As we get closer to the end of the year, the new releases start to take on a different significance for me.
Good music is good music, of course, no matter when it surfaces. But when we start to get into October and November I start to think about my picture of the year in music, and what that music ended up saying. And I do this knowing full well that at any time, some new record could come along and redraw that whole picture for me.
I have a schedule of announced releases and I’ve noted the ones I’m keeping my eye on – and there aren’t that many this year – but often the best stuff ends up being a complete surprise. I didn’t see The Dear Hunter’s Act IV coming, for instance, and its appearance at the tail end of 2015 rocked my little world. It ended up at number two that year, only trailing to a pair of masterpieces so astonishingly good that they tied for first.
So I’m keeping my ear out for anything that grabs me the way Act IV did. But at the same time, I’m tracking several other records that I expect to be worthy, and two of them landed in my lap this past week. In my world, there is little more gratifying than waiting for months for a record, finally hearing it and feeling like all that time spent in anticipation was worth it. Lucky me, I got to experience that twice in the past seven days, and I’m excited to tell you about both of these albums.
First up is Elbow, and I swear this band is incapable of making a bad record. I don’t think they could do it if they tried. Granted, I don’t believe they’ve ever tried – over seven previous efforts, they’ve refined a patient and powerful sound, and now they are equally comfortable playing their clockwork style of rock, adding enormous layers of lush orchestration, or going as minimal as possible, as they did on 2017’s riveting single “Gentle Storm.” While flashier bands have fizzled out, Elbow has spent nearly 20 years quietly amassing a stunningly good body of work.
Even by their standards, the band’s eighth album Giants of All Sizes is wonderful. Lyrically it is definitely a reaction to these Brexit-Trump times – these “faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days,” as leader Guy Garvey sings – but musically the band is clearly in a confident place. Giants contains some of their prettiest melodies married to some of Garvey’s most desperate and lonely lyrics, and the sum of those parts is perhaps the finest record they’ve made.
If you thought Little Fictions was a mite subdued, you’re going to love the opener to this one. “Dexter and Sinister” brings Elbow the rock band front and center for a seven-minute stomp that brings earlier classics like “Grounds for Divorce” to mind. This one’s about loss of faith – the opening line, “I don’t know Jesus anymore,” can be read in a straightforward way or as a metaphor for a world that has passed beyond understanding – and its powerful riff matches Garvey’s pleading words. Midway through the band shifts gears into a beautiful jam, complete with soaring vocals by Jesca Hoop.
“Dexter and Sinister” certainly throws down a gauntlet – it’s my favorite Elbow opening track in years – but the album is more than ready for the challenge. “Seven Veils” is remarkable, a sweet-sounding hymn of abandonment with a gorgeous arrangement. “Empires” picks the pace back up somewhat for a tale of self-destruction: “Empires crumble all the time, you just happened to witness mine,” Garvey sings over an insistent organ line. Strings elevate the urgent “The Delayed 3:15,” which leads into “White Noise White Heat,” a patented off-kilter Elbow rocker that finds Garvey lamenting what the world has done to him: “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive the white noise of the lies, the white heat of injustice has taken my eyes…”
Garvey channels Peter Gabriel and David Bowie at times here, the latter most completely on the stripped-back “Doldrums.” It’s probably my least favorite here, but it leads into the lovely final third, all of which is excellent. “My Trouble is a perfect number about missing someone who was never good for you, the band percolating softly behind Garvey as the strings build and he sings “Come get me, guide and check me, sail and wreck me, soak me to my skin…” It’s basically the kind of song only Elbow seems to know how to write, and I’m grateful they keep on writing them. The nostalgic “On Deronda Road” and the surprisingly upbeat “Weightless” close things on a delightful note.
When I mentioned to friends that Elbow’s new album is amazing, I had several of them tell me they’d never heard of the band. (This despite my best efforts over the past 19 years.) If this is you, I envy you – this new one is the band’s eighth, and you cannot go wrong with any of them. Or all of them, which is what I would recommend. Elbow is a band quite unlike any other, and Giants of All Sizes is another knock-me-over winner from them, and probably the best thing they’ve done. It’s a great time to jump aboard and become a fan.
Speaking of bands everyone I know should listen to, there’s Coyote Kid.
I know what you’re thinking. Who on earth is Coyote Kid, and why, if we all should be listening to them, have you never mentioned them before? Well, I have mentioned them, several times, under their previous name, Marah in the Mainsail. I first heard them at AudioFeed Festival in Champaign back in 2014, and was immediately captivated. They play a sort of apocalyptic folk-rock that draws on centuries of story-songs, updated with horns and cinematic arrangements. Two years ago they delivered a dark masterpiece with Bone Crown, a fiery fairy tale that moves relentlessly from prologue to epilogue. It’s awesome.
Their new one, The Skeleton Man, is a sequel set in the same world, but the band apparently felt that they’d moved far enough from their sea-shanty origins that a name change was warranted. Full disclosure, I like the name Marah in the Mainsail a lot more than the name Coyote Kid, but the new moniker is serviceable, and it does conjure the dystopian western image they were hoping for. It’s the music that counts anyway, and The Skeleton Man is phenomenal, taking the Bone Crown template and kicking it up several notches.
It also ramps up the band’s storytelling side, so much so that it’s clearly their identity now. The Skeleton Man appears to kick off what I hope is a nice long series of concept records about the Coyote Kid, a wanderer in the post-disaster world left by the great fire at the end of Bone Crown. There’s a plague ravaging the land, and the Coyote Kid must contend with the Crow, a childhood friend who now believes she can cure the plague by bringing people back to life, Frankenstein style. Along the way the Coyote Kid becomes the embodiment of death, and faces off against monsters called prowlers and an army of the undead.
This sounds like it would be convoluted, but the songs are all immediate and instantly enjoyable. Austin Durry has a gritty voice that fits the propulsive, raucous sound perfectly, and the band’s guitar-heavy arrangements leap from the speakers. You’ll be through five of these songs before you even know what’s happening, so unrelenting is the band’s attack, and these 44 minutes fly by in a whirl of drums and ear-catching noise.
But that’s OK, because track five, “Strange Days,” is this band at its best – it ebbs and flows with a crawling menace, Durry welcoming you to the “new dark age” before a stunning sustained howl in the middle eight. If I had only one song to play you to get you into Coyote Kid, this would be it. That’s not to say that the other dozen tracks are not worth your time, because there are no bad songs on The Skeleton Man, and it all plays like a single piece. “Tough Kids” is amazing, “Destroyer of Worlds” is surprisingly funny, and when Cassandra Valentine takes on the part of the Crow on “Dark Science” and “Electric Lover,” it’s riveting.
Yeah, this is a dark story full of death and pain, and it doesn’t conclude here: the title track closes things out, and it finds the Coyote Kid, in his new guise as the Skeleton Man, heading out to find the supernatural cause of the plague. I assume this thread will be picked up next time, which is quite the vote of confidence in themselves as a band. Such a cliffhanger may have left The Skeleton Man feeling incomplete if the songs were not so full and rich. This record is a journey through a violent wasteland, led by death himself, and it ends with hope still far, far away. I hesitate to say that resonates in these turbulent times, but it does.
The Skeleton Man will be available to hear and buy next week, and I’ll share the link when it’s up. (I Kickstarted the album, so I got to hear it early.) I hope I can convince at least some of you to give this a try, because I think Coyote Kid will be your new favorite band. They’ve been one of mine for years now, whatever they choose to call themselves, and The Skeleton Man is just one more reason why.
Next week, a pair of part twos. After that, Marillion. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.