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

See you in line Tuesday morning,

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

Ray LaMontagne is from Lewiston, Maine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

It’s a good time to be alive.

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You knew there had to be a but.)

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is Me
Janelle Monae Bares Herself on the Great Dirty Computer

It’s always an experience when you can pinpoint the exact moment a musician you admire transforms into a full-on cultural icon.

It doesn’t happen often, and it rarely happens to musicians I love. But we’re right now living through Janelle Monae’s cultural icon moment, and it’s a joy to watch. Monae has been astonishingly good for a long time, and if you’d told me in 2010 that this jaw-droppingly talented mix of Prince and Erykah Badu with a penchant for science fiction narratives would, before the decade was out, get her name on everyone’s lips, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But I would have been excited for the future.

Even among my more adventurous friends, Monae has been a hard sell. Her first two albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, were chapters in an ongoing narrative about android Cyndi Mayweather and her misadventures in a future where love is outlawed. They’re lengthy, dense things, broken up into suites and beholden to no one style or genre. I knew within the first minutes of The ArchAndroid that I was in for a ride, and by the time I got to “Cold War,” I knew Monae was something special.

But iconic? I daresay no one could have predicted that. Monae leapt into the public consciousness with starring roles in two acclaimed motion pictures: Moonlight, which won Best Picture last year, and Hidden Figures, a film close to my heart for its depictions of women of color in science. She was riveting in both, revealing talents I didn’t know she had. And now she’s cemented her metamorphosis by releasing her finest, most accessible and most important album, Dirty Computer.

And I can’t stop listening to it. Not only is she the center of a cultural conversation, she’s made far and away the best record of 2018 so far. In possibly the most beautiful twist of this story, she did it by being herself. Dirty Computer leaves the story of Cyndi Mayweather behind, and focuses on the story of Janelle Monae. While I’ve never felt that her sci-fi leanings held her back – on the contrary, they set her apart – she sounds more liberated here than I’ve ever heard her. She’s owning her story and speaking it with staggering confidence, and it’s a joy to behold.

That’s not to say Dirty Computer ditches sci-fi entirely. As detailed in the accompanying “emotion picture,” the record takes place in another dystopian future, in which people are treated as computers, and thoughts and actions not sanctioned by the state are treated as computer viruses. People who dare to be themselves are termed “dirty,” and are forcibly “cleaned”: their memories are erased, experience by experience. The film casts each of the album’s songs of freedom and identity as recurring character Jane 57821’s “dirty” memories, which are erased by her captors. It’s a potent metaphor for the moralistic totalitarian state that decides whether LGBTQ people can be married, or use the bathroom, or even exist.

One of the best things about Dirty Computer, the album, is that you don’t need to know any of that. The movie adds context (and is beautiful), but the songs on this record don’t depend on it. In fact, I was surprised to find out that there was a sci-fi element to this thing at all, since the music is so personal. There’s no hiding here – Monae has literally come out and written about the freedom to be who she is and love who she chooses. It’s breathtaking to realize she’s been holding back before, and she lets it all out here.

She also trims back her genre-hopping, sticking to a cohesive sound throughout. It’s no secret that Monae worked with Prince on this album, but I was surprised at how much she evokes the late, lamented genius here. His spirit can be heard in every groove, but the influence isn’t just musical. This is an album that discusses sex in a frank and open (and supremely sexy) way – sex as a political statement and a political force – and who better to turn to when you’re making an album about that? Prince is the patron saint of the fearlessly liberated, and that’s the best way I’ve found to describe this record: fearlessly liberated.

You can hear it in the opening song (save for the introductory title track, which features Brian Freaking Wilson), “Crazy Classic Life.” It starts with Pastor Sean McMillan quoting Martin Luther King on the “we hold these truths to be self-evident” portion of the Declaration of Independence, and then launches into a thick synth groove, Monae singing, “Young, black, wild and free, naked on a limousine…” It’s a song about seizing the life in front of you, and after a first verse that would make Mike Huckabee run away screaming, she pointedly sings this: “I am not America’s nightmare, I’m the American dream.”

Throughout the record, Monae paints sex as a political act, as a protest. “Screwed” may be the most transgressive thing I have ever loved, an absolute powerhouse of a song that plays with its title – it alternately means sex and the end of civilization. (“We’re all screwed!”) “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” she sings, and I’ve caught myself from singing that line out loud in public more than once over the past few days. It’s an end-of-the-world hedonism anthem with a bitter truth at its core: sex appears to be one thing that the people who ruined the world are afraid of, since they try so hard to control it. As she says in the bridge, “If everything is sex except sex, which is power, you know power is just sex, so ask yourself who’s screwing you…”

“Pynk” might be even more subversive, even if it sounds more innocent, with its whispered vocals and synth burbles. It’s a celebration of sexuality, but black queer feminine sexuality, a point of view I can’t remember hearing (or at least hearing in a song this good) on a mainstream pop single before. It’s a song that somehow manages to touch on love, sex and gender identity within an intensely hummable three-minute ditty, and if you’re not listening closely you may not even realize what you’re singing along with. (You will if you’ve seen the stunning video, though.) That’s followed up by “Make Me Feel,” the one co-write with Prince, and you can tell. It’s a wickedly raunchy blues, the kind the Purple One used to give us all the time, and it’s so good to hear someone as devilishly talented as Monae carrying on that tradition.

Somewhere in the middle of all that is “Django Jane,” Monae’s triumphant return to rapping, and there are so many great lines in this rapid-fire ode to black womanhood that it would be futile to try to excerpt it. (OK, just one, because I’m particularly fond of this kiss-off to the patriarchy: “Move back, take a seat, you were not involved, hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue…”) “Django Jane” serves as connective tissue for an opening two-thirds that seamlessly barrels along, taking one sure-footed step after another, never faltering.

That’s not to say the closing third falters, because it doesn’t. But it does slow down the momentum and give way to some more reflective pieces. “I Like That” is gorgeous, a classic ballad about defiant individuality – not only does she like it, but she doesn’t “give a fuck” if she’s the only one who likes it. She describes herself here as “the random minor note you hear in major songs,” and I adore that. I also adore the mini-story she tells partway through, about being judged for her looks in grade school, crying it out, and deciding to never again care what people think.

In that vein, the lush, six-minute “Don’t Judge Me” takes solace in one person who won’t tear apart her flaws. It’s a nakedly vulnerable, almost unbearably intimate song. “I know I got issues but they drown when I kiss you,” she sings, and even with all of the clamor and force of the preceding tracks, this is the album’s most powerful moment to me. People are going to paint this as an album about sex – and it is – but it’s really about love. It’s about loving yourself enough to love others, which makes the retreat of “So Afraid,” this song’s companion piece, even sadder: “I’m fine in my shell, afraid of it all, afraid of loving you…”

And I kind of like that the album leaves it there, in the tension of love and fear, choosing to end with a political whirlwind called “Americans.” Monae takes on the guise of ignorance in the first verses: “I like my woman in the kitchen, teach my children superstitions…” She spins a chorus, though, that could come from anyone, herself included: “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land, I’m not crazy, baby, I’m American.” The spoken bridge, taken from McMillan again, leaves no doubt where her heart lies – it’s a series of conditions that, until they’re met, mean America is out of reach for many. It’s really worth quoting in full:

“Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. Until same-gender-loving people can be who they are, this is not my America. Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America. Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America. Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls, this is not my America. But I tell you today that the devil is a liar, because it’s gonna be my America before it’s all over.”

God, I hope so. Dirty Computer is a protest album, a bold statement of Monae’s identity wrapped in a strong case that she represents America just as much as anyone else here does. It’s an album that dares to dream that people of different races, different genders and different orientations can be as free as this album’s music sounds. It’s a stunning drawing back of the curtain, a highly personal plea for inclusion and equality, a record that understands and depicts sex as a political act and as a beautiful connection between people. All that, and it’s a glorious set of pop songs, as clever as they are indelible, as hummable as they are potent.

In short, it’s a powerful thing, this album, and we’ll look back on it as the moment Janelle Monae broke out of her cocoon and took flight. She belongs to the world now, and I hope we all deserve her. Dirty Computer is amazing, and I can’t even begin to imagine what she’s going to do next.

Speaking of next, we’ll have new things from Frank Turner, Gaz Coombes and Leon Bridges next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Some Weeks You Just Have to Get Through
Sting and Shaggy Mark a Pretty Rough Seven Days

Next week, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer comes out. It’s her third album, and the first one divorced from her Metropolis conceptual piece, and every song I have heard has been pretty amazing. The week after that we get Frank Turner and Gaz Coombes and Belly and Leon Bridges. I’m pretty excited for what’s coming up.

As for what’s already here? Well, some weeks you just have to put your head down and power through. And this is one of them.

Let’s begin with Sting and Shaggy. (Yes, for real, we’re gonna do this.) I’m a completist by nature. Sequential numbering is my nemesis. If I have one record from an artist, I feel this odd compulsion to have all of them. And if I’ve followed an artist for years (or in some cases, decades), I just can’t imagine not buying the latest of that artist’s endeavors, no matter how awful I expect it to be. This is how I have ended up with so many latter-day Tori Amos albums I will never listen to, and why I continue to buy Jandek records, despite finding him completely unlistenable most of the time.

It’s also why I have purchased 44/876, the new collaboration between English turtleneck-rocker Sting and Jamaican reggae superstar Shaggy, the man behind “Boombastic” and the anthem for all gaslighters, “It Wasn’t Me.” Sting is 66. Shaggy is 49. The pair has posed on motorcycles for the absolutely ridiculous cover of this thing. You can tell without even hearing a note that this is going to be a travesty, especially if you’re in this for Sting.

I am. I’ve been a fan of the erstwhile Gordon Sumner since I was 14. I saw Sting on the Nothing Like the Sun tour in 1988 – it was my first-ever concert, in fact – and I still love that record. If you count the Police, Sting has made more good music than bad, but he’s catching up. The arc of Sting’s career is long, but it bends toward horrible dreck. The moments when he shows what he can really do – the score to The Last Ship, for example – are fewer and further between. And now we have this.

I’m not even sure how to review this. It’s exactly what you think it will be, in the main: Sting adding his unmistakable voice to feel-good reggae music while Shaggy does his Shaggy thing. Sting has always kind of wanted to be Bob Marley, but thankfully he leaves a lot of the Jamaican vocal stylings to the actual Jamaican, which is a good thing. There are a couple songs that bring more of Sting’s style to the fore, like “Waiting for the Break of Day,” and those are the ones I dislike least.

But I can’t really say I like any of this. It starts out ridiculous and gets more so as it goes along. I can scarcely believe that Sting willingly sung a trifle like “Gotta Get Back My Baby,” or a coffeehouse reggae number like “Don’t Make Me Wait,” on which Shaggy announces “you know this is more to me than just hitting it.” “22nd Street” sounds like a Muzak version of John Mayer. “Dreaming in the U.S.A.” edges Police territory (but just enough to make you wish you were listening to the Police), and I appreciated its positive message about immigrants, if nothing else. But courtroom drama “Crooked Tree” sapped away all that good will.

That 44/876 exists in the first place is a fact I am finding it hard to wrap my mind around. I want to applaud Sting for trying new things, for stepping out of his comfort zone. But I also want to grab him by the shoulders and physically steer him back to that comfort zone, in the hopes that he’ll get back to making music I like sometime. Sting and Shaggy are reportedly best friends now, like Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, and that’s adorable. But I hope it doesn’t portend more collaborations like this one. Listening to 44/876 makes me want to do two things: 1) cry, and 2) put on Outlandos D’Amour, so I can remember how good Sting used to be.

I didn’t expect to have the same feeling about A Perfect Circle, but alas, I do. It’s been 14 years since Maynard James Keenan’s other band made a record, and 15 years since they made a record of new songs. It’s also been 12 years since Tool, Keenan’s main band, delivered something new, and his work as Puscifer hasn’t really been hitting the spot. Fans of Keenan’s voice and work have been in something of a dry season.

So a new A Perfect Circle record should be cause for celebration. And until I pushed play, I was admittedly quite excited. But Eat the Elephant (for that is what the new album is called) is by turns boring and trite. A Perfect Circle was never really a band, and Billy Howerdel plays most of the instruments again, but for the first time, it sounds like it. These songs feel empty, constructed from keyboards and not much else, and Keenan isn’t given a lot to truly sing. These songs meander and never quite seem to get where they’re going, and without the sense of dynamics that has marked this band’s prior work, the result is dishwater dull.

It takes four songs to get to anything that even sounds promising. The opening trilogy (“Eat the Elephant,” “Disillusioned” and “The Contrarian”) is so lifeless that I can barely believe Keenan stayed awake through them. That fourth song, “The Doomed,” starts with a powerhouse drum beat and sounds like it’s going to break the streak, but then it fails to offer much. If you know me, you know I was looking forward to a song called “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” and this one was certainly a surprise – it’s a major-key pop song with a jaunty melody and some dark lyrics. But it, as well, doesn’t go anywhere.

And on and on. First single “TalkTalk,” in addition to being a sharp condemnation of hypocritical Christianity, is the only thing here that almost sounds like A Perfect Circle, giving Keenan a chance to bring out his growl. “By and Down the River” isn’t new – it appeared on the band’s best-of five years ago, and hasn’t gotten any better. It sounds like the Cure on an off day. Howerdel finally pulls the stops out on the final couple tracks, but it’s too little, too late.

I feel pretty safe in saying that Eat the Elephant is not what fans have waited 14 years for. It has some charms, certainly, and it’s always nice to hear Keenan, but I was jumping out of my skin to hear this thing, and now I’m dejectedly filing it away as a disappointment. I’m certainly going to come back to it and try to like it, but there’s no way I can pretend that this is filling my need for more from this band, and for more from this week.

In fact, I was about to write this whole week off when we got an eleventh-hour save. On Friday, stoner metal gods Sleep surprise-issued their reunion album, The Sciences, their first in nearly 20 years. If you don’t know Sleep, you probably don’t understand why this was kept under wraps until just a few hours before it came out, nor why news of its existence caused so much excitement.

Suffice it to say that Sleep, a power trio from California, embodied and defined stoner metal for the whole of the 1990s. They play slow, powerful, endless groove metal, best exemplified by their magnum opus, Dopesmoker, a 63-minute song about the Weedian people on their way to the Riff-Filled Land. (Did I mention they smoke a lot?) Dopesmoker is one of the most impressive metal achievements I’m aware of, and it broke up the band. (It also took until 2012 to get a definitive version out.)

Since then, guitarist/singer Matt Pike has been fronting the amazing High on Fire, and bassist Al Cisneros formed the duo OM, playing the same slow stoner metal but without guitars. Still and all, neither of these bands were Sleep. Only Sleep is Sleep, and this reunion record proves it. The Sciences is adorned with a cover depicting an astronaut smoking an enormous bong in orbit, and the album sounds like the band has never been away. The riffs are huge and stunningly simple, the bass work is monumental, new drummer Jason Roeder is a powerhouse. Everything I loved about Sleep is here.

The two centerpiece songs on this new album have been around a while. The 12-minute “Sonic Titan” and the 14-minute “Antarcticans Thawed” are classic Sleep, rumbling forward without moving from square one. Of course Sleep would write a song called “Giza Butler,” and of course it would be 10 minutes long. Of course Sleep would kick things off with “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” more of their pot-laced fantasy work. No surprises here, until you come to “The Botanist,” the six-minute instrumental that closes the record. This song is the first evolution in Sleep’s sound in evidence here, Cisneros taking a back seat to Pike’s searing leads, and it’s tremendous.

Is a new Sleep album enough to put this week in the win column for me? Hard to say, but I have been digging on it since midnight Friday, and I don’t expect to stop. It would take a lot to blot out the Sting/Shaggy fiasco, but if anyone can, it’s Sleep. Still, if it takes a surprise metal release to even start balancing the scales, we’re gonna need some more good music stat.

Next week, Janelle Monae returns to save 2018. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Three Women
And Three Really Good New Albums

I don’t really need to review the Derek Smalls album, do I?

I mean, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Harry Shearer, one of the three actors who portrayed fictional band Spinal Tap in the amazing mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, has resurrected his character, Derek Smalls, to release what is billed as Smalls’ first solo album. It’s called Smalls Change: Meditations Upon Ageing, and it’s a parody of every middle-aged rock star’s self-indulgent string-laden odes to growing old.

And it’s great. Of course it is. Shearer somehow gets us to care about Smalls while never betraying an ounce of emotion. It’s even better that he can’t really sing – Smalls’ worn-out croak is exactly what these tunes need. The title track is a sweeping anthem about Spinal Tap breaking up. “Memo to Willie” is exactly what you think it is, if you think it is about Smalls trying to talk his penis out of erectile dysfunction. “MRI” is a horror-rock tune about getting an MRI. “Gummin’ the Gash” should need no explanation. Neither should “Hell Toupee.”

As Spinal Tap did on their last album, Break Like the Wind, Shearer gathered an insanely prodigious group of musicians together to make this thing, including Joe Satriani, Rick Wakeman, Steve Vai, Richard Thompson, Dweezil Zappa, Taylor Hawkins and, in a cameo that will have you choking with laughter, Donald Fagen. The final track is a nine-minute epic called “When Men Did Rock” that looks back fondly on the days of long hair and loud guitars, and cements Derek Smalls as a man stuck in time, unable or unwilling to move on, squeezing himself into leather pants and trying to relive his glory years. There’s a sadness to this, as there often is to Shearer’s work, behind all the hilarity.

“When Men Did Rock” is a sharp satire in another way, too: it looks back on a time when women musicians were a lot more rare. It was the men who did the rocking in Derek Smalls’ nostalgic reverie, and I’m glad the world has moved on from then, because it’s the women who are going to save 2018, musically speaking. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer comes out in two weeks, and everything I’ve heard from that has been intense. There’s a new Belly album coming, and new things from Beach House, Courtney Barnett, Chvrches, Neko Case, Lykke Li and the Innocence Mission. And that’s what we know about right now.

You can tide yourself over with the three terrific records by female artists I have on tap this week, too. Start with the new Wye Oak album, their sixth. I haven’t had a lot of time for Wye Oak in this space. I’ve always liked this duo, just not with the fervor their more ardent fans express. Jenn Wasner is a fine singer and a pretty good songwriter, and though I didn’t think their breakthrough record, Civilian, was quite as revelatory as many did, I enjoyed it and have kept up with the band since.

While some might consider Civiliantheir masterpiece, I’m going to present the counter-argument: The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is the best album Wye Oak has made. This one takes the more tentative experiments with keyboards and synthesizers that marked 2014’s Shriek and fully brings them on board. During the best parts of The Louder I Call, it’s almost hard to remember that the band hasn’t always sounded like this, hasn’t always had one foot in the realm of Kate Bush. It’s a transformation so complete at this point that their more guitar-heavy work of just 10 years ago feels like a centuries-old memory.

That wouldn’t mean a lot if Wasner and Andy Stack had not delivered possibly their best set of songs. But here they are, and I almost couldn’t believe how much I liked The Louder I Call as it unspooled. I often find Wye Oak songs forgettable, but I’ve been humming some of these for a while now. The title track is a rapid-fire bit of keyboard-y goodness. “Lifer” is a lovely little lament, and “Over and Over” tumbles me with its tricky beat and its ethereal harmonies. “You of All People” has the makings of an ‘80s ballad, all ringing guitars and Wasner’s clear, strong voice, and I’ve had the “oh-oh” chorus stuck in my skull for days.

All of that pales next to “It Was Not Natural,” the best song on this record and one of the best songs of 2018. It’s a melodic piano-led wonder, the kind that singer-songwriters the world over would kill to conjure from the air. “Only human hands could give us something so unforgiving,” Wasner sings over big synth chords, and I’m in, completely. Most of this record is a proof of concept of this new Wye Oak sound, and “It Was Not Natural” is its flying-colors flagship. The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is the best kind of surprise, the sound of a band completing a risky metamorphosis into something better than they’ve been.

Laura Veirs doesn’t undergo any such change on The Lookout, her tenth album. Two years after joining Neko Case and k.d. lang in a delightful supergroup, she’s returned with another in a long line of gorgeous, low-key, atmospheric records in her usual style. Luckily it’s a style I am nowhere near getting sick of. The Lookout’s 12 songs weave a magical spell, akin to Beth Orton’s best material, and continue the hot streak she has been on since at least July Flame.

Veirs writes moody and sweet acoustic pieces and performs them with a tremendous band that includes her husband, producer Tucker Martine. This album includes guest vocals from Karl Blau, Jim James and Sufjan Stevens, but as usual, her voice and her songs are the star. “Everybody Needs You” is an early standout, its electronic drum beat underpinning a murky web of acoustic strums and chiming electric notes, violins shimmering their way through the clouds. “Seven Falls” works in that breezy California sun-strummed sound, complete with lap steel, while “Mountains of the Moon” sounds like an old folk song dusted off and sung with deep feeling.

Stevens shows up on “Watch Fire,” repeating the title line in the verses of one of the more upbeat songs on the record. The title track is a wispy love song that pivots on the simple yet satisfying line “man alive, I’m glad that I have you.” The strings on that track and on “The Meadow” are terrific. “When It Grows Darkest” sashays along on a 5/8 beat and a lovely sentiment: “When it grows darkest the stars come out.”

Really, I could spend the next eight paragraphs talking highlights from this record. I’m hopeful that her work with Case and lang has widened her audience, because The Lookout is another swell little record, one that easily puts Laura Veirs on the same footing as her more celebrated contemporaries. Here’s hoping more people hear it, and she gets to keep making records like this one.

So that’s two great options for you, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t enjoyed anything quite as much lately as I am enjoying Juliana Hatfield’s tribute album to Olivia Newton-John. Yes, you read that right, the woman who made the angry, scrappy Pussycat last year has just returned with 14 loving renditions of songs made famous by Sandra Dee from the Grease film. And she’s done this completely without irony.

Granted, Newton-John’s discography is quite a bit deeper than the soundtracks (Grease and Xanadu) she is best known for, and Hatfield pours her heart into this tour of her hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The best part of this record is that Hatfield never winks at you. These are just great songs, and she treats them as such, playing them the way she would any melodic power-pop tunes. She opens with “I Honestly Love You” and follows up with “Suspended in Time,” from the Xanadu soundtrack, and these songs set the tone. If you didn’t know their origins, you’d just think these are great Juliana Hatfield tunes.

I also love that Hatfield didn’t skip ‘80s material like “Physical” and “Totally Hot.” Both of these tunes are transformed into six-string-heavy rockers, and Hatfield performs them with conviction. She only dips into Grease once, but it’s the biggest of Newton-John’s hits: “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Hatfield performs it straight, and it’s perfect. I’ve been anticipating this record ever since I heard about it, and it did not disappoint. The love Hatfield has for these songs is evident in every note, and she makes me love them too. You couldn’t ask for more than that.

Next week, it looks like a rough one. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Episode XII: Return of the Enduring
The Gentle Art of Keeping Things Interesting

Everybody loves a good debut album.

For instance, many of my friends are going nuts over a band called Lo Moon, whose debut album dropped a few weeks ago. It’s a fine little 49 minutes, drawing from several influences I love, like Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel. The lyrics are often at a Chris Martin level, but they don’t detract too much. It’s a good record, and I am interested to see where this band heads next.

Yeah, everybody loves a good debut album. But I find myself more interested in bands and artists who have been at their thing for a while, plying their trade for years or even decades, building up a body of work. That’s how you can take the measure of an artist, to me: if their catalog tells a story, and that story ends up being worth hearing. As the saying goes, you have your whole life to write your first album, and only a couple months to write your second. I imagine it gets exponentially more difficult to make your 12th album interesting.

Oddly enough, I have a pair of 12th albums to discuss this week. In both of these cases I’ve been following the bands since their inception, and often marveling at the ways they have found to keep innovating throughout their long careers. After a dozen albums, though, the tricks are usually all out on the table. For instance, there are really only a few kinds of Eels songs – snarling rockers, sad ballad-fests and groove experiments. There’s some overlap sometimes, but those are the three modes Mark Oliver Everett writes in, and 12 albums in, he’s not changing.

Lately he’s been giving us albums that focus on one kind of these songs, like the recent trilogy of Hombre Lobo, End Times and  Tomorrow Morning. The previous Eels record, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, was more of a sad-sack piece, and there are really only a couple directions Everett likes to go after those. So for The Deconstruction, we get an existential meditation in song, an album akin to Everett’s early triumphs. Only not quite as good.

The Deconstruction splits the difference between more electronic, beat-driven numbers and sparse, slow rambles. Neither style hides too many surprises anymore, but they can both still be affecting. Early highlight “Bone Dry” rumbles by on its big drums, sounding like a second cousin to tunes like “Flyswatter,” and I can’t help smiling at repetitive lunkhead happy-dance number “Today Is the Day.” Meanwhile, you know exactly how a song like “Premonition” or “Sweet Scorched Earth” will go as soon as it starts, but Everett’s earnest croak still works.

But this album still ends up feeling more tired than I wish it did. Everett tries his best, trying these songs together with interludes that call back to one another and working to weave a story out of them, but the songs themselves are weaker than he’s been in a while. I like the simple lyrics of “Be Hurt,” but find the turgid music off-putting. I’ve heard Everett do the shimmy-blues of “You Are the Shining Light” so many times at this point that what should be an exciting moment late in the record just treads water. “There I Said It” might be the prettiest thing here, and is no doubt a deeply felt piece of work, but it sounds like every other Everett piano ballad. By the end of this record Everett has found love again, and I’ve heard him chronicle this cycle from despair to hope more than once.

I don’t want to suggest that The Deconstruction is bad, or that it doesn’t work. In fact, I don’t know why Everett’s whole thing works as well as it does, given his rudimentary lyrics, pedestrian voice and simple song construction. And yet, I love what he does. I like The Deconstruction in spite of itself, as it tries and fails to be better Eels albums, and I find myself swept up by the time the sweet “In Our Cathedral” ends. After more than 20 years at this, Everett ought to be surprising me (and, frankly, himself) a lot more than he does here, but I’m still susceptible to his inexplicable charms.

The same can be said for Nova Scotia’s own Sloan, a band I never expected to hit 12 albums. It took them four years longer than Eels to do it, but here we are. I’ve followed the ups and downs of this one-of-a-kind quartet since high school, moving with them through their ‘60s phase, their early ‘70s phase and their late ‘70s phase, listening as they slowly transformed into a classic power pop band. They’ve changed so much since their shoegazing early days, and that’s down to the myriad influences of the four members, all of whom write songs and sing them. Sloan is a true democracy, which has so far kept their work from slipping into pastiche or boredom.

That said, there are good Sloan albums and there are great Sloan albums. Last time out, they delivered a great one. 2014’s Commonwealth divided its four sides up between the band members, giving each a chance to shine over an extended suite, and the results were revelatory. It was a bit of a gimmick, but after a couple of nondescript platters, Commonwealth shook things up.

The just-released 12, on the other hand, is a good Sloan album. Each of the Sloaners gets three songs, and if you know what each one usually turns out, you won’t be bowled over by any of these tunes. Chris Murphy gives us the energetic guitar-pop he’s known for, particularly on opener “Spin Our Wheels” and late-album highlight “Wish Upon a Satellite.” Patrick Pentland is all about the rock, as always, and he delivers the biggest surprise: a thick return to the Smeared guitar sound on “The Day Will Be Mine.”

Jay Ferguson, meanwhile, turns in his eminently likeable, breezy pop, strumming an acoustic on “Right to Roam” and pounding a piano on the delightful, Kinks-esque “Essential Services.” And Andrew Scott gifts us with three more of his cerebral, scrappy standouts. I like “Gone for Good,” which meanders about on a space-y bass line and some lush harmonies, but I love “Year Zero,” his dirty, tricky guitar anthem. I remain impressed at this band’s ability to play on each other’s songs, retain each writer’s core identity (to the point where you can tell almost immediately who penned what), and still come together to create a Sloan sound.

There’s nothing at all wrong with 12. It contains no bad songs, no filler, no embarrassing moments. It’s the sound of a long-running band just doing what they do, and doing it well. That said, there’s nothing amazing about it either, and after a dozen albums, there are enough amazing ones to compare something like this to. This one is about the same quality as The Double Cross, or Action Pact. Those are really good records, so that’s nothing to scoff at.

And maybe sometimes, the secret to keeping things interesting after more than 25 years is just to keep on doing it. At various points during their career, I have been convinced that I would never hear a new Sloan album again, that I’d just listened to the last one. And each time they’ve proved me wrong. I hope Sloan goes on forever, making good albums like this one and occasionally punctuating them with great albums. I’ll be here, listening for as long as I am able.

Next week, the unlikely pairing of Wye Oak and Derek Smalls, probably. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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I Am Jack’s Complete Lack of Cohesion
White's Boarding House Reach is a Mess

It took me a long time to like Jack White.

My first exposure to the White Stripes came during the height of the garage-rock wave of the early 2000s. No one remembers bands like the Hives and the Vines now, but at the time they were considered the future of rock and roll: lo-fi, scrappy, high-energy sounds made by people who could barely play their instruments. Into this arena waded Jack and Meg White with their mega-hit “Fell in Love With a Girl,” two minutes of yelping over shambling guitar and drums that sounded like they were recorded live and drunk. White Blood Cells, as an album, fell into the sound of the moment very well, and it took a while for me to realize there was more going on there.

In fact, it wasn’t until Get Behind Me Satan, still my favorite White Stripes record, that I started considering Jack White beyond just “that guy in that garage band.” My mistake, of course – there’s plenty of evidence on those early Stripes records of White’s intriguing blend of blues, rock and soul, and of his prodigious talent as a player and a curator of influences. It didn’t help that his most famous band was his worst one – I enjoyed his power-pop outfit The Raconteurs and his swampy blues band The Dead Weather quite a bit more. But by the time of Blunderbuss, his quite good debut solo record, I was on board.

I mention all this because my appreciation for Jack White is like a train gaining steam, and I fear that White’s third solo record, Boarding House Reach, may have derailed that train, at least temporarily. I’m listening for the fifth time right now, and I still have no idea what he was thinking when assembling this thing. “Assembling” is the right word, too – this album sounds pieced together from jams and recording sessions that should have been thrown away. Boarding House Reach sounds like negative space, like White carefully excised all the parts that sound like songs, leaving only incoherence.

White himself describes this thing as bizarre, and that’s being kind. If you’ve heard “Connected By Love,” the sorta-swaying first single, you’ve heard one of the most complete and fulfilling songs here. Yes, it’s two chords over and over, and yes, the organ and gospel choir rub up uncomfortably with the buzzing synthesizer bass, and yes, it pretty much falls apart by the end, but it’s seriously one of the highlights. From there we just sink into nonsense. “Why Walk a Dog” would be a laughable b-side, yet here it’s given a prominent position. “Corporation” is five and a half minutes of formless jamming, followed by “Abulia and Akrasia,” a minute and a half of spoken-word filler. By the time you get to “Ice Station Zebra,” on which Jack White raps (“If Joe Blow says, yo, you paint like Caravaggio, you’ll respond, no, that’s an insult, Joe…”), half this record will have meandered by.

The second half is stronger without ever quite being strong. The guitar comes out for “Over and Over and Over,” a patchwork rock song with some piped-in-from-nowhere gospel-style backing vocals. It is, by far, the best song thus far, even if it does repeat its signature riff over and over and over. After that, “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” is the definition of filler, “Respect Commander” is a mess, “Esmerelda Steals the Show” is the second definition of filler, and I don’t even know what “Get in the Mind Shaft” is, really. “What’s Done is Done” is a traditional country song about suicide, sung over a wavery synth noise and some bongos in a box. White saves the best song for last, which isn’t a high bar on this record, but “Humoresque” is still pretty good, a jazzy little ballad that he probably considers a joke. But it sports the album’s one interesting melody, so it wins.

I dove down song by song because there’s no way to talk about this album as a whole. It’s just a scattered thing, seemingly laughing at the very idea that these songs should connect in some way. Only a few minutes of this are worthwhile anyway, but some sense that this was meant to be an album and not a Jackson Pollack-style splattering of tones would be nice. I understand completely that this off-the-deep-end approach is intentional, and I’m absolutely certain Jack White doesn’t care if I don’t like it.

But I don’t like it. Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I have far too much of an attachment to songwriting and melody to praise something so disconnected from those things. Maybe Jack White has created his Kid A with Boarding House Reach, and in years to come it will be hailed as a masterpiece, and I’ll be on the outside looking in. It’s a pretty familiar place for me to be. I appreciate and applaud Jack White’s willingness to color outside the lines, to break out of his blues-rock rut here, but I would appreciate and applaud it more if the end result weren’t such a total mess.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, we have this week’s other J band, Jukebox the Ghost. I’ve been hard on this Washington, D.C. trio of late as they transitioned away from their early, more progressive piano rock into a more streamlined pop sound. I may have gone so far as to mourn the band they used to be on my generally positive review of their self-titled fourth album. The more modern Jukebox creates infectious ear candy with clap-your-hands choruses, and I love that stuff. It’s just taken me longer than it should have to let go of the past and realize that what they’re giving me now is enough.

Well, I seem to have finally broken through that barrier with the band’s fifth album, Off to the Races. In fact, I think this thing is marvelous. Some of it is the band – they’ve upped the Queen influences here, without losing the toe-tapping, melodic bliss of their previous record. Hell, “Jumpstarted” begins with what can only be considered a minute-long tribute to Freddie Mercury, with singer/pianist Ben Thornewill giving that falsetto a workout. But then comes the beat and the chorus, and there’s Jukebox the Ghost, peeking through.

But some of it is just me. I’ve had to face the fact that I’m just in love with this sound, even when they drop the Queen pastiches and just play what they play. The album is front-loaded with Mercury – all of “Jumpstarted” sounds like they’ve been listening to nothing but Sheer Heart Attack for months, and single “Everybody’s Lonely” keeps that momentum going with a very Freddie piano figure and melody, and an absolutely wonderful dance-pop chorus. But as the album progresses, it becomes more Jukebox, and I like all that material just as much.

Case in point: “Fred Astaire.” This is just a delightful little pop song about love’s blissful blindness, and Thornewell sings it with such an energy that you can’t help but dance like the song’s protagonist. This one has been stuck in my head for more than a week. I’m also a big fan of the slower songs this time out, including the off-kilter “Time and I” and the more straightforward “See You Soon” and “Simple as 1 2 3.” Those last two deserve to be radio hits, the former with its sweeping “ooh-ooh” refrain and the latter with its gorgeous, naked optimism. These are songs the Ben Thornewill of the band’s first two albums would probably never write, but this Ben Thornewill wrote the hell out of them.

For his part, Tommy Siegel has become the Colin Moulding of this band. His songs aren’t as good as Thornewill’s, but they’re still worthy, and his voice isn’t as immediately captivating, but it still works. His best one this time is “Boring,” a barbed ode to growing old and lame. (“I’m a little ashamed to say, the house out in the suburbs calls my name…”) Siegel only contributes three this time, and they’re counterpoints to Thornewill’s boundless, colorful joy.

Speaking of colorful, that’s the name of the last song on the record, and it’s superb, an anthem for running through the streets with abandon. There’s a bit of a Springsteen feel to this song, and the band captures the galloping, anything-is-possible feel of Bruce’s best work. On an album where they also perfectly pay tribute to the late, great Freddie Mercury and, at the same time, firmly establish their buoyant sound. I’d say that’s an achievement. The only thing missing from Off to the Races, which clocks in at a mere 34 minutes, is one more song: their delirious single from last year, “Stay the Night,” would have fit perfectly. But when the worst thing you can say about an album is that you wish there were more of it, that’s pretty damn good.

Next week, Sloan and Eels, most likely. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Volunteering as Tribute
Nada Surf Receives, Meshell Ndegeocello Gives

There are few things I love more than connecting with people over music.

You know that high five you do with your eyes when you see someone wearing the t-shirt of a band you thought only you knew? That feeling of turning someone on to something magical that means the world to you? That indescribable elation that comes from being in a room with hundreds of other people who also like the obscure, otherwise ignored thing you like? I love all of that. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of knowing that other people have your back, that you’re not crazy to invest so much in something.

I get a variation of that same feeling from tribute albums. If an artist I respect and admire hears what I hear in a song or an album, that’s an incredible validation for me. Here’s a case in point: Sixteen years ago, New York trio Nada Surf released their third record, Let Go. It was their first on Barsuk Records, a label they still call home, and the first real indication that they were in it for the long haul. Back in 1996, Nada Surf were just getting started, and they were crushed under the weight of “Popular,” their novelty ditty of a first single. It was inescapable, and it forever tarred the band, so much so that their far superior second album, The Proximity Effect, got them dropped from Elektra Records. (“We just don’t hear a funny single, guys.”)

So Let Go was a statement, a flag planted in the rocky ground. It was also awesome, the first Nada Surf album I loved, and the start of a still-unbroken run of swell guitar-pop records from this still-underrated band. I adore that album, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that there would one day be a full tribute to Let Go, one that would draw in the likes of Manchester Orchestra, Aimee Mann, the Long Winters and Rogue Wave. And yet here it is. It’s called Standing at the Gates: The Songs of Nada Surf’s Let Go, and it’s wonderful.

Every song is represented, and treated with reverence and care. Manchester Orchestra starts things off with an impassioned, subtle read of “Blizzard of ’77,” and they nail it. Some of these versions, like Ed Harcourt’s piano take on “Fruit Fly,” are reinventions, but all of them maintain the essence, the core of melody and heart that defines the original record. The Long Winters, led by Jonathan Coulton’s buddy John Roderick, go all dance music on “Hi-Speed Soul,” in its original form a guitar rave-up. But it’s still decidedly, delightfully “Hi-Speed Soul.”

The dark and propulsive “Killian’s Red” is one of my favorites from Let Go, a little nightmare in 6/8, and Holly Miranda makes it her own with a sparse keyboard arrangement. There’s nothing I don’t love about what Eyelids (featuring members of the Decemberists) have done with “Treading Water,” and Victoria Bergsman of Taken By Trees brings us home with “No Quick Fix,” a song only available on the European version of Let Go.

But if you guessed that I love the Aimee Mann song best, you win. On the original record, “Paper Boats” is the final track, a pretty acoustic elegy, and when I first heard the bongos-in-a-box Mann decided to use on her version, my heart sank. I should have had faith. Mann worked wonders with this song, playing a delicate piano figure in place of the acoustics and incorporating some subtle strings. It’s somehow more haunting and affecting than Nada Surf’s version, which is amazing. When Aimee Mann wants to sing your song, and throws herself into a beautiful rendition crafted with obvious love, that has to feel good. Hell, I feel good about it and it isn’t even my song.

I’ve followed Nada Surf faithfully since my post-college years, and I kind of feel like a sports fan cheering on a favorite underdog team. Standing at the Gates is a delightful collection on its own, but it’s even more gratifying as a statement about how respected Nada Surf is and has become. Let Go is a terrific little record, and it’s such a joy to hear so many splendid songwriters and bands agree.

* * * * *

I’m a pretty big fan of Meshell Ndegeocello too, and on her new album Ventriloquism, the venerable bassist and singer has done the opposite, recording her own versions of 11 songs by other artists. Covers records are always interesting to me as a way of teasing out influences, of learning which songs contributed to the development of an artist’s singular sound. Ndegeocello certainly has one of those – her poetic, funky, low-key soul-pop has no direct peers, so I was fascinated to hear what she’d choose to make her own on this record.

And I was pleasantly surprised by her selections. Ventriloquism, her 12th album, includes straight, serious, well-considered takes on songs by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, TLC, Ralph Tresvant, Janet Jackson and others of that ilk. It’s a treasure trove of “hey, I remember that” songs from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and Ndegeocello takes each one apart, finds the wonder inside, and brings that to the fore.

If you want an idea of what this is like, look no further than her slow, sinuous guitar-and-bass ballet through “Nite and Day,” a ubiquitous hit for Al B. Sure in 1988. Gone are the pop beats, and in their place is a dreamy atmosphere – this is so thick you could breast stroke through it. Here is a folksy acoustic rendering of “Waterfalls,” by TLC. Here is a shuffling guitar-led take on “Sensitivity,” the 1990 hit from New Edition main man Tresvant. Here is an amazing, pleading reading of “Tender Love,” originally released in 1986 by Force MDs. It’s one of three songs here written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production team behind so many of those ‘80s hits.

This is all so good, so unexpected, that after a while it gets harder to shock. But she does it with a somewhat creepy run through “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” Janet Jackson’s 1987 smash. There’s nothing funny about the grey, oppressive tone Ndegeocello takes with this one, and it’s kind of awesome that she heard this noise in this song. The record ends with perhaps its most out-there rendition, a nimble jazz swing through Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” fully deconstructing the tune beyond recognition. This new version is airborne almost from the start, and it keeps climbing.

Ventriloquism is such a strange delight that it couldn’t have been made for anything but artistic reasons. In the liner notes she refers to it as a refuge from the storms of the current world situation, and I hope it worked for her in that way. It certainly has provided several hours of diversion for me, taking in more with each listen, hearing these songs the way Ndegeocello hears them. Being allowed this view inside her brain is a joy. If you remember any of the songs I just mentioned, you’ll want to hear this.

* * * * *

And here is where I get to complain that Ventriloquism, being a covers record, is not eligible for my top 10 list. Neither is Standing at the Gates, since it’s a various-artists tribute album. These unfortunate whines can only mean one thing: it’s time for the First Quarter Report.

If you’re new around these parts, here’s what this is: every three months, I reveal how my top 10 list in progress looks. I do this with the understanding that there is no way that these records in this order will make up my final top 10 list of the year. (At least, I hope not.) It’s just a fun way of explaining my process, and tracking the progress of the final list, which I will post in December.

And man, it’s been a lousy year so far. I’m glad we have so many things headed our way over the next few months, including Eels, Sloan, Laura Veirs, Janelle Monae, Frank Turner, Beach House, Ray Lamontagne and Neko Case, not to mention a new Choir album and a solo record from the voice of the Choir, Derri Daugherty. That eases the pain somewhat, because, not to disparage these records, but this is not a stellar top 10 list, and if it stays this way through December, it’ll be a disappointing 2018.

Anyway, here’s the list right now:

10. GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star.
9. Field Music, Open Here.
8. First Aid Kit, Ruins.
7. Listener, Being Empty, Being Filled.
6. Audrey Assad, Evergreen.
5. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II.
4. They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun.
3. Belle and Sebastian, How to Solve Our Human Problems.
2. Tune-Yards, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.
1. I’m With Her, See You Around.

I can make a case for all of those records, but only a few of them blew me away, so I’m hoping for a more substantially awesome list in a few months.

Next week, Jukebox the Ghost. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles