18 Reasons to Love 2018
Why This Will Be the Best Year Ever

Hello! Welcome back!

I hope you all had a great break, and a happy new year. My usual trip back east was relaxing, and even though I was sick in bed for New Year’s Eve, the rest of my vacation was delightful. I’m not quite ready to go back to work, but by the time you read this, I will have gotten over that, because I will have had to. I’ve been spending the last few days of my vacation catching up on reading and listening to records I didn’t get to last year. I missed some pretty good ones.

And of course, I’m spending them writing this, the first new Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column of the new year. This is year 18 of this silly music column. My own age doesn’t freak me out, but other people’s ages certainly do – my sister is 40, for example, which doesn’t seem possible. The fact that there are 17 years of archived weekly columns I can look at whenever I choose (which is very rarely) means that I’m much older than I feel.

But hey, this column isn’t about feeling down, it’s about looking ahead and finding joy and wonder. I usually begin the year this way, with a list of reasons that the upcoming 12 months will be awesome, music-wise. I never have any trouble making the case, even if I only have the first couple months of confirmed releases and a bunch of rumors to make it. This year is no exception. So without further ado, here are 18 reasons to love 2018.

  1. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Wrong Creatures (Jan. 12)

The first major release of the year hits in a few days, kicking us off right. BRMC sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain with an extra helping of biker grease, and I’m very much looking forward to this new one. I should also mention that Jan. 12 sees new ones from Joe Satriani and Ty Tabor, for all you guitar lovers out there, and from indie-rock collective Typhoon. Not a bad way to start.

  1. They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun (Jan. 19)

For me, though, this is the real start of the year. They Might Be Giants have consistently plied their unique trade for more than 30 years, and they have carved out a niche of their own. They’ve never been a novelty band, though they are wrongly lumped in with jokesters and pun merchants. Their brand of cleverness is much more askew, much more interesting. I Like Fun is John and John’s 20th, and they’ve celebrated by re-igniting Dial-a-Song, their call-in music service. Long live TMBG.

  1. Tune-Yards, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life (Jan. 19)

As if that weren’t enough, next week will also bring us the latest from Merrill Garbus, her follow-up to the absolutely killer Nikki Nack. Expect more quirky brilliance from this one-woman show. You can also expect new records from First Aid Kit, Glen Hansard, No Age and (if you like that kind of thing) Fall Out Boy next week, along with one other that deserves its own entry.

  1. The Shins, The Worm’s Heart (Jan. 19)

Last one from next week, but this one is so weird. The Shins have reworked their entire 2017 album, Heartworms, flipping each song – the faster ones are now more contemplative, the slower ones more hard-hitting. Heartworms was not a favorite of mine, so if this flipped version makes me appreciate these songs more, I’m all for that.

  1. Justin Timberlake, Man of the Woods (Feb. 2)

Finally we’ve moved out of January. JT will kickstart February with this fascinatingly titled new album, his follow-up to the two 20/20 Experience albums from a few years ago. The cover art and track list have me intrigued, and while the first single (“Filthy”) deflated that somewhat, I’m still down for whatever Timberlake does. Man of the Woods. For real, that’s the title. That’s fascinating.

  1. Frank Zappa, The Roxy Performances (Feb. 2)

In addition to Timberlake and new things from Field Music and Simple Minds, the second of February will bring this mammoth 7-CD box set containing every show Frank Zappa’s best-ever band performed at the Roxy in December of 1973. Some of this material has seen the light of day before, between Zappa’s 1974 opus Roxy and Elsewhere and the posthumous Roxy by Proxy and Roxy: The Movie releases, but there are literally hours of no doubt amazing performances here, all in one place. It’s worth it just to hear Ruth Underwood play mallet percussion. She’s astounding. This will be worth every penny.

  1. Franz Ferdinand, Always Ascending (Feb. 9)

I’m pretty glad that Franz Ferdinand has proven to be a survivor. Alex Kapranos and his comrades have been making danceable rock and roll for nearly 15 years at this point, and they haven’t given us a bad record, including 2015’s once-in-a-lifetime collaboration with Sparks called FFS. This new one evidently works in more electronic soundscapes, which is sort of a cliché at this point in a band’s career, but I have faith.

  1. Belle and Sebastian, How to Solve Our Human Problems (Feb. 16)

If you like the digital music that the kids are into, you can hear the first third of Belle and Sebastian’s new album right now. The long-running, venerable Scottish group is issuing their new songs as a trilogy of EPs, one a month from December to February, and collecting them on CD and vinyl on Feb. 16. It’s novel, and I hope it brings them some attention, but the bottom line is we get a new set of tunes from a band that has been at it for more than 20 years, and that’s worth celebrating all by itself.

  1. I’m with Her – See You Around (Feb. 16)

On that same day, we get this debut full-length from the trio of Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, and if you know your folksy singer-songwriters, you’re salivating over this right now. They’ve been touring for years, but finally we get to hear those voices intertwining over brand new songs. Can. Not. Wait.

  1. Ministry – AmeriKKKant (March 9)

At the exact opposite end of the musical spectrum, it’s the return of Al Jourgensen and his flagship industrial metal project. Ministry has died so many times now that it’s almost comical, but of course it was the election and presidency of Donald Trump that brought Uncle Al out of retirement once again. Expect a powerhouse of political rage. I should also mention that March will bring us new records from Andrew W.K., Moby and Titus Andronicus, and that’s just what we know about now.

  1. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams (April)

I helped crowd-fund this first proper solo album from the lead singer and guitarist of The Choir last year, and I’m so happy to see it coming to fruition. Derri’s solo album has been a long-running joke among Choir fans – he’s technically been working on solo material for decades – but we’re mere months away from hearing what he’s come up with. And given that he was working on this record while taking care of his ailing (and now deceased) father, I expect some emotional stuff indeed. In a lot of ways, it’s a warm-up for…

  1. The Choir, Bloodshot (Summer/Fall)

…the 15th album by Daugherty’s band, one of my favorites of all time. I also helped crowd-fund this, and I’m beyond pleased to play a small part in the surprising and gratifying longevity of one of the best bands on the planet. The Choir creates widescreen atmospheric rock, and with their last few records they’ve been on a serious roll. I’m extremely excited to hear what they’ve come up with, and to (hopefully) see them live again.

  1. Belly, Dove (April 6)

Twenty-three years after their second album, Tanya Donnelly has reunited Belly to round out the trilogy. This comes along with news that her other band, the Breeders, will release new music in 2018 as well. It’s starting to feel like the ‘90s are back forever, and I’m glad Donnelly is getting in on the action. Quite looking forward to new music from her in the new year.

  1. New records from Tool and A Perfect Circle

We’re in rumor territory now, but these are some pretty strong rumors. Maynard James Keenan’s two bands have been gearing up to release new stuff for a while now, with A Perfect Circle first out of the gate with two new songs and a tour announcement, which means an album shouldn’t be too far behind. Tool is another story, of course, but they’ve been working on their (believe it or not, only) fifth album for years now, and the buzz is that it’s close to completion. Will we see it in 2018? Who knows? I hope so, though.

  1. A new My Bloody Valentine album

Another strong rumor, since Kevin Shields says there will definitely be a new MBV record in 2018. Of course, Shields says a lot of things, but since he actually came through in 2013 with the follow-up to Loveless, he has a lot more credibility. And given how good that follow-up actually was, I have high hopes for the new one. Shields has proven that he can continue My Bloody Valentine beyond the iconic Loveless, and continue to reinvent his sound in the process.

  1. Bryan Scary’s Birds

Bryan Scary is a genius. His work has never been anything less than jaw-dropping, whether he’s going it alone (as on the awesome Daffy’s Elixir) or playing as part of a team (as on all five stunning Evil Arrows EPs). That’s the main reason I’m still being as patient as possible as this project wends its way toward the three-year anniversary of its crowd-funding campaign. I have no doubt that when Birds finally comes out, it will be worth every minute of the wait. Here’s hoping the wait ends in 2018.

  1. A new Sleep album

I know this is happening, but I still feel like I need to will it into existence. Sleep was and forever will be the finest stoner metal band to walk the earth. It’s been almost 20 years since Dopesmoker, their 63-minute single-track magnum opus, still the greatest stoner metal song ever recorded. It’s been two and a half years since “The Clarity,” the first new Sleep song since Dopesmoker. I know there’s a new High on Fire coming, and Matt Pike is probably busy. But I hope this year brings us more Sleep. They’re the best there is at what they do.

  1. Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor

Not music, but I’m beyond jazzed to see Jodie Whittaker take up the mantle of the world’s most famous Time Lord this fall. I’m still not quite ready to let Peter Capaldi go – he was amazing in the role, growing and changing over three seasons into the kindest of Doctors, and he bid goodbye at Christmas with a strange little epilogue of a special. It was so anticlimactic that it still doesn’t feel like he’s gone. But at the end we got our first glimpse of Whittaker, who already feels like she owns the role. My reservations about Season 11 are all about the writing team, led by Chris Chibnall, whose Who work hasn’t been of particularly high quality. But I have no such reservations about Whittaker, a top-notch actor with an obvious enthusiasm and reverence for the role. We’ve only heard her say two words (“Aw, brilliant”), and already I’m impatient for her era to begin. In the words of a former incarnation, she’s going to be fantastic.

There’s plenty more where these came from, of course, so if I missed something you are anticipating, never fear. I probably know about it, and if not, please feel free to tell me. It’s gonna be a good year, and I’d be ever so grateful if you’d spend part of it with me, talking about the music we love. It’s one way that we’re going to shine a light in the darkness.

Year 18. Here we go. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Fifty Second Week
And Farewell to 2018

This is Fifty Second Week.

It’s the day after Christmas, and I can’t begin to thank you all enough for hanging in with me this year. This is the final Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column of 2017, and it’s been rough getting here. I’m ending the year a big ball of stress, trying to relax and finding it difficult. And it won’t be long until we’re back at it.

So I’m ending the year surrounded by family and friends, and keeping up traditions. Midnight Mass with my friend Mike, gifts with my high school and college pals, a jaunt up to Portland, Maine to see people I only get to be around once a year. And this, Fifty Second Week. I’ve ended the TM3AM year this way since 2005, which seems almost difficult to believe.

I’m sure you all know how it works, but just in case: I have here 52 albums from the year that I heard but did not review. (That is separate from the larger pile of albums I bought but did not hear, which I am working on.) I will give myself 50 seconds to review each one, and I will rigidly time myself. Even if I’m in the middle of a sentence when that buzzer goes off, I will stop.

This has proven to be a lot of fun for me. I hope it’s fun for you. OK, let’s get rolling. This is Fifty Second Week.

A-Ha, MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice.

I have always loved this band, and when their crystal-clear unplugged version of “Take On Me” started circulating, I knew I had to get this. It’s wonderful. The new arrangements bring out the complex beauty of these songs, and Maarten’s voice has never been more beautiful. Highly, highly recommended.

The Alarm, Viral Black.

I reviewed the first in this sequence, Blood Red, but not the second for some reason. It’s much better. Mike Peters’ songs are sharper, and his dalliances with electronic music are put to better effect. It’s darker and angrier too.

Gregg Allman, Southern Blood.

Like Glen Campbell before him, Gregg Allman’s final record is mostly made up of covers of songs he loved. His aged voice sounds heavenly through most of this, and his guitar playing hasn’t lost a note. The loss of the final Allman brother was a tough one this year, but this record is a balm.

Anathema, The Optimist.

It was a good year for Anathema leader Daniel Cavanagh, between this and his solo album. Anathema continues its transformation into Sigur Ros with this album – it’s mostly abstractions, repetitive piano-led dirges, but it earns its title by the end. It’s a hopeful piece of work.

Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song.

I really don’t remember much about this. I buy Auerbach’s work out of a sense of loyalty to the band the Black Keys used to be, but he’s been so predictable and so over-produced for so long now that it’s a shame. I wish I could recall whether this album broke with that trend, but the fact that I can’t seems to mean to me that it didn’t.

Barenaked Ladies, Ladies and Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and the Persuasions

By far the better of BNL’s two releases this year, this record finds them teaming up with classic vocal group The Persuasions to reinvent a number of the band’s best and most popular songs. Everything shines here, but I’m especially fond of the new takes on lesser hits like “Gonna Walk.”

Barenaked Ladies, Fake Nudes.

I mean, for real, guys, if this half-hearted effort is the best you can do, it’s probably time to hang it up. Kevin Hearn sings more here than he ever has, and the songs are mostly lame, with only a few glimmers of the fun band they used to be.

David Bazan, Care.

Another dark and difficult and fascinating Bazan record. He’s fully embraced his synthesizer-driven sound at this point, and his voice sounds marvelous with it. I can’t choose between this and Lo Tom for Bazan’s best moment of 2017. They’re both great.

Black Sabbath, The End.

Well, we know it isn’t, but it’s fun to pretend. This live album documents the “final” tour of Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne, and while he sometimes sounds rough here, Tony Iommi and the band sound amazing. They invented metal, so if they want to pretend they’re done, that is their prerogative.

BNQT.

A sorta-supergroup featuring Fran Healy and Alex Kapranos and Jason Lytle and others, this is a fine, if disjointed ambient pop record. I don’t know why I didn’t review this.

Body Count, Bloodlust.

I had thoroughly lost track of Ice-T’s third-rate metal band before the release of “No Lives Matter,” the blistering first single from this record. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this sounds like Body Count. Thudding riffs while Ice-T yells about injustice. Good for what it is, certainly.

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie.

This surprise collaboration between two Fleetwood Mac stalwarts is sunny and upbeat, almost sounding like the Partridge Family in places. Buckingham is still one of the finest musicians around, and paired with McVie, he almost recaptures some of that early magic.

Cage the Elephant, Unpeeled.

They’re still a one-hit wonder, but Cage the Elephant has soldiered on, and they may even be underrated at this point. Unpeeled is a live acoustic album with subtle strings, and it showcases some of the songs they’ve delivered since “No Rest for the Wicked.” In this setting, I quite like many of them.

Daniel Cavanagh, Monochrome.

Daniel Cavanagh’s Terrific Year, part two: This solo effort from the Anathema frontman is beautiful. It’s mostly pretty songs that stand still and gaze around, but when he gets hold of an epic, he truly shines. This quiet piano-driven record is a hidden gem.

Cheap Trick, We’re All Alright.

Why I didn’t review this one is beyond me. Rockford’s finest storm back with their loudest and rowdiest work in years. Robin Zander sounds half his age, and the band follows suit. I was so surprised to find how much I liked this raucous little party record.

The Church, Man Woman Life Death Infinity.

The Church’s 87th album doesn’t pack any surprises. If you like what they do – swirling, reverbed pop songs sung in a low, half-speaking voice – then you will like this. These ten songs fall squarely in their wheelhouse.

Alice Cooper, Paranormal.

His best record in ages, Paranormal reignites the ‘70s Alice sound to swell effect. This is dramatic, creepy rock music, and as a special bonus, he reunites the classic Alice Cooper Band for a pair of songs, their first in decades. Good stuff.

William Patrick Corgan, Ogilala.

We used to call him Billy. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman goes all folk troubadour on his second album, and it’s much prettier and more interesting than it has any right to be. Nothing here will set the world on fire, vampire or no, but it’s nice stuff, nicer than you might expect.

Darlingside, Whipporwill.

I discovered this lovely folksy band two years ago, and this EP reminds me why I loved them. The hook here is a delightful cover of William Patrick Corgan’s “1979,” but all of these tunes are good, and the voices. The voices!

Death from Above, Outrage Is Now.

It took this band like 20 years to make their second record, and only a couple years to follow it up with their third. This is a short ballistic attack, ten razor-sharp tunes that will leave scars. Looking forward to the fourth.

Bob Dylan, Triplicate.

Man. I don’t know what started Dylan down this path of covering the Sinatra songbook, but now he’s gone and made a triple album of these renditions, and it’s time he stopped. His croaky voice does these tunes no favors, and if people buy a Dylan album, they’re looking for Dylan songs.

Jeremy Enigk, Ghosts.

I Kickstarted this record, and it took more than a year to arrive. But I like it a lot. Enigk is the former frontman of Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft, and here he strips down, goes acoustic for the most part and delivers a set of haunted little songs. “Victory” is one of the year’s best.

Europe, Walk the Earth.

Yes, they’re still going, and if you haven’t kept up since The Final Countdown, I think you’ll be surprised at what a quality band Europe is. This album sounds more Deep Purple than anything else, but the melodies are crisp and Joey Tempest can still sing the paint off a battleship.

Father John Misty, Pure Comedy.

With every record Josh Tillman makes under his Father John Misty guise, I am further convinced that it just isn’t for me. The ironic detachment, the sumptuous arrangements of threadbare songs, the “hysterical” cultural references, it’s all a bit of a mess.

Feist, Pleasure.

I should have reviewed this. Leslie Feist is always worth hearing, and this, her follow-up to the darker Metals, is weird and wonderful. I enjoyed every song here, even the ones that made me slightly uncomfortable. Feist has grown into a remarkable artist worth watching.

Stu Garrard, Beattitudes.

A various artists project centered on the Sermon on the Mount, this record was far better than you would expect given that description. I am especially fond of Audrey Assad’s and Propaganda’s contributions.

David Gilmour, Live at Pompeii.

A document of exactly the same show I saw in Chicago, Gilmour’s latest extravaganza finds him playing the same way he always does over songs old and new. That isn’t a complaint – no one bends notes and wrings emotion out of them quite like Gilmour.

Gogol Bordello, Seekers and Finders.

No new ground broken on Gogol’s new record either. This is another awesome punk record filtered through the multicultural lens of the band, and led by the insane shouts of Eugene Hutz. If you liked them before, you will like this too. They rule.

Haim, Something to Tell You.

The Haim sisters went a little more radio-pop on their second album, but still bring that old Fleetwood Mac sound with them. Their harmonies remain the highlight of this slight, yet enjoyable platter.

Beki Hemingway, Whins and Weather.

Always glad to hear new music from Beki, who lives not far from me. This album is classic Hemingway, and in “Is This All” she has penned the perfect song of comfort for this awful year. Worth tracking down, always.

The Horrors, V.

Another one I should have reviewed. The Horrors made the leap from gothic rockers to streamlined synth epics, and have basically been refining that sound ever since. V is a continuation, not a reinvention, but it’s a good one, and the keyboard stompers here are as good as ever.

Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls: Live Chapter.

A band as old as Iron Maiden should not be as good as Iron Maiden, particularly live. As Bruce Dickinson closes in on 60 years old, he can still scream with the best of them and hold those operatic notes for days. The new material is among the best they’ve written. I wish I’d seen this tour.

Jane’s Addiction, Ritual De Lo Habitual: Alive at Twenty-Five.

Oh my god, Ritual De Lo Habitual is 25 years old. This live run-through captures the power and unpredictability of the best Jane’s album. “Three Days” remains the best thing they’ve ever done, and live it’s a stunning thing. I don’t want new Jane’s material, but I’m happy to hear this.

The Killers, Wonderful Wonderful.

No it isn’t, no it isn’t. This new record from the Killers starts off strong, but ends up wandering in the wilderness, stuck somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and their own ineptness. Sorry, but it just isn’t very good.

Ted Leo, The Hanged Man.

Another one I should have reviewed. This is a strong and confident set of new songs from Leo, fresh off of his collaboration with Aimee Mann in The Both. I’m not sure if she rubbed off on him, but these songs are sparkling, melodic things that stick with you. Good stuff.

Lorde, Melodrama.

Good Lord(e), I should have reviewed this one. Lorde’s second record is a wild departure from her first – a conceptual piece about a difficult night out. For much of the album, Lorde doesn’t seem to care if anyone will like it, which to me is the sign of a strong artist. Keep ‘em coming.

Lost Horizons, Ojala.

Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins teams up with a bevy of singers, including the terrific Karen Peris of the Innocence Mission, for an album of slightly shoegaze-y anthems and ballads. This is really enjoyable, and I’m glad I picked it up.

The Lulls in Traffic, Rabbit in the Snare.

A swell side project from Aaron Marsh of Copeland, The Lulls in Traffic is somehow even more ambient and float-y than Copeland is. The electronic touches work well, and this album, though it contains not one stick-in-your-head song, is one you’ll play over and over.

Kevin Max, Serve Somebody.

Yes, that Kevin Max from DC Talk. Here he covers Mr. Mister and Bob Dylan and the Call and several others, making for an enjoyable little visit with his influences. And of course, his voice is like none other. Looking forward to his next record of originals.

Pearl Jam, Let’s Play Two.

One of the greatest rock bands in the world playing Wrigley Field in Chicago. How can you go wrong? Well, you can’t. This is a freight train of a set, and the band is as tight and powerful as they have ever been, energized by their surroundings. I would like to see the film. The soundtrack is great.

Margo Price, All American Made.

Margo Price is the future of country music, and her second album proves it. This wickedly political slice of Americana has justly earned raves, and it should cement her place as one of the most exciting songwriters to take up the Nashville mantle in many years.

Primus, The Desaturating Seven.

Gosh, I love Primus. Based on a children’s book, this weird fairy tale is delightfully off-kilter and surprisingly serious. The original band is reunited for the first time in years, and instead of making something fun and off the wall, they chose this conceptual piece that almost feels like a classical suite.

Rostam, Half-Light.

Vampire Weekend’s keyboard player sets out on his own, and the best that I can say about this is that I am very much looking forward to the next Vampire Weekend album.

Said Fantasy, Chariot of God.

I love Ronnie Martin and will follow him anywhere. The former Joy Electric mastermind is recording under a new name, but his sound hasn’t changed much. These burbling tunes are a little weaker, a little more self-serious than I would like, and the whole thing is pretty short. But it’s new Ronnie Martin, so I rejoice.

Emily Saliers, Murmuration Nation.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why I did not review this, the first solo album from Indigo Girl Emily Saliers. It’s a gigantic surprise – a fully produced candy-colored pop album that sounds like nothing else she’s done. The songs are typically wonderful.

Sons of Apollo, Psychotic Symphony.

If I told you this supergroup included Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian and Billy Sheehan and Jeff Scott Soto, you probably could tell me exactly what it sounds like. And you’d be exactly right. It’s predictable, but hard to play, so…

Spock’s Beard, Snow Live.

I’m not a huge fan of the album that they play front to back here, but this is the first time that Neal Morse and his old band have shared a stage in years, and just for that, this is worth hearing. The performances are great, as always.

Squeeze, The Knowledge.

Difford and Tilbrook return with another twelve knotty, witty songs. I wish there were anything more to say here. Squeeze is perpetually underrated, and its two songwriters should be in the hall of fame. This is another in a long line of excellent Squeeze records.

The Tangent, The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery.

Andy Tillison is a cranky old man, and here he leads his classic prog band through a suite that takes aim at our Brexit and Trump times. There’s no subtlety here at all, but these times don’t really call for subtlety. This hammer to the head works.

Jeff Tweedy, Together at Last.

Tweedy plays a bunch of Wilco songs alone on an acoustic guitar. It’s a snooze-fest, and I bought it out of some misguided sense of completism. I just can’t quit you, Jeff Tweedy.

Various Artists, Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard.

I’m so happy this exists. The late Mark Heard was an underappreciated songwriter, and Buddy Miller put this collection together to right that wrong. There are many awesome versions here, but I am partial to Over the Rhine and Buddy himself.

Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference.

You’d think following up a three-hour record with a half-hour record might lead to disappointment, but this jazz suite is so strong that I don’t mind. It’s a complete work, and again sets Washington apart as a man with a particular vision.

Steven Wilson, To the Bone.

Finally, one I definitely should have reviewed. This is Wilson’s concise pop record, but he can’t resist making it a Steven Wilson album anyway, with crashing guitars and crescendos and big melodies. Wilson is prolific, but never disappointing.

And there you have it. Fifty Second Week. That brings 2017 to a close here at TM3AM. Again, I cannot thank you enough. Without you I’m nothing. I’ll be taking next week off, but will return for Year 18 on January 9. Have a happy new year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

If Your Eyes Can See What’s Killing Me I’ll Need You By the End
The 2017 Top 10 List

What a year. What a long, grueling, terrible, only occasionally hopeful year.

Really, I’m just glad to say I got through it. 2017 was a painful reckoning with who we are and who we have chosen to be, and just keeping up with all the awfulness was, in itself, exhausting. I was going to say that I don’t know where I got the strength, but I do. It was the people in my life, particularly my lovely girlfriend and my still-new church family, that pulled me through it. I’ve rarely relied on people the way I did in 2017.

And I’ve rarely relied on music the way I did this year. Music is always a constant in my life, but this year’s top 10 list selections reflect the turmoil of, well, everything this year. What follows, mostly, is a top 10 list about making it through difficult things, about kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, to quote Bruce Cockburn. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the darkness sticks around, thick as tar, weighing you down. I wrestled this year with my own beliefs (in God, in the political positions I hold), trying to come to some understanding.

I think it was worth it. I’m here at the end of the year, feeling like a somewhat different person. I’m trying to approach things differently, and I’m taking steps to reduce stress and concentrate on what I know I can change. If the tumultuous music of this year helped me with this, then I’m grateful. Getting through some of the records on this list was difficult, but worth it. I am all about music as a way to work through pain.

And this year served up enough of that. As a capper, just a week ago we lost Pat DiNizio. The voice and mastermind behind the Smithereens, DiNizio was a champion of melodic power pop, and his loss is a great one to anyone (like me) who loves that style. Add his name to a lengthy list of luminaries whose lights went out this year, including Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell and Malcolm Young, among many more.

Were there bright spots? Sure. I’m about to tell you about a few of them. But the music that follows honestly reflects a year in which the very atmosphere felt heavier, in which just getting out of bed some days was its own special challenge. To all of you who made it through with me, I salute you and thank you. And I hope you had music of your own to help. If some of the below list worked that magic for you, even better.

So here is what 2017 sounded like to me.

#10. Marah in the Mainsail, Bone Crown.

The AudioFeed Festival is always one of the most enjoyable weeks of my year. I go now for the new musical experiences as much as for the old favorites. Minneapolis band Marah in the Mainsail is one of my favorite discoveries from what has become my favorite fest. They’re a rough and powerful combo, driven by sharp horns and Austin Durry’s animal growl of a voice, and Bone Crown is their masterpiece. A concept album telling a dark fairy tale of a wicked fox king who burns the woods to the ground, Bone Crown makes every element work in its favor, rushing toward a stunning conclusion. It works best as a whole, but “Everybody Knows” and “Fisticuffs” and “Black Mamba” and “The Great Beyond” stayed in my head for months. Listen and buy here: https://marahinthemainsail.bandcamp.com.

#9. Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights.

Believe it or not, another AudioFeed discovery. Julien Baker is only 22 years old, but she writes from the depths of her soul, laying bare every insecurity and agony with the grace of someone much older. Her second album is her first for a mid-size label, and she subtly enriches her sonic palette here, mixing in piano and strings for the first time. But her songs remain conduits to her deepest and darkest inner lives, and as you listen to her struggle with her fundamentalist upbringing and her depression, it’s like you’re there with her. When she admits that she knows nothing will be all right on “Appointments,” it’s crushing, and when she grabs on to a glimmer of hope on “Hurt Less,” it’s monumental. Turn Out the Lights is one of the most honest and painful records on this list, and if she keeps this up, Baker will soon be one of the best singer/songwriters out there.

#8. Slowdive.

Julien Baker was born the year Slowdive’s last album, Pygmalion, came out, which means this glorious English shoegaze band has been on hiatus for her entire life. I never expected a reunion album from them, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have made a better one. Slowdive picks up pretty much where they left off, with a more mature outlook and more complete sense of songcraft, but still sounding like Slowdive. If you’re a fan, you know what that means – guitars that sound like waterfalls surrounding the intertwining voices of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. These eight songs stand among their best, with “Sugar for the Pill” standing just that little bit taller thanks to its sweeping melody. I couldn’t have asked for better from a band I didn’t expect to ever hear from again.

#7. Kesha, Rainbow.

I’m as surprised as you are. In a year that was all about living through difficult things, though, Kesha’s re-emergence was the most miraculous. Separating herself fully from her abusive producer Dr. Luke, the now-30-year-old Kesha made the record of her life, a rollercoaster of a pop album that veers from loud guitar rave-ups to brassy anthems to bright ballads to country shuffles to folksy novelties to a duet with Dolly Freaking Parton. It’s an album that fulfills all of her potential and then some, but better than that, it’s an album about triumphing over trauma without succumbing to bitterness. “Praying” and “Learn to Let Go” and “Rainbow,” to name three, are lovely examples of breaking through to the other side with yourself intact. I cheered for her throughout this wild little record, and I’m jazzed to hear more from her.

#6. Neil Finn, Out of Silence.

It sounded like a gimmick. Neil Finn, formerly of Split Enz and Crowded House and certainly one of the best songwriters alive, would record his new album in one marathon session and broadcast it live on the internet. It felt like a way to prop up a substandard set of songs, and I reluctantly paid my money for the CD, not expecting much. But Out of Silence is, even without the gimmick, Finn’s best work in 15 years. The songs are complex, stately things, and the players he assembled – including a full string section and a choir – pulled these difficult arrangements off perfectly. It’s a more thoughtful work – songs like “There is More Than One of You” and “Independence Day” take multiple listens to truly absorb, as does a masterpiece like “Widow’s Peak.” Finn saved the most moving for the end. “I Know Different” is the story of a relationship that almost ended, and when the sun breaks through in its final moments, it’s the most gorgeous musical moment Finn has given us, maybe ever. The year’s most welcome return to form, Out of Silence is marvelous.

#5. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface.

I have always liked this band, but A Black Mile is the first of their albums I have unabashedly loved. Andy Hull and company pulled out all the stops this time, spinning a dark tale of family chasms based in and around the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. This is their richest, fullest, most complete record, from the perfection of “The Gold” to the thunderous rhythms of “The Moth” to the bare-bones agony of “The Parts.” It all works together as a whole, and feels like a long climb out of a dark and difficult place. It’s an album of details, and Hull brings his A-game to his most well-observed set of songs. This is a great leap forward for Manchester Orchestra, and I’m excited to see how far they leap next time.

#4. Planetarium.

This was my number one choice for a while, and it still claims a large piece of my 2017 heart. Planetarium is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of the National, James McAlister of half of your favorite bands, and string arranger to the stars Nico Mulhy. It is ostensibly based on the planets of our solar system, but it’s really about insignificance and fear and dark emotions. The music here is complex but endlessly fascinating – I hear more each time I listen. Stevens is undoubtedly the driving force, and every song here bears his signature. He’s a one-of-a-kind musician, and here he’s given the chance to stretch out, creating programmatic orchestral works with electronic underpinnings and a healthy dose of outer space atmosphere. It sounds like it would be too heady to be affecting, but like all things Sufjan, it’s a small and human thing at its core. Once again Stevens has gifted us with an incredible piece of music. We should never take him for granted.

#3. Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.

I have known for more than a decade that Jonathan Coulton had an album like this in him, and I’m so glad he finally made it. The self-proclaimed internet superstar made his name with geeky novelty tunes (“Code Monkey,” “Re: Your Brains”), but has long been aiming for more sophistication. Solid State is his quantum leap, a concept record (with accompanying graphic novel) about how the internet will bring about the collapse of our future society, but one made up of stunning, beautifully made songs. “Brave,” an angry number about online trolls, is probably the year’s finest guitar-pop tune, but there are so many more, from “All This Time” to “Square Things” to the title track to the apocalyptic yet hopeful climax of “Sunshine.” It’s a magnificently realized pop record, vaulting Coulton to stand among the finest songwriters we have (including the one at number two). I’m so pleased by this development, and so happy to have these, Coulton’s finest and best songs.

#2. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.

Speaking of that pantheon of great songwriters, here’s Aimee Mann, who sits at the head table. I wouldn’t call Mental Illness a comeback – her last record, 2012’s Charmer, was merely very good, not amazing. But it is the first one she’s given us in a while that plays to her strengths. Mental Illness is a sad, stark record of broken love songs and middle-aged reckonings, tiny snapshots of people trying like hell to make things work, and knowing deep inside that it’s pointless. No one wrote a more gut-wrenching song this year than “Rollercoasters,” on which she collaborated with the aforementioned Jonathan Coulton, and that’s just one stop on this magical misery tour. Mann returned to acoustic balladry here for the first time in years, and it suits these sad songs to the ground. “You Never Loved Me,” “Patient Zero,” “Good for Me,” “Poor Judge,” “Lies of Summer,” just example after example of pitch-perfect songwriting, the way only a master can do it. She’s one of the best there is, and she proves it again and again on this gem of a record.

And for a while, she was my choice to lead this list. But I decided to go with an album that meant more to me personally than any other, an album that did in my head and my heart, that explored questions I’ve been working through for years with piercing honesty. Only a few of you will agree with this, but those who do likely had a similar journey of conflicting emotions while listening, and came away similarly torn apart.

#1. Derek Webb, Fingers Crossed.

You may not know Derek Webb’s name, but if you traffic in the spiritual circles I do, you have heard his songs. He was part of Christian band Caedmon’s Call for a decade, then a prophetic voice as a solo artist for another decade after that, writing songs that pointed fingers at the church for all manner of sins, but always remembering to point four fingers back at himself. His work was amazing from a songwriter point of view, but always firmly within – and often addressed directly to – the Christian church.

And then he cheated on his wife and was found out. She divorced him, and over the past four years Webb has slowly yet surely lost his faith. Fingers Crossed is his first album since all of that, and it’s devastating for those who know his work. But even if you don’t, this album boldly and honestly tackles the weightiest of subjects, detailing the despair and anguish of these twin losses, dissecting himself and his roiling thoughts with the same unflinching gaze he has always brought to his music. It’s as powerful as it is difficult, as emotionally draining as it is therapeutic. I love it and hate it and love it.

Webb has described this album as a tale of two divorces, and he weaves them together expertly. Several of these songs are searing laments for his lost love, and if you can get through a song like “I Will” or “Love is Not a Choice” without feeling something, I envy you. I feel hollowed out by them, empty and hopeless. The songs about his lost faith are similarly powerful. “Easter Eggs” mirrors a lot of my own thoughts over the past 20+ years about God and our relationship to him, and the title track captures the existential horror of losing the thing keeping you from falling into the abyss. It’s so well-rendered, so extraordinarily well-observed. Musically as well, this album is a black hole of loneliness. Webb has been making music on his own for some time, but he has never sounded this alone.

“The Sprit Bears the Curse” stands out for its apparent novelty – it’s a typical worship song, using the language of the Nashville praise machine that feeds evangelical churches around the country. But this one is about alcohol, not Jesus, a bait-and-switch he pulls at the end. It feels like a joke at first, but slowly it becomes a powerful excoriation of worship music and a stunning confessional at the same time. This is a song of abandonment, like many of these songs – Webb feels like God has turned his back on him, and while he understands why his wife has done the same, he doesn’t understand what happened between him and God. “Either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen,” he sings, and it resonates. I’ve felt that way before, for a very long time.

Full disclosure: I started attending church again last year after a 20-year absence. I’ve found a great place to grow as a person and as someone with at least the embers of belief. The music – including Derek Webb’s music – has kept me part of this world for decades, and I’m grateful to have found a place and a church family that I love as much as I have always hoped I would. Hearing Webb make the opposite journey on Fingers Crossed hurts just that much more because of it. Not because I need him to believe anything, but because I know these feelings and this journey, and it’s painful.

Webb reserves his one bit of hopefulness for the very last second of this album. The closer, “Goodbye for Now,” is the saddest song I have heard this year, bringing the threads of abandonment together: “You left me here to document the slow unraveling of a man who burned the house down where he kept everything…” But it ends on an unresolved chord, the musical equivalent of “to be continued,” and I can’t help but think of that as a deliberate choice, a way of saying that this story isn’t over, and as painful as it has been, we keep going. We keep living. We keep trying to figure it out.

God, that resonates with me. This entire album made me feel like nothing else this year. Some days I can’t even listen to it, it’s so extraordinarily emotional for me. Webb has followed this record up with a weekly podcast called The Airing of Grief, in which he talks with people who have been moved by this album, whether they agree with it or are angered by it. It’s all part of the process, all part of healing and moving forward, whatever we leave behind.

In some ways, I can’t recommend this album at all. In other ways, I can’t recommend it enough. You can judge for yourself at https://derekwebb.com.

That does it for me. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then we’re into 2018. I can only hope that it gets better from here. Thank you to everyone who has read and sent emails and commented on Facebook this year. I couldn’t keep doing this without all of you, and I appreciate you more than I can say. I hope everyone’s holidays are as merry and bright as they can be.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Here Comes Christmas
Hanson and Tom Chaplin Lead the Yuletide Treasures of 2017

Hard to believe, but 2017 is over.

Oh, there are still a couple weeks (and hence a couple columns) left in the year, but I’m writing those pieces at the same time I’m writing this one, so as far as I’m concerned, by the time you read this, 2017 will be over. In some ways this year crawled by, the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty so great that it felt like I couldn’t make it through another week of it. But in others, it disappeared right from under me, impervious to my attempts to hold on to it.

So here we are at the end of the year, with still so many things to talk about. I’m going to pull double duty this week, combining two columns that are usually their own beasts. The idea is to spend less time and fewer words on both of them, so let’s see how I do.

First up is my annual survey of Christmas music. Now, I love Christmas music. Love. It. In many ways, this is my favorite time of year, simply because of the beautiful music. Christmas carols, old-time holiday ballads, new Christmas-themed tunes, I love all of it. Christmas music fills me with peace and joy, reminds me of simpler and better times, transports me in ways I can’t explain. It is its own particular kind of magic, the kind with a dusting of snow on the ground, colored lights on trees with brightly wrapped presents beneath them, and midnight church services. (I’ve attended midnight Mass at a Catholic church every Christmas eve for the past 20+ years.)

Usually I have a rule. A yule rule, if you will. I will not listen to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, and I will not continue listening to it past Christmas. But this year, I broke that rule like an ornament swatted off the tree. I found that I couldn’t give myself a reason not to be comforted by this magical music until the end of November. So it’s been a non-stop holiday jukebox at my house for the past month. And I don’t regret a thing. I may keep listening to Christmas tunes well past new year’s, and I expect not to regret that either.

Every year I buy a stocking-full of new Christmas tunes to hang alongside the Sufjan Stevens and Aimee Mann and Timbre and other favorites, and this year was no exception. Rockford, Illinois’ own Cheap Trick was first out of the gate with their first holiday record, Christmas Christmas, on Oct. 20. (Yes, before Halloween. In prior years, that might have bugged me, but not in this one.) It’s a blast. It continues the loud-and-proud vibe of We’re All Alright, released this summer, and includes a number of strange yet apt covers, including Joey Ramone’s “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” the Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” and most awesomely, Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz’ “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” from their enduring Saturday Night Live skit. It’s just so much fun.

Speaking of fun, Hanson stepped up next with their terrific second X-mas album, Finally It’s Christmas. I love Hanson. I will probably always love Hanson. Seconds into the horn-driven title track of this album, I had a massive grin on my face. I had to listen to the song twice, I loved it so much. The rest of the album follows suit – it’s a fun romp through some expected classics (“Winter Wonderland,” “Blue Christmas,” a neat mash-up of “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain”) and five winning originals, including the lovely “Peace on Earth.” Endless kudos to the Hanson brothers for ignoring the naysayers and doing their thing their way for 25 years now.

Speaking of individuality, there’s Sia. There’s really no one like her, as she proves once again on Everyday It’s Christmas. This record contains no covers, no carols, no classics. It’s ten new Sia songs with a holiday flavor. Who does that? Well, she does, and it works. This is a quirky and danceable album of synth-pop goodness, from the first note of “Santa’s Coming for Us” to the last of “Underneath the Christmas Lights.” Only Sia would write a song like “Puppies are Forever,” an enchanting and catchy reminder that puppies make for bad Christmas gifts. Everyday It’s Christmas is pure Sia (I mean, check out that cover) and quite unlike anything else I own.

Speaking of being unlike anything else I own, I will admit that my heart raced a bit when Ronnie Martin, he of Joy Electric and Said Fantasy, announced a new Christmas CD. Martin is a true original, working solely in analog synthesizers and creating magical fairy lands all on his own. Joy Electric’s one Christmas album is a delight, so I was looking forward to Said Fantasy’s first, Carols Gloria. Alas, despite being sold as a full-length, Carols Gloria turns out to be 14 minutes long, consisting of four instrumental covers and one new vocal tune. It’s fine, it’s just too short. I’m not sure why Martin stopped where he did, or why he bothered to press these keyboard squiggles to disc, but this feels like getting the cherry without the sundae. I like it, don’t get me wrong. Martin is always worth hearing. I just want more of it.

Speaking of wanting more of it, the big winner this year – much to my surprise – is Tom Chaplin. The hopefully once and future singer of Keane has given us his first holiday album, Twelve Tales of Christmas, and if you don’t know much about him (in and outside of Keane), you might be expecting a sugary crowd-pleaser. But it comes as no shock to me that what Chaplin has made instead is a melancholy pop album about the uncomfortable and sad emotions this time of year can stir up.

Twelve Tales is full of heartbreak and hope. Eight of its songs are originals, some with only a tenuous connection to Christmas (like “Say Goodbye” and “Follow My Heart”), and its four covers are delightfully off-kilter choices. I’m an enormous fan of the opening take on “Walking in the Air,” Howard Blake’s centerpiece song for the animated wonderama The Snowman. It’s astonishingly beautiful. Chaplin also takes on Joni Mitchell and the Pretenders with the voice of a snow angel.

But it’s the originals that will keep you coming back. In plain-spoken language, Chaplin lays bare his heavy heart, paying tribute to those who died this year on “We Remember You This Christmas,” trying to find hope on “Under a Million Lights” and grabbing on to any glimmer of encouragement on “For the Lost.” His finest here is “Midnight Mass,” a song so beautiful it makes me tear up every time. (I was not surprised to find that it was co-written by Aqualung’s Matt Hales.) I want this to be a fixture of every Christmas for the rest of my life. It’s that lovely. I’m so glad it exists.

Tom Chaplin has made a Christmas album that is true to the year. It’s been a rough one for me and everyone I know, and the season often leaves me sadder in ways I can’t explain. Chaplin has tapped into that, gracing these pretty and heartfelt songs with that incredible voice. As much as I want new Keane music, if his solo career continues to be this excellent, I’ll be happy. Well, sad and mournful, as fits this music. But also very happy.

* * * * *

Of course, another tradition around these parts is the year-end top 10 list. I’ll be posting mine next week. Yes, next week. Hard to believe it’s here already. But we covered that ground.

I have only a few honorable mentions this year, and I’d like to list them off for you now. But first, we need to talk about an album you won’t see here, or in next week’s list. Brand New’s Science Fiction found its way into one of my quarterly reports this year, and might have ended up on my top 10 list, if not for these stomach-churning accusations against frontman Jesse Lacey.

Lacey has not denied the allegations, and has apologized. But I can’t see clear to awarding him a spot on my list. A friend of mine (who is a bigger Brand New fan than anyone I know) put it best: since Lacey used his position in Brand New to entice these young girls, the band has been a force for harm in the world. I can’t ignore that, and I can’t reward it. Make no mistake, Science Fiction was one of my favorite things from this year. I will probably never listen to it again. I’m glad the band has canceled their tour, and I hope Lacey gets the help he needs.

The one album this year I wish I could include is Sara Groves’ Abide with Me. As a collection of old hymns, it runs afoul of my rules requiring original songs to qualify. God knows Groves can write those, and I’m looking forward to the next time she does. But this year, she chose to sing songs of comfort, songs that got her through, and the result was stunningly beautiful. Ineligible, but stunningly beautiful.

My honorable mentions began this year with Stephin Merritt, who, under his Magnetic Fields alias, gave us his 50 Song Memoir. Merritt hasn’t taken hold of a project like this since 69 Love Songs, and this one is almost as good. The box set contains one song for each of his 50 years of life, tracing his journey from childhood to now with his usual wit and whimsy.

A couple of old geezers turned in swell new projects this year. Roger Waters took on Trump and Brexit with Is This the Life We Really Want, his first new album in 25 years. It is typically dense and foreboding, but has a decidedly atypical swing toward love and hope near the end. And Robert Plant led his Sensational Space Shifters through a set of gorgeous numbers that emphasized his weathered yet magnificent voice on Carry Fire.

One of the year’s most haunting records was all about the reality of death. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me traces the days and weeks after Phil Elverum’s wife Genevieve passed on, and finds him trying to put the pieces of his life back together. It’s naked and painful and difficult to listen to, like much of the best and most honest art is. Death hung over the final album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman, as well. It’s a typically excellent set of songs, only made more poignant by the fact that we will never hear more.

Kendrick Lamar’s Damn has ended up on most of the lists I have seen so far, but it isn’t on mine. It’s good – he is still the very best in the game – but it’s looser and less interesting thematically than his best work. It’s the sound of the world’s best rapper letting his hair down, and while much of it sounds generic and many of the lyrics feel like first drafts, Lamar is still worth hearing.

And now we’re at the Number Elevens, three albums that could easily have been in my list. I would never argue with anyone who considers any of these one of the year’s ten best. First up is the amazing Elbow, who hit a new high with Little Fictions. These glorious songs of hope have been fine companions this year. Jason Isbell also hit a new high with The Nashville Sound, his most consistent group of songs. (“If We Were Vampires” is one of 2017’s best.) And Australia’s Husky hit the hat trick with their awesome third record, Punchbuzz. The sound is more electronic, but the songs are just as captivating as ever.

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the top 10 list. Be there. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Next Door to the World
Local Songwriter Greg Boerner and the Biggest Band on Earth

I’m going to start this week with my friend Greg Boerner.

I usually make my friends in the local Aurora, Illinois music scene scroll past the more widely anticipated reviews to get to their own, but this is sort of a special case, as you’ll see. I’ve known Greg for about 10 years now – he was one of the first local musicians I met, and he’s still the only one I know who makes his living by playing gigs and selling CDs. I wrote a profile piece about Greg for the local paper on the occasion of the release of his third album, World So Blue, and we’ve been friends ever since.

That’s not to say we always agree, especially about music. Greg likes what he likes – mainly guitar-driven blues, rock and soul from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. My efforts to get him to listen to modern music without those roots have largely been in vain. If he likes something I recommend, it’s usually because it draws from the same well of inspiration he does. The man has an encyclopedic knowledge of the formative years of blues and rock, and you can hear that in his own music, which wears its influences proudly.

Over four previous records, Boerner has delivered foot-stomping (literally, if you see him live) acoustic music that hearkens back to the blues, folk and rock he loves, with his own original twist. His fourth, 2011’s Prophetstown, was a lot like his third, which was a lot like his second, etc. Greg’s such a fixture around here that I fully expected I’d keep buying similar-sounding records from him and palling around at Kiss the Sky, our favorite record store, for the next several decades.

I love it when people surprise me, and Greg threw two surprises at me recently. The first is that he’s moving to Nashville in January – he’s found love, and he’s going after it with all he has. The second is his fifth record, Solid Sender, which rips up his formula and finds new ground to stand on. It’s still a loving tribute to the roots music he holds dear, but this time he’s opened the production wide, welcoming drums and electric piano and upright bass and lots of studio magic, and strapping on an electric guitar for most of the running time. Even with all this, Solid Sender is still a Greg Boerner record, only more so.

This new effort was produced with Patrick Moynihan at his local studio, Waveform, and you can hear Moynihan’s influence right away. That’s him on the Fender Rhodes on the opening title track, with Boerner laying down a slinky electric vibe. “Price You Pay” is a blues song at its core, but the production is marvelous – Boerner plays an electric with heavy tremolo over Ed Breckenfeld’s drums and Moynihan’s bass and electric piano, while he duets with Mary Lou O’Brien, one of the finest singers in the Aurora area. Their voices intertwine beautifully on this traditional, yet thoroughly enjoyable tune.

Already he’s flipped his own script, which is why “Faith,” a classic-Coke Boerner solo acoustic tune, is a welcome addition early in the record. The rest of Solid Sender revels in its own diversity, and in the new possibilities of its full-band studio setting. I’m a fan of “Restless Sleep,” a minor-key shuffle on which Boerner lists off all the things that keep him up at night, in a slightly unsettling doubled vocal. The interplay between his guitar and Moynihan’s piano light up the instrumental passages on this record, and it’s clear that great thought went into how to catch the listener’s ear every few seconds.

O’Brien shines on the country-swing ballad “Don’t Do This to Me,” and on the whimsical cover of “Two to Tango.” But that’s not the cover that will make you take notice. Boerner’s spare, haunting rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Sick and Die” might be the best thing here. He sticks to minimal acoustic and voice for the first part of the tune, so when an army of mouth percussion and O’Brien’s soulful vocals come in, it’s a full-on wide-grin moment.

Another comes with the next track, a genuine surprise. “Allman Joy” is an instrumental, and as the title suggests, it is a tribute to the twin-guitar jams of the Allman Brothers Band. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard from Boerner, and it makes me smile. As does the final track, a love song called “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” that was written for a family wedding, but took on new significance as Boerner reconnected with the woman he’s about to move across the country for. It’s a sweet, emotional way to close out a record that is all about taking chances, changing things up, rolling the dice and seeing where they land.

Solid Sender feels like a new chapter, both in Greg’s music and his life. As much as I would have enjoyed running into Greg and seeing him play locally for the next however many years, I’m thrilled that he’s going after whatever lies ahead for him. And I’m thrilled that he made my favorite of his records before he did, and I got to tell him to his face how much I liked it. Solid Sender is the work of a confident man willing to take a risk and hope it pays off. I’ve no doubt that it will, as much as the risks he took on this record have paid off.

I’ll miss you around here, Greg. Here’s to your next chapter.

You can check out Greg Boerner’s work at his new website: https://www.gregboerner.com.

* * * * *

What else do I have to talk about? Oh, yeah, only one of the year’s most anticipated albums, and one of its biggest letdowns.

I’ve listed U2’s Songs of Experience in no fewer than three of my looking-ahead-to-the-new-year columns. It’s taken them an unbelievable three years to finish off the companion album to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, not counting the amount of time they worked on these songs before Innocence came out. For a band with a tendency to overcook their records, this was not a good sign.

Still, I held out hope, for a couple different reasons. First, there was Songs of Innocence, easily the band’s best collection in 20 years. I know it’s trendy to dislike this record, mainly because of its spontaneous appearance in iTunes accounts across the world, an act of generosity that was met with such hostility you’d think the band had personally punched people in the face. I appreciated the gesture, and even went on to buy a copy when it was officially released, because this album recaptured a fire they had forgotten. (You see what I did there?)

And second, I’m a U2 fan. It hasn’t always been easy – this is a band that tries to shoot itself in the foot over and over again, as a challenge. But I love their earnest openness, which was even evident during their ironic Zoo TV years. Bono takes a lot of grief for using his platform as one of the world’s most recognizable rock stars to improve the world, and I don’t really understand that. U2 has always tried to be a force for good, putting both their fame and their money where their mouths are. It would be hard for me not to support a band like that.

So please know that when I say Songs of Experience is perhaps their worst album, and whole songs here make me want to throw the CD in the trash, I’m saying these things as a U2 fan. I wanted to like this, more than I can tell you. I feel the motivation behind it, and I understand why Bono and company would want to create something so nakedly positive and hopeful during these turbulent times. I know that Bono approached these songs as letters to his loved ones, paring down his thoughts to only the essential things he needed to say. I get all that.

I just wish the record were better. The hopefulness that suffuses it ends up sounding as deep as a motivational poster, or a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Some of these lyrics are downright embarrassing. You’ve heard some of the worst offenders already – “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – but some of the deeper cuts are just as mortifying. “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way” is a real song title here. And it’s not that I don’t agree. Love really is bigger than anything in its way. As art, though, it’s a surface-deep observation, not worth building a U2 song around.

Honestly, none of this would bother me as much as it does if the music were as tight and powerful as I know this band can still be. But it isn’t. Songs of Experience somehow required nine producers, and on sheer musical grounds, I would probably have junked all but three or four of these songs. Instead, they over-baked them, aiming for radio play and worldwide hits. The impulse to remain the most famous band in the world has been ever-present in their work since The Joshua Tree, but here it takes over, leaving us with quite a few lame stabs at relevance that aren’t worthy of the band.

I’d really prefer to focus on what I like about Songs of Experience, rather than spend time ripping apart a goofy waste of time like “The Showman,” so I will. There are two tremendous songs here – so good, they sound like holdovers from the Songs of Innocence sessions. “Summer of Love” is a shimmering stunner, The Edge spinning beautiful webs of clean guitar while Bono sings about the plight of refugees. And “Red Flag Day” could have fit on War, so insistent and captivating is its classic U2 vibe. When Bono hits the “no, no, no” part of the bridge, it makes my heart soar. Here is the band I love, in full glory. Also, Adam Clayton really steps out on this album, and never more than on this song. This one’s alive, amazing, powerful. It’s everything I love about U2.

There are a few others I enjoy, too. “The Blackout” has ridiculous lyrics (“Earthquakes always happen when you’re in bed, Fred, the house shakes, maybe it was something I said, Ned…”), but musically it’s a knockout, hampered only by a production that mutes its force. “Lights of Home” features Haim on backing vocals, and it’s winsome. I’m more fond of the strings version included as a bonus track. I was dreading “The Little Things that Give You Away” after its live debut, but the version here is a slow build, kind of like a lesser “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

I’m conflicted on the band’s decision to reuse material from Innocence, which they do liberally here. “American Soul” might be the worst offender – it began as a tiny bit from “Volcano,” morphed into parts of “XXX,” their collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, and now they have tried to stretch it into its own song. (Lamar shows up here as well, intoning a quick monologue that could have been delivered by anyone.) But on the other hand, I do like “13 (There Is a Light),” a rewrite of “Song for Someone” that doubles down on its spare beauty. The recycling does unite the two albums, but it also diminishes Experience as a set of songs.

Over all of this is Bono, singing his little heart out, and I want to love his work this time, but I just don’t. I’m conflicted here too, because the world does need more hope and straight-up love, but I find myself cringing more often than not when Bono voices these things. He’s right about so much here – love is all we have left, we’re in our own way, there is a light, we are rock ‘n’ roll. (Well, maybe not that last one.) I get that he wanted to be heard this time, not puzzled out. But had these words been penned by Chris Martin of Coldplay, you wouldn’t be seeing so many five-star reviews. I expect this kind of thing from Martin. Bono has proven to be deeper and more interesting, so his work this time feels surface level.

This whole record feels surface level, and that’s a shame. Songs of Innocence felt to me like a burst of energy, an explosion of ideas that hearkened back to their early days. Songs of Experience feels tired. It feels like one of the world’s best bands grasping for relevance, instead of just being who they are. I’ve been looking forward to it for three years. I wanted to like it so badly. It hurts me that I don’t.

* * * * *

A couple quick takes before I put this very long column to bed.

If you’ve been reading for a couple years now, you know how much I love The Dear Hunter. Casey Crescenzo’s project is like nothing else I know of, particularly its centerpiece experiment, a six-act story in progress. But the band has also done sterling work outside of the Acts, including the nine-EP Color Spectrum collection and their one non-Acts album, Migrant.

So now here is All Is as All Should Be, a new six-song EP that caps off an incredible run of music from Crescenzo over the last three years. As with most things he does, this one has a concept: he connected with six Dear Hunter fans, asked them what they wanted to hear him write songs about, and then decamped to each of those fans’ homes to record those songs. It’s an above-and-beyond bit of fan service that resulted in a typically excellent record.

In fact, if you’re new to the Dear Hunter, I’d recommend checking this bite-sized morsel out first. The opening two tracks (“The Right Wrong” and “Blame Paradise”) will give you a good idea of them in full-throttle mode, while the rest of the songs show off their diversity. I’m particularly fond of the deliriously poppy “Shake Me (Awake),” which rhymes “ordinary” with “mortuary,” and the grand title track. If you enjoy the scale and scope of these tunes, you will find innumerable pleasures in the Acts. Check it out.

As a final grace note, I will recommend the new four-song EP from the Innocence Mission. This long-running husband-and-wife combo has been plying their delicate, beautiful trade since the 1980s, and The Snow on Pi Day is merely the latest. These four songs are almost inhumanly pretty, with the gossamer voice of Karin Peris floating above them, and the chiming guitars of her husband Don wrapping them in snowy winds. If you know the Innocence Mission, nothing here will be a surprise. If you don’t, well, you really should.

That will definitely do it. Next week, Christmas music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Bjork and the Brothers
New Ones From a Brilliant Lady and Two Rowdy Lads

I never quite know what to say about Bjork.

Musicians often talk about getting their inspiration from some other plane of existence, and acting as messengers for some otherworldly force that creates the music through them. While I have never heard Bjork say anything of the sort, she’s one of the few I would believe without question. Everything she does sounds like the product of some alien civilization trying to approximate our pop music, and ending up with something bizarre and beautiful that sounds like nothing else on the planet.

On the one hand, Bjork is a stunningly creative artist, a genius sonic manipulator and a one-of-a-kind musical force. She’s never done anything halfway, committing completely to an uncompromising vision. (I mean, just look at her album covers.) It should be easy to lavish her work with praise. But on the other hand, that vision is so uncompromising that it’s almost impenetrable. Bjork makes music for an audience of one – herself – and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out just what she was going for, let alone whether she succeeded.

That was especially true during the years after her breathtaking third album, Homogenic, when she drifted more into tone poems and electronic meanders, with a stop-over in a cappella land. I can barely tell you anything about Volta or Biophilia, despite hearing them multiple times. But all that changed in 2015 with Vulnicura, easily her most human work in more than 15 years. Over thick, sad strings, Bjork detailed the dissolution of a long relationship in heart-rending terms, and the result was powerful. Still otherworldly and unique, but powerful.

It was also the beginning of her artistic partnership with Venezuelan musician Arca, which she continues on her new album Utopia. It’s a relationship that seems to spark the best in her. Utopia is her longest album at 71 minutes, and it’s overflowing with inspiration. Structurally it seems similar to Vulnicura – its musical foundation is built on strings and woodwinds, with electronic touches – but its mood couldn’t be more different. Utopia is a joyous record about love, rendered in major keys and light. Even Bjork’s trademark full-throated singing voice sounds sweeter here.

That’s not to say it’s sickly or sappy. This is still a Bjork album, still light years away from Justin Timberlake country. Everything is still delightfully alien, as the watery keyboards, boots-stomping-through-ice drums, harps and overlapping voices of the first song, “Arisen My Senses,” will attest. But Bjork has never sung so much about kissing, about longing, about simple emotions like missing someone with all of one’s body and mind. Some of this record is remarkably specific: “Is all of this excessive texting a blessing or just two music nerds obsessing,” she asks in the lovely “Blissing Me,” and she opens “Features Creatures” this way: “When I spot someone who is same height as you, and goes to same record stores, I literally think I am five minutes away from love.”

There are darker moments, of course. “Sue Me” (about the man who inspired Vulnicura) is as angry as its arrangement of skittering drums and flute sounds will allow, and the lyrics of “Tabula Rasa” – which seem to be about a cheating father and his effect on his children – belie the song’s almost cloud-like arrangement. But these are the minority. Most of the record is full of love. “The Gate” is a menacing-sounding near-ambient thing, but it’s about letting love flow though you, caring for others and being cared for in return. “Saint” makes the most use of the birdsong that connects this album together, spinning a delicate flute melody for a tale of the healing power of music. And closer “Future Forever” returns to that sparse sound from “The Gate” as Bjork exhorts you to “imagine a future and be in it.”

It’s great to hear her so blissful again, after the heartache of Vulnicura. If this is what a sexy album of love songs sounds like to Bjork, then more power to her. It may not sound anything like our earthling love ballads, but it’s beautiful, striking, grand and wholly unique. I’d expect nothing less from Bjork, and I’m looking forward to further puzzling this record out.

* * * * *

I don’t know if this counts as a secret confession, but I always liked Oasis.

I don’t just mean from the start, because everybody loved them in the Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory days. I mean I enjoyed Heathen Chemistry and Don’t Believe the Truth and Dig Out Your Soul, records even the Gallagher brothers probably don’t remember much about. They were never as good as they thought they were, but when they got about the business of just being a Beatles-inspired rock band, Oasis were pretty great.

Of course, a significant part of that greatness grew from the tension between Liam and Noel Gallagher, who always hated each other a little bit. Their relationship has now completely imploded – the two reportedly don’t even speak, and they are always sniping at each other in the press. An Oasis reunion looks increasingly unlikely. The good news is that both Gallaghers have gone on to lead new projects. The bad news is that neither of those projects – Liam’s Beady Eye and Noel’s High Flying Birds – comes close to matching the band the brothers once fronted together.

Both have now released their third post-Oasis records, and it’s fair to say we’re seeing the new normal. Given that, it might be a surprise just how good Liam Gallagher’s first album under his name, As You Were, turns out to be. This record came out in October (yes, I held it so I could review it with Noel’s new one, which was just released) to some startlingly good notices, and it lives up to them. Liam has always been the more charismatic, with the more immediately appealing voice, but he’s never been the songwriter his brother is. As You Were works hard to change that impression, delivering a catchy set of 12 tunes with some genuine emotional underpinning.

I’ll admit to some surprise at the relative quality of these songs. “Wall of Glass” gets things off to an Oasis-y start, chiming guitars underpinning a big chorus with some catchy harmonica and gospel-style backing vocals. “Bold” gets into a shimmying acoustic groove, augmented by subtle strings, where “Greedy Soul” brings the bluesy rock. So far so-so, but “For What It’s Worth” kicks this album up several notches. A memorable mea culpa that somehow still remains defiant, this is probably the most thoughtful song Liam Gallagher has written. “Let’s leave the past behind with all our sorrows, I’ll build a bridge between us and I’ll swallow my pride…”

Much of the rest of As You Were is similarly thoughtful, in an everyman kind of way. “When I’m in Need” is a sweet waltz about love. “I Get By” lays down a Led Zeppelin-esque bedrock for a tune about moving on from a bad relationship. Closer “I’ve All I Need” is an amiable anthem of contentment, one that manages to get a George Harrison reference into the chorus. (They’ll always be the guys from Oasis, after all.) Overall I’m impressed at this rough-and-tumble little record. It outpaces his work with Beady Eye and marks Liam as a solo artist worth watching.

I’m similarly surprised at how much Noel struggles to keep up, given that his High Flying Birds has been the better of the two projects, by and large. Who Built the Moon, the Birds’ third album, is certainly not bad, but there’s a lack of inspiration you can hear from the start. Noel himself has lauded “Holy Mountain,” the first single, as a powerhouse, and it’s… you know, fine. It’s a standard blues-rock stomp with some nice saxophones and no melody to speak of. Much of Moon is built on groove and mood more than memorable songs, and while that groove is often awesome – check out the electric piano shimmy of “Keep On Reaching” – I found myself yearning for tunes I could sing along with.

Much of this album sounds like it grew from jam sessions, and if I had this group of musicians – including Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner on bass – I’d want to jam with them too. I like the looping chorus of “It’s a Beautiful World,” and appreciate the “Tomorrow Never Knows” psychedelic touches throughout, but found the songs oddly plodding. “She Taught Me How to Fly,” just as an example, is so bargain-basement blues-rock that I lost interest a couple minutes in. I enjoy the slinky bass-and-acoustic vibe of “Be Careful What You Wish For,” but ended up wishing for a chorus.

As a mood piece, Who Built the Moon is pretty good. The instrumental interludes fit in nicely, and carry the feel of the record forward. But for all of the sonic frippery and atmosphere, I think I enjoyed the bonus track best. It’s just Noel, his acoustic guitar and a piano player, live in the studio, singing what may be the album’s best song, “Dead in the Water.” It’s unfussed, unhurried and quite beautiful. I wanted more like this, more open emotion and simple, good songwriting. I know Noel has it in him. Here’s hoping for more of it next time out.

I’m definitely planning to keep up with both brothers as they move down their separate paths. I hesitate to make any Beatles comparisons, but so far their solo careers have been similar to those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – decent, solid stuff, without coming anywhere near the heights they achieved together. I expect them to continue doing exactly that until they are old and grey. And I hold out hope that they will surprise me along the way.

That’s all for this week. Next week, U2, the Dear Hunter and my friend Greg Boerner. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Final Flight of Miss Sharon Jones
Saying Goodbye to a Soul Icon

Remember last year, when the grim reaper saved up many of its deepest cuts for the final months?

In the last weeks of 2016, we lost (among others) George Michael, Carrie Fisher and her mom Debbie Reynolds. It was like the year was saving up some of its biggest wallops, delivering them on the way out the door. I have a terrible feeling that we’re headed for the same thing this year, if the increasing rate of notable deaths is anything to go by.

The two most related to the topic of this column this week were Malcolm Young and Mel Tillis. We’ll start with Young, the mastermind behind some of the most iconic rock and roll riffs of all time. With his brother Angus, Malcolm Young formed AC/DC in 1973, and shepherded the band through the next 40 years. Though Angus was always the more flashy and visible Young brother, it was Malcolm who truly led the group, writing or co-writing all of AC/DC’s iconic stompers.

I have always liked AC/DC, even if they’re the poster children for finding one thing and doing it over and over again. Their one thing was sleazy, ballsy rock and roll, and they perfected it. They’re responsible for some of the most famous ringing guitar lines of all time, including the stutter-stop awesome of “Back in Black,” the thunderous “For Those About to Rock,” and of course the nimble “Thunderstruck.” They’re one of the few bands I can name whose hits are 100 percent representative – the deeper cuts and catalog numbers are more of the same. There’s something to be said for that, especially when you know that’s what you’re doing. Malcolm Young staked out his territory and did it very well for decades.

Young took a leave of absence from the band in 2014, suffering from dementia, and died on Nov. 18 at the age of 64.

While Malcolm Young spent most of his career happily ceding the spotlight to the flashier members of his band, Mel Tillis was always front and center. The country legend began his career in the ‘50s, writing songs for the likes of Webb Pierce and Brenda Lee and recording his own albums. He had a string of hits in the 1970s cemented his place in the country music pantheon, including “I Ain’t Never” and “Good Woman Blues.”

Tillis remained popular through the ‘80s, both on his own and as a songwriter for Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs, among others. In his later years he joined with Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Jerry Reed in the Old Dogs, a hilarious supergroup that sang Shel Silverstein songs about growing old. He was inducted into the Grand Old Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year, 2007.

Tillis had been battling various illnesses for more than a year. He died on Nov. 19 at the age of 85.

I’d also like to mention Della Reese here. The venerated actress did have a long-running singing career, scoring a hit in 1959 and Grammy nominations later in life. (She made 28 albums! I had no idea before looking her up.) But I know her from her various roles in film and television, particularly Touched by an Angel, that weird quasi-religious ‘90s sensation. Reese was a long-running presence on television, and I was always interested when her name would pop up. Heck, she was B.A. Baracus’ mother in an episode of The A-Team that I still remember pretty vividly. I always enjoyed her work.

Reese died on Nov. 19 as well, at the age of 86.

* * * * *

Of course, all that is a lead-in for talking about another well-respected black woman singer, Miss Sharon Jones.

I can’t even explain how sad I was to learn of Sharon Jones’ death. It was almost exactly a year ago that we lost her to cancer and a related stroke. One of the great regrets of my last 10 years is never getting to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings live. I became aware of them only about seven years ago, thanks to my friend Jeff Elbel, who played their great 100 Days 100 Nights album for me. Here was a truly authentic old-school horn-driven soul outfit, and at its center, a voice that could shake mountains.

Naturally, I bought everything I could find. Hers is a discography without any weak points, and that remained true straight to the end. Last year’s Christmas record, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, is a treat, and now, a year after she left us, we have the final Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album, Soul of a Woman. I’m beyond pleased to report that it’s just as good as anything she’s done.

The band, of course, is hot as always. The Dap-Kings are just a great soul band, and here they are joined by a veritable army of horn and string players. You might be worried that with all those players jockeying for the spotlight, Jones might be drowned out. Nothing could be further from the truth, thankfully. The record opens with a one-two punch – the civil rights anthem “Matter of Time” and the shimmying not-quite-reunion song “Sail On” – and they’re both awesome. Jones nails the swagger of “Sail On,” easily dominating the proceedings, her voice soaring alongside the vintage-sounding trumpets.

Much of the rest of Soul, true to its title, is made up of slow, soulful ballads, and Jones shines on this material. The strummy ‘70s goodness of “Come and Be a Winner” is an absolute delight, and the tricky time signature of “Pass Me By” allows Jones to sway with the melody. “Searching for a New Day” is hopeful and fun, while “These Tears” is pensive and heartbreaking. “Girl (You Got to Forgive Him)” is a massive production, full of horns and strings and tympanis, but Jones is in full control of it.

And on the last song on her last record, she branches out into new territory, enlisting the Universal Church of God Choir for a plaintive gospel song she wrote herself, titled “Call on God.” It seems like it would be out of her wheelhouse, but she’s awesome on it, pouring deep feeling into every line. Every time I listen to this, I miss her more. Her loss leaves a deep hole in the music world, and in my world as well. Having one last visit with her is a treat, particularly one that captures everything that was so great about her in one tidy package.

Goodnight, Miss Jones. And thanks for everything.

* * * * *

That’ll do it for this week. Next week, Bjork and the Gallagher Brothers. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Pledging for Beauty
Robert Deeble and Sara Groves Deliver

This week I was going to talk about the avalanche of live albums and remasters and box sets that pummel your local record store at this time every year. It’s a topic I revisit seemingly every fall, and I never have anything new to say about it. The record companies like money, they want your money, so they offer lavish sets to commemorate records they know, through market research, that you will want to buy or give as gifts.

It’s really that simple, and yet each year I devote lots of words to these sets, many of which I buy just to buy. Last week, for instance, I picked up multi-disc remasters of Metallica’s Master of Puppets and R.E.M.’s phenomenal Automatic for the People. But there isn’t much I haven’t already said about these records. I could talk about the first time I heard them – Master at 14 as I was truly launching my teenage metalhead phase, Automatic my freshman year in college – and what they mean to me. That would certainly fill my quota for the week.

But I’m not listening to either one of them. I think it’s partially because I have them memoried. Master of Puppets is carved onto my soul – it’s possibly the best metal album ever made, dark and progressive and socially relevant. And Automatic for the People might be my favorite album from the Athens superstars, the culmination of their search for beauty in the ‘90s. (Have they ever written a prettier song than “Find the River”?) I love these records, and I’m very happy to have them in shiny new versions. But I’m not eager to listen to them right away.

Similarly, I’ve not really dug into the live albums I’ve picked up recently. Spock’s Beard reunited to perform all of Snow, their final album with Neal Morse, and I had to have it, and I’m sure it’s great. But it hasn’t captured my attention. Same with live documents from Pearl Jam, the Pineapple Thief and Kansas. I’m sure it will be the same for Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and ELO, which I will buy this week. I’ll get to them, but I’m not in any hurry. The one that has inched up my list is A-Ha’s new unplugged effort, but it hasn’t broken through yet.

So what have I been listening to? Well, in addition to my Doctor Who audio stories (I’m years behind) and Chopin’s complete Nocturnes (a long story involving work), my attention has been consumed with a pair of albums I paid for months ago, but just received. I talk a lot about Kickstarter here, but it’s not the only crowdfunding platform bands and artists use, and I supported both of these new albums on PledgeMusic, which basically provides a storefront for a project and manages pre-orders. In concept, it’s similar to Kickstarter, and it offers the same service – it helps bring into the world works of art that may not see the light of day otherwise.

Many of the artists who use PledgeMusic are under the radar, connecting with a small-ish audience to create personal works that probably wouldn’t thrive in the mainstream, but that hit the spot for the people who pony up. Robert Deeble certainly fits that bill. I discovered Deeble at AudioFeed a couple years ago – he played a set on his own, and then one with Choir drummer Steve Hindalong. He’s an unconventional guitar player who writes in an ambient folk style – stripped back yet lush, sparse and airy yet as full as it needs to be. He’s been making records since the late ‘90s, but I jumped aboard with 2013’s delightful Heart Like Feathers.

Beloved is Deeble’s first album since then. A hundred forty-nine of us pledged to bring it to life, and it’s everything I hoped it would be. Beloved is a deeply intimate record, telling the story of his journey as a new father, first fostering his daughter and then fully adopting her. As you might guess, it’s a very pretty set of songs, led by Deeble’s whisper of a voice. It opens with a sweet arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine,” and moves in that vein from there. It’s 42 minutes of a father’s love, which he felt from the first moment he met her (as he details in “Coal Miner”), and it’s guaranteed to leave you with a warm glow.

Deeble enlisted a pretty large number of collaborators for this record, including singers and string players, but he’s retained that open, airy feel of his previous work. “Uncertain” and “Coal Miner” are bigger tunes, the latter ending with a singalong refrain of “it’s gonna be all right” that might be the most massive thing Deeble’s ever done. But still, this feels small and intimate, like reading his diary. The fragile lullaby “To Find You” details his reunion with his daughter after a year apart (she was in the care of her birth mother), determined to come to some arrangement that would protect this little girl he had come to love. “And I’ll take all I can get to give all I can for you,” he sings, and you know he means it.

“Even Now” crackles, even though the instruments in it are barely moving. Somehow the drums on Deeble’s records tend to snap in a way few others I’ve heard manage, especially when the rest of the instrumentation is so subtle. It’s a song of sorrow, but as he says, sorrow that bonded him and his wife together with his daughter’s birth parents, so there is hope.

The final few songs of Beloved are guaranteed to move you. The title track relates the night he and his wife picked up their daughter and drove home as a family for the first time: “And we’ve cried, and we’ve cried for such a long time, and it feels like for the first time it’s going to be all right…” “Sleep” is truly lovely – you can imagine him rocking his baby girl back and forth as you listen – and the untitled interlude uses her actual voice, singing “doo doo doo” along with a fun beat. The final track, “Recovery,” is a sweet instrumental, a loving and lovely way to end.

Without AudioFeed, I don’t know that I would ever have found Robert Deeble. Without PledgeMusic, I don’t know if Beloved would have been made. My musical life would have been poorer for it. I’m enamored with this little record, this love letter in song. In a world that makes me want to hang my head daily, it’s a joy to have something this precious, this full of heart. Beloved makes me want to keep going. I’m glad it exists. You can check it out at Robert’s Bandcamp page.

Sara Groves is more well-known than Deeble is, but her new record is similarly personal. Groves has made her home in the Christian marketplace, but has always been more thoughtful and artful than most of her contemporaries. She tells stories of life through the prism of faith, admitting that sometimes life is harder than she knows how to deal with, and it is that faith that gets her through. Two years ago she made a great record called Floodplain that dealt with depression and day-to-day hardship with poetry and grace.

In some ways, it’s a bit of a shame that her new album, Abide with Me, is entirely arrangements of old hymns, but only in that I always want to hear more Sara Groves songs. There is no doubt, listening to it, that these songs mean so much to Groves. As an artist, she always makes me feel what she feels, even if I don’t always believe what she believes. That’s all I ask of anyone. These songs, she says, were with her during the hard times that informed Floodplain, and as a companion piece, it’s a beautiful thing.

And I love old hymns. Some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed were written in the service of prayer and worship. I grew up in a church that sang nothing but these often centuries-old pieces, and I always respond to them. I knew about half of the songs on Abide with Me, and grew up singing several of them. This album was recorded in a church in Minnesota that Groves and her husband have adapted into a performance venue and community center (the original building is on the cover), and just as they updated the space with reverence, they do the same for the songs.

The arrangements here are breathtakingly beautiful. Groves has, without fail, chosen songs of comfort here, songs that believers hold close in their darkest hours. The instrumentation is similarly comforting – pianos, guitars, some subtle embellishments, extremely subtle percussion. She sings these songs like an angel, but more than that, like someone who holds them dear. I mentioned in my Derek Webb review that the music I tend to respond to most is about the ways we connect with whatever is beyond us. Abide with Me is, at its core, about how Groves connects with the divine, and is drawn closer to it.

I’ll probably have a tough time mentioning highlights, because I love it all so much. “What a Friend” is a song I used to sing in church, but I’ve never felt anything like I feel for it now, in Groves’ hands. The brief “Song of Blessing” is glorious, as is the title song. I love what she’s done with “To the Dawn,” a re-working of “There’s a Light Upon the Mountains.” “And the hearts of man are stirring,” she sings, and stirs mine.

But I will make special mention of the closing song, “He’s Always Been Faithful,” because it’s my favorite. Oddly enough, it’s the only original song here – it first appeared on Groves’ album Conversations, from 2001. Performed just on piano, with a smattering of upright bass and clarinet, it’s a song about God being with us in our pain, in our sorrow, on our worst days. Songs like this have always, always gotten to me, particularly if they’re so clearly personal and honest, and Groves, as she always does, makes me feel what she feels. I like that she added one of her own songs to this, and that it fits right in. Hymns are being written all the time, as people work through and wrestle with their connection with the infinite.

I’m still working through and wrestling with mine, and music has been one of the most helpful ways I do that. Sara Groves has been with me through much of that journey, and her authenticity and genuine artistry has been deeply valuable. Abide with Me is a record of solace in a world of turmoil, and even though its songs are hundreds of years old, documenting hundreds of years of man’s yearning for comfort from above, they feel brand new in the hands of Sara Groves. I can’t stop listening to this. Once again, I am glad it exists.

Next week, who knows. Be here and find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Year Goes Down
A January Album Lights a Dark Winter

Dudley Simpson died on Saturday at the age of 95.

I’m sure most of you reading this right now have no idea who I’m talking about, but the music of Dudley Simpson has been imprinted on my life since I was six years old. As the resident composer for Doctor Who throughout the ‘70s, Simpson created the music that accompanied pretty much all of my favorite Tom Baker stories.

Music has always been a gateway to my soul, and it’s usually what I remember first about any film or television show. I know this has always been the case, because I vividly remember watching The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death and the whole Key to Time season when I was young, and I can still remember the music that goes along with those stories. Simpson’s orchestral scores were oddly reassuring at times, brighter than the stories they accompanied, but they still scared me as a kid. Tom Baker-era Doctor Who to me is splashy horns and lumbering percussion and, of course, that incredible walking-around-Paris theme from City of Death.

Of course, he did a lot more than just score Doctor Who in his long life. His list of television credits is enormous. But I hope he forgives me for remembering him most fondly for helping to open the door of imagination for a wide-eyed kid entranced by his work on his favorite goofy sci-fi show. Thanks, Dudley, for everything. Rest in peace.

* * * * *

I’m coming around to the sad realization that the new U2 album is going to suck.

We’ve heard three songs now, and of them, only “The Blackout” moves with any conviction. “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is embarrassing, and it sounds like they just went with Bono’s first draft of the lyrics, too: “The best thing to ever happen a boy” isn’t even English. And now they’ve given us “Get Out of Your Own Way,” a sappy, repetitive bore-fest that proves that they can’t even take their own advice.

This is disheartening, since I loved (LOVED) Songs of Innocence. Its counterpart, Songs of Experience, was one of the few records I was holding out hope for in the waning months of this year, but it sounds like it’s going to be dismal. That leaves the new Dear Hunter EP, All Is as All Should Be, as the main bright light for the rest of the year, and because it’s an EP, it’s ineligible for my top 10 list. I feel like I could write up that list right now and nothing coming out over the next seven weeks will change it.

That’s not to say that music hasn’t been or won’t be coming out regularly. It sure will. My big score this week was the first album by Lost Horizons, the new project of Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde. It features vocals by the likes of Karen Peris (of the Innocence Mission), Marissa Nadler and Tim Smith (of Midlake), and it’s sweet and pretty and full of atmosphere and I just don’t have much to say about it. I also bought the new Blitzen Trapper and the new Lunatic Soul, but haven’t found time or ambition to listen to them.

‘Tis the season for live albums and box sets, too, and I’ll certainly be talking about a few of them next week, including the anniversary reissue of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. For new records in November, though, we have Quicksand and the Corrs and Four Tet and, um… Thankfully Bjork just announced her new one, Utoipa, for Nov. 24 or it would be a vast wasteland. (I welcome your suggestions for upcoming records I’ve missed. And don’t say Barenaked Ladies, because everything I’ve heard from that one has been miserable.)

Luckily, I do have something that has been capturing my musical attention this week. It’s new, as in it came out this year, but it’s not new in that it hit in January and I completely missed it. I don’t know how, but it fell through the cracks for me. I absolutely love Brian Transeau, better known as BT, and yet somehow he gave us a 92-minute record of glorious ambience and I completely spaced on it.

I have it now, though, and it’s magnificent. Transeau has charted a unique path through the world of electronic music, moving from the danceable trance of his first releases to an intricate, skittering hybrid of EDM and pop on the still-great Emotional Technology. From there he’s jumped from the soundscapes of This Binary Universe to the quiet atmospheres of If the Stars Are Eternal Then So Are You and I to the explosive guitar-driven pop of These Hopeful Machines to the all-out dance party of A Song Across Wires. Each album feels extraordinarily involved – each one clearly took years of work hunched over a console, editing sounds and sections – and yet each feels deeply emotional at the same time.

That certainly applies to his untitled new monstrosity. I say untitled – it officially has no title, but many streaming services don’t allow untitled albums, so he’s given it the unofficial designation _. That’s right, the underscore symbol. The lack of title adds to the air of mystery around this thing, which apparently shipped in a limited edition box with a USB stick containing all nine songs with nine corresponding videos. I will never get this box, and that’s OK. I’ve downloaded the album (yes, I paid for air) and that’s enough.

It’s more than enough, actually, because _ is massive. It’s a lot to absorb on first (or even tenth) listen. This is an instrumental electronic album, one more concerned with setting moods and feelings than entrancing with melodies. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to This Binary Universe – long soundscapes give way to stuttering beats that feel like taking off in fog and floating over technicolor vistas below. It has an interesting structure – four short songs, three multi-part suites and two long pieces – but it all works as a whole, and leaves you feeling like you’ve been somewhere special.

The three suites are the centerpiece of this record, and each flows so seamlessly that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re not subdivided at all. They’re intricate, clockwork things, particularly “Omega,” the final one – it shifts restlessly for its first five minutes, then settles into a gorgeous and subtle groove. “Artifacture” develops its individual pieces more thoroughly, but again gives us the most complete bit last, a morphing synthetic cloud that drifts up and up. The final two tracks make up the last half-hour of the album, and they are among the most beautiful 3-D ambient music BT has made. “Chromatophore” ends with whole minutes of rain sounds, and “Five Hundred and Eighty Two” is based on tightly controlled feedback that feels otherworldly. It’s so easy to get lost in this.

I’m not sure how I missed _ when it first came out, but I’m overjoyed to have it now. I’ll take anything from BT, but my favorite things in his catalog are these deeply felt instrumental records, and _ may well be the best one. I won’t be able to adequately describe the experience of listening to it, but I recommend it highly. Once again he has spun magic, bottled it and delivered it as music.

Next week, probably some of those box sets and live records I’ve been picking up lately. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Look Around, Leaves Are Brown
From Summer to Winter with Weezer and Julien Baker

Today is Halloween, and the weather is appropriately cold and grey.

There are hints of rain, and enough of a chill in the air that stepping outside without a coat is a guaranteed one-way ticket to sniffleville. Two weeks ago the weather was scorching – between 90 and 100 degrees, sun beating down oppressively, making the case for climate change all by itself. But now it’s the dead of winter, weather that could justifiably be called miserable.

We didn’t get an autumn this year, is what I’m saying. We jumped straight from a summer that lasted through mid-October into a shivery winter, its icy tendrils already prophesying the coming snow. (In fact, some reports say we’re getting snow next week.) It’s been a shock to the system, and I know I’m not alone in feeling cheated. I grew up in New England, where fall lasts two months or so. Two months of lovely red and yellow and brown leaves decorating the trees, of pumpkin patches and apple cider. It may be my favorite season, and we’ve been robbed of it.

If we’d been granted an autumn, Weezer’s new album might not seem so strange. But it is into this frigid wasteland of an early winter that Rivers Cuomo has seen fit to release Pacific Daydream, the band’s twelfth album (if you count Death to False Metal, which I certainly do). As you can probably tell from the title, this record takes the summery vibe of last year’s White Album even further. This is 30 minutes of cruising-with-the-top-down pop, more appropriate for palm trees and beach parties than the scarf-and-mittens weather into which it’s been dropped.

Let’s be real, though: this doesn’t even crack the top ten weirdest choices Weezer has made. I love that we’re 23 years into their career and they remain not only prolific, but unpredictable. For Pacific Daydream the band worked with Butch Walker, who also produced their silly yet wonderful Raditude. The tone here is not dissimilar – if you’re one of those people who remains emotionally invested in Pinkerton and hates it when Cuomo lets his ridiculous pop instincts take center stage, well, sorry. You’re gonna hate this.

I love it. Weezer’s been on a hot streak for a while with me, and Pacific Daydream is their third album in a row that I would rank among my favorites. It’s glossier than the White Album, more intricately produced, more crafted for immediate pleasure. The lyrics are all effervescent and lighter than air. The first song, “Mexican Fender,” hangs on the line “my summer love, oo-ee-oo,” and the third song is called “Feels Like Summer.” It is exactly the kind of record you think it is. It goes down smooth and easy, and is only interested in making you feel good for half an hour.

Which sounds like something I’d hate, but for the fact that Cuomo is so very, very good at this kind of thing. These songs are so hummable, so delightful that I can’t help singing along, and even doing little dances. Cuomo’s ode to the “Beach Boys” is a lovely thing, incorporating some Wilson-esque harmonies. “Turn it up, it’s the Beach Boys, singing out in a sweet voice…” “Weekend Woman” is a sweet tale of love with “no time for poetry” but plenty of time for a wonderful bridge, and “Happy Hour” is encouraging and sweet: “I need happy hour on sad days.” The band is typically anonymous, disappearing behind these bite-sized morsels, playing exactly what Cuomo’s tunes need.

Sure, if you grew up with “The Sweater Song” and “Tired of Sex,” these tunes might seem lightweight. But they’re lightweight on purpose, and beautifully so. I would love it if Brian Wilson’s modern music sounded this much like Brian Wilson at his best – I can totally see his band killing “QB Blitz,” a harmony-drenched bit of sun-dappled yearning, and “Sweet Mary” takes on that Jeff Lynne quality. I just love these classic pop songs, and I love what Weezer and Walker have done with them. Pacific Daydream is another little winner, and a fun reminder of the summer we just bid farewell.

But there’s no denying that the blissful feel of Pacific Daydream doesn’t match the world outside our window. The sudden winter is a much more appropriate backdrop for Turn Out the Lights, the second album by songwriter Julien Baker. This 22-year-old is everywhere right now, playing her desperately sad songs on CBS Sunday Morning and A Prairie Home Companion. They fit the lonely chill of nights to come perfectly – in fact, they might be too sad to listen to alone.

Baker seemingly appeared out of nowhere two years ago, releasing one of the most critically acclaimed albums I can remember, Sprained Ankle. Containing literally nothing but Baker’s guitar and voice, the record ached like a living thing, laying bare its author’s pain and promise. Turn Out the Lights, blessedly, is almost the same – the jump to Matador Records has only resulted in a slightly wider palette, a slightly more ambitious scope. The new songs are just as devastating, and perhaps more, since they crescendo more effectively, ebb and flow more convincingly.

Baker is only 22, which seems impossible, given the depth of feeling in every minute of this album. Its opening piano and strings quickly give way to her signature electric guitar and her forlorn, aching voice on “Appointments,” and within moments, you’re wrapped up in Baker’s spell. It’s almost oppressive – for 40 minutes, no light gets in, no joy. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” she sings, a sentiment that sets the tone for the record.

But it’s amazing that someone so young can weave a spell this effective, and sustain it. Her lyrics will resonate with anyone battling loneliness and trying to quiet the voice that tells them they’re no good, not worth it. The title track brings that battle to the fore: “I’d never do it, but it’s not a joke, I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone… when I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.” Her passionate shouts come from the depths of her soul.

Baker has said that while some of Turn Out the Lights is autobiographical, some of it relates the stories of people she knows. “Sour Breath” takes on mental illness and how difficult it is to remain afloat: “The harder I swim the faster I sink,” she repeats. Several songs, like “Televangelist,” find her playing piano, but not sacrificing an ounce of emotion to do so. “Televangelist” is one of several songs to address Baker’s complex thoughts about religion and guilt: “Am I a masochist, screaming televangelist clutching my crucifix of white noise and static, all my prayers are apologies, hold out a flare until you come for me…”

The stunning “Everything to Help You Sleep” opens up that box even more, Baker singing about the Holy Ghost speaking in Morse code and blaming herself for God’s silence: “If I scream a little louder I know you would have heard.” The chorus is amazing: “Lord, Lord, Lord is there some way to make it stop, nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off, and everything supposed to help me sleep at night doesn’t help me sleep at night anymore…” She dreams of rewiring her brain and wonders if God made a mistake on “Happy to Be Here,” and when she sings “I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why not me,” it breaks my heart.

But the album doesn’t kill me until “Hurt Less,” my vote for the best song Baker has yet written. It’s the one song on which she makes progress – she begins by singing about why she doesn’t wear seatbelts: she hopes to feel her body and soul float through the air after crashing through the windshield. And then she finds someone to talk to, someone to share with, and goddamn, I cry each time she gets to the concluding verse: “This year I started wearing safety belts when I’m driving, because when I’m with you I don’t have to think about myself, and it hurts less…” (And just when your heart can’t hold anymore, the strings. The strings!)

No other record so far this year hurts like this one hurts, and that emotional connection is Baker’s greatest strength. As I mentioned, she’s only 22, so she’ll only get better – her songs have a sameness to them that I hope she’ll outgrow. But when it comes to capturing true feeling, few do it as well as she does. As someone who has lived with depression for his entire life, a song like “Claws in Your Back” gets it down on tape with surprising accuracy, and heart-rending candor. Turn Out the Lights is a tough listen, and a powerful one, and a necessary one. In sharing her darkest hours, she helps us talk about ours, and that’s an incredible gift. I’m in awe of the way she uses it here, and how from the depths of winter she assures us that summer is possible.

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles