. I knew enough about them to recognize Tim Friese-Greene, Hollis’ organ-playing partner in Talk Talk, when he showed up on Catherine Wheel’s amazing Chrome album in 1993. But I cannot point to a day or an hour when the impossible beauty of the band’s final two records, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, took hold of my life. They sort of creeped up in there and wrapped themselves around whatever part of my soul most deeply responds to beauty. Again, out of time.

All I can tell you is that they live there now, and have for many years. Talk Talk began life as a synth-pop band – you may know their biggest U.S. hit, “It’s My Life,” which No Doubt covered in 2003. The band’s moniker, chosen after the name of their first single, stuck even as the band changed dramatically, following Hollis on his particular (and particularly unmarketable) quest. I almost feel bad for EMI Records, who signed on for big-haired ‘80s anthems and, by the end, were confronted with Spirit of Eden, perhaps the least immediate major label album ever made.

The music itself, which I think I have to work up to talking about, is only one of the reasons I admire Hollis and count him among my heroes. It’s easier to talk about another of those reasons, the way he conducted his career. I’m not sure what switch flipped in Hollis’ head around 1985, but beginning with 1986’s terrific The Colour of Spring, Hollis deftly moved Talk Talk away from the radio-ready material he had been creating and toward magnificence. From this moment on, he would simply refuse to make the music others wanted him to make.

That’s not to say that the first two Talk Talk albums are without merit. They’re deeper and more interesting than most of what you would have found on the radio in 1982 and 1984. But they are still immediately recognizable as product-of-their-times pop, and with The Colour of Spring, Hollis began warping that music around him, turning it utterly unique. His voice, a powerful and booming thing, took on fewer and fewer big choruses, and the music began to incorporate more chamber and jazz influences. But they’re influences only: the trumpets and clarinets on “Happiness is Easy” are so outside the realm of what other pop musicians might use those instruments for.

On the strength of single “Life’s What You Make It,” Coloursold well, and Hollis took EMI’s money and hunkered down for a year to make 1988’s Spirit of Eden. One imagines it is exactly the album he wanted to make. One also imagines that EMI was utterly aghast when they heard it. Nine-minute opener “The Rainbow” begins with two minutes of formless atmosphere before Hollis’ ringing guitar cuts in, and even then, to say that this song “takes off” would be a lie. Spirit of Eden is one of the most patient records I have ever heard outside of pure ambient music, intently focused on the mood to the point where any change, no matter how slight, is monumental.

This one got Talk Talk kicked off of their label, and some artists might take that as a sign to change things up, to do again what worked before. Not Mark Hollis, who then made one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard, 1991’s Laughing Stock. Everything that Eden was, this one is more. It is quieter, it is more patient, it is even less concerned with whether anyone but its creator likes it. Even Hollis’ distinctive voice is more whispered, more focused on furthering the spell than on calling attention to itself. It’s a masterpiece. I’ve been listening to it for more than 20 years, and it still cocoons me each time, transporting me to a different world, revealing new wonders.

OK, I guess I am talking about the music, and how it makes me feel. So let’s do that: Laughing Stock makes me feel like nothing else I have ever heard. I have every contour of this thing memorized, and it has taken all of the time I have put into it to bring me even to the meager understanding of it I have. All I can tell you is that when the driving syncopated guitar kicks in on “Ascension Day,” or when everything else but the pitter-patter drum beat drops out and the piano chords ring out like sunlight on “New Grass,” my heart moves. Almost literally, it feels like my heart moves.

I can trace the patterns from the last two Talk Talk albums to so many of the artists I love most, from Marillion to Elbow to Shearwater to anyone making slowly unfolding post-rock. Heck, The Choir’s song “Circle Slide” uses Talk Talk’s “The Rainbow” as a blueprint, to gorgeous effect. These albums aren’t talked about much, but I hear their influence everywhere. Nothing sounds quite like them, though, especially Laughing Stock. I am listening to it right now and I am finding it hard to write words. Any words.

Laughing Stock was the end of Talk Talk. Their proposed sixth album, once called Mountains on the Moon, morphed into Mark Hollis’ one self-titled solo album, issued in 1998. It is even quieter, even less present, than Talk Talk at its most reticent. I’ve heard it said that Hollis’ style was one of appreciating silence, of building songs in rooms too large for them and pointing out all the unused space. The music on Mark Hollis takes up almost no space in the largest room Hollis ever worked in. If you listen to all of his work back to back, he almost disappears before your ears.

Which brings me to one of the things I admired most about him: he did, in fact, disappear. Shortly after issuing his solo album, Hollis decided he was done with the music industry and simply faded from view for the next 20 years. I’ve seen this called a “mysterious absence,” but there’s nothing mysterious about it: Hollis has told us why. “I choose for my family,” he said. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

And he stuck to it. No reunion tours, no cash-grab anniversary shows, nothing. Man, is that admirable. He decided to stop, and he stopped. In doing so, he taught me that musicians don’t owe us anything. I would have loved another ten Hollis solo albums, but I love even more the idea that he lived his final years as the person he wanted to be. That, I think, is the lesson I learned from the life of Mark Hollis: be who you are, no matter what. I’m nowhere near as good at it as he was, but I’m trying.

Mark Hollis died on Monday, Feb. 25, at the too-young age of 64. He had been battling an illness for a short while, and never recovered from it. In very Mark Hollis fashion, his death couldn’t be confirmed for a full day. But news of his passing led to dozens of tributes from the musicians he inspired, and reading those has been heartwarming.

As for me, I’ve been listening to Talk Talk almost non-stop, and working through a complicated sadness. Here’s where I’ve landed: I am grateful. I’m grateful for the incredible, life-changing music Hollis gifted to us, and grateful that he ended his career on his own terms and lived out his life as he chose. Life’s what you make it, the wise man once said, and Mark Hollis lived those words.

Rest in peace.

Next week, something that doesn’t have anything to do with death, I hope. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles