Rosa and Neneh
And Our Broken Politics

This week Doctor Who unveiled its Rosa Parks episode.

I’d heard rumblings of this story for months, and ever since it was announced, I’ve been holding my breath. Doctor Who has never been known for its subtlety, and it sometimes handles issues-based stories with all the grace of a blind elephant. Tackling something as momentous as the American civil rights movement would be tricky even if the production team were three or four years in. It takes either incredible confidence or extraordinary foolhardiness to try this three episodes into a brand new era, with an untested showrunner, cast and crew.

But damn if they didn’t pull it off. The episode was written by children’s book author Malorie Blackman, with some credited rewrites by Chris Chibnall, and yeah, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of Chibnall rewriting a black woman’s Rosa Parks script. But I couldn’t really pick out his influence, which is a relief. The story is about a racist time agent from the future nudging history just a little bit off its tracks to derail the civil rights movement. If Rosa Parks does not refuse to give up her seat on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the subsequent protests and marches may not happen, the Civil Rights Act may not be signed, and history will be changed.

That’s a very Doctor Who way to approach this story, and the parts of it that were about our character-deficient villain and the Doctor’s efforts to stop him were the weakest. The strongest parts focused on Rosa herself, brought to life magnificently by Vinette Robinson, and on the reality of life in Montgomery in 1955. The story is only minutes old when Ryan is accosted in the street for trying to return a white woman’s dropped glove. Yaz is mistaken for Mexican, and the two of them are bundled in and out of windows and kept out of sight. This leads to some difficult and wonderful conversations between the two of them about how hard even modern life is for them, something Doctor Who has never really broached before.

Jodie Whittaker is at her best in this episode – she’s funny, she’s quick-witted, she’s got that sharp edge that the Doctor always has, and her heart is in the right place. She’s still effortlessly the Doctor. Everything else is still catching up with her performance, but this story doesn’t have any of the growing pains of the previous two. It’s strong and confident, and the ending – in which Graham becomes the white man without a seat who spurs the bus driver to tell Rosa to move – grapples with white complicity, even for non-racist white people.

The benchmark for a Doctor Who story about Rosa Parks is “don’t screw it up.” Amazingly, I think they did better than that. I have a couple problems with the execution, mainly centering on the villain, but they’re minor. This is the first very good episode of the Chibnall era, and it makes me hopeful for more. I’m also hopeful that the show will continue to tackle issues like racism with the same unflinching earnestness of this story. Rosa feels important, like Doctor Who leveraging its platform for a greater good, and I want more of that.

* * * * *

I do wonder what Rosa Parks would make of our modern America, in which things are only marginally better for people of color than they were in her time. Trump’s America has been hardest on those already marginalized, and that is starting to be reflected in the art being made by non-white artists. I’ve waxed ecstatic about Janelle Monae’s amazing Dirty Computer, a complex plea for love and acceptance in the face of insane waves of bigotry, and it remains my favorite album of 2018. But she’s not alone in surveying the damage of our country and turning observations into compelling art.

Which brings us to Neneh Cherry, one of the most idiosyncratic and fascinating artists I know. Ever since her second album, 1992’s incredible Homebrew, Cherry has been an artist to watch. She blithely jumps genres, mixing rap and rock and progressive pop in her heyday, then leaving virtually all of those styles behind for her subsequent works. In 2014, after taking an interminable 18 years between solo records, Cherry returned with Blank Project, a harsh and minimal record that was nothing like anything she’d done. It was fantastic.

That album was produced by Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet. Four years later, she’s reunited with Hebden for her new one, Broken Politics, and it’s even better. True to its title, this is a harsh look at modern life, but it’s also a beautiful thing – it’s richer and more ambient in nature than Blank Project, feeling more meditative and mournful than anything else. Pianos and stark beats abound, softer and more ethereal beds for Cherry’s wandering vocal melodies. It is, again, like nothing she has done, and again, it’s excellent.

Even more than ProjectPolitics is a headphone album. None of its songs are immediate – they weave a spell, slowly and patiently, often never reaching the moment of release their restrained arrangements seem to promise. The faint jazz overtones of something like “Deep Vein Thrombosis” never morph into full-on jamming, preferring to keep the focus on Cherry’s voice with only an electric piano and a minimal beat to keep her company. Hebden worked the same magic on Project, but while that one kept the listener at arm’s length, this one is warm and inviting and easy to love.

All of which belies the pointed nature of its lyrics. Cherry has said she prefers to stay away from grand pronouncements and big statements, focusing instead on the personal toll the political situation has taken on her and others. Activism, she says, begins with the personal. That’s not to say she doesn’t address bigger topics – the amazing “Faster Than the Truth” finds her rapping again over a tremendous restrained beat about being surrounded by lies: “All the way I run, no nearer have I come, lies travel faster than the truth…” “Shot Gun Shack” is about guns. “Black Monday” is about abortion.

But beautiful songs like “Kong” are about finding hope in small things, and speaking that hope with loud voices. “Bite my head off, still my world will always be a little risk worth taking,” she sings. Throughout Broken Politics, Cherry makes the case that rising up sometimes looks like small acts of personal dignity, of refusing to be beaten down. The music follows suit, each song delivering small, hidden bits of beauty. It’s a perfect marriage of form and function, of music and lyric completing one another.

That said, it’s still an uncompromisingly weird record. I wouldn’t expect anything less. I’m thrilled that Neneh Cherry continues to make music, nearly 30 years after her one hit, and that said music remains this bizarre, this singular. She’s a one-of-a-kind artist, and she proves it each time out. Broken Politics filters the harsh and difficult reality of our world into strange and beautiful art. It feels necessary and important, but most of all it feels 100 percent like Neneh Cherry, as awesome as ever.

Next week, church music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Best Brits Over 50
With Doctor Who, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson

We’re two episodes into the new season of Doctor Who, and so far, it feels nothing like Doctor Who.

This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve been watching this show since I was six years old, and for all that time, it’s main message has been this: the only constant is change. Doctor Who is a story about an alien with a magic box that can go anywhere in time and space. That is possibly the greatest premise in the history of television, since it allows the show to do anything, to be anything, and to change it up from week to week. This is a show that flips genres every chance it gets, giving us a horror film one week, a science fiction adventure the next and a dramatic history lesson the next.

Add to that the concept of regeneration – the Doctor’s body changes completely every few years, allowing for new actors to play the part and entirely new casts to rotate in and out – and you have the perfect recipe for an infinitely malleable series. We’ve had 13 lead actors playing the part now, and each is very different from the other. But until this year, they’ve all shared one inescapable trait: they’ve all been white men. That’s changed with the brilliant casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, and it’s a shot in the arm that this series needed.

But here’s the thing: a new lead actor is rarely the sea change you’d think it is. The real changes come when the creative team refreshes, when the lead writers and producers who have made their mark on the show make room for new blood. In the revived series (the show ran from 1963 to 1989, then took a break until 2005, when Russell T. Davies returned it to our screens), we’ve seen five Doctors come and go, but the tone only significantly changed once: when Steven Moffat took over as show runner in 2010.

We’re in one of those seasons of change right now, and it might be the most significant and complete since the switch to color in 1970. Chris Chibnall, infrequent Doctor Who contributor and creator of Broadchurch, has taken the reins, and his mantra appears to be “change everything.” A lot of these changes are super exciting, from Whittaker’s casting to a whole new crop of writers and directors to the replacement of composer Murray Gold with Segun Akinola. Doctor Who, a show that has preached inclusion since the beginning, is now one of the most inclusive shows on television, hiring loads of women along with the show’s first writers of color and its first composer of color.

The result, as I said, looks nothing like Doctor Who. Virtually everything I have come to associate with the revived show, from the snappy pace to the quippy dialogue to the whole feel of the cinematography to the soaring orchestral music, is gone. Chibnall set himself a monumental task – to basically restart Doctor Who with an entirely clean slate – and he made it even more difficult by refusing to include any of the classic monsters and villains who have come to define the series as much as the Doctor and the TARDIS. No Daleks. No Cybermen. No appearances by the Master. These stories will stand or fall on their own.

So far, they’re standing, but they’re a little rickety. That’s not a surprise – Chibnall has never been the best writer in Britain, and when you change everything to this degree, there are bound to be a few growing pains along the way. Most people probably came into this 11th season (actually the 37th season, if you think of the old and new as one show) most worried about Whittaker, and how she would capture a character that has been male since its inception. As I thought she would be, she’s fantastic. She’s easily the best thing about this series so far. Her performance is manic yet measured, alien yet empathetic, much more immediately heroic than Peter Capaldi’s gruff twelfth Doctor, yet still as quirky and sometimes off-putting as every Doctor before her. She just, you know, is the Doctor, seemingly effortlessly, and when she’s on screen I can’t take my eyes off of her.

She has a full cast of companions this time, and we meet them all in the premiere, The Woman Who Fell to Earth. This is a pretty good regeneration story, Whittaker’s Doctor undergoing the usual mind-scrambling effects of changing every cell as an alien threat presents itself, and it feels intended to introduce our expansive cast, all of whom hail from the Yorkshire area of England. Graham, played by Bradley Walsh, is the gruff yet caring stepfather to Ryan, played by newcomer Tosin Cole. Ryan suffers from dyspraxia, a coordination disease, and I like how seriously the show and Cole have taken this so far. The cast is rounded off by PC Yasmin Khan, played by Mandip Gill, and she’s probably my favorite, even though we know the least about her so far.

One thing immediately apparent with The Woman Who Fell to Earth (and even more apparent with episode two, The Ghost Monument) is that the show has never looked this good. The BBC has clearly sunk some money into the cinematic style here, and the new directors seem more experimental than any of the older crop (except the amazing Rachel Talalay). There’s a darkness to the first episode that threatens to turn it into Torchwood, but the second is unfailingly bright – oppressively so – and it’s even more gorgeous. I can scarcely believe this is my little show, with its long history of rubber monster suits and wobbly sets.

As I expected, alas, Chibnall is the weak link so far. The two stories he has given us are… you know, fine. I was miles ahead of both of them, and they played out in a linear, straightforward way. Chibnall’s dialogue is functional, which is a huge comedown from the rapid-fire wit of Moffat’s Who, his characters are two-dimensional and his plotting is flimsy. The new monsters he’s introduced, the Stenza and the Remnants, are not winners, and the notion that the Stenza might be the big bad of the season is disheartening. Everyone’s doing their best with what Chibnall has given them, and I hope he settles in and finds a groove soon.

Until then, my hopes will lie with the other writers. Next week we get children’s author Malorie Blackman telling the tale of Rosa Parks, and man, I hope this is good. This season has introduced an astonishingly good new Doctor in a fairly mediocre way, and she deserves better. Honestly, everything about this season, from the actors to the cinematography to the pulsing electronic score, deserves better than what Chibnall is delivering. I’m hopeful that he’ll rise to the occasion soon enough, because he’s the only thing holding this back. Everything else feels nothing like Doctor Who, but feels right on.

* * * * *

Speaking of Brits over 50, I have a couple of them to talk about this week.

We should start with the celebration-worthy return of Elvis Costello. I will put this as simply as I can: any list of the world’s greatest living songwriters that does not include Costello is woefully incomplete. We are now more than 40 years past his riotous debut album, My Aim is True, and in that time he has given us 24 solo records and several collaborations with the likes of the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and the Roots. Along the way he’s tried on dozens of genres and styles, nimbly leaping from noisy guitar-rock to orchestral works to Americana to jazz standards without missing a beat.

You never quite know what Costello is going to give you next, but I’m always grateful for whatever he does. Listening to his work is like taking a master’s-level course in songwriting. His lyrics are bold and erudite, and the stories they tell rarely go where you expect. His musical choices are complex yet his songs are perfectly hummable, with new delights every few moments. He draws from so many different musical traditions that his albums often feel like classic songbooks, even though the songs themselves are all original. He makes records worthy of study, but they’re always just plain enjoyable too.

It’s been 10 years since Costello made an album with the Imposters, his longtime backing band. (They’re basically the Attractions with a different bass player.) Since then, he’s treated us to two records of dark Americana – I particularly love 2010’s National Ransom, an unheralded classic – and a stunning collaborative effort with the Roots. He’s back to business with Look Now, an absolutely wonderful collection of new songs with the Imposters and a host of guests. If you like the Elvis that made Imperial Bedroom, you’re gonna love this.

Look Now is sumptuous. Its sound is full and rich, its orchestral flourishes perfectly gauged. Costello himself sounds energized by these songs, many of which were written for Broadway shows that never saw the light of day. Several of them are sung from a woman’s point of view, including the resurrected oldie “Unwanted Number,” which adds complexity to these morality tales. Burt Bacharach and Carole King are listed as co-writers, and much of this record sounds right out of the classic heyday of pop songwriting. That the production has a Phil Spector tinge to it should not be surprising, given the material.

And the material is fabulous, from first note to last. Opener “Under Lime” is classic Costello, a sequel to National Ransom’s “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” that finds our not-quite-hero in a tryst with a showgirl. The music is amazing, taking melodic turns every few seconds and finding room for a choral arrangement and a brass band, as well as some sterling piano work by Steve Nieve. “It’s a long way down from that high horse you’re on” is as Elvis Costello a hook line as there ever has been. It takes a bit of courage to put this first – it’s so good that it threatens to outshine the rest of the record.

But the rest of the record steps up. We get some pretty piano pieces courtesy of Bacharach, like the gorgeous “Don’t Look Now,” and some killer bluesy pop, like the dark and fantastic “Mr. and Mrs. Hush.” King contributes to “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” a big-sounding minor-key pop masterwork reminiscent of Motown. “Suspect My Tears” is another classic, Costello giving it his all behind a sweeping string section. “I Let the Sun Go Down” is a lament for the man who lost the British empire. Amongst all of this, “Unwanted Number” (written for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart) fits in perfectly, Costello not sullying his tune by changing up the gender. (“How can I tell them, how can I express how it felt to step out of this life and into his embrace?”)

This is just a tremendous Elvis Costello album, a return to the classical pop he does so well. Not that he isn’t adept at the other styles he works in, but he seems to have a particular affinity for beautifully melodic pop music, one he hasn’t indulged in many years, and I’m overjoyed to hear him in this setting once again. The deluxe edition comes with a second CD with four more excellent songs, including last year’s single “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way.” Every bit of this album is a delight. I don’t know if Elvis Costello truly can do no wrong, but he’s certainly done no wrong here. Look Now is an instant classic.

Elvis Costello is 64, which makes him the second-oldest Brit in this column. (The Doctor is 55 this year.) The winner is Richard Thompson, who at 69 years old is still making vital, unshakeable music. I never see his name on lists of blisteringly good guitar players, and I’m always mystified by that. He’s been one of the very best for a long time, ever since trading in his acoustic when he left Fairport Convention in 1971. In the past few years he’s taken a tour of his catalog with three CDs of acoustic renderings, but now he’s come storming back with his 18th solo record, 13 Rivers.

And it’s awesome. Thompson traffics in a folksy-rock hybrid that finds him singing cautionary tales and old bard’s poetry over dark electric atmospheres. Opener “The Storm Won’t Come” is about a man looking for self-destruction, and it sets the tone – there’s a thunderous momentum to it, and Thompson stretches out both that deep, distinctive voice and his fantastic lead playing over six glorious minutes. I would be very surprised if anyone can hear the final minutes of this and still think Eric Clapton is all that.

The rest of 13 Rivers is just as swell. The stomping “The Rattle Within” lets loose on a tale of the darkness inside us all, with a thrilling percussive beat. The bluesy “Her Love Was Meant for Me” is a grimy crawl through a black soul. “Bones of Gilead” skips along like a freight train, “Trying” spins an oncoming wave out of bass and air, and the stonking “Pride” is like a creeping, dangerous take on a Byrds song. In the midst of this, he lets in a shaft of light with the delicate “My Rock, My Rope,” but that’s the only one. The other 12 of these rivers will drag you away in their current.

The fact that a 69-year-old man can make a record this vital, this alive, is sort of remarkable. Richard Thompson, like Elvis Costello, shows no signs of slowing down, or of sanding off the rough edges. As a guitar player and songwriter, he sounds just as hungry as he did 35 years ago. Every Richard Thompson album is worth hearing, but 13 Rivers is great even by his standards. It’s proof that he won’t go quietly, and I hope he keeps making records like this for a long time.

That’s it for this week. Next week, probably Neneh Cherry, and who knows what else. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Maybe Just Now I Don’t Understand
Tim Chandler, 1960-2018

I have a lot of things I could have written about this week.

New music continues to pile up, and I keep trying to plow my way through it. I have so many new albums that could make for strong columns, and the wave doesn’t seem ready to break anytime soon. This week we’re going to get a new Elvis Costello album, and I wanted to clear the decks a bit before that one landed.

There’s also the new Doctor Who, the debut of Jodie Whittaker in the role, and I have a lot to say about that. I was looking forward to examining the ups and downs of what was a pretty good first episode. (Short version: Whittaker was fantastic, her new companions quite good, the tone is completely different from anything we’ve had before, and the story was… you know, fine.)

Basically, I had plans for this space. And then Tim Chandler died. And the bottom fell out of my musical world.

I have no doubt that most of you reading this don’t recognize Tim Chandler’s name, and that makes this all so much sadder and more lonely for me. For nearly 30 years, Chandler has been one of my favorite musicians, toiling in near-total obscurity as the bass player for the Choir and Daniel Amos. (And DA’s alter ego band, the Swirling Eddies, but don’t tell anyone.) And since DA and the Choir are two of the most important bands in my life, his loss is a massive one for me.

How to explain Tim Chandler to those who have never heard him? We can start with the history. Chandler joined Daniel Amos, an absolutely foundational spiritual rock band, in 1983, just as they were leaving their country-pop past behind. His first album with them was Doppelganger, and it’s a masterpiece of jagged ‘80s new wave. He remained with DA ever since, playing on some of my favorite albums of all time, including Darn Floor Big Bite, Motor Cycle, Songs of the Heart and Mr. Buechner’s Dream.

In 1985 Chandler joined the Choir, probably my favorite band in the world. He’s present on their 1986 EP Shades of Grey and their subsequent 1986 album Diamonds and Rain, but he really began to leave his mark on the band with 1988’s Chase the Kangaroo. He then took two albums off but came roaring back with 1993’s stripped-down noise-rock extravaganza Kissers and Killers, and has been with the band since then, playing on even more of my favorite albums of all time, including Speckled Bird, Free Flying Soul, Burning Like the Midnight Sun and Shadow Weaver.

That tells you where to go to hear Chandler play, but it doesn’t tell you why he was special. How’s this, then: I can think of only a few rock bass players that play the way Chandler does, that can offer you a full and complete listening experience even if you mute everything else in the song. Paul McCartney is one. Colin Moulding is another. This is the company I put him in. I think he’s one of the most original players to ever pick up the instrument – he rarely plays what you’d expect him to, and very little of what he does ought to work, but it always does.

Here is a song from the most recent (and probably final) Daniel Amos album, Dig Here Said the Angel. It’s called “The Uses of Adversity,” and it’s by no means one of Terry Taylor’s best compositions. But man, listen to what Chandler’s doing on this thing. He’s all over the place – where any other bass player would be sinking back, letting the straightforward song be, you know, straightforward, he’s roiling underneath it, pulling out chromatic scales that shouldn’t work. This is pretty typical of his work with DA – here’s “Evangeline,” from earlier in his career with the band, and rather than ground this thing, he’s going crazy underneath it, gliding up to weird notes and practically soloing in places.

Daniel Amos is an aggressive, even combative band, and Chandler’s job was to put you even further off kilter. (Sometimes, though, he just rocked out – here’s “Youth With a Machine,” from Doppelanger.) The Choir is a different beast entirely, more concerned with beauty and fragility. Chandler could certainly play beautifully, but the Choir boys liked it when he muddied up their clear waters, tossing a splash of ugly into the mix. Here’s a song named after him, “Mr. Chandler.” Just listen to what he’s doing in those opening moments. That should not work, but it clearly does.

And here is “The Warbler,” one of my favorites for its sheer sound. Most of the time when I hear this song, I’m listening to Derri Daugherty’s absurdly gorgeous guitar tone. But listen to what Chandler does under it. That bass part is just astonishing – it shouldn’t complement this song in any way, especially as the only thing in it besides the fluttery guitars, but it works.

Oh, and he could rock out with the Choir too.

I could give you dozens of examples of Chandler’s genius. He’s contributed that genius to dozens of albums that, in a parallel universe, would have secured him a place in the pantheon. By all accounts he was a genuinely nice and humble man, too, an impish giant with a tremendous sense of humor. I only met him briefly a couple of times, and never really spoke with him. I wish I had.

Even without a personal connection, I can say that no bass player has affected my life as much as Tim Chandler has. Even if all he’d given me was Chase the Kangaroo and Darn Floor Big Bite, that would have put him in rarified company with me. I feel so fortunate that I have so much of his playing to revel in, and that two of my favorite bands kept on going long past the point where others would have thrown in the towel. Just this year Chandler played on Bloodshot, the new record from the Choir. It’s a sad and difficult record, even more so now that it stands as Tim’s final performance.

Tim Chandler was 58 years old, which used to seem pretty ancient to me. Now it’s just around the bend. He apparently had been in poor health for some time, and kept it quiet. My heart goes out to his family and his friends, some of whom are my friends. As for me, I’m going to listen to my old Choir and DA albums and maybe cry a little. As a wise band once sang, though, a sad face is good for the heart.

Rest in peace, Tim.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Feel the Earth Move
Music for Uncertain Times

It’s no new thing to point out that we’re living through a time of great upheaval.

Not just here in Trumpland, either, but all over the world. Fear is taking root, uncertainty is in the air, the earth is moving beneath our feet. And I think we’ve been living in this state for so long now that it’s becoming background. The tectonic plates shift and we barely notice anymore, but the atmosphere of dread and anxiety just hangs over us all the time. We could be plunged further into hell at any moment, and I think we’re all becoming inured to that feeling.

So I’m not surprised that this atmosphere is seeping into the music that is coming out now. I don’t even mean music that is specifically about the world situation, or music that is trying to capture the age of Trump. I’m talking about the overall tone of a lot of the music I’m hearing these days. It’s fractured and broken and unsteady. It’s music that is raising bulwarks against a storm.

And I’m not sure I’m even going to be able to describe what I mean. I’m going to start with an album that is responding to a specific tragedy, just to see if I can isolate the tone and feel I’m talking about. That album is the difficult yet beautiful one from Polish band Riverside. It’s called Wasteland, and it’s their first album since the tragic death of their guitar player, Piotr Grudzinski, in 2016. To say Grudzinski was a big part of their sound is to understate by miles – his lead playing characterized much of this band’s work, which lives in that no-man’s-land between prog, metal and melodic rock.

Riverside’s music has always had a bleak edge to it, but Wasteland is something else. The band has continued on as a trio, with leader Mariusz Duda taking on the guitar parts, and while the album still sounds full and rich, it also feels diminished somehow, like a recent amputee. The songs are unfailingly gray, like the cover art, and speak of dark days, waiting for a sunrise that never comes. This is an album that begins with Duda singing these lines a cappella: “What if it’s not meant to be, what if someone has made a mistake, what we’ve become, there’s no turning back, maybe it’s time to say that out loud.” And it starts like it means to go on.

And it’s stunning stuff. The old Riverside crunch is still there – see the opening of “Acid Rain” and the riff of “Vale of Tears” – but even the loudest songs dissolve into quieter acoustic passages. The chorus of “Vale of Tears” (“I am wading through the desert to the promised land you burned to the ground”) is haunting, Duda sounding like he truly is making the pilgrimage he describes. “Guardian Angel” is quiet and delicate, while “Lament” balances its drive with a spectral violin. Even the nine-minute instrumental “The Struggle for Survival” builds slowly, interlocking its pieces carefully. (It’s the one track on which Duda gets to cut loose on guitar, too.)

Wasteland could not have been an easy record to make. It captures this band crawling back from their lowest point, dealing with their pain and grief in song, and in the process making one of the most darkly beautiful sets of songs they have ever given us. There isn’t much hope here, even in closing piano lullaby “The Night Before,” and in that it fits the mood of the world we’re in very well.

But that isn’t specifically what I’m talking about. I mean, it is, but the fact that Wasteland so aptly fits both the personal tragedy it is about and the worldwide sense of despair complicates it. So here’s an example that is far removed from that one: The Joy Formidable’s fourth record, AAARTH. I adore this band. They came screaming onto the scene in 2008, and solidified their attack with their 2011 debut album, The Big Roar. I have often said that early Joy Formidable is what the Smashing Pumpkins might have sounded like if they let D’Arcy sing – gigantic guitars creating a massive wall of distortion, Ritzy Bryan’s voice floating over the top. (But don’t let her dulcet tones fool you. Bryan’s a badass – she’s responsible for all those noisy guitars too.)

I love the title of this album, too. “Arth” is Welsh for bear, but they’ve written it as if to say “BEEEAR!” Like a shouted warning. That sense of dread follows the record from first song to last, and has crept into the way these songs are written and structured. AAARTH still sounds like the Joy Formidable, but whereas in the past they’ve built up these massive structures of sound, these unbreakable towering things, here the songs sound like they could topple at any time. They’ve done this without sacrificing the power of their sound, too.

Listening to AAARTH is like getting the rug pulled out from under you every few minutes. It starts with the sound of a CD skipping, then plunges you into the weird, off-putting “Y Bluen Eira,” sung in Welsh while the band feels like it’s falling apart and crawling back together. It’s like they’re saying right up front “here, deal with this.” A song like “Go Loving,” with its double-time drums and layered guitars, should be an easy win, but the band drops the floor out a couple times, as if sabotaging it.

I mean, just listen to “Cicada.” This song is awesome, creeping along on a slithering riff, and the arrangement just never lets you get a handle on it. “All In All” should be an acoustic ballad, but its production is otherworldly, in an uncomfortable way. In fact, uncomfortable is a good description for most of this album. It has an uneasy, unsure feeling to it, one that keeps me riveted. It’s clear that all of this uncertainty is baked in – this is exactly the album Bryan and her bandmates wanted to make, and they worked hard to make it this way. The result is a record that refuses, at every turn, to be reassuring. It’s a record that takes a familiar sound and pushes it oddly out of reach.

And I think that’s what I’m talking about. It’s subtle, like the wind changing, like the curb not being quite where you expect when you step down. While AAARTH fits that bill, I think the best recent example I can come up with is Double Negative, the amazing new album from Low. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Rogers have been making music under the Low name since 1993 and they’ve never done anything quite like this, their 12th long-player. The pair made their name as a guitar band, playing slow, spare music that moved at a snail’s pace. They’ve evolved considerably since then, but Double Negative is still something of a shock.

This is the most uncomfortable listen of my year, and I bought four Jandek albums. This record is built on drones and thuddingly repetitive loops, and while you can hear Low in there (on “Fly,” for instance, which Rogers sings with gusto), most of it is either enrapturing or off-putting. Often both, at the same time. “Dancing and Blood” is six minutes long, two of them at the end taken up by competing drones that are out of tune with each other. The other four conjure a post-apocalypse of reverbed drums (mixed so loud they clip the speakers) and Sparhawk’s fragile voice, processed beyond recognition.

Even a song like “Always Trying to Work it Out” feels shaky on its feet thanks to the production. It’s a gorgeous little number, but the explosive bass drum that pounds every four beats renders everything else inaudible, like it wounds the rest of the instruments and they have to climb back each time. Sparhawk’s voice sounds like he’s singing through a laundry chute, and everything crumbles under waves of noise and static. It’s an absolutely incredible experience, like all of this album. You really need to listen from beginning to end, and allow yourself to get lost in it, no matter how much your skin crawls.

The final track, “Disarray,” might be my favorite, as it juxtaposes the gorgeous and the guttural extraordinarily well. The music, such as it is, on this track is a repeated pulse of noise and tones that is mixed so loudly that it bursts out of your speakers. Over this, Sparhawk and Rogers spin a glorious web of harmonies, singing about how it’s too late to make things better. This should be beautiful, but it’s just ear-splitting enough that beauty remains out of reach.

And it’s that, that sense that these things should be beautiful, that I’m really talking about here. That’s what anxiety feels like – you can see how everything should be beautiful, and you know it isn’t, and you can’t quite put your finger on why. Double Negative captures this, whether purposefully or accidentally, better than anything I’ve heard recently. It’s a difficult time, a fearful time, an uncertain time, and this album (well, all three of the albums I have talked about this week) underscore that perfectly. The earth keeps moving, our steps remain unsure, and our future remains up in the air. And this is what it sounds like.

* * * * *

In such times it’s good to have traditions to hang on to. I know I broke with one of those traditions last week, and I’m sorry. I’m still pretty far behind in my listening, but here’s the Third Quarter Report anyway. It’s not drastically different from the Second Quarter Report, though it does show that I have reconsidered some of the albums that made it onto that list, pushing them up or down or off. If I had to run my top 10 list right now, here’s what it would look like:

10. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
9. Sleep, The Sciences.
8. The Choir, Bloodshot.
7. The Boxer Rebellion, Ghost Alive.
6. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.
5. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call the Faster It Runs.
4. Low, Double Negative.
3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.
2. Darlingside, Extralife.
1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.

Monae is so far out in front of everything else I have heard this year that it’s almost embarrassing. Looking at my notes for the rest of the year, I don’t see anything coming out that will challenge it. We’ll see about the rest of the list.

Next week, could be anything. But probably some thoughts on the new Doctor Who. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

For Crying Out Loud
Adam Again, the 77s and the Raw Pain of Real Life

I’m in the worship band at my church.

I know, I know, it was a big surprise to me too. I grew up in a church, but high-tailed it right around the time I started asking questions that have no answers. Honestly, it wasn’t the lack of answers that bothered me, it was the absolute certainty of those who tried to give me those answers. I was able to poke holes in everything people said they believed, and I began to see the harm those beliefs do and have done. So I walked.

But the yearning never went away. For 25 years I kept one foot in the spiritual, mainly through music. I’ve talked a great deal in this space (and will talk more in a moment) about the extraordinary spiritual rock bands that have changed and reshaped my life for nearly as long as I can remember listening to music, and if nothing else, they kept me trying out churches and reading all I could about the ineffable and the divine. I minored in philosophy and religious studies in college, covered every story about churches I could during my journalism career, and kept whatever it is that drew me toward faith alight, if only barely.

Long story short, I found a church that fits my idea of what church ought to be, which for me, mainly, means allowing me to grow at my own pace. I’m still not sure what you’d call me, but I’m happier not putting labels on things anyway. I’m different than I was just a couple years ago, though. Regardless, I told you all of that to tell you this: each Sunday I get up early and head to church to practice really Jesus-y songs with a group of other musicians. And what we play is what everyone thinks of when I say “Christian music.”

I’ve come to grips with the reason we play what we do in church, and in doing so have come to terms with so-called worship music. I generally hate the stuff – it’s so cloying, so simple, so surface-level. It’s never the sort of thing I would put on to listen to of my own free will. It works in the setting we play it in, because that setting is not about music in any way. What I really needed (and in some ways still need) to come to grips with, though, is the fact that when I talk about some of my very favorite bands, people automatically think I’m talking about something with the musicality and depth of, say, Matt Redman or Hillsong.

And I’m not. When I talk about spiritual pop bands like the Choir or Daniel Amos or Lifesavers Underground, I am describing something wholly different, something that would never be played on K-LOVE or added to the usual rotation at churches. What I like about these bands and artists is the same thing I like about any band or artist: honesty. Combine that with some serious musical chops and I’m all yours. Songwriters like Steve Hindalong and Terry Taylor are brutally honest about their faith, their doubt, their pain, their lives. That’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what I can’t find in worship music.

If you don’t believe me that spiritual music can be just as raw and ragged an emotional experience as any other kind, I have two albums you should hear. And thankfully, both of them have just been reissued in gorgeous expanded and remastered CD and vinyl editions by Lo-Fidelity Records. Lo-Fidelity is run by my friend Jeffrey Kotthoff, and for more than a decade he’s been keeping this little corner of the music world alive and kicking, supporting not only these beautiful reissues of barely-known records but new works by those musicians as well. I’m eternally grateful to him for loving what I love and putting his money and time into sharing it.

Two bands who have found a loving home on Lo-Fidelity are the 77s and the late, lamented Adam Again. I adore both of them, and I’m in the process of buying both of their catalogs again as they are re-released. (And on vinyl for the first time. They look amazing.) We’re up to the mid-‘90s with both bands, and perhaps coincidentally the latest reissues from both are the most twisted and pain-filled they ever released. These are albums without easy answers, with complicated emotions warring over abrasive and difficult music. In short, they’re ‘90s rock albums, but very, very good ones.

Michael Roe and his 77s have always been about honestly reflecting where they are as people, and the band’s 1994 opus Drowning With Land in Sight is no different. Take a second to deal with that title. The cover, as originally released, depicts a playground slide in the middle of the ocean, basically a short ride to nowhere. You can feel the hopelessness just radiating off this thing. And it makes sense – Drowning catches the 77s as guitarist David Leonhardt began his battle with cancer and Roe watched his marriage fall apart.

The album is in no way a slog, but it is difficult. It opens with a note-for-note cover of Led Zeppelin’s rewrite of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Roe performing the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page parts himself. It’s a track the band didn’t want to include here – the record company made them – but it sets the tone well. What follows is a barrage of fiery ‘90s-style guitar rock with titles like “Snowblind” and “Snake,” and it’s some of the most vicious material Roe and his band have ever put down on tape.

The record gets more diverse as it goes along, with the pretty “Film at Eleven” (a heartbreak song that could have fit on the previous album, Pray Naked), the instrumental “Mezzo” and the Rolling Stones riff “Cold, Cold Night” coming in rapid succession. But it never gets less bleak, and this reissue restores it to its even more bleak original running order, removing “For Crying Out Loud,” the one ray of hope. (Like “Nobody’s Fault,” its inclusion was mandated by a nervous, meddling record company.) Drowning now ends with its two saddest songs, “The Jig is Up” and “Alone Together,” both of which are about Roe’s divorce. Both of these songs are almost inhumanly beautiful, too, and the record leaves you hollowed out. (Don’t worry, “For Crying Out Loud” is included as a track on the bonus disc.)

The 77s, at this point in their evolution, were an incredible rock band, and Roe has always been one of the world’s most underrated guitarists. And it’s a good thing, too, because the powerfully alive music keeps you going through one heartbreaking sentiment after another. “Dave’s Blues” is a shimmying powerhouse that hides a tough lyric about Leonhardt’s cancer, punctuated by the line “this ol’ world has kicked my ass,” an honest assessment that the record company censored. (The line is here in all its glory on the reissue.) “The Jig is Up” marries a swaying folk melody to lyrics of absolute isolation.

There is no light at the end of this tunnel. Drowning With Land in Sight documents a spiral, catching Roe and his cohorts at a moment in which they didn’t know what to believe, or why. It’s a record full of turmoil, one with no easy answers, so you can imagine the disdain with which it was greeted in the Christian marketplace. But that honesty makes it one of my favorites in the band’s extensive catalog. It’s a searching, difficult piece of work, and I love it for that.

I have a tougher time loving Adam Again’s swan song, Perfecta, released in 1995. In some ways, it’s the most powerful thing this band ever recorded. It’s a sloppy, abrasive snapshot of the aftermath of frontman Gene Eugene’s divorce from his bandmate Riki Michele, and it contains little of the polish and danceable joy of the band’s previous works. It’s also the last one Eugene finished before his death from a drug overdose in 1999, and it’s a wrenching, dark way to go out. Like Drowning, it offers no light, no escape, just a suffocating bleakness over 64 devastating minutes.

If you care about Gene Eugene as a person, Perfecta is a very difficult listen. Songs like “Relapse” and “Harsh” and “Dogjam” air his darker thoughts over steel wool guitars and plodding, despondent grooves. “All Right” is a pitch-black masterpiece, like crawling through a darkened tunnel, waiting to hear the rush of water. The record’s one danceable piece is “Strobe,” and it’s over early, leaving you with nearly an hour of the hard stuff. The band is so good that even when they’re being deliberately loose and messy, they’re locked in somehow, finding the essential melodies within the noise. But it might take a couple listens to really appreciate that, and this isn’t a record that invites repeated listens.

So why do I love it? Why am I recommending it? Because it’s amazing in its honesty, its willingness to plumb the depths without needing to leaven the pain with platitudes. Sincerity was always Eugene’s hallmark – his masterwork, Dig, contains at least three songs that I would rank with the best I know, and they are powerfully honest things. But here it’s like he ripped himself open and laid himself bare. He doesn’t come out of this smelling like roses – “Harsh” especially casts him in a, well, harsh light – but that’s all part of the package. Perfecta is about cutting yourself and letting it bleed onto tape, and wherever the drops land, so be it.

The album ends with one of the saddest songs I know, “Don’t Cry.” It’s almost laughably simple in its sincerity, a song of parting with words of resigned encouragement, but it makes me tear up each time. Part of the reason is that this is the last song on the last Adam Again album, and I miss Gene Eugene’s singular voice something fierce. But part of it is the song itself – Eugene sings it with such heaviness in his voice, as if he knew he’d never be back here, making another Adam Again album, and Michele’s harmonies match him. It’s one of those songs I think everyone should hear, and it works best at the end of this emotionally ragged experience. That worn-out feeling you get as the album shudders to a conclusion is the point.

Some may certainly say that albums like Drowning and Perfecta don’t offer the redemption inherent in spiritual music, and in isolation, they would be right. But what I don’t get from worship music is the understanding that redemption doesn’t mean anything if you don’t feel the pain of existing without it first. This is why I love records like this, that drag me through the mud alongside hurting and broken people. I need this for the joy of salvation to make any sense. I need the full spectrum, the full experience of life, reflected in the art I love, and I’m grateful beyond measure to the artists I have found who give me that.

In short, buy these albums and all the others you can find at Lo-Fidelity’s website. You won’t regret it.

* * * * *

It’s the end of September, which means it should be time for the Third Quarter Report. But here’s the thing. For various personal reasons, I am ludicrously behind in my music purchasing and consumption. I’ve heard barely half of the records I bought in September, and I need another week to put together anything resembling a competent list. So, next week.

I’m not even sure what I’m going to review next week, either, so we’ll both be surprised. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Missed Again
Two Great Records that Nearly Got By Me

I keep up with a lot of bands. Or at least, I try to.

When I say a lot of bands, I mean a lot. Literally hundreds. And while the internet has made it easier in some ways to stay on top of what my favorite musicians are doing, it has also made music a lot less centralized. I check a number of websites that tell me what I can expect to find in stores each week, but at this point about half of my music purchases are made online, direct from the artists themselves. And often those artists don’t have any kind of marketing budget or infrastructure, so it’s up to me to remember to check their sites and social media on the regular to find out what they’re up to.

Here’s a case in point: on Friday, the great Scottish singer Fish is going to release a new record called A Parley with Angels. It features three songs from his upcoming double album (the last one he plans to record before he retires) and four live tracks from December of last year. It’s not exactly an indispensable piece of his collection, but I want it. And the only way I know about it at all is through Fish’s Facebook page. He has no marketing, particularly outside of Europe, and is dependent on his fans to find him. This is becoming the way of things, and it’s forced me to dedicate much more time and effort to keeping abreast of announcements.

All of this feeds into my fear of missing out, which is a very real thing. I’m a collector as much as I am a fan, and I hate it when releases get by me. Even one-off live records or four-song EPs. My collection isn’t complete unless I have all of that stuff, and trying to feed my completism by checking literally hundreds of websites is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. I’m going to miss stuff.

Most of the time, though, I catch up eventually. For example, up until two weeks ago, I had no idea that The Boxer Rebellion, one of my favorite discoveries of the past ten years, had released a sixth album. I don’t know how this slipped past me, given how much I like this band. I first heard them in 2011, when their third effort, a stunning piece of work called The Cold Still, caught my attention. The Cold Still was everything I have always wanted The National to be – slow and atmospheric, yet yearning and full of life. While I enjoyed the two follow-ups, the more scattered Promises and the somewhat synth-y Ocean by Ocean, they didn’t quite measure up to me. The Cold Still remained my favorite.

And it probably still is, but the new one, Ghost Alive, is the closest they have come since to matching it. I have since discovered that it came out in March, but only across the pond, and physical copies seem to have dried up from all but one source: the band themselves. So of course I bought from them. And I’m so glad I did. Ghost Alive could be seen as a retreat in some ways: it dispenses with the synthesizers that the band never seemed all that committed to, and even walks back from the grandiose soundscapes of Promises. It is their quietest, most organic record, and in stripping back they have recaptured their essence.

Of course it starts with a curveball. “What the Fuck” is an angry lyric sung with sadness over a strumming acoustic figure, and it’s a hard thing to figure out. When Nathan Nicholson sings “who do you think you are to talk to me, to look the way you do,” I am not sure who he is addressing, or if he is being ironic. The song is pretty, and the out-of-nowhere rage at its core is surprising. I’d like to know more about this one. The band never steps off the path again for the rest of Ghost Alive, which only makes “What the Fuck” stand out even more.

But from there it’s one lovely tune after another, and I want to give this album a warm hug. “Rain” is a gentle song of encouragement through hard times. “Love Yourself” is similar, a sweet ode to what Whitney Houston called the greatest love of all. These songs feature big strings and horns, but somehow even these accoutrements are subtler, taking the place of the electric guitars that used to lie at the heart of the band’s sound. “Don’t Look Back” is almost a pop song, with an insistent tom-tom drum beat – it is closest to “No Harm,” the grand opener of The Cold Still. But once that has faded, the rest of the album is almost delicate.

I’m a massive fan of “Lost Cause,” on which Nicholson embraces his own broken state while moving toward wholeness: “I am not a lost cause, even if I’m not yours.” “River” is wonderful, its rolling acoustic guitars feeling like rushing water. “Under Control” is beautiful, all pianos and drums, and closer “Goodnight” is as delicate as you’d hope.

But the gem of this album is “Here I Am.” Like many songs here, it’s about offering encouragement and hope, but this one is special somehow. When Nicholson reaches for that falsetto over the subtle guitars and single-tom drum beat, something magical happens. I can’t explain it, but at least for right now, “Here I Am” is my favorite Boxer Rebellion song, and I can’t stop playing it. And each time I do, I think about the fact that I may never have heard it. I’m beyond glad that Ghost Alive didn’t pass me by.

A band I like just as much as The Boxer Rebellion, if not more, is Husky. I owe Rob Hale for turning me on to this Australian quartet. They have three albums, and each one has been magnificent, drawing from a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous melodies. They’re a band I don’t mind paying import prices for – their third, last year’s Punchbuzz, was only released in their home country, but it was absolutely worth the extra shipping cost and the two-week wait to get it here.

The fact that Husky only seems to operate in Australia these days makes me feel a tiny bit better about totally missing the follow-up EP, which also came out last year. It’s called Bedroom Recordings, and it evenly splits its four songs between acoustic readings of Punchbuzz tunes and fascinating covers. It only exists digitally, but it’s so lovely that I don’t mind paying for zeroes and ones in this case.

These tunes were recorded by Husky Gawenda and Gideon Preiss, half of the band, and if the title leads you to expect laptop electronics with acoustic guitars, that’s what you get. The two recastings are “Late Night Store” and “Splinters in the Fire,” two of the singles from Punchbuzz, and in these settings they’re even prettier. I’ve heard “Late Night Store” probably 60 times now, and I still feel a million miles from tired of it. I’m glad to have this chance to hear it again for the first time.

The covers are the heart of this, for me. Gawenda strips both Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers” and Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” down to their organic essences – guitars and pianos. In doing so, he finds the sweetness and sadness in both songs. “Let It Happen” has undergone the greatest metamorphosis here – Kevin Parker (a fellow Australian) built his version around an insistent electronic beat and waves of synthesizers, and Gawenda has removed all of that, yet still kept every melodic element of the original arrangement. It’s pretty fantastic.

I probably could have remained ignorant of these four tracks and not really felt their absence, but I’m overjoyed that I did find them, and that they’ve become part of my picture of this band. The fact that both of these records turned out to be so enjoyable only fuels my FOMO. And so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, trying to keep track of all of the music I want to hear, and chasing down the ones that get by me. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.)

Next week, I swear, a couple things from Lo-Fidelity Records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Gospel According to Paul (and Paul)
McCartney and Simon and the Enduring Urge to Create

I don’t know much, but I do know this. When the universe conspires to bring you new albums from two of rock’s most respected elder statesmen, and both of those gentlemen happen to be named Paul, you write about them together. It’s like a gift.

Here’s the thing about both Paul McCartney and Paul Simon: they don’t have to make any new music, ever. They’re both 76 years old, and could very easily ride out their retirement years on the insane amounts of money they have already made. Neither one has anything to prove. Both will be eulogized as revered songwriters and entertainers, whether or not they pump any new material out before they go. Their legacies are absolutely secure, and adding to those legacies runs the risk of tarnishing them. There are probably more reasons not to jump back into the game for both of these men than there are to take the leap.

And yet both have consistently written and recorded new material long past the point when I probably would have taken my shingle down. McCartney’s last album, the underrated New, came out five years ago, and Simon’s latest, the delightfully weird Stranger to Stranger, landed only two years ago. And here they both are again. Of the two, Simon seems more interested in taking stock – he’s just completed what he says is his last tour, and his new album is more retrospective. McCartney, meanwhile, is pushing forward, launching a massive jaunt around the world in support of Egypt Station, his 18th solo album.

So what compels both Pauls to keep on making new music? It has to be a creative urge. Writing new tunes and getting together with your mates to record them has to be in the blood for both of these men. McCartney, for example, has to know that everything he does (and has done for decades) will be compared with his beloved work in the Beatles, and will fall short. Egypt Station is not for the people who will make such comparisons. It’s for McCartney himself, and for anyone willing to come along with him.

Is it worth the ride? Well, mostly. Because he’s working just for himself, he’s willing to stick with simple, fun tunes for much of the running time, songs that sound like they were fun to play but aren’t going to stand the test of time particularly well. McCartney once again worked with Greg Kurstin, producer extraordinaire, and the record sounds really good. McCartney played most of the instruments himself, as he has throughout his career, but you wouldn’t know it – the record has a full, sweeping feel to it, even songs like shuffling first single “Come On to Me” that don’t quite deserve the love lavished on them.

Kurstin isn’t the guy to tell McCartney no, either, so most of the lyrics here feel like first drafts, or sketches. That’s pretty standard for McCartney, never the world’s best lyricist. Even so, “People Want Peace” feels particularly cloying, and the Ryan Tedder-produced “Fuh You” should never have seen the light of day. I think I’m fondest of the slower piano-driven ones, like opener “I Don’t Know” and the sweet “Hand in Hand,” even though they’re full of clichés. I have much less trouble imagining a 76-year-old man singing something like “Hand in Hand” than “Fuh You.”

But this is Paul McCartney, so every idea he had during the recording sessions is here, packed together in 57 minutes. The second half gets more adventurous, and I’m here for much of it – “Dominoes” is a great little pop song, “Back in Brazil” feels like something Joe Jackson might turn out, and “Do It Now” hearkens back to the classic McCartney ballads of the past. (His voice is still pretty strong, if noticeably weaker than in his heyday.) The biggest surprise is “Despite Repeated Warnings,” a “Band on the Run” for the Trump age. It’s a seven-minute suite about taking back the ship of state from a madman, and it’s heavy-handed and obvious, but musically fascinating. This one especially underscores how good of a melody maker he still is.

If McCartney had pared down a couple of his indulgences – have I mentioned how wretched “Fuh You” is? – Egypt Station would be a tight, solid rock record. But it wouldn’t feel like a Paul McCartney album. There’s just something about the messes he creates, about having to sit through something like “Caesar Rock” to get to the infinitely better “Despite Repeated Warnings,” that has characterized his whole solo career. This one fits right in, in all its inconsistent glory. He’s definitely making these things for himself now, but if you’re willing to let the shadow of his history fade away and just enjoy it, Egypt Station is a pretty fun time.

Paul Simon has taken things considerably more seriously on In the Blue Light, his 14th album, released to commemorate that final tour. Simon has always been one to look forward, jumping genres with nimble ease and offering new observations every few years, rather than just playing the hits. Blue Light is his first real look back, on which he rearranges and re-records some of his lesser-known and lesser-loved works. A prolific and creative writer like Simon has given us many songs (and in fact whole albums) that didn’t quite land, and this album feels like an admission and a second chance.

At least, it does until you hear it and marvel at how completely Simon has reconstructed these songs from the ground up. The album opens with a full-on jazz-band reading of “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor,” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and it’s a delight. The familiar piano intro is there, but the folksy shuffle has been replaced with a New Orleans-style groove, complete with trumpets and saxophones. The song’s structure is the same, but the feel is entirely different. The jazz band returns on “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns,” the One Trick Pony song that gives this collection its name, and the rebirth is even more complete here. (And can I mention how utterly clear and strong Simon’s voice remains? It’s a treasure.)

Rob Moose’s collective yMusic shows up here a few times, none more prominently than the great “Can Run But,” from The Rhythm of the Saints. On that album, the song was built with percussion, so of course Simon and yMusic recreate it with no percussion at all, capturing the original feel with violins, bass clarinets and flutes. It’s amazing, breathing new life into a song that was fantastic to begin with. yMusic also works their magic on “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” a song from Hearts and Bones that I’ve always found difficult to love. This orchestral recasting brings out the subtle beauty of the lyric, and it’s wonderful.

But if there’s an album of his that Simon wants you to revisit, judging from In the Blue Light, that album is You’re the One. Recorded and released in the wake of The Capeman, Simon’s disastrous Broadway show, it’s a funny, confident, intimate and often quite beautiful record, one I have quietly loved for nearly 20 years. It’s nice to see that Simon shares my opinion of it, as he devoted four of the ten tracks here to it. “Darling Lorraine” still makes me laugh out loud, and “The Teacher” is still pretty, here fully reinvented with Brazil’s Assad Brothers. “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” gets a full Dixieland reading with Wynton Marsalis leading the charge.

And here is “Love,” one of my very favorite Paul Simon songs, not so much reinvented as respected, with Bill Frisell doing his transcendent thing on guitar. If there’s a song here that I hope gets another shot at becoming iconic, it’s this one.

I adore the idea of Paul Simon looking back over his vast, storied catalog, plucking out gems, giving them a once-over and bringing them out to the showroom floor again. Very few of these are songs I would have expected, but now that I hear the care and love he’s shown in these recreations, I can see why he chose each one. Some are songs I had forgotten – most of One Trick Pony has drifted from my memory, and Hearts and Bones was never a favorite – and I will be listening with new ears. If that was Simon’s motivation for recording this, mission accomplished.

But like McCartney, I think Simon records for himself now, and In the Blue Light especially sounds like a project he needed to pursue as he wraps up his stellar career. I certainly hope we’ve not heard the last Paul Simon album, but if he does grace us with another one, it will be because he wants to, has to, is drawn to the creative well with an inexorable pull. And if he is, I’ll be first in line to hear it.

Next week, I’m not sure, but probably a few things from Lo-Fidelity Records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Neverending ’90s
AiC and 3EB Prove Their Staying Power

I grew up in the ‘80s, but came of age in the ‘90s.

I was at the right age to respond to the grunge movement with all my love. I was 17 when Nevermind came out, and while it’s never been a favorite, it did open up the doors for bands that ended up soundtracking my life. I watch Singles, Cameron Crowe’s film about the burgeoning Seattle scene, and I see friends of mine. I see how we dressed in college. And I hear songs that have stayed with me for more than 20 years.

I’m the target demographic for ‘90s nostalgia, and yet I remain surprised at how much of it there is. In a lot of ways, the ‘90s never went away. Pearl Jam is still the best touring rock band in the world. I have a friend with a teenage daughter who dresses exactly like Angela Chase in My So-Called Life. We mourned the loss of Chris Cornell last year in a way befitting his status as one of the greats. I have a tendency to think of the ‘90s as a cultural aberration, a little pocket unto itself, but it truly has seeped into our zeitgeist. There’s a ‘90s resurgence happening now, but the decade and its art have been with us the whole time.

I can think of no more obvious example than the continued existence of Alice in Chains. In the ‘90s AiC was one of the architects of the Seattle sound – it has its roots in metal, but played more slowly, with a greater emphasis on melody. Alice in Chains added a lovely sense of harmony, with Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell singing together more often than not, like a sludge-rock Everly Brothers. That is, if the Everly Brothers sang about drug addiction, self-harm, depression and pain. Alice in Chains’ masterpiece is their 1992 album Dirt, and its mathematically complex grooves and overall musical assault disguise what a pitch-dark album it is.

I think in the ‘90s we tended to dismiss depressing and dark lyrics as par for the course, but when Staley died from a massive drug overdose in 2002, it was a wake-up call. I fully expected it to be the end for Alice in Chains as well, but the band has soldiered on, hiring William DuVall to step up to the microphone. They’ve now made as many albums with DuVall as they did with Staley. Half of the original band is now dead – bassist Mike Starr also died of a drug overdose in 2011. It’s fair to say the Alice in Chains we know today are survivors, still committed to a style of music that meant something to a lot of people.

Rainier Fog is the sixth AiC album, and it’s exactly like the last two. Its title and cover art were inspired by Mount Rainier, which looms above Seattle, but we didn’t need the direct reference to know that the city and its scene remain at the core of this band. Cantrell is clearly steering this ship, and his thick guitar sound remains a constant. DuVall sounds a lot like Staley, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this album is vintage 1991. Like everything Cantrell has done without Staley, this is based more on mood and sound than on crisp songwriting. Nothing here is going to eclipse “Would” or “Man in the Box.” But it’s solid.

Weirdly, my favorite song here is the one DuVall wrote on his own. “So Far Under” has a more traditional metal feel than a lot of the swampier things on here, and a chorus guitar part that just kills. It sounds like someone holding the edge of a vinyl record to make it slow down, and the song feels like it’s tumbling into a hole again and again. It’s also the most depressing: “This whole house of cards is crumbling slow, if I disappeared would you even know?” The band also goes for a “Stairway to Heaven” moment with the closer, the seven-minute “All I Am,” and it’s a convincing, slowly building piece.

The rest of Rainier Fog is pretty average Alice in Chains, unwinding slowly with a particular forceful hopelessness that they helped pioneer. It isn’t any fun, but it is committed to a style that virtually no one else is playing anymore. When they started, Alice in Chains were alone, trying to sell the world on their very different sound, and now that they’re entering their fourth decade, they’re alone again, still championing that sound. I’m still listening, and there certainly seem to be enough people still on board with me.

Third Eye Blind began only six years after Alice in Chains, but in a lot of ways their continued presence is even more surprising. When Stephan Jenkins and his crew knocked on the door of pop culture in 1997 with their self-titled record, they sounded like the end point of the ‘90s thing for me, the utter commercialization of a sound that dove from Soundgarden to Stone Temple Pilots to Everclear in a depressing arc. The idea that Third Eye Blind now has five albums and is gearing up to make a sixth seems kind of improbable.

And yet here we are. We’re at the point where 3EB is making a covers album as a stopgap between albums, like they’re that convinced that they will keep on plugging. The whole idea of a Third Eye Blind covers record has been a joke in my circles for weeks, but now that Thanks for Everything is here, I have to say it makes a strong argument for itself. In fact, as much as I am loath to admit it, I kind of love it. The key to its success, besides a strong commitment from the band itself, is the song selection. Hands up if you expected some well-known tunes given the ‘90s alt-rock treatment. You won’t find that here.

Instead, Jenkins has delivered some genuine surprises. I like this version of Babyshambles’ “Fuck Forever” quite a bit more than the original, for instance – the surging guitars and strong, wide-awake vocals serve to turn this into an anthem. I’m stunned at this version of Santigold’s “This Isn’t Our Parade,” which would not have been anywhere near my list of possible cover songs for Third Eye Blind. But they own it. I can’t even fault their serious-minded run through Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren,” which Jenkins says is more inspired by the This Mortal Coil version. So, to recap, Third Eye Blind has revealed Tim Buckley and This Moral Coil are on their list of influences. Wow.

I’ve never even heard of Chastity Belt, but 3EB convincingly rocks through their “Joke.” I have heard Queens of the Stone Age and Bon Iver, and I remain surprised at how much I like these versions of both “In the Fade” and “Blood Bank.” They’re both bizarre choices, not well-known tunes, and I’m impressed with the selections and with the straight-ahead, strong readings here. It’s almost like they forgot that they’re supposed to be Third Eye Blind, and they just went for it, and it works. I know, I’m as gobsmacked as you are.

So, to recap. Alice in Chains has made a solid third album with their new singer, and they remain as committed to their sound as ever. And Third Eye Blind is not only still around, but has delivered a pretty wonderful new covers record. The ‘90s are not only back, they never went away, and long may they live. Every single bit of that paragraph stuns me, but it’s all true.

Next week, some people named Paul. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In My Blood
On 30-Plus Years of Loving Neil Finn

Back in 1998 (an astonishing 20 years ago), I saw Neil Finn play a free outdoor concert in Boston.

His first solo album, Try Whistling This, had just come out, and true to its title, it was a surprisingly difficult record to love. Finn gamely tried out this new material on the Boston audience, but save for the singalong “She Will Have Her Way,” it was rough going. But then, near the end of the show, Finn pulled out an acoustic guitar and started playing “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and the crowd came to life. Even me, the guy most willing (especially as a young’un) to champion the difficult material. I felt a stirring within at the opening chords of that song, and sang along like my life depended on it.

It’s not just that “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a better song than anything on Try Whistling This, although it certainly is. It’s not even that it’s more immediate, and thus far easier to love. For me – and I suspect for a lot of people on the lawn that day – it was that I first heard “Don’t Dream It’s Over” in 1986, and fell in love with it then, and that love has not abated through time and tide. It was not the first Neil Finn song I heard. Believe it or not, that was “World Where You Live,” which I saw Crowded House perform live on MTV. But it was the first one I fell head over heels for.

I was all of 12 years old when Crowded House’s first album hit the American airwaves, but I like to think I knew good songs when I heard them, even then. That album is full of good songs, and it sparked my lifelong admiration of Neil Finn. By the time I was making my own money and could buy records on my own, Crowded House had become a favorite, and I’d started tracking down Finn’s older work in Split Enz. I still think Crowded House’s Woodface is one of the best and most underrated records of the 1990s, and Together Alone isn’t far behind. In fact, the first Finn album I bought and didn’t immediately love was Try Whistling This, which Finn gamely tried to sell me on during that Boston concert.

For those of you rushing to Google, don’t worry, this isn’t a eulogy. This is a straight-up review situation, but I wanted to talk a little bit about how having a long history with a performer or songwriter colors one’s expectations and reactions to new work. Finn just happens to be one of the artists whose work has impacted me for the longest time, and he happens to have a new record out with his son Liam, which I swear I will talk about soon. But mainly I want to talk about what goes through my head every time Neil Finn announces a new record, or releases a new song, which is nothing less than my entire history with his music.

For instance, I think about One Nil, his glorious 2001 solo album, and how, before last year, “Turn and Run” was the last Finn song to make me shiver and well up. I have reservedly liked everything he’s done outside of Crowded House (except for that wretched Pajama Club thing), but haven’t felt that “oh my GOD listen to this melody how PERFECT” feeling since 2001. And I’ve often wondered if the material Finn has released since then just hasn’t been as good, or if his earliest work has just burrowed deeper. It’s hard to know.

I think about how much of Finn’s work includes (and in fact revolves around) his family, for better or worse. His brother Tim was the main voice of Split Enz, joined Crowded House for Woodface, and made two records with Neil as The Finn Brothers. His wife Sharon has played with him in various bands (including that awful Pajama Club thing, of which we will speak no more). And literally the only reason I keep buying Liam Finn’s work is because he is Neil Finn’s son. He’s pretty good – much more interested in electronics and atmosphere than his father – but he wouldn’t be on my radar without my connection to his father.

And of course, I am now thinking of Out of Silence, last year’s under-the-radar record, which contained the best music Neil Finn had made in at least 15 years. And I’m thinking about how I might not have bought it, or even heard about it, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Finn’s work back in my preteen years. Out of Silence is amazing, full of gorgeous orchestrated wonders, and it’s proof to me that he’s still one of the very best, when he wants to be. It also sets expectations higher for his next project.

Which, of course, brings us to Lightsleeper, Neil’s first collaboration album with Liam. I have done my best to manage my hopes for this – all it needed to do, for me, is balance out their styles, offer up some Neil Finn melodies alongside the Liam Finn soundscapes. And blessedly, following a messy opening trilogy, it does this. It’s impressive how well the duo meshes. But I have to emphasize that, had this not been a Neil Finn project, I probably would not have listened to it more than twice. It is only the long tether of my love for Neil’s work that is keeping me attached to this album, still diving through it, still teasing out its joys.

Because they are there. I almost shut down during the formless “Meet Me In the Air,” which (save for a brief prelude) opens the album with floaty meandering, and the silly “Where’s My Room” goes on for an eternity, mutating into an orchestrated five-car pileup that did not bode well for the rest of the record. But keep listening, because the following eight songs range from the simple and pretty to the delightful, and are worth digging through.

I like so many things about those last eight songs, but what I think I like most about them is the push-pull of Neil and Liam’s sensibilities. Some of these songs, like the kinda-funky “Ghosts,” feel led more by Liam, and “Listen,” one of only two songs solely written by Neil, could have fit on Out of Silence nicely. But when Neil’s piano is given equal weight with Liam’s penchant for sonic frippery, magic happens. “Any Other Way” is a treat, Mick Fleetwood’s drums and Liam’s synths making room for a classically beautiful melody line, sung by Liam. “Back to Life” is a simple tune, but it’s a really pretty one, with a strong and memorable chorus, and Neil digs into it joyously.

I’m also a big fan of the way this record ends, juxtaposing the relatively grand-scale “We Know What It Means,” sung by Neil (with just a wonderful piano solo in there too), with the gorgeous lullaby “Hold Her Close,” sung by Liam. These are both graceful little songs, and like most of Lightsleeper, they’re subtle – you have to listen more than once to really hear how well-crafted they are. And without my lifelong love of Neil Finn, I might not have done so. I might have listened once, filed it away under “not bad,” and kept on with my life.

Which is interesting to me. I’ve found a lot to love on Lightsleeper, but I’ve only given it the repeated listens and chances I have because Neil Finn’s name is on it. This raises a couple questions for me, most notably whether I am missing similar pleasures on albums that do not have Neil Finn’s name on them, albums I pay only cursory attention to. I buy such a volume of music that it sometimes takes a 30-plus-year association with an artist’s work to get me to really listen more than once. I’m in constant risk of barely hearing songs that could change my life. It’s something worth thinking about.

But I’m also using Lightsleeper as an excuse to celebrate those 30-plus years of letting Finn’s music into my heart. I still believe he’s one of the world’s best living songwriters, and at age 60, he’s still proving it. Lightsleeperis indulgent, for sure, but in its heart live some beautiful little songs, and I’m very glad to have heard them. Neil Finn’s music has been with me for most of my life, enriching it all the while, and that’s why I will give everything he does more than a fair chance. I owe him at least that much.

Next week, the dream of the ‘90s is alive and well. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Death, Death Cab and Rebirth
Or, When 900 Columns You Reach, Look This Good You Will Not

We lost Aretha Franklin this week.

I certainly hope you don’t need me to tell you why this is important, why Franklin’s departure leaves an unfillable hole in the world. She was perhaps the greatest singer who ever lived. At the very least, any conversation about the greatest singers who ever lived that does not mention Aretha Franklin is woefully incomplete. She was certainly one of the best gospel singers ever, and her move to soul and pop music in the 1960s and 1970s was impeccable. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and deservedly so. There was never anyone like her, and there will never be anyone else like her.

I’m not going to be able to properly eulogize someone whose career spanned six decades and whose voice redefined much of what we know as popular music. Franklin was 76 years old when she died after a short illness, and was only four years removed from her last album, on which she sings songs made famous by female performers, and nails them. At 72. Aretha Franklin was the embodiment of legendary, just one of the finest singers this species has ever produced. Rest in peace, Aretha. Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover it.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I pulled out Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 album Plans, just to see if I still love it.

Short answer: I do. Plans is my favorite Death Cab album, which I know is an unpopular opinion. But I think it’s the one on which their yearning indie-rock sound transitioned most effectively into the more ambitious work we were all expecting from them on a major label. Plans is essentially a sonic novel about death and loss, a melancholy painting across a wide canvas, and I don’t think Ben Gibbard has ever stepped up with a better set of lyrics.

I’ve been hard on the band’s post-Plans work, and I don’t know if all of my disappointment has been warranted. I can say nice things about most of the follow-ups. Narrow Stairs is a great collection of short stories, even if in retrospect it was the start of the spiral. Codes and Keys is an inconsistent jump into more of an electronic sound, but there are some gems. Only Kintsugi stands out to me as a waste, a trifle of a record that contains very little I have grown to care about. And as it was the last album with Chris Walla on guitars and behind the recording desk, I couldn’t imagine that Death Cab would even continue, let alone make something worth listening to again.

It would be difficult for me to say that their ninth album, Thank You For Today, is the turnaround they needed. But it is certainly better than Kintsugi, and better than I expected by a long, long way. To be clear, this is the furthest Death Cab have sounded from their more rock-oriented origins, and the album is a slow burner, indebted more to the Cure than just about anyone else. But far from a last gasp, this feels like a right turn, the beginning of a new era. Unlike the protagonists of most of these songs, I’m hopeful.

It does take a few listens to hear it that way, though. The first half of Thank You For Today is low-key and repetitive, and I can really hear the Cure in numbers like “Summer Years,” which spin a web of clean guitars over insistent drums. “Gold Rush” is here, and it’s grown on me, but it doesn’t end up doing very much over its four minutes. I do like the sound – the slide guitars and thump-thump drum beat are new for Death Cab – but the song kind of jogs in place. The most immediate thing on the first half for me is “Your Hurricane,” a classic Gibbard tale of caring about someone too much. But even this sinks into the mood piece that is the first five songs, and if you don’t see it as a mood piece from the start, you’ll probably find it a little boring.

Things pick up significantly with tracks six and seven, two of the most convincing Death Cab pop-rock songs in years. “Autumn Love,” all by itself, justifies this album’s existence for me. The melody here is exactly the breath of fresh air I’d been waiting for, exactly the shot in the arm the record needed at exactly this point. (There’s no denying the value of a good “whoa-oh,” too.) “Northern Lights” is even better, folding a guest appearance by Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches into a deep, dark pop tune. I still think it all sounds like the Cure, but this one feels more like “In Between Days.” It’s my favorite Death Cab song for at least three albums.

These two songs give a purpose to the rest of the record – the first five tracks build up to “Autumn Love,” and the final three come down from that high. And oddly, they put you in the right frame of mind to shudder and sigh at the last act – it’s all wistful and melancholy stuff. I’m a big fan of “Near/Far,” with its pulsing acoustic guitars, and the finale, “60 and Punk,” isn’t nearly as funny as its title. It’s a piano-led lament about growing old and irrelevant. Gibbard gets a lot of emotion into the line “the band plays you off,” and if this finally ends up being the last bow of Death Cab for Cutie, it will be a thematically resonant way to go out.

But I don’t think it will be.Thank You for Today feels like hitting the refresh button. Not exactly like starting over, but like beginning a new chapter. It’s a downbeat album, for sure, but somehow it breathes new life into a band I was ready to write off. Songs like “Your Hurricane” and “Northern Lights” are all the evidence I need that my life would be poorer without Death Cab for Cutie in it, and I hope this is the start of a grand third act.

* * * * *

This is my 900th Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column. I’m in disbelief about that as well. In a few weeks I will finish up my 18th year writing this thing on a (mostly) weekly basis. I hope it is still enriching your life.

I don’t have anything special planned for the 900th. I think just putting out yet another music column, particulary one as average as this one, is a good enough statement of purpose. I’m gonna keep plugging away at this, and I hope you all keep reading it. I can’t thank you enough for continuing on this journey with me.

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles