Three Women
And Three Really Good New Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody loves a good debut album.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took me a long time to like Jack White.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Volunteering as Tribute
Nada Surf Receives, Meshell Ndegeocello Gives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

Anyway, here’s the list right now:

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

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

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

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Keys to the Kingdom
Exploring the Ebonies and Ivories on Three New Records

I’m a keyboard player.

Sometimes I say piano player, but keyboard player is really what I mean. I grew up learning from Yanni and the dude from Journey. Keith Emerson was a hero of mine, from the time I heard “Touch and Go.” Van Halen never did it for me until “Jump.” I thought keytars were awesome, and wanted one desperately from age 10 to probably age 16. In high school I made several (terrible) albums of solo keyboard music. During the years after college, I made several more.

I say all that to point out that when bands get all keyboard-y – even bands that, from the outside, really shouldn’t – I don’t mind it. It’s a bit of a cliché at this point, so I’m likely to let out a sigh or two for that reason, but for the most part, I’m on board with the synth sounds. If an artist wants to explore new territory, and this is the territory they choose, I’m willing to find out why. Sometimes the reasons are compelling – see the aforementioned Van Halen as a prime example. Sometimes they’re not so much.

I’m afraid I’m still not sure which way I’m leaning with the Decemberists. If you’d asked me two years ago to write out a list of bands most likely to turn to the keyboards, I would never have included them. Somehow not even the prog-rock Jethro Tull-isms of The Hazards of Love seem as full-on a left turn as I’ll Be Your Girl, the venerable Portland band’s eighth album. There’s nary a trace of the serious folksy band they’ve been, even on 2015’s underrated What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.

Instead, the band approaches new wave on single “Severed,” and while the rest of the record doesn’t go quite as Flock of Seagulls as that one, there are synthesizers everywhere. Opener “Once in My Life” is a simple folk tune – almost too simple – except for the thick John Hughes-style keys that envelop the strumming acoustic guitars and Colin Meloy’s pleading voice. A seemingly sparse ditty like “Tripping Along” brings in an army of watery synth sounds on sustained chords. None of this is bad, it’s just very different.

I like the fact that very little of I’ll Be Your Girl sounds like the Decemberists. I’m not sure I like what it does sound like very much, but I applaud Meloy and his merry band for stretching out. “Your Ghost” is perhaps the most successful thing here, a galloping fantasia of surf guitar sounds, harpsichords and eerie la-la-la vocals. It brings the first half to a lively end, and sets you up for the sillier, looser second half.

“Everything is Awful” is something you come up with when you’re drunk and maybe demo it, but here it is in its full glory. “Sucker’s Prayer” and “We All Die Young” remind me of the filler tracks on the White Album, especially “We All Die Young,” with its “Revolution #1” guitar sounds and thudding beat. Meloy has called Girl a reaction to the 2016 election, and aside from a general sense of foreboding on tracks like “Starwatcher,” it’s hard to hear that, except in these sillier tunes. “Everything is Awful” is exactly what it sounds like, a declaration of terribleness set to giddy music: “What’s that crashing sound that follows us around? That’s the sound of all things good breaking…” The protagonist of “Sucker’s Prayer” tries to pray away his troubles, and then tries suicide, unsuccessfully. “We All Die Young” is, of course, about how we’re all going to die.

Still, I found little to love on this album until the final two tracks. “Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes” is the eight-minute epic, a mash-up of two John Lennon-ish tunes with simple backdrops and orchestration, and this is the one that sounds the most like the Decemberists of old. After nine tracks of experimentation, this is a confident piece of old-school drama, and the keys are largely unobtrusive until the proggy ending. And the title track, all two and a half minutes of it, is surprisingly tender and sweet, its lyric a lovely spin on Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” “And when the tempests rage and all the oceans roar at your door, I could be your man but I’ll be that much more…” Like a lot of this record, there isn’t much to this song, but it’s got a good heart, and that counts for a lot.

I’m still not sure what to make of I’ll Be Your Girl. In some ways, it’s a bold reinvention of the Decemberists sound, shaking up their formula once again, and I’m always here for that. But in many ways it’s their worst record, especially when those experiments fall flat and you’re left with some of the band’s least inspired writing. I’ve come around on Decemberists records before, and I hope I come around on this one. For right now, it’s not doing it for me as much as I would like.

* * * * *

Of course, as much as I like big ‘80s synthesizer sounds, I’ve grown into a much deeper fan of the piano as I’ve aged. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved the instrument, and I’m always learning how to play it better. Bruce Hornsby was among my first piano idols, and I still love the way he voices chords and works his hands independently of one another. That list of piano idols has grown immensely since then, and now includes Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Ben Folds, the still-brilliant-when-she-wants-to-be Tori Amos and countless others.

Recently I wrote a glowing review of the new Bad Plus album, their first with new pianist Orrin Evans, and I’ve been delighted to check out his back catalog. He’s awesome. And now I have a new record from another piano-bass-drums trio that I adore, Manchester’s GoGo Penguin. They’re quite different from the Bad Plus, in that they steer clear of traditional jazz forms as much as possible, but they’re just as exciting.

GoGo Penguin is pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner. The music they create together is atmospheric and purposeful, setting a mood with a few well-placed notes and riding that mood as long as they can. There’s an electronic edge to much of their work, but it’s mostly backdrop – Turner plays electronic drums here and there, and keys are used to fill out the sound, but the focus is truly on the three players.

And they’re great players. Their fourth album, A Humdrum Star, is a bit more reserved and score-like than their third, Man-Made Object, but as before, they find grooves and explore them, with an eye toward beauty and space. Illingworth never solos, and keeps himself to captivating arpeggios, playing to the song. Blacka takes the most improvised bits – he owns “Strid,” an eight-minute prog-jazz monolith, smacking his strings while the rest of the band lays back. But the best moments of this album come when all three are playing in delightful tandem.

I will admit that sometimes, not enough is happening in GoGo Penguin songs to keep my melody-focused brain on task. But then they’ll hit upon something like “Transient State,” which explodes with sheer musicality. The slower, more ambient pieces I can get lost in, and the more intense ones I study. It’s a win-win. A Humdrum Star is another strong release from a band increasingly unlike any other.

But if we’re gonna talk about piano, I’m going to have to mention one of the most prominent names on my list: Brad Mehldau. I first gravitated to Mehldau for his jazz piano takes on Radiohead songs, mainly because I’m always gratified when musicians of Mehldau’s caliber notice the compositional skill needed to write something like “Paranoid Android.” Like the Bad Plus, Mehldau has made a side career out of digging deep into pop songs and finding the hidden complexity and melodicism. Two years ago, he put out a four-CD box set of solo piano performances, and it includes epic takes on Stone Temple Pilots, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Beatles and Sufjan Stevens.

That box set has been a touchstone for me since it landed on my desk. It’s utterly astonishing, from first note to last, and I feel like I could spend years studying it, unfolding it, peeling back its layers. I love Mehldau with a band – his trio recordings are magnificent, and his more layered solo work is great. But my favorites of his works are the ones he performs alone, just the man and 88 keys. His new one, After Bach, is another solo work, and it’s typically excellent stuff.

This one has a fascinating concept. It contains Mehldau’s dexterous readings of six Bach pieces (four preludes and two fugues), each one followed by an original that was inspired by the Bach before it. In some cases you can hear the moments he’s riffing off of, the Bach lines he’s following down the rabbit hole. In all cases you’ll be blown away anew at Mehldau’s ability. He’s not only an extraordinary player, he’s a stunningly emotive one, listening closely to what he has just played and responding to it intuitively. He takes Bach’s cleaner, brighter lines into darker places, muddying them up with colors and shades, tracing their arcs as they descend, then allowing them to burst upward as something else entirely. The five “After Bach” pieces here are all wonderful.

I’m not absolutely sure what the final song, “Prayer for Healing,” is doing on this record, but oddly, it’s my favorite thing here. Over eleven gorgeous minutes, Mehldau restrains himself, playing the sparsest, most delicate chords and lines, and you can hear him feeling every one of them. I hear more of a reaction to the world since November 2016 in this piece than I do in the most politically charged songs of the past year. It imagines the world the way it should be, and Mehldau plays it like he’s spinning that vision into reality. It’s so, so beautiful.

And I will likely spend a lot of this year just studying Mehldau’s work on this record, as if I could figure it out just by listening more closely. I’m happy to stay lost in it, mystified by what I’m hearing. Mehldau is an absolute master, and the more I hear from him, the more I want to hear.

That’s it for this week. Next week, some brave souls volunteer as tribute. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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The Kid Gets Heavy
Metal, That Is, with Between the Buried and Me and Deliverance

I’m occasionally asked how heavy I get, musically speaking.

And the answer is pretty damn heavy. Usually when people ask me this, they’re wondering what I think about bands like Metallica or Mastodon, concerned that I seem to devote an enormous amount of time, energy and love to quieter, more meditative artists. I do rock sometimes, yes. But when I hear “how heavy do you get,” my mind moves in a more extreme direction, to bands like Meshuggah, well beyond the tolerance level of a lot of people I know.

So it was a great experience to be in a room last week with thousands of people who were similarly excited to see one of the heaviest bands I love: Between the Buried and Me. They played the House of Blues, and packed the place – I spent most of the show pressed up against the sound booth, trying not to get beer spilled on me as person after person nudged and shoved their way past me. That I enjoyed the whole show anyway is a testament to the bands.

And yeah, at least 50% of my excitement was about the opening act, The Dear Hunter. I will never again pass up a chance to see them. They’re one of the best bands in the world right now, and their catalog of amazing songs keeps growing. Casey Crescenzo was in fine voice, in contrast to the last time I saw them, and the band slammed through several selections from the latter three Acts, plus a couple tracks from their great new EP All Is as All Should Be. I believe we got the first ever live outing of “Witness Me,” which was pretty cool. Anyway, The Dear Hunter. I continue to evangelize for them, because they’re incredible.

But I was also excited to see how Between the Buried and Me would pull off their devilishly complicated progressive metal live. I’ve described them as Frank Zappa’s death metal band. They started off their career playing raw metal, but quickly grew more cerebral, and have for some time now only been crafting conceptual pieces that play like single 70-minute songs. Their albums are so wildly complex that I don’t know how they keep track of them while playing – I half expected them to use sheet music. The most labyrinthine of their records is the one that got the most play: The Parallax II: Future Sequence, an astonishing science fiction narrative set to jaw-droppingly heavy music that is insanely difficult to play.

And they were awesome, of course. Playing this music for any length of time must be simply exhausting, and they gave us nearly 90 minutes of blistering, yet painstakingly accurate performance. Tommy Rogers was the revelation for me – I knew the band would be tight behind him, but Rogers played all the keyboard parts while slipping effortlessly from his death growl to his strong melodic voice. The set closed with perhaps its most challenging piece, the 15-minute “Silent Flight Parliament,” and it was amazing to see them navigate its twisting passages.

I mention all of this because Between the Buried also played three songs off of their new album, Automata. They opened with one, in fact, throwing the crowd off guard right at the start. And while these songs didn’t inspire any particular reaction live, I’m happy to report that the first half of Automata in its recorded form is excellent. In fact, if the second half continues in this vein, I’ll happily put this record among my favorites from this band.

Wait, wait. First half, I hear you asking? Yes, for reasons that thoroughly escape me, BTBAM has decided to split Automata over two releases. The first is out now, the second will follow this summer. When I first heard this news, I thought they’d delivered a lengthy double album. But no, Automata will reportedly run 67 or so minutes when it’s complete, and this first half contains only 35 of those minutes. It’s only half a story I could easily read in one sitting.

And it is a story. Automata is a spiritual sequel to Coma Ecliptic, their previous album, in that it tells another futuristic sci-fi story about people and technology. The new record is about a man whose dreams are broadcast to the entire world as a form of entertainment, and presumably will tell the story of how he breaks out of this enslavement. But we have to wait until summer for that.

Which will actually be difficult, because Automata I is so good. Musically it feels like an arrival point. Coma Ecliptic sometimes felt confused to me, like the band wasn’t sure whether their excursions away from their metal roots would work. In some cases, they were right to be worried, but I applauded their willingness to take so many risks. Automata finds a way to incorporate everything Coma struggled to include, and sounds a lot more natural doing it. There’s just as much David Bowie and Pink Floyd here, but it sits nicely next to the other styles they’re going for, including a healthy dose of head-spinningly fast death metal.

The record opens the same way the concert did, with “Condemned to the Gallows.” It begins slowly, but soon erupts into a maelstrom of shouts and growls, guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring parrying and thrusting around one another, like a violent dance. “House Organ” brings the keyboards in for long stretches, while the nearly nine-minute “Yellow Eyes” is a true epic, erupting with volcanic power but always returning to the clean melody. The EP (for that’s what it is) ends with “Blot,” which we also heard live. It’s a ten-minute excursion that slows down to a crawl in places, and ends abruptly.

That ending is the only problem I have with this record, in fact. The space between “Blot” and the next song should have been only a couple seconds, but now it will be months before we hear where it should have picked up. I hope there’s some reason not yet apparent to me why the band would cut their album in half, beyond (of course) the monetary one. Automata I is the first Between the Buried and Me album to leave me wanting more, and not in the good way.

I only complain because what we have is so awesome, though. I don’t know any other band quite like this one, where all five musicians have mastered their craft to such a level that they can create albums like Colors and The Great Misdirect and then leave them in the dust, as if they’re bored with them and looking for new challenges. I’m still catching up with those older records, still reveling in their pleasures, and BTBAM has moved well beyond them. They’re one of the best heavy bands in the world, and they somehow keep getting better. Bring on Automata II, because part one is fantastic.

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I’m glad we’re talking about heavy music this week, because it gives me a chance to review the new Deliverance.

I’ve been a Deliverance fan since I understood what metal was. My teenage metalhead phase coincided somewhat with my teenage Jesus phase, and Deliverance was the perfect band for 15-year-old me to discover. Their first two records, Deliverance and Weapons of Our Warfare, were absolute classics of the Christian thrash genre, which was just feeling its way into existence in 1989. “Weapons of Our Warfare,” the song, got some MTV airplay, which was exciting to teenage me, because I thought it meant something.

As I grew up, so did Deliverance, leaving behind their strident Jesus-ness for a more mature and progressive approach. Leader Jimmy P. Brown became like a heavy metal Bowie, shifting styles album to album and working with Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos to create more layered, nuanced music. I’d stack albums like Learn and River Disturbance up against a lot of progressive metal, and I still admire their shift into industrial dance music with Assimilation, an album none of their fans were asking for.

Along the way, Brown launched a few other projects, most notable among them Jupiter VI, which has become his full-on prog band. Five years ago, Brown announced Hear What I Say, the final Deliverance album, and it was… OK. It was a summary of sorts, including some heavier material and some slower, keyboard-driven stuff, but it all seemed kind of half-hearted. Not the way I would have wanted a band with such a long and interesting history to go out.

Which is why I’m so glad The Subversive Kind exists. The new Deliverance album, their eleventh, is a gift to longtime fans like me. It’s a return to the full-on heavy thrash that I first loved, burning through eight tracks in a compact 31 minutes. It’s basically their Reign in Blood – fast, angry, with screaming solos and pounding drums. It’s classic metal, and Brown has convened some old-school players to pull it off, from bands I love but most of you have never heard of, like Tourniquet and Vengeance Rising. I know, I know, but if you’re into this corner of the music world, those names mean something. And I’ve been into it since I was in high school.

The Subversive Kind is pretty vague in its spirituality, which is fine with me. It’s mostly about living in a dark world and looking for the light, which is pretty relatable stuff. “Concept of the Other” takes aim at the idea that any of us should be shunned or mistreated because of who we are: “We’ve clearly drawn the line of who to justify to hate, reasoning by law and love, the blindfolded one has sealed their fate…” Otherwise it’s mostly your standard metal songs about overcoming pain and continuing the good fight.

Musically, though, it’s an eruption. I’m super happy with how heavy and intense it all is, and how focused its attack remains. There are no ballads, no quiet parts, no acoustic guitars anywhere. It’s just one loud, fast bit of molten awesome after another. These guys all have to be in their 50s now, and they still jam like teenagers. I never thought I’d get another Deliverance album at all, but to get one this committed, this energized, this electric, well, it’s a treat. Long live Deliverance.

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Next week, I have no idea. Pop by in seven days to find out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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I’m With Them
Three New Records from Some of My Favorite Women

Thursday is International Women’s Day. So what better time to talk about the welcome return of Kim Deal?

If you wanted the absolute definition of cool in the ‘80s, it was Kim Deal. As the bassist and sometimes songwriter for the Pixies, she joined Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth in obliterating the sexist idea of what a female musician could be. But it wasn’t until she emerged as the voice and vision behind The Breeders that Deal truly shone.

She formed the band with her identical twin sister Kelley, and the two of them were a force to be reckoned with. Their debut album, Pod, was written and recorded during a Pixies hiatus (with Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses as a member), but it was their second, Last Splash, that truly made them. Deal’s first album after the Pixies disbanded, Last Splash is a classic, and its single “Cannonball” belongs on any short list of great songs of the ‘90s.

Since then, Kim Deal has remained the only consistent member of the band. We haven’t heard the Last Splash lineup since 1993, and we haven’t heard from the Breeders since 2008. All of which makes the release of All Nerve, the fifth Breeders record, something of an event. It features that classic lineup: Kim and Kelley Deal, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson. For those of you holding your breath for a return to ‘90s glory, this would seem to be it.

And in classic Kim Deal fashion, the album itself does everything it can do to work against the idea that it’s any kind of (forgive me) big deal. The cover is nondescript. The album is a scant 33 minutes long. One of its songs is a cover. There’s almost no sense of urgency to it – it’s a slow burner of a record that takes multiple listens to appreciate and love. But given those multiple listens, it emerges as a worthy next step in Deal’s evolution.

If you spend All Nerve looking for the killer riff, you’ll probably be disappointed. These songs are subtler than that, surging forward on a couple chords and a simple melody, but hiding some interesting arrangements and treatments. Deal’s sarcastic “Good morning!” at the top of “Wait in the Car” sets the tone for that song’s two minutes of jackhammer two-note riffing. “Taking a nap ‘cause strategy’s for punks,” she shouts in that instantly recognizable voice, still strong at 56.

I’m a fan of the songs that aim for moments of beauty. The title track is one, the Deals’ clean guitar parts chiming out around the din. “Spacewoman” is an atmospheric mini-epic, vast for the Breeders at 4:22, with some buzzing synths and subtle electric piano. Wiggs takes the lead on “MetaGoth,” an ominous piece of work with slashing guitars and eerie harmonies. “Dawn: Making an Effort” is the prettiest thing here, Deal’s voice grounding what is a nearly ambient piece of lovely noise.

There’s a lot to appreciate in these 33 minutes, even if I sometimes wish the songs were more complete and immediate. It’s just so good to have Deal back. I hope All Nerve signals her desire to stick around. We need her and more like her.

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Speaking of amazing women, there are three of them in the newly minted folk supergroup I’m With Her. And while their name is always going to remind people of a certain time (and a certain election), the music these three make together is as timeless and beautiful as the music they make separately.

I’m With Her brings together Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, and if you know your folksy singer-songwriters, you either already own their debut album, See You Around, or you’re racing out right now to buy it. So I guess the following words are for everyone else who has somehow avoided all three of these tremendous performers.

So here we go. Watkins is best known as one-third of Nickel Creek, but has made some fantastic solo records, including 2016’s Young in All the Wrong Ways. Jarosz is a stunning songwriter from Texas who, over four superb records, has established herself as one of the most promising voices around. Her fourth, Undercurrent, was particularly excellent. And O’Donovan is a great singer and player from the bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why with a couple swell solo records under her belt, and a frequent collaborator with some of the finest musicians in the world.

You’d expect these three to make magic together, and they do. Best of all, there appears to be no ego involved here – the trio wrote all the original songs together, they take turns on lead vocals, they harmonize like angels, and they give each other plenty of space to shine instrumentally. If you could imagine the perfect combination of Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan, that’s what you’ll hear on this record. It’s another short one – a mere 40 minutes – but there isn’t a second of it I don’t love.

Yes, you can tell that some songs are more in line with one of the songwriters here. Opener “See You Around” is Jarosz without a doubt (and how gorgeous are those harmonies), while “Game to Lose” certainly sounds like Watkins to me, its mandolin and fiddle foundation straight out of her work. But really the best thing about See You Around is how well the trio works together. “I-89” is a simple ditty that they elevate with their intertwining voices. “Waitsfield” gets all three involved in a delightful little instrumental. “Close It Down” is an absolutely beautiful piece of music, each of our three players/singers contributing to the whole, laying back when needed, stepping forward – as Watkins does with her colorful fiddle playing – only when the song calls for it. It’s perfect.

I’m With Her close their debut record by paying tribute to another extraordinary woman, Gillian Welch. Their nearly version of Welch’s “Hundred Miles” is haunting, showcasing how well their voices work together. It’s a great capper to a lovely first record from what I hope is not a one-off collaboration. I want more, and I want it as soon as possible.

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As you read this, news has just broken that WLUP, a well-loved classic rock station that has served Chicago for 40 years, has been sold to Christian broadcaster K-LOVE. It will switch formats next week, replacing a playlist that includes some of the best and most iconic music of the past few decades with one that only includes “positive and encouraging” bland Christian pop. This has naturally caused some outrage here, and a lot of that outrage is leveled at K-LOVE, who already has a station in this market. (I guess they’re going for 100% market saturation.)

And it’s always tough for me when things like this happen, because when I tout the Christian artists I love, what people think I’m talking about is the stuff K-LOVE plays – surface-level, safe, all sounding the same, geared toward soccer moms and worship leaders. I generally can’t stand that stuff. There are certainly musical reasons for that, since all of that stuff sounds the same to me, with the same production value and same chords. But there are more personal reasons too. Generally I want the same thing from music based in faith that I want from all the music I listen to: an authentic perspective. I want to see the world through the eyes of songwriters. The music on K-LOVE is, by and large, part of a system that squeezes all that authenticity out, leaving hollow praise and platitudes.

Taken on a spectrum, most of the Christian music I adore is as far from K-LOVE as possible. But there are other artists who are trying with all they have to redeem the industry from within, working in a similar sound but bringing a true perspective and real heart to it. Audrey Assad is one of those, and I’ve been all but obsessed with her new album, Evergreen, since receiving it in late January. (I pledged money to help make it, and in return got the download more than a month early.)

Assad is a stunning singer, a good piano player and a very fine songwriter. She has the ethereal quality of someone like Enya, but a more heightened melodic sense, writing flowing melodies often over odd time signatures. Evergreen is the 34-year-old’s fifth album, and hidden in its backstory is a crisis of faith, a deconstruction of a lot of what she has held fast to for her whole life. But unlike records from similar places by the likes of Derek Webb and David Bazan, Assad’s is reaffirming, coming through a painful time with the core of her faith intact.

And while some of these songs, like the fairly typical “The Joy of the Lord,” don’t betray any of that backstory, there are some that bleed with genuine pain. “Unfolding” is one of my very favorites, Assad laying down a spare piano backdrop to ask piercing questions: “How do I grieve what I can’t let go, how do I mourn what I cannot know?” The chorus is a prayer of confusion and doubt: “Oh my God, I don’t know what this was, am I the child of your love or just chaos unfolding?” “Irrational Season” follows the same path: “Over the skyline to see the spheres, I lift my eyes to the heavens, nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season…”

This may not seem like anything controversial, but these songs with these sentiments would be banned from K-LOVE. You just wouldn’t hear this level of human uncertainty, this sheer broken honesty. These songs and others like them on Evergreen lay the foundation for the broader ones, like the bright “Deliverer,” or the title track, on which Assad sings, “Out past the fear, doubt becomes wonder.” That’s such a great line, especially for someone like me trying to turn doubt into wonder on a daily basis.

The songs of reconciliation here are the best ones, for my money, and none of them strike me quite as hard as “Drawn to You,” the extraordinary closer. It’s a psalm, as if from the pen of David himself, sung from the depths of despair, and it doesn’t offer anything simple. It does offer possibly the best musical depiction I have heard of that inner ache, that pull toward the divine, toward something bigger than ourselves: “After everything I’ve had, after everything I’ve lost, Lord I know this much is true, I’m still drawn to you.” It’s a ton-of-bricks song for me, and I probably won’t be able to articulate why.

I know most people reading this will probably not be able to tell the difference between Audrey Assad’s work and what you hear on K-LOVE. But to me, the difference is enormous. Evergreen is an intensely personal record, its songs of joy earned through tears, its songs of faith drawn from a real place. Her work is as close to the modern Christian realm as I can stand. But there are songs on here I love like I wrote them, songs that speak to me the way they clearly spoke to her. K-LOVE is pushing a product. Audrey Assad is making art, and I love her for it.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, the kid gets heavy. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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In Pieces
Reading Great New Records a Chapter at a Time

Last week Marillion came within walking distance of my hometown. So of course I went to see them.

It was my ninth Marillion show, counting the three performances at the 2016 Montreal Weekend separately, and I’m still not tired of seeing this band do what they do. This show was at the small-ish Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, a venue that books a lot of specialty prog acts, and I guess that’s what Marillion is. But to me they’re so much more than that.

To me, they’re one of the most emotional bands I’ve ever heard. Where prog-rock is often full of soulless instrumental acrobatics, Marillion music takes its time, unfolds patiently, lingers on beauty. Steve Hogarth has one of the best, most impassioned voices I know of, and when he lets loose, as he does on powerful epics like “The Invisible Man,” it sends chills.

Last time the band toured the U.S., we elected Donald Trump president. (Seriously, they played New York City on election night.) This time, they opened with “El Dorado,” a stunning piece about how money makes us all worse, with a section about how letting in refugees is the most human and humane thing we could do; followed it up with “Living in FEAR,” about melting all our guns down; and followed that up with “Seasons End,” a sad piece about climate change. It was like their letter to America, much like their brilliant 18th album, Fuck Everyone and Run, was their warning to the world.

And we also got “The Leavers” for the first time, and this performance solidified it as one of my very favorite Marillion songs. Nearly 20 minutes long, constantly changing, unfailingly emotional, it’s basically the best life-on-the-road song ever written, and a real showcase for the entire band. I brought my long-suffering girlfriend to this show, and she enjoyed it. I’m not sure I could have asked for a better setlist for her first show, and even though I found the crowd subdued in comparison with other Marillion gigs I have been to, she remarked on how appreciative the audience was, clapping for individual parts of songs and offering three standing ovations.

That’s all part of being a member of this family. It’s not a large family over here, although I’m told that a pre-show meet-up that I wasn’t in time to attend attracted 60 people. But it is a dedicated one. We love having this secret between us, this band who clearly isn’t for everyone, but is absolutely for us. I’m already looking forward to Montreal next year. Thanks for a great show, guys.

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Back in 1996, Stephen King decided to release The Green Mile in monthly installments.

This was nothing new for literature – Dickens wrote almost all of his novels this way, in pieces delivered one by one through magazines and newspapers. But for me, a high school kid with a definite fascination for King, it was (please forgive the pun) novel. I played his game: I bought each part of The Green Mile as it came out, and though I have since read the whole thing as a single work, the experience of following along, of hitting King’s cliffhangers and not being able to turn the page, was pretty exciting.

I’m a sucker for anything released in pieces. I love trilogies, a fascination I can trace right back to Star Wars. I read comics, which are long stories released in monthly chunks. And so it’s no surprise that I am always interested in music that comes at me in puzzle pieces, waiting to be connected. The best example I can give you is The Dear Hunter’s extraordinary Acts series, a six-album story that only needs its final installment to be completed. Hearing the climax of the plot in Act V, after living with the story for years, was an astonishing experience.

I’d never suggest that Belle and Sebastian’s new album is anything like that, but they did issue it in three pieces, one a month since December. And it’s been fun trying to figure out how it would sound as a whole. Naturally, I did not buy it in installments – it was released only on vinyl and download – but I did buy the compilation CD, which connects all 15 songs in the order in which they first appeared. And I have no doubt that this collection of songs was originally conceived as an album, and broken up into chunks only for marketing reasons.

Which is fine, but it works so much better as a whole. The album, the long-running Scottish outfit’s 10th, is a long and flowing thing, but it still feels tightly controlled. It’s the band’s most consistent set of songs since probably Dear Catastrophe Waitress, all of 15 years ago, and has so many pleasures it’s almost hard to count them. I’ve liked a lot of their work over the last decade or so, but I’ve felt like they’ve been running in place, turning out pleasantly twee, danceable tunes without really trying.

How to Solve Our Human Problems (for that is the name of the record) breaks them out of that rut, and if the process of recording and releasing these tunes five at a time helped them get here, then I’m all for it. Leader Stuart Murdoch, who will be 50 this year, hasn’t sounded this energized in a while, and the multitude of producers and guest musicians seems to have pumped new blood into this enterprise. I mean, just listen to “We Were Beautiful,” which starts off sounding like Pet Shop Boys hitting the drum-and-bass club (with a lap steel), but then explodes into a chorus so awesome that I haven’t stopped singing it.

What I can say about the decision to break this album up into thirds is that each of the first two thirds made me want to hear the rest. The first installment includes not only “We Were Beautiful” but the delightful “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” a full-on synth-y dance tune, and “Everything Is Now,” a big, expansive showcase that sounds like the sun rising over the cliffs. The second volume opens with a bracing “na-na-na-na-na” that introduces the very ‘60s “Show Me the Sun,” which for long stretches is as minimalist as this band has been in ages. (Admittedly, there is an insistent, awesome drum beat that runs for the duration.) We also get the terrific, sweet, oboe-driven “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” the odd yet compelling “Cornflakes” and closing ballad “A Plague on Other Boys,” another one that sounds right out of the Summer of Love.

And if all that made you want to hear the third part, it won’t disappoint. “Poor Boy” slinks in on a funky bass line, Sarah Martin’s voice dripping down over it beautifully. There’s a second part to “Everything is Now,” one that is just as lovely, and there is “There Is an Everlasting Song,” possibly the prettiest thing here. Closer “Best Friend” is goofy and sugary, ending in joy. In pieces, these three EPs are swell slices of Belle and Sebastian in their prime. Collected together as their 10th album, it’s their best in more than a decade. While I think it holds up better as a single work, if you’re a fan of this band, you should hear this in any form you can.

I expect the new Oh Hellos project will hold up nicely as a complete work as well, once it’s done. But we’re in that sweet spot, following along as they give us their new songs in smaller pieces, and we’re only halfway through. Last year the Texas ensemble gave us Notos, the first of four 20-minute EPs full of new songs. It was classic Oh Hellos, folk music as played by what sounds like 300 people, rising as one to sing the heavens down, and just as enamored with moments of quiet beauty as with rousing anthems.

Now we have Eurus, the second EP, and it’s just as good. Like Notos, it plays like a single piece, a suite connected by short instrumentals. The songs held together by those instrumentals are wonderful. Opener “O Sleeper” is wider than the ocean, huge and all-encompassing. “Grow” is amazing, morphing from a boom-bam beat into a massive anthem, and it slides right into the down-home acoustic title track. You’ll fly right through that, and before you know it, you’ll be on the superb closer, “Passerine.” And three minutes later, you’ll be hungry for more.

I’m very much looking forward to having all 80 or so minutes of this new Oh Hellos project, but I am very much enjoying hearing it in chapters. I have no idea when the next one will be available, either, so I keep looking out. If you’ve never heard the Oh Hellos, you need to. Bonus: this new EP contains a track called “A Convocation of Fauns (A Faunvocation, If You Will).” How can you not love that?

Hear and buy the Oh Hellos here:

Next week, the Breeders return. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Men of the Woods
Timberlake Fakes It, Mallonee Lives It

Ever been taken in by marketing?

It’s not the most pleasant of feelings. I tend to avoid hype like the plague, so when it works on me, it doesn’t thrill me. I tend to do the opposite of what hype wants me to. I didn’t read the Harry Potter books for years, just because everyone else was raving about them. (That turned out to be a mistake, since everyone else was right.) I haven’t watched a single episode of This Is Us, partially because it looks awful, and partially because of the constant bombardment of that show on my eyeholes and earholes.

Anyway, Justin Timberlake’s new album is called Man of the Woods, and I have to admit, the marketing worked on me. I’ve always kind of liked Timberlake, but wished he would break out of his apparently fervent desire to be Michael Jackson. Calling an album Man of the Woods felt like a good first step. The accompanying photos were right out of an L.L. Bean catalog, too, with Timberlake dressed in flannel and outdoor gear, surveying the wilderness thoughtfully. Of course, it’s all image manipulation, but I thought perhaps this would signal the sonic shift I’ve been looking for, and open Timberlake up to more honest and interesting music.

Yeah, I’m a sucker. By now you’ve probably all heard the wretched singles “Filthy” and “Supplies,” and they unfortunately set the tone for the first half of this album. Timberlake is still working with Timbaland and the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), and what changes there are to his basic sound are for the worse. The first three songs, including “Filthy,” are the same kind of Michael Jackson pop that he’s given us for years, with a surfeit of inspiration. “This ain’t the clean version,” he croons on “Filthy,” giving us yet another entry into the “songs that describe themselves” genre.

The title track is so much worse, though, bouncing along on a kinda goofy groove, Timberlake proclaiming himself a man of the woods while singing over programmed drums and synthesizers. It just doesn’t work. And “Wave” is even worse, the Neptunes laying down a canned Caribbean strum while Timberlake tries very hard to sound natural over it. On the bright side, this is a definite curve ball for him, but it’s pretty poor stuff. And then comes “Supplies,” which is just plain bad.

So the first half is hard to get through, but on the second half, Timberlake’s idea of mixing in more acoustic folk with his usual electronic groove begins to bear fruit. I can’t really fault “Morning Light,” a soulful duet with Alicia Keys, but it is with “Say Something,” Timberlake’s collaboration with country-rocker Chris Stapleton, that the shift happens. “Say Something” isn’t a great song, but it does shift Timberlake into new territory, and it also seems to be about not centering cultural conversations on oneself, which starts to address the issues of appropriation that have dogged his career.

From here, Man of the Woods turns into more of a folk record, and believe it or not, Timberlake sounds much more comfortable singing these songs than something like “Filthy” or “Sauce.” “Flannel” is particularly silly, but it’s also sweet, and while I’m sure Timberlake has never in his life lived off the land, “Livin’ Off the Land” does mix up the guitars and dance grooves nicely. “The Hard Stuff” might be my favorite thing here, despite its John Mayer-ness, and closer “Young Man” is the personal connection I spent the whole record looking for. It’s a positive, upbeat letter to his son, and it’s catchy and cute.

Is catchy and cute enough? I’m not sure. I ended up liking the second half of Man of the Woods more than I expected to, but it’s certainly not the stripped-down affair the marketing blitz might make you think it is. Justin Timberlake is no more a man of the woods than I am, and the record only gently tweaks his musical direction, rather than rewriting it. On that score, it’s a disappointment.

If you’d like to hear a real man of the woods, may I suggest Bill Mallonee. There’s no image manipulation with him. When you see photos of Mallonee with his long beard, taken out in the wild, you know this is how he really lives. Mallonee has been plying his trade for nearly 30 years, first with the Vigilantes of Love, and then solo. He has something like 40 solo records, and he’s been cranking them out at a rate of at least one a year for a long time. Lately they’ve been true solo records – just Bill in his country house, overdubbing drums and bass and guitars and then singing in his world-weary, wise voice. His records are dispatches from his soul, and they feel like them.

His latest is called Forest Full of Wolves, and like much of his recent material, it’s somewhat dark and bleak. Mallonee believes in facing darkness full on, and wringing whatever hope he can out of it. I sometimes criticize Mallonee for writing the same kind of great song over and over, and he makes no strides in another direction on Forest. It’s just another ten really good Bill Mallonee tunes, poems set to jangly American rock and roll.

That said, there’s nothing here I don’t like. I’m a particular fan of “In the New Dark Age,” which is subtitled “The Best Thing You Can Do is Fall in Love.” It’s kind of the perfect Mallonee song, taking an unflinching look at broken lives and bringing them courage. “Changing of the Guard” is a surprisingly political number: “Now the devil pays for your allegiance, hiding behind stars and stripes, he speaks his piece through the lips of the elite and appears as an angel of light…”

There are more than a few excellent turns of phrase on this record, some of them exactly what a poet like him should be speaking into the world right now. “Before the Darkness Settles In” is another one that doesn’t flinch: “Now the milk of human kindness is curdled to the bone, and the autumn light is paler than I’ve ever known, pull on your heavy coat before the howling wind, before the darkness settles in…” “I Know, I Know” is about lies, and twists the knife with this verse: “Now I know a good joke, and I’ll share it with thee, what’s a hundred politicians at the bottom of the sea?”

But of all of his hymns of hard-fought hope, it’s “Trimmed and Burning” that most does it for me this time. The final verse: “I hate to end on a sober note, but there are spirits who won’t survive, in a world of meanness and cruelty, they won’t get out alive, so hand the world an olive branch, and hand yourself one too…”

Bill Mallonee has been as honest a songwriter as one could hope for (as well as a heck of a guitar player) for decades now, and each new record just solidifies that legacy. I’m happy he’s still at it. I’m happy I get to pay for a new set of songs every year (at least), and happy that this music still feeds him, both physically and spiritually. Forest Full of Wolves is another in a long line of really good Mallonee records, and if you want to start somewhere, this is as good a place to begin as any.

Listen and buy online:

Next week, Belle and Sebastian for sure, and who knows what else. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Brought to You by the Letter F
February's Finds: Franz, Fallon, Field and Frank

I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that Franz Ferdinand was a flash in the pan.

They first burst onto the scene in 2004 with a sound that was like four glitter cannons going off at once. I described them then as Morrissey’s dance band – leader Alex Kapranos has a particularly Mozz-like voice, disaffected and droll, and Franz themselves were equal parts punk and disco, even then. It was a novel sound that I dismissed as a bit of a novelty.

But fourteen years later, here we are. Franz Ferdinand is one of the hardiest survivors of the 2000s, and they’ve proven remarkably adaptable. Over time they’ve added more and more dance elements to their style, and while they are still determinedly quirky, they’ve carved out their own niche. I think a lot of what they’ve been trying to do crystallized when they collaborated with Sparks in 2015, creating a wild record called FFS that played to both bands’ strengths. Franz is far more like Sparks than any of their peers from 2004, and hopefully will be similarly long-lived.

Their fifth album, Always Ascending, continues their streak. With the addition of programmer/producer Julian Corrie to the ranks, the band’s sound has become even more keyboard-driven, and they’ve taken on some Duran Duran overtones here and there. But they still sound like Franz Ferdinand. Kapranos still sounds like he’s commenting on the music while singing it, and the band sounds even more like a danceable Smiths in places here.

And as always, the most damning thing you can say about a Franz record is that it is too short. The songs on Always Ascending are tight and full of hooks. I’m particularly fond of “Finally,” Kapranos floating above a constantly morphing groove, celebrating having found his people. “Lazy Boy” dares you not to take it seriously – it is perhaps the one here most influenced by their time with Sparks.

“Lois Lane” seems to be an earnest tribute to Superman’s girlfriend, lauding her for her journalism career. “Huck and Jim” finds Kapranos going darker, trying his hand at half-speaking, half-rapping, and dropping this chorus: “We’re going to America, gonna tell ‘em ‘bout the NHS, and when we get there we will all hang out, sipping 40s with Huck and Jim.” The album closes with ballad “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow,” and I always like it when Kapranos takes on these more melodic pieces – he stretches his tenor and delivers with sincerity.

Always Ascending is yet another swell little Franz Ferdinand album. I feel pretty silly for dismissing them at first. They clearly have a strong and solid idea of who they are, and now that I have a bit of a better idea of it too, I’m looking forward to hearing more as they evolve.

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About ten years ago, a friend of mine suggested I listen to The ’59 Sound, the second album by New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem. I enjoyed it like crazy – it was like the punk version of The E Street Shuffle, raucous and hopeful and fun. I wish I’d known then that the band and its leader, Brian Fallon, didn’t have any other tricks up their sleeve, and would be riding that sound out forever.

Three Gaslight albums and two solo records later, here is Fallon with Sleepwalkers, another dozen songs he dug out of Bruce Springsteen’s dumpster. (I wish that were my joke.) I don’t hate this record, but I’m not finding a whole lot to hang my ear on either. It’s breezy and amiable, hoping to make friends wherever it goes, but it kind of sits there for me, never accomplishing too much.

I like the opening song, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” well enough – it has a sharp little guitar part, and the organs are pleasant. But then “Forget Me Not” barges in, sounding exactly like Born in the USA-era Bruce, and the momentum collapses. “Come Wander With Me” could be Bryan Adams, so complete is its ‘80s anthemic sound. I like the mandolin on “Proof of Life,” even if the song leaves me cold. “Little Nightmares” works in an Elvis Costello-style guitar-and-organ riff and some swell double-time drums. That one’s probably my favorite.

Throughout this record, Fallon sings his little heart out, and his working man’s poetry is the same as always. I’m sure his heart is in the right place, and he seems invested in the characters he creates and the stories he relates. Of course, those characters and stories are right out of Springsteen, and I wish someone with Fallon’s passion and intensity had it in him to break out of his influences and give us something original.

Sleepwalkers isn’t that. It’s a very well-produced pastiche, a wasted harnessing of forces to create a mediocre copy of better work. Fallon’s singing voice is exactly what it should be, but his songwriting voice is still stuck in the same rut. I’m sure it’s working for him, sales-wise, but he’s leaving a trail of empty art behind him, and that’s a shame.

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Field Music never has that problem. They are unfailingly original, fascinating and captivating. There’s just one problem I have with them: I never remember their songs. Like, ever.

I’ve bought every Field Music album – the new one, Open Here, is their eighth, not counting their b-sides collection – and I’ve loved every one of them. Field Music is, at its core, brothers Peter and David Brewis, and they’re steeped in Supertramp-style progressive pop and English folk music. Their songs are tricky and twisty, but unfailingly melodic and catchy. The brothers Brewis clearly labor over these records, and Open Here is no exception.

I just have some kind of resistance of memory to their work. I’m listening to Open Here for the fourth time right now, and it’s like I’m discovering it again for the first time. I love it – six-minute opener “Time in Joy” is pretty much the perfect Field Music song, with a Steely Dan groove, a pure prog riff that holds the whole thing together, and an absolutely delightful full-harmony chorus. There’s even a flute. It literally could not be better. And next time I hear it, it will be like stumbling across how wonderful it is all over again.

The rest of Open Here is similarly awesome, its 39 minutes flying by in a rush. “Count It Up” sounds like Gary Numan joining 10cc and then ranting about Brexit – the brothers hail from Sunderland, England, the first town in the UK to vote for leaving the European Union, and much of Open Here takes on a renewed political focus. “Goodbye to the Country” is the angriest this band gets, and “Checking on a Message” ably captures the pins-and-needles feeling of waiting up for election results, certain that things are about to go very badly.

I’m also a big fan of “No King No Princess,” a letter to the young Brewis children about rejecting stereotypical gender roles. The horns here are classic Field Music – they almost don’t fit in with the early-XTC-style groove the band lays down. Closer “Find a Way to Keep Me” is a plaintive plea, leaving things on an uncertain note. I love the way it builds and builds, strings and woodwinds winding around it, until it delivers a final pirouette.

Open Here is a great record, just like the last seven Field Music records, and I genuinely would love to remember that it is. My inability to recall how excellent it is has nothing to do with the band or the songs. The brothers Brewis did everything right, as always. I think the key might be to listen over and over, almost obsessively, until this complex yet fully alive music settles into my brain. Wish me luck.

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For all the new music brought to you by the letter F, the thing I’ve been listening to most lately dates back 45 years.

Frank Zappa was a musician like no other, and to be in his band, you had to follow two rules: no drugs allowed, and you had to be able to keep up. He was a musical machine, creating new songs and arrangements at a stunning pace, and he only employed the best of the best to realize his visions. And one of his very best bands played with him from 1973 to 1975, creating some of his best-loved records.

One of those records is called Roxy and Elsewhere, and it features performances captured at the Roxy in Los Angeles over a weekend in December, 1973. It also features a raft of overdubs and studio tweaking, as was Zappa’s wont, and it blurs the line between a live album and a studio creation. The Zappa family has, of course, been milking that weekend of performances, issuing Roxy By Proxy (a collection of other performances not on Roxy and Elsewhere) in 2014, and Roxy the Movie and its soundtrack a year later.

And now they’ve given us the motherlode – a seven-CD box set called The Roxy Performances that includes every note played during that weekend. It’s eight hours long, and contains four full shows, a recorded rehearsal, a studio session and a filmed sound check. (Never let it be said that Zappa didn’t work his musicians.) This might feel like overkill to anyone not steeped in Zappa, but trust me when I tell you it’s not nearly enough kill. I could listen to this incredible band play this incredible material for twice this long without getting bored.

The four shows are amazing, of course. It’s great to finally hear how familiar songs like “Village of the Sun” and “Cheepnis” fit in with the overall arc of what Zappa was trying to do, and to hear them stripped of studio sweetening only emphasizes how fantastic this band is. It would be pointless to call out individual players, since they’re all so good, but I’m always amazed by percussionist Ruth Underwood. She’s flawless, and Zappa gives her some impossibly difficult material to play. Just listen to her showcase on “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” presented here three times. (The 13-minute take from the second show is my favorite.)

The rehearsal is fun – it’s not some hissy-tape document, it’s a crystal clear opportunity to hear the band working out parts of this tricky material. I’m not sure what its replay value is, but I’m glad to have it. The rehearsal tapes also include a new version of “The Idiot Bastard Son” with lyrics about Tricky Dick, called “That Arrogant Dick Nixon.” It’s a technique Zappa would use to full effect on his 1988 tour, which took aim at Jimmy Swaggart and his fellow televangelists.

The studio session is interesting in the same way, as a historical document. Zappa leads the band through some of the best-known material of this era, including the full “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite, and most of this is Zappa giving notes to his players and fine-tuning these pieces. The final disc contains the sound check/film shoot, recorded a day before the first show in front of a select audience. The band vamps on “Pygmy Twylyte” for 35 minutes, gives us a typically great “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” and closes with quick run-throughs of some extremely difficult pieces (“T’Mershi Duween,” “Dog Breath” and “Uncle Meat”). There isn’t much here that isn’t represented elsewhere, but it’s great to have even more stunning performances of these songs.

There’s so much here, it’s almost impossible to absorb it all. The Roxy Performances is one of the most welcome pieces of Zappa history, finally available in a beautiful box for a decent price. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you love hearing real musicians playing truly astounding music live, you, like me, won’t be able to get enough of this.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, Justin Timberlake meets Bill Mallonee. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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a column by andre salles