Chip Z’Nuff Goes It Alone
Is Diamond Boy Enuff?

There are a lot of things I should be writing about this week.

Amanda Shires’ new album, for instance, is as lovely as everyone says it is. Lucero’s Among the Ghosts does exactly what it should, and is probably that band’s best work. I have yet to catch up with Meg Myers and Cowboy Junkies and Dirty Projectors. If I wanted to maintain the illusion that Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. is a real music column with any concern at all for what I should be reviewing, I’d pick one or two of those.

But this column is meant as a chronicle of what I am actually listening to, and so I have to be honest. I don’t care as much about anything I’ve listed there as I do about the new Enuff Z’Nuff. If there’s one release this week that made me rush home, rip off the cellophane and listen right away, it’s this one. I have no idea what that says about me, other than the fact that I’ve been a fan of this Chicago-based rock band for nearly 30 years. Feel free to ridicule. It won’t stop me from being excited.

I’ve lauded Enuff Z’Nuff in this space before, many times. In 1989 and 1990, they were exactly what I needed to bridge the gap between my teenage metalhead years and my budding fascination with the Beatles and all things ‘60s pop. I’d never even heard the term “power pop,” but I knew I loved what Enuff Z’Nuff was doing. Their self-titled debut was pretty good, but it was their second album, Strength, that truly made me a fan. Big, screaming pop-metal guitars surrounding beautifully written songs, melodies that went on for days and gorgeous harmonies. It’s still a great record.

And then they just, you know, kept on doing that. For the next 15 years, they seemed unstoppable, issuing one great power pop album after another. For a while they would reach back into their archives and come up with gems like Peach Fuzz that they would gussy up and release in between their more forward-looking records, like the powerhouse Tweaked. I think their best album is 2000’s Ten – it’s more concise than some of their more sprawling efforts, and has a tremendous hit rate when it comes to songwriting.

For all of that time, the Lennon and McCartney of Enuff Z’Nuff remained Donnie Vie and Chip Z’Nuff. They’re dope-smoking rock stars, to be sure, and no one would ever call them role models, but man, could those two guys write a hook. They don’t get along very well these days, and it’s a shame – Donnie quit the band more than once, returning just for studio efforts like 2010’s terrific Dissonance, and he hasn’t been a member of the touring version of Enuff Z’Nuff for more than a decade.

So now here is Diamond Boy, the 15th Enuff Z’Nuff album and the first one without Donnie Vie’s participation at all. Chip sings every song here, and is the lead songwriter, and there’s some question in my mind whether this should count as an Enuff Z’Nuff album at all. But thankfully, the record is good enough that those questions just fade away as I’m listening to it. I miss Vie’s distinctive voice – Z’Nuff doesn’t quite have the power or the character to make up for it – but the songs here are pretty great. If this had to exist, I’m glad it’s as good as it is.

Chip has taken a deep dive into ‘60s psychedelica here, upping the weirdness while keeping the guitar-rock core of the band intact. The title track is fun, but it’s “Where Did You Go” that makes the best early argument for this album’s existence. It has a hook that will sink into you, and the band plays it with swagger, which is all you can ask. As the album goes on, Chip gives us straight-ahead rockers like “Metalheart,” but also more complex ‘60s pop numbers like “Down On Luck.” This is a dark record, with references to cheap cocaine and a song called “Dopesick,” but it’s a catchy one, and its more psych-infused moments give it a flair all its own.

“Love is On the Line” is probably my favorite here, its strange Lennon-esque chord progression building and changing throughout, its chorus big and memorable. Those who write Enuff Z’Nuff off as an ‘80s glam band always seem to miss songs like this one, or like the closer “Imaginary Man,” which borrows a melody line from “For No One.” They’ve been part of the EZN DNA since the start, and it’s their ability and willingness to write songs like these that has kept me in their corner for three decades.

I’m sad that there needed to be an Enuff Z’Nuff album without Donnie Vie, but I’m pleased that the one we have is so solid. Chip and his new band can swagger all they want to. Diamond Boy is much better than I expected it would be. And for those who miss Donnie, he’s taking pre-orders for his new album now, with an eye toward releasing it this year. Three decades in and Enuff Z’Nuff keeps earning my fandom.

* * * * *

In addition to this new one from a band that draws equally from the ‘60s and the ‘80s, I’ve been listening non-stop to an album from 1979.

The obscurity of Daniel Amos continues to frustrate me, decades after I first caught on to them. They’re one of the most important spiritual rock bands ever, the one that set the template of creativity and poetry for others that followed. Inside of a very small circle, Terry Scott Taylor and his band of musical miscreants are legends. They were among the first to bring a sense of artistry to the Jesus-rock industry, and for pretty much their entire career, that industry had no idea what to do with them.

The record I have been binge-listening to is a case in point. In 1978, DA released Shotgun Angel, a weird record that is half Eagles, half prog-rock. This got them signed to Solid Rock Records, owned by fellow pioneer Larry Norman, and in 1979 they delivered their third album, Horrendous Disc, which found them taking the plunge into full-on rock. The first four DA albums chart a musical evolution so sharp that their early fans still complain about it, and that was only exacerbated by Solid Rock’s decision not to release Horrendous Disc for two years.

That means that in 1981, DA’s third album – a jump away from country-gospel and into ‘70s radio-rock – was issued mere weeks before their fourth, Alarma, which dove straight into ‘80s new wave. What fans they had built up to this point were thrown two curve balls at once, and must have wondered what had happened to the band they had known. There’s a fearlessness to this rapid artistic growth, but even the band wanted to ease their fans in a little bit more than their label allowed them to.

Horrendous Disc is often overlooked in DA’s catalog, and a new, astonishingly wonderful reissue aims to correct that. The result of a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the Horrendous Disc box combines the remastered album with four CDs of bonus material, a beautiful book, some signed postcards, a guitar pick and a pin, collected together in a purposefully garish box. I don’t need most of that stuff, but the five CDs of content are all indispensable and help make the case for Horrendous Disc’s importance.

Start with the album itself, which is splendid. “I Love You #19” starts with a classic ‘70s guitar riff, and it has never sounded bigger or better. This song should be on classic rock radio. It’s just a killer tune, and it sets the tone. Most of the rest of Horrendous Disc has a classic ‘70s sound and feel, from the Zevon-esque “Hound of Heaven” to the Jeff Lynne-style extravaganza of “Man in the Moon.” These songs all tackle their spiritual themes with metaphor and poetry – “On the Line” is about prayer, though you’d never know it just from listening once – and the lyrics demand close reads to tease out their meanings. (This is completely different from the Christian music of today, which beats you over the head with its message.)

The title track that closes the album is something else entirely, a five-minute psychodrama about a broken marriage. It’s a constantly shifting masterpiece, one of the earliest signs that Daniel Amos wasn’t going to be like any other band. (I will cop to hearing metal band Deliverance’s version of this first, but you can’t beat the original, and it sounds better here than I have ever heard it.)

As for the bonus material, well, therein lies a tale. Between 1979 and 1981, Daniel Amos didn’t just sit around waiting for their album to come out. They wrote and recorded a bunch of tunes that were never released until now. The second disc of this set contains what is basically a new Daniel Amos album, slotting in between Horrendous and Alarma, and it’s wonderful. The third disc contains four-track demos of the “ten biggies,” the ten songs intended for the next record that never happened. We also get the requisite plethora of demos and alternate takes, and a full concert from 1979, but it’s this unreleased material that is the true treasure.

And there are two interesting things about it, to me. One is that, while Taylor remains the leader of this band, Jerry Chamberlain proves himself a musical force here. His material stands strong and tall with Taylor’s, and it’s great stuff. The other is that these songs don’t provide a bridge to Alarma at all. You might think you’d be able to hear the new wave influences creeping in, but you can’t. The touchstone remains ELO for all of this material, which is fascinating. Where did the angular guitar slashing of the next record come from? It remains a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the enduring legacy of Horrendous Disc. While few people have heard it (or even heard of it), within the spiritual pop realm, it’s an absolute classic. I’m so glad to see it finally get the reissue it deserves. In my world, its importance cannot be overstated. You can check it out yourself at www.danielamos.com.

Next week, the new Death Cab for Cutie comes out, so I’m bound to write about something people care about. Or maybe not. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Feel the Flood Fall In
My Report from the Prayer Chain Reunion Show

I hate saying “you had to be there.”

In a lot of ways, that phrase is antithetical to what this column is about. I set out to chronicle my musical experiences not so that readers would be jealous and upset over the music I heard and saw, but so that my excitement for that music could serve well those who do not get to hear the volume of music that I do. Saying “you had to be there,” for whatever reason, is like throwing my hands up and admitting that no matter how well I describe something, no matter how evocative the language I use, reading my words is a paltry substitute for hearing the music itself.

Trouble is, that’s true. There’s little I can tell you about Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, for instance, that you could not glean just by listening to it. And nothing I write here should be seen as a proper stand-in for your own musical experience. That’s all well and good for albums one can buy in a shop or online (or hear in any number of ways), because even if I’m helpful to you in deciding what to listen to, you’re not dependent on me to provide the experience itself. You can listen for yourself.

It gets trickier where live performances are concerned, though, and some of the most transcendent musical moments of my life have come while watching an incredible band play on stage. This past Saturday I experienced another one in a small-ish ballroom in Nashville, surrounded by strangers who were nevertheless brothers and sisters that evening, there to witness something that may never happen again. And nothing I write here is going to capture for you the thrill of being in that room.

In short, you had to be there. But let me tell you about it anyway.

In 1993, while the Seattle grunge invasion was in full swing, I happened upon an album called Shawl by a still-unknown California outfit called The Prayer Chain. If you’ve guessed that I found this record in the same Christian bookstore where I had, three years earlier, picked up the Choir’s Circle Slide, the album that set me along a path of amazing spiritual pop and rock music, you’d be right. At this point I was buying anything and everything that looked cool from that store, and I remain surprised at how much good stuff I had found in such a short time, bands and artists that have stayed with me for a quarter-century.

This Shawl album, for instance. I saw that it had been produced by Steve Hindalong, drummer for the Choir, and that was enough for me. I bought it sound unheard, and I liked it a great deal. It reminded me of Jane’s Addiction in places, but it was weird in its own way. The first sound on the album is a full-throated “HI-YAH-HI-YAH-HI-YAH,” repeated four times like a test to see if you want to continue. “Fifty-Eight,” an emotional tale of parental neglect, was in 5/8 time. (Hence the title.) “The Hollow” was a Peter Gabriel-esque interlude with lots of hand percussion. “Never Enough” used that percussion for texture on an epic which ended with a ghostly choral round.

Shawl is a great rock record, one of those never-heard classics that you stumble across and wonder why no one else knows about it. Two years later, though, the Prayer Chain released what is still one of my 20 favorite albums of all time. Mercury remains unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. The songs got a lot more elliptical, the arrangements more bizarre, and for most of the record the Prayer Chain leaves their identity as a rock band behind entirely.

Andy Prickett’s guitar plays characters here, spinning gossamer magic one moment and filling the room with crazy noise the next, while Eric Campuzano’s bass holds down the fort, because the drums and percussion are off on their own trip. Some of it is inhumanly beautiful (“Mercury,” “Bendy Line”) while some of it is unsettling in the best ways (“Grylliade,” “Shiver”). And the closer, “Sun Stoned,” still astounds me. It’s nearly nine minutes long (one of two songs here to stretch to that length), built around a single bass figure, and though it begins almost inaudibly, it ends as one of the most exuberant alien celebrations I have ever heard.

No one’s ever made an album quite like Mercury, and so of course the band broke up shortly after. Their half-live album Antarctica has remained the closest I thought I would ever get to seeing The Prayer Chain live for more than 20 years.

You all know what’s coming, right? A couple successful Kickstarters to get Mercury and then Shawl pressed onto high-quality vinyl, and then the bombshell: The Prayer Chain would reunite for two shows, one in Los Angeles and one in Nashville, to celebrate Shawl’s 25th anniversary. It’s a dream, it’s a miracle, and there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to miss it. Add a full-on rock show by the Choir and an opening set from spiritual pop-punkers Dakota Motor Co. (who also had not played together for two decades), and what was already a must-see turned into the most important musical journey of my year.

My long-suffering girlfriend agreed to accompany me and we made a six-day Nashville vacation out of it. We visited Kix Brooks’ vineyard and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. It was a great time, and I’m glad we did it, and I’m doubly glad she got to see the Prayer Chain play, since she enjoyed it. (I was joking with her that she was there for something monumental, but she couldn’t really brag about it because anyone who cared about it was in that room.)

I’m not going to be able to tell you what it was like to see this show, or to be in a room with so many people who loved this band the way I do. That alone would have made the trip worth it for me – I connected with several people I had only met online, including Robert Berman, with whom I sang old Choir songs in Centennial Park, and Matthew Coppola, who graciously gave us two of his early access tickets. The show was a who’s-who of spiritual pop music – among the luminaries there were Kevin Max, Steve Taylor and Phil Madiera. If you don’t know who any of them are, their presence might not mean much to you, but to the folks in that room, they were royalty.

Dakota Motor Co. had not played together in 20+ years either, but you would never have known it. Their brand of ‘90s punk-pop is still fun, and they played with a lot of energy. I understand they’re recording new material, and I’ll be first in line to buy it. The Choir is The Choir – they’re amazing live, and for this show they were accompanied by Stephen Mason of Jars of Clay on guitar and Wayne Everett from the Prayer Chain on percussion. They ran through some new songs from Bloodshot and then played the classics, including “Robin Had a Dream” in celebration of Robin Spurs joining them on bass for this show. “Circle Slide” was, as always, a highlight – swirly and massive and chaotic and loud, with sax player Dan Michaels jumping off stage and roaming through the crowd for the breakdown section. If you haven’t seen the Choir live, you should remedy that. Thirty-five years into their career and they’re still fantastic.

And then the seas parted and we made it up to the front row for the main event. I expected the Prayer Chain to be good. I did not expect them to be magical. It’s sometimes easy to compare bands, but the Prayer Chain to me doesn’t sound like anyone. For this show they had three drummers, including the indomitable Steve Hindalong from the Choir, and their astonishing guitarist Andrew Prickett unveiled his full gamut of sounds. The band played all of Shawl in order, so we got more of the Jane’s Addiction style from them, but songs like “Fifty Eight” were life-changing, and the transition from “The Hollow” into “Never Enough” was one of my favorite concert-going moments ever. The crowd sang every line of every song, and singer Tim Taber stood on the railing in front of us a couple times, towering over us. (Tim had just turned 50, and I hope I look half that good when I’m 50. I mean, I don’t look half that good now, so the odds are not in my favor, but you know.)

As I mentioned above, I like Shawl, but I love Mercury, and my favorite moments of the show revolved around finally getting to hear the Mercury material live. They opened with a shortened version of “Sun Stoned,” and man, that was something to see. We also got the title track (my favorite Prayer Chain song) and “Sky High,” the epic. I could not have anticipated how physically draining (in a good way) it would be to hear these songs performed. I shouted along with every word, I swayed to the glorious guitar textures, I moved to the tribal percussion. Audience and band were as one, and there was no greater evidence of that than when bassist Eric Campuzano kept stopping “Chalk” to make sure he was in tune with Prickett (and that he remembered how to play it). The crowd never turned on him, but rather lifted him up. “Aside from my children being born, this is the best night of my life,” he said.

All that plus my girlfriend got a free copy of Shawl on vinyl, handed out by Taber himself. After the final encore, we all stood around stunned at what we had just seen. And of course the band hung out afterward, taking pictures and just talking with whoever wanted to stick around. They knew, like we knew, that this would never happen again. Those of us privileged enough to see it witnessed something that burned brightly, but briefly, like the Prayer Chain themselves.

I hate to say it, but you kind of had to be there.

If you missed the Prayer Chain during the ‘90s, well, you’re not alone. They do have a Bandcamp page. Shawl isn’t there, for some reason – I expect they’re waiting until all the Kickstarter vinyl ships before listing it – but Mercury is, as is Humb, the album as originally handed in to their record company. It really is unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Twenty-three years later and I’m still singing its praises.

Next week, I have no idea. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Just One More
You Don't Need to Break Ground to Build

Last week I discussed Between the Buried and Me, a band so complex that even some people I know who gravitate toward musicianship as an end in itself find them daunting. In retrospect, I should have saved them for this week’s column, to provide contrast.

I used to believe that complexity automatically meant quality, and that because you can write a 30-minute suite with 12 sections labeled with Roman numerals, that makes you better than bands who can’t do that. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started more and more sentences with “but as I’ve grown older.” I’ve also come to appreciate simplicity as an ideal. I still get annoyed when I hear those same four generic chords being used again and again, but I have grown to love simple songs performed in simple ways.

Here’s a case in point: my blind fascination with all kinds of technical metal music led me to miss out on punk entirely. I was in my 20s before I heard the Clash, or the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols, and I frankly dismissed a lot of what they had to offer. Green Day was one of the first punk-ish bands I really listened to (I know, the shame), and by that time the entire idea of punk had been co-opted and commodified. What I didn’t understand then was that punk, as a movement, was partially about the democratization of music. It was a reaction to the notion that musical education (which is, historically, reserved for the rich) is necessary to be a musician, and a refutation of prog rock and all it stood for.

Of course, I love me some prog rock, but do I still think chops are the most important element in determining a band’s worth? Nah. Last night I went to see Aimee Mann play a free show in downtown Chicago. She’s great – she’s a tremendous songwriter, one of my very favorites, and a strong singer and performer. Did she do anything on stage last night that made me think she could out-play John Petrucci? Or even some of the guitar players I know personally? Nope. Mann writes straightforward, strummable folk-rock songs. But they’re genius.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this one as well, but one of the first sorta-kinda-punk bands I got into was MxPx. I first gravitated toward them because they were sold in Bibles, Books and Things, the Christian bookstore near my home in Massachusetts. This is because they were on Tooth and Nail Records, which made its name selling edgier bands to Christian kids who couldn’t stand Petra. I was, at the time, really into anything I could find at Bibles, Books and Things, so I loved Life in General, the band’s third album, and I’ve stuck with them.

I’m so loyal that I Kickstarted their new self-titled album several months ago, and when it arrived all shiny in my inbox a couple weeks ago, I confirmed something I had long suspected: I am never going to hate this band. In a very general way, all of their songs sound the same – they’re loud, fast and melodic, the very definition of pop-punk. And it took a lot of Bad Religion records to come to the realization that the sameness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. MxPx has been playing in the same sandbox for more than 25 years, and they don’t leave it on this new album.

But what we have here is 11 fast, fun, hummable tunes, and I like every one of them. This album is in and out in 30 minutes, which is about the right length for a pop-punk record anyway, and in this case leaves me wanting more. As befits a self-titled record a quarter-century into their run, MxPx is about looking back at how far the band has come, and in doing so they seem to have captured some of the fire they played with in their early days. Quick opener “Rolling Strong,” standout “Let’s Ride,” “Uptown Streets” (which sports my favorite guitar riff here), “20/20 Hindsight,” “The Way We Do,” and on and on – these are tunes dripping with nostalgia, and with pride.

And yes, this breaks no new ground whatsoever. Mike Herrera still sounds like a bratty 17-year-old. (He’s 41 now.) Yuri Riley still plays the drums like he’s outrunning a train. Everything sounds exactly as you remember it, if you remember MxPx. This should be a detriment. I should be expecting a band on its 12th album to try new things, go new places. But I don’t care. I’m really enjoying this album, as I have every MxPx album I’ve heard since I was 17. No shame. This is just fun.

If you were to put Punch Brothers on the absolute other end of the musical spectrum, I’d be hard pressed to disagree. Where MxPx is loud and brash, Chris Thile’s prog-grass outfit is quiet and considered. The MxPx boys can certainly play, but they’re not virtuosos by any stretch of the imagination. Meanwhile the five Brothers are all masters at their instruments – Thile is a once-in-a-generation kind of player, and he’s somehow found a band that doesn’t feel like his backup dancers. They match him perfectly. While Mike Herrera would probably be kicked out of Lake Woebegone, Thile has been hosting A Prairie Home Companion for years now. (It’s called Live From Here now, but it’s the same show.)

So what could they possibly have in common? Like MxPx, Punch Brothers break no new ground on their new album,All Ashore. It’s their fifth, and by now the quintet’s sound is well established – they use the traditional bluegrass lineup of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass to create complex musical excursions, and the occasional killer pop song. Last time out, on an album called The Phosphorescent Blues, the Brothers debuted drums and percussion, pushing their sound to new places, but here they return to the traditional instrumentation they’re known for.

And if you need further proof that you don’t need to innovate to create fantastic music, this record should do it. These nine songs are simply wonderful. They’re all originals, and two of them are complex instrumentals, while the rest find Thile in fine voice, his twisty lyrics telling tales of an America in pain. The seven-minute title track sets the tone well, spinning a story of a family falling to pieces with a delicate eye for detail. Thile gives himself a vocal workout on “The Angel of Doubt,” on which his whisper cuts through the silence and his swaying sing-speak final verse comes closer to rap than he ever has. And on “Just Look at This Mess” the band embraces a gorgeous sense of dynamics, moving from sparse to sweeping in five minutes.

If you’re a fan of this band, there’s nothing on All Ashore you haven’t heard before. “Jumbo” is the down-home bluegrass one, this time with a political bent. “The Gardener” is the slow one with the beautiful harmonies. “Three Dots and a Dash” is the workout, the five Brothers circling around each other, fingers flailing. “It’s All Part of the Plan” is the single, and the most hummable one. This falls into familiar patterns, but you won’t care. Just listen to these arrangements, to the way that each instrument finds it space, then makes room. Listen to how astonishing the playing is on “Jungle Bird,” how natural the build is on “Mess,” how typically extraordinary every element of the closer “Like It’s Going Out of Style” is.

Every bit of All Ashore is thoughtfully considered, every moment carefully crafted to showcase what this band does. That they don’t do anything new is in no way a detriment. There is no other band like this one, and if we’ve heard everything they’re capable of, and the next dozen Punch Brothers records sound exactly like this one, I won’t be upset or disappointed. You don’t need to break new ground to build, and they’ve built something wonderful here.

Next week, I’m in Nashville to see the Prayer Chain reunite after more than 20 years. Believe me that I’m going to write about that. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Heavy With a Twist
New Metal Albums Rewriting the Rulebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

I think I’ve been waiting for the anger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

Good lord, am I busy lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning,

a column by andre salles