Pocket Full of Soul
Surprises from Marc Cohn and Bear Rinehart

I don’t know about your house, but in mine, every Marc Cohn album release is an event.

They don’t come around often. The last one, in fact, was nine years ago, and consisted of covers of songs released in 1970. Seven years after that he gifted us with a collection of lost songs and rarities that is simply amazing, but we haven’t heard a new Marc Cohn record since 2007, and the world has been a poorer place for it.

If you know Cohn, you probably know him for “Walking in Memphis,” his most enduring tune. I have often wondered how gratifying it must feel to have written a song that is instantly recognizable by millions of people within a couple notes. “Walking in Memphis” is one of those. It’s one of those songs that is more famous than its author, by a long, long way. It’s one of those songs that has passed so far into the cultural consciousness that some might say it belongs to all of us now. I’d dispute that – it’s still Marc Cohn’s song – but I get the sentiment.

If that is the only Cohn song you know, well, you are missing out. He’s such an accomplished and striking songwriter that the fact that we only have four records of his compositions is a shame. A couple years ago I pledged for an upcoming fifth album, but that never came to be. (My money was refunded when Cohn realized he wasn’t even close to ready to record something new.) He works slowly, and that’s fine, but it has left us with only a handful of songs to mark his time here.

But they’re great songs. “Silver Thunderbird.” “Dig Down Deep.” “Rest for the Weary.” “She’s Becoming Gold.” “Lost You in the Canyon.” “Dance Back from the Grave.” “The Things We’ve Handed Down.” The wedding favorite “True Companion.” Just listing the song titles had me humming along. Marc Cohn has written music that has enriched my life for nearly 30 years.

And he’s still doing it. Work to Do, Cohn’s recently released collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, is easily one of my favorite albums of 2019. I’ve heard it probably 15 times since it came out last Friday, and I can’t stop listening to it. My joy was only amplified by the fact that it was a surprise to me – I heard about it only a week or two before it came out, so the fact of its existence and the beauty of the music it contains were part of the same burst of euphoria for me.

That means I also missed the fact that Cohn and the Blind Boys have been touring together. Had I heard about this, I would have moved heaven and earth to be there for one of the shows. Cohn and the Blind Boys is one of those pairings that clicked in my head as soon as I heard about it. I knew what Work to Do would sound like before I heard it, and I was pretty much right, much to my delight. The Blind Boys accentuate the gospel elements of Cohn’s music and provide a gorgeous, earthy texture to his soulful folk-pop. They’re a remarkable combination.

Work to Do begins with three studio tracks, including the first two new Marc Cohn originals in years. I like “Talk Back Mic,” about the voice of God, and I think Cohn and the Boys spun gold on the old spiritual “Walk in Jerusalem.” But it’s the title track that owns my heart. It’s at once a breakup song and a keepin’-on song, and there’s a resigned hopefulness to it, a mix of emotions that only a master storyteller and songwriter could balance out. It’s also a superb song melodically, and the Blind Boys give it that boost into transcendence. If this turns out to be the last gift we get from Marc Cohn, it’s a generous one.

The rest of the album is live, and it’s stunning. Here is “Ghost Train,” given just that hint of ethereal wonder. Here is “Baby King,” and if you know this song, you’re probably hearing the Blind Boys sing it in your head right now. Here is “Listening to Levon,” an underrated classic from his last full album. Best of all, here is a 10-minute “Silver Thunderbird” that digs down into the corners of the song and finds treasure hidden there.

And yes, here is “Walking in Memphis,” because it must be here. But this rendition is lovely – Cohn never plays this song as if he is sick of it, but you can tell the Blind Boys have renewed his interest in it. To my mind he’s written far better songs than this one (and many of them are featured here), but I can’t deny how much I enjoy hearing how much Cohn enjoys it here. The record ends with “One Safe Place,” a simple tune that has found a home in several movies and TV shows. Here it sounds like a soul-filling benediction, and it takes its rightful place next to his best songs.

Back in 2005, Cohn survived a gunshot wound to the head after an attempted carjacking in Denver. That he continues to walk the earth (in Memphis and otherwise) is one of the closest things to a miracle I can think of. I’m thankful he’s still with us, and still making music. Maybe, as his song says, he’s still got work to do. This new record certainly makes that case.

* * * * *

How about another pleasant surprise to round out the week?

I resisted Needtobreathe for a long time. I found a lot of their early work reminiscent of Kings of Leon and the like: average rock that failed to do much to interest me. But the more I listened, the more I liked what the brothers Rinehart were bringing to the table. Their last two records, Rivers in the Wasteland and the diverse Hard Love, made me a fan. Well, that and seeing them live a couple times, where they shine.

I’m not sure anything Needtobreathe have done could have quite prepared me for Wilder Woods, the debut solo project of singer Bear Rinehart. (His real name is William, but Bear is such a cool name that we’ll let him get away with it.) In some ways the more Motown-influenced material here is a logical step from the poppier parts of Hard Love. But in some ways, this is a new sound for Rinehart, and he makes the most of it.

If I’ve had issues with Needtobreathe in the past, Rinehart’s voice has never been one of them. It’s front and center here, leading the quiet acoustics of “Someday Soon” and the elastic soul of “Supply and Demand,” neither of which sound like Rinehart’s home band. “Supply and Demand,” in particular, feels like it’s right out of 1960s Detroit, so well has Rinehart replicated the Motown sound. One song later he’s offering an electronic beat and a pop hook on “Electric Woman.” Two songs after that he’s doing John Legend on “Mary, You’re Wrong.”

Most of Wilder Woods is concerned with romantic love, but those who have suspected that NTB’s spiritual side might have fallen away lately will have more to talk about with the closing track, “Religion.” It’s a fascinating, possibly metaphorical waltz built around these lines: “I was born in the shadows of preachers and saints, I was raised in a house of God, but the blood on my lips and the dirt on my face is the only religion I’ve got.”

It’s just one surprise on an album full of them. Bear Rinehart’s work here might be the most interesting he’s ever done, and I hope he can carry some of these new sounds back to his home base. Even if he doesn’t, though, Wilder Woods is an effective and successful drive down new avenues toward new destinations. It’s worth checking out even if you’ve never been a Needtobreathe fan.

OK, that’ll do it for this week. Next week, probably Frank Turner and one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Actually, I Think I Am Talking ‘Bout Love
The Bird and the Bee Take on Van Halen for a Delightful Tribute Album

If asked to write a list of bands that have been formatively important to me over my lifetime, I would probably not immediately name Van Halen. But in thinking about it this week, I’ve realized they really do deserve a mention.

If you didn’t live through the early ‘80s, it’ll be impossible to explain why Van Halen was such a huge band. I’m not a guitar player, but even I could tell, listening to Eddie Van Halen play, that there was something new happening. My bet is that my first Eddie Van Halen guitar solo resided within Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit “Beat It,” a song that took the world by storm. I was all of eight years old when “Beat It” hit (and all of nine when Weird Al’s glorious parody, “Eat It,” cemented my love for it), so perhaps my critical faculties were not as developed as they became later. (Hush, all of you.) But I thought it was great.

I was ten when 1984 dropped, and Eddie started playing keyboards. I think I’d already gravitated toward the piano/keys as my instrument of choice, but if I hadn’t, “Jump” certainly would have made that an easier decision. “Jump” is one of the greatest stupid songs ever written, marshalling an iconic synth part in service of a universal truth: you might as well jump. Go ahead and jump. I think I was a few years older when I finally heard the whole record, but I cannot separate “Jump” from my memories of being a ten-year-old already in love with music.

I remember hearing “The Best of Both Worlds” on the radio when I was 12. I vividly remember the videos for the singles off of OU812, a title I probably didn’t get at the time, and I think that was my first new Van Halen record. I started making my own money at 15 and soon had the band’s entire catalog on cassette. And from there I stuck with them, long after most people gave up on them. I never minded Van Hagar, though the David Lee Roth years are, of course, the better ones. I even enjoyed Van Halen III, the one with Gary Cherone. I was 24 when that one came out, so I no longer had the excuse of youth.

For most of my life Van Halen has been one of those bands that won’t let me go. My sister used “Love Walks In” as her entrance song at her wedding, for instance. And now I find myself thinking about them again and revisiting parts of their oeuvre for the first time in a while, thanks to Greg Kurstin and Inara George. Together the two of them are known as The Bird and the Bee, and they marry George’s lush voice with Kurstin’s electronic production to create something of an updated lounge-pop sound.

With this sound fully intact, The Bird and the Bee has just released a full-album tribute to Van Halen. And it’s one of my favorite records of 2019.

In some ways, we could have seen this coming. The first Bird and the Bee song I heard was their single “Diamond Dave,” an ode to none other than David Lee Roth himself. It came out in 2009, shortly after Roth rejoined Van Halen for what turned out to be a brief time, and includes lyrics like this: “When you left the band I couldn’t understand it, but I’ve forgiven you now that you’ve recommitted.” Charming isn’t even the word for this song. It’s a delight, and much of what Kurstin and George have released since is similarly delightful.

In other ways, though, this new album is a complete shock. It’s the second volume of their cheekily titled Interpreting the Masters series (the first was dedicated to Hall and Oates), and it recasts nine early Van Halen tunes in electro-pop guises, performed entirely without guitars. If you ever wondered what “Panama” would sound like as a blue-eyed soul tune with funk-slap bass – and who hasn’t? – well, it’s just fantastic. The whole record is.

I certainly have some favorites here, like “Eruption” (yes) played on piano, and “Jamie’s Cryin’” re-arranged for synthesizers, but retaining that perfect tom fill. “Hot for Teacher” is here in all its glory, Kurstin’s nimble piano sitting in for Van Halen’s guitars (and dig that amazing jazz piano solo) and Beck, of all people, imitating Roth’s banter. (Beck is the one element of the record that doesn’t work as well as it should, honestly.) “Jump” uses George’s voice to augment the famous synth line, while “Unchained” barrels ahead convincingly, taking its place as the fine, fine pop song it is.

The best thing here, though, is “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” which in its original form sports one of Eddie’s rawest and raunchiest guitar lines. That melody is here, but it’s played entirely on thick ‘80s synthesizers. It’s now perfect for night driving, George’s cooing voice somehow embodying the danger Roth brought to the original. It’s utterly fantastic, one of the best covers I’ve heard in years. It does set a tone the second half can’t quite match – the record peters out with a cover of a cover (the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” reinterpreted by Van Halen on their debut) and a new, loungier version of “Diamond Dave.”

But overall, Interpreting the Masters Volume 2 is one of the finest surprises of my year. I think what I like best about it is that it takes these testosterone-fueled whammy-bar “real rock” tunes completely out of their milieu, stripping away the guitars and putting a female voice front and center. And they still work, beautifully.

Nothing about this is a joke, either – this is a loving tribute to early Van Halen, with so many nuances that only fans of this music would know to include. Speaking as one of those fans, if this had been a halfway effort, it would have been easy to tell. But Kurstin and George truly know this material and obviously love it. If you do too, I can’t recommend this highly enough. I have no idea who The Bird and the Bee will choose as the subject of the third volume in this series, but I can’t wait to find out.

That’s it for this week. Next week, Marc Cohn returns and Bear Rinehart steps out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Stranger Things
Thom Yorke and the Flaming Lips Try to Weird Us Out

I still have problems with Kid A.

I know, I know. It’s been 19 years, and I should probably move on and stop trying to enjoy a record I am clearly not going to get. But it’s considered such a masterpiece by, well, everybody that I keep picking at it, hoping that I can free whatever I have been missing so I can drink it in. And yet it eludes me. I quite like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “How to Disappear Completely,” and the tricky time signatures of “Morning Bell” work for me, but most of this record just kind of happens while I am listening to it, without moving me in the slightest.

It’s been the same for nearly two decades, and while I have come to grips with the band Radiohead is now – I rather enjoyed both The King of Limbs and the more traditional and organic A Moon Shaped Pool – I still struggle with the first big step they took down this path. After the complex brilliance of OK Computer, Kid A sounded (and still sounds) like formless atmospheres, disregarding melody for sound.

The thing is, I like music that disregards melody for sound, and I enjoy formless atmosphere. For me, it’s never been that the music on Kid A is too weird. It’s always been the hard right turn that Radiohead took in making it, because I truly love their previous material. The disappointment I felt listening to Kid A in 2000 has been a stumbling block for me since – I still cannot help feeling underwhelmed by it to this day.

That disappointment lingered for a good long time, and I think Thom Yorke took the brunt of it. His solo material has felt the most Kid A-ish to me, with its immersion in synthesizer sounds and its near-total lack of any memorable melody. So no one is more surprised than me at how much I have been able to roll with Anima, Yorke’s decidedly strange third solo album.

I’m surprised because Anima is everything I dislike about Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work. It is almost entirely synthesizer-based, it regularly evaporates into formlessness, and I can’t remember a single one of these songs outside of the variations in mood and feel. I’d have a hard time calling most of these songs at all, so loose are their structures. “Traffic” has a refrain, sort of, but this mainly feels like a collection of experiments that found their way onto Yorke’s hard drive late at night.

But damn if it doesn’t work. For decades now Yorke and his comrades have been trying to capture the sounds of hopelessness and decay, with intermittent success. Anima feels like he got there. The whole album feels constricted, paranoid, haunted, and while Yorke’s solo material has certainly flirted with these emotions before, this one feels like a full immersion. Listening to it feels like falling down a bottomless hole, with no visible way out.

It’s hard for me to pick out particular songs to discuss here, since it’s all of a piece. I like the shift halfway through the tick-ticking “Twist,” when the piano chords that make up the rest of the song come in. I like the backing vocals on the comparatively slinky “I Am a Very Rude Person.” I like how long it takes “The Axe” to actually do anything, and that when it does do something, it includes big drums by Joey Waronker. I love the guitars and strings that open the closer, “Runwayaway.”

But mostly, I like how it all hangs together and leaves me with a dark and empty feeling. Some might find this to be an undesirable effect, but I am all in for music that makes me feel anything. Yorke has been trying to leave me with exactly this sensation for years now, I think, and with Anima, he did it. This isn’t materially different from a lot of the work he’s given us over the past two decades, but for some reason this one has clicked with me, and I can’t stop listening to it.

There has always been a self-consciousness to Yorke’s weirdness, though, whereas I have always found the Flaming Lips to be just naturally weird. The fact that these guys have any hits at all, and that they have spent the majority of their career on a major label, is bizarre. That they convinced that major label to distribute records like Zaireeka and Embryonic is some kind of sorcery.

Warner Bros. is also behind the Lips’ new one – their 15th – called King’s Mouth: Music and Songs. And I don’t expect to hear a weirder major label release this year. Just the background on this thing should tell you what you’re in for: it serves as an accompanying score for an art exhibit (also called King’s Mouth) by frontman Wayne Coyne, and it tells the story of a village and its king, a giant, who sacrifices himself to save the villagers from an avalanche. As tribute, the villagers cut off the king’s head, dip it in steel and put it on display.

Oh, did I mention that there is linking narration by Mick Jones of the Clash? Because there is.

Given all that, this is one of the most accessible records the band has made in years. Songs like “Giant Baby” and “How Many Times” recall the strummy emotionalism of The Soft Bulletin, still among this band’s most beloved records. Many of the Lips’ trademark sounds are here – big low-end synthesizers, acoustic guitars that peek out from behind the din, Coyne’s high, pleading voice – but rather than feel too familiar, they help guide you through this delightfully odd little story.

The king’s death in “All For the Life of the City” works because the band refuses to sentimentalize it – the song is a jaunty trot, only Jones’ narration truly striking at the heart of things. The rest of the album is about the villagers’ attempts to memorialize their giant monarch, and Coyne ties it all together with the closing song, “How Can a Head,” about the multitudes living inside all of us that cannot be captured by a monument, no matter how beautiful. It’s an anthem that can stand alongside their best.

King’s Mouth is, make no mistake, a strange album. But if you’re familiar with the Flaming Lips, nothing here will throw you. In fact, this one may hit home more than some of their recent dives into esoterica – it is certainly closer to classic Lips than, say, Peace Sword. Even at their most crowd-pleasing, though, the Lips have an aesthetic all their own, and it’s in full flower here. I don’t know another band like them, but as long as we have this one, I don’t need to.

As Mick Jones says in the final seconds, that’s the end of our story. Bye! Next week, the Bird and the Bee cover Van Halen and I am here for it. (And probably one or two other things as well.) Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Missed Again
A Quick Catch-Up From the June Hiatus

So I missed all of June.

I’m not complaining about it. It was the best thing for me, and I’m feeling better and more energized about my writing projects since taking an extended break. But the downside is that I missed the chance to talk about a ton of new music that hit shelves during that month. And it’s not like the flood of new releases has abated – I’ve had plenty to discuss since my return, and will be taking a listen to the new Thom Yorke and Flaming Lips records next week.

But I decided to take this week’s column and spend a few minutes with some of the best records that came out during my hiatus. These quick takes aren’t really going to be in any order – these are just some of the albums that I listened to during my weeks off, and have been listening to since. I have honestly not even taken the time to think about where any of these would rank among the year’s best, though one or two of them might end up in the list. These are all recommended to some degree, though, especially if you are a fan of any of the artists’ previous work.

OK, here we go.

Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells.

I’ve heard this thing probably a dozen times and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I love Esperanza Spalding – I rated her Emily’s D+Evolution the best album of 2016, and saw her live last year just before she released Exposure, her strange sixth album. The music she played on stage, some of which ended up on Spells, was totally out of this world. She uses jazz only as the foundation, the baseline, building off of jazz instrumentation to spin something wholly hers.

12 Little Spells is wholly hers. I honestly don’t know any other musician who could make this record, let alone would make this record. None of this is immediately accessible, the way “Unconditional Love” or “Rest in Pleasure” was. Every song here requires concentration just to follow Spalding’s wild melodies from place to place. Every song is meticulously arranged and complex, showing off just how wide and deep Spalding’s mind is. I love this record, but I don’t feel like I understand it yet.

And that’s OK. Sometimes brilliant music takes time to absorb, and this is absolutely brilliant stuff. Spalding’s bass playing is on point, her voice is vibrant and fully within her control, and her band follows her down each of these rabbit holes with exuberance. Each song is paired with a body part in the liner notes, and Spalding gives you something to ponder with each one, showing just how much thought went into this.

If you want to, you can hear most of this right now – the 12 main “spells” were released online one by one last year, and the four bonus tracks joined them after the album came out in June. I don’t know if there’s a more talented musician working right now, and I hope a few more spins of this record will help me appreciate the wonder I can already tell is there.

Collective Soul, Blood.

Hands up if you thought Collective Soul would still be going in 2019. My hand is down, for the record – I thought they would be a one-hit wonder and fade away quickly. Well, Ed Roland and his merry band showed me. Blood is their tenth album, not counting two live records and an acoustic project, and they show no signs of turning into the ‘90s nostalgia cliché I expected them to.

Far from fading, Blood sounds alive. There’s nothing here the band hasn’t done before – it’s another set of riff-rock with simple melodies – but this is a band that knows what they do, and here they deliver. “Now’s the Time” and “Over Me” bring a strong, crunchy vibe, and closer “Porch Swing” is convincingly folksy. In between these poles Collective Soul just kinda do Collective Soul, and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this.

The Alarm, Sigma.

What, like I’m gonna fail to recommend the Alarm? Never. Sigma is the second official album to come out of the Blood Red Viral Black sessions, and I think it’s the stronger of the two. About half of it is unreleased material (Mike Peters issued two previous collections of recordings from those sessions on the Alarm website), and it’s very good stuff. And the songs drawn from BRVB are excellent, especially “Brighter Than the Sun” and “Love and Understanding.”

Mostly, though, I continue to be surprised and elated at the level of energy Peters and his band still have. This is the new model Alarm – Peters is the only original member, and the band now includes Peters’ wife Jules and his longtime friend James Stevenson of the Cult. But rather than sounding like some in-name-only shadow of itself, this Alarm feels fresh, new, on fire. Peters’ songs are as rousing and raucous as ever, and he keeps trying to write the definitive anthem for our times. He gets close on Sigma, and it doesn’t sound like he’ll ever stop trying.

Baroness, Gold and Grey.

This is quite a thing. Baroness’ second double album will apparently be their final “color series” release, and if you listen to each of these, from Red Album to this one, the progression is simply breathtaking. Gold and Grey is more of a hard rock record than the pummeling metal they started off with, but the songwriting is no less exciting and interesting.

In fact, this might be the band’s most cohesive piece of work, which is remarkable since it is the first without longtime guitarist Pete Adams. Gina Gleason does a fine job as the band heads into more atmospheric territory, and the six instrumental tracks serve to unify the whole thing. I get that some people miss the more aggressive sound the band delivered in its earliest days, but the evolution has been a joy to watch, and Gold and Grey feels like an arrival point. Perfect time to end the series they’re best known for and move on to new creative pastures.

Buddy and Julie Miller, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South.

Husband and wife team Buddy and Julie Miller are legends in their home town of Nashville. Buddy has played with damn near everybody and produced most of them too, and as a songwriter he’s penned work for some of the brightest lights in the Americana scene. Julie is a highly respected singer-songwriter with six acclaimed solo albums to her credit. I love them both individually, but it’s a rare treat when they decide to record together.

And it has been a while – ten years since Written in Chalk, which Julie Miller spent struggling with health issues. You’d never know it listening to this record. It’s another dozen beautiful country-folk songs, all written or co-written by Julie, that find their voices entwining as well as they ever have. Some of these, like “Everything is Your Fault,” feel achingly personal, but all of them feel universal. It’s so nice to have these two back, and I hope we hear more from them in this vein soon.

The Divine Comedy, Office Politics.

I will admit to being a relative newbie to Neil Hannon’s work. I’d heard of his one-man project The Divine Comedy for years, but only recently started dipping into the catalog. So I don’t necessarily have the fullest context in which to place Office Politics, Hannon’s 12th record. But I do know what I like, and I enjoyed nearly every minute of this long, snarky, hilarious collection of songs.

Some of it is just straightforwardly funny, like the privilege anthem “Queuejumper” and the delightful “Norman and Norma.” Some of it is more obscure, like “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company,” which imagines an endlessly repetitive jingle in the style of Glass and Roach. All of Office Politics, though, feels like it comes from the same dry humor and melodic wellspring, and I am down for all of it. I’m still making my way through Hannon’s prodigious output, but this album is proof that whatever spark he has carried with him still burns brightly.

Titus Andronicus, An Obelisk.

I didn’t even bother to review A Productive Cough, Titus’ ponderous snooze of a fifth album. I barely got through it, and concluded that if the best thing on your record is a nine-minute cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” something has gone terribly wrong. Well, it seems like the band agreed with me, because An Obelisk, recorded and released quickly, is something of a corrective.

Mastermind Patrick Stickles went and hired Bob Mould to produce and turned out a short, abrasive punk album. No experiments, no detours, no conceptual underpinning, just 38 minutes of focused, rapid-fire, guitar-fueled energy. As a Titus album, it’s not bad – the sameness of it does wear after a while, but it’s short enough to work, and Stickles and the band sound fully invested. As a course correction, this feels like exactly what Titus needed to do. It puts them back at zero, and I can’t wait to hear the next one, which will undoubtedly fire up the ambition machine once again.

Prince, Originals.

And I can’t fail, here at the end, to mention this one. The second posthumous Prince album is a collection of the man’s versions of songs he wrote for others, and it’s revelatory. You expect some of the hits he wrote for Sheila E. and other proteges, and you get them, but I’m most glad to have Prince’s versions of “Jungle Love” and “Manic Monday,” along with “You’re My Love,” a Kenny Rogers song I had no idea he’d written.

But come on, the real gem here is right at the end. Here, finally, is Prince’s original take on “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song that Sinead O’Connor stripped down and made her own. Prince’s take is bigger and bolder and full of saxophones, and it’s completely different from O’Connor’s, as of course it should be. I can’t say one is better than the other, but thankfully we now have both. The real lesson of this release is just how many well-known songs Prince has written behind the scenes. He truly was one of a kind.

All right, done. That doesn’t fully catch me up, but at least it puts me on record (heh) about eight of the most significant June releases. Next week, as I mentioned, Thom Yorke and the Flaming Lips try to weird us out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Rocking and “Rocking”
On Two New Albums the Choice is Black and White

The name of the new Black Keys album is ‘Let’s Rock’, ironic quotes and all. And I don’t think they could have summed up their aesthetic any better.

It would be tough to call the music made by Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney anything but rock, really. At their best, they traffic in guitar-heavy, blues-influenced tunes with big, familiar-sounding riffs. If you’ve heard “Lo/Hi,” the first single from ‘Let’s Rock’, you know they can sound exactly like ZZ Top at times. There are all kinds of ways to deconstruct it, but at its heart, the Black Keys play rock.

Only they don’t want to get, you know, all “rock” about it. There’s a distance to even their most straightforward music, a sort of winking acknowledgement that, should you feel like none of this is to be taken seriously, they’re right there with you. They’ll rock for you, simplistic lyrics and roadhouse riffage and all, but they’ll also stand in the wings, smoking cigarettes and chuckling at all the rocking.

The end result is a catalog full of a style of music that I don’t know if the band is fully committed to. I mean, they keep doing it, so they must enjoy it. ‘Let’s Rock’ is one of their best, too, a compact 39-minute collection of easy songs that homage the 1970s at just about every turn, but do so effectively. This is welcome after the turgid slog that was 2014’s Turn Blue. It’s also self-produced, marking the end of their four-album association with Danger Mouse, and that also turns out to be a very good thing.

Fans of real, unironic rock will find a lot to love here, from the smoky blues of “Every Little Thing” to the foot-stomping boogie of “Get Yourself Together.” The lyrics are all stupid, but no more stupid than anything Mountain ever did, for example. You can guess the rhymes as they come up, and there are no deeper sentiments on display. (I mean, “On the run, it ain’t no fun being under the gun…”) Which is very rock and roll, come to think of it – it’s always been primal music, staying on the surface.

And you’ll be too busy enjoying the grooves here to care. That ZZ Top beat strikes more than once here, most effectively on “Go,” one of the most convincing slabs of guitar-pop the Keys have given us. (It’s buried at track nine, but don’t miss it.) I’m a fan of the shadows on “Tell Me Lies” and the McCartney-esque sunlight on “Sit Around and Miss You.” The closing “Fire Walk With Me” isn’t the treasure chest of Twin Peaks references I’d hoped, but it is the twelfth good song in a row, and that’s all you can really ask for.

I still think Auerbach and Carney don’t feel this music down to their bones. There’s an element of pastiche, of commentary, of “rocking” instead of rocking. If that matters to you, the Black Keys might never get you where you need them to. If it matters less to you, I will say that ‘Let’s Rock’ is the best record they’ve made in some time, and if that’s enough for you, you should check it out.

* * * * *

One thing you have to say about Jack White: if nothing else, he feels the music he makes. Since emerging on the scene with the White Stripes, he’s delivered album after album of messy, bluesy guitar rock, drawing from a deep river of influences stretching back a hundred years. He’s somehow mastered the art of being reverential while also being irreverent. He’s often working hard to sound like his blues-rock heroes, but he never feels enslaved to their sounds. He makes Jack White music, and though it might take many forms, it always sounds like Jack White.

That’s true even when he’s just one part of a larger whole, as he is in the Raconteurs. Emerging in 2006 on the back of killer single “Steady, As She Goes,” the Raconteurs established themselves as one of White’s most interesting going concerns. The band includes pop maestro Brendan Benson and two members of the Greenhornes, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, and the songs are written democratically, with White and Benson trading off lead vocal duties.

After two records back to back, the Raconteurs took 11 years off, but now they’re back with a pretty swell third album, Help Us Stranger. This one feels a little more off the cuff than their previous efforts (but not nearly as accidental as White’s last solo record, Boarding House Reach), but it still ably shows off how well White and Benson converge. White gives Benson’s melodies a punch, while Benson sweetens White’s rawer edges. The result is a compelling rock album that feels spontaneous but never careens off the rails.

One of the best examples of White and Benson playing to each other’s strengths is the mini-epic “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying).” Its melody feels like pure Benson, its churning chorus riff underpinning the two lead singers as they repeat their frustration and sadness. But then everything stops, a strum begins, and White cranks up the noise for the rousing singalong coda: “I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet…”

Much of this record feels like encouragement in desperate times, like injecting hope into a world gone crazy. The title track is about how we should all help and care for those we don’t know, which seems like an elementary sentiment until you look around and see how much we need that message now. “What’s Yours is Mine” takes aim at the entire idea of personal property, and closer “Thoughts and Prayers,” which I expected to be sarcastic and bitter, is actually dark and pleading: “There’s got to be a better way to contact God and hear her say there are reasons why it is this way…”

Sure, there are throwaway rockers, like “Don’t Bother Me” and “Sunday Driver,” and there’s even one wicked bluesy breakup number (“Now That You’re Gone,” with Benson singing and White wailing on the guitar). But there are some very well considered pieces here as well. “Shine the Light on Me” might be my favorite thing here – over a piano part played by Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age, the Dead Weather), Benson and White harmonize on a Zeppelin-meets-Abbey-Road melody, singing about finding light in the darkest places. All by itself this song justifies bringing the Raconteurs back from the dead.

Even a casual listen will, I think, illuminate the difference between the Black Keys, who stand on the sidelines, and Jack White, who dives right in. Help Us Stranger is another strong, solid effort from this multifaceted talent, and a welcome return for his collaborations with Benson and the rest of the band. It never “rocks,” but it rocks like crazy, and while I don’t mind the former, I vastly prefer the latter.

Next week, a bunch of records I missed during my month off. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Worth Every Day
Bryan Scary's Birds Arrives After Four Years

I love old-fashioned brick-and-mortar record stores.

There is literally nothing I don’t love about them. Browsing for hidden treasures, talking about music with the proprietors and customers, seeing musicians play in-store events, supporting local businesses. All of it is wonderful. We’ve been in this brave new digital world for some time now, but I’m still one of those people who likes to hold the CD or record in his hands and read the liner notes and put new acquisitions on the shelf. Hence, record stores.

I wanted to say all that up front because the albums I have been most excited about lately are not available in those record stores. (At least, not yet.) I have been buying more and more albums online in recent years, paying my money directly to the music makers themselves, and while I feel good about supporting them without any middlemen, I do miss the record store experience every time I do it.

And yet, I also have not found an analogous feeling to the one I get when an album I have pre-ordered shows up in my inbox. The last few Marillion albums have been pre-order affairs, and I have gladly given the band my money a year or more in advance each time. And when the download link is emailed to pledgers like me, long before anyone else gets to hear it, there’s a certain undeniable thrill that comes along with it.

That was certainly the case for Bryan Scary’s wonderful new album Birds. Some background: Bryan Scary is one of our most underrated and undervalued pop maestros. His work is extraordinary, intricate and endlessly inventive, while never being anything less than stuck-in-your-head tuneful. He makes amazing records, manic masterpieces of piano-pounding rock, and his last one, the delightfully goofy Daffy’s Elixir, was mind-blowingly complex in all the best ways. (Will also put in a plug for his band Evil Arrows, which released five pretty excellent EPs.)

So of course when Scary asked me, back in 2015, to pony up for a new album, I did it immediately. I knew nothing about it except the title (Birds) and Scary’s brief description of his plan: a more orchestral and consciously beautiful piece of work. I didn’t need anything else. (I’m basically in for anything Scary wants to do, from now until one of us dies.) What I didn’t know – and what Scary didn’t know either – is that it would take him four years to finish Birds and get it into our hands. The last of those years was marked by near-total silence on Scary’s part, and I nearly forgot all about this record, and that I’d already paid for it.

And then, on June 26, it just… showed up. I think even the neighbors heard my delighted gasp when I read the email, and I may have broken one or two laws of physics to download that thing as quickly as possible. It’s been a couple weeks now and I still can’t get enough of it. Birds is stunning, pitched somewhere between pastoral folk and prog rock with some Supertramp thrown in and a healthy helping of orchestral grandeur. It’s absolutely a Bryan Scary album, but it’s like his Apple Venus Vol. 1, bringing his signature intricate melodicism down new avenues of sound.

This is an album on which every song is a highlight, so singling out individual tracks for praise is difficult. I have no doubt, given the depth and complexity of the production, that he worked on this for the entire four years. I can imagine spending months on “Wendy, Wake the Sparrow” alone, with its fluttering string lines, its leaps from strummy folk to monolithic soundtrack music and its abrupt shifts in sound. It’s followed here by a minute-long instrumental that sounds like Frank Zappa writing for an old west saloon band, and I bet even that took ages to get right.

As you might have guessed from the title, these songs are about birds, at least in a metaphorical sense. The album is bookended by a sprightly thing called “I Saw Birds Flocking,” and the songs have titles like “Seagull,” “Birdy” and “Universal Crane.” “Seagull” is one of my favorites, its tone pure Brian Wilson, its melody indelible. The folksy “Royal Soil” is instantly memorable, its shimmering acoustic guitars constantly moving. I particularly love the stompy midsection that turns it into a jig.

But if you forced me, gun to my head, to pick a favorite here, it would probably be “Loon on the Lake.” It’s the most manic thing here, starting with an insistent beat and the title phrase repeated like a mantra, but then it shifts every few seconds, from raw orchestral craziness to a building piano crescendo to more Brian Wilson-esque prettiness. It finally brings everything home in a dazzling instrumental explosion. I’m gonna study this track over and over to figure out how he did it, and I probably never will.

Birds is incredible, a concentrated burst of melodic pop genius that proves once again that Bryan Scary is playing on a whole different level than most other musicians. I have no doubt that it took all four years to make this thing, and I can’t say it feels like he wasted a day. I honestly don’t know when or how you all will get to hear this – Scary is still working out a wide release – but you should jump at the chance. In the meantime, try out Scary’s previous work. It’s all amazing stuff, and if he asks me to pledge again for another record, I won’t even hesitate.

* * * * *

I didn’t wait nearly as long for the new Appleseed Cast album – just the standard pre-order period – but like Scary’s record, I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since it arrived. The Appleseed Cast is a post-rock-y band from Kansas, of all places, and has been plying its trade since 1996. I like everything they’ve done, but I have a particular affinity for 2001’s double album Low Level Owl, which fully broke them out of their emo roots and into a more sonically fascinating area.

Since then, the band has been walking that line, never quite delving into the ambient beauty of Low Level Owl again, but forging ahead with an aggressive yet dreamy sound. Their ninth album, and their first in six years, sports the gloriously self-serious title The Fleeting Light of Impermanence, but the vast, sweeping music within earns it. Half of these eight songs reach or exceed six minutes, and an epic like “Time the Destroyer” earns every second. That song thunders along on a pulsing synthesizer line and swooping strings, with chiming, crashing guitars breaking like waves all over it.

There isn’t a bad song here, and the whole thing flows, one song into another, like a suite. It’s an intense piece of work, one that demands concentration, but it’s a marvelously rewarding one. My favorite thing here comes late – “Reaching the Forest” is a snowy landscape of synthesizers that explodes at the two minute mark into a Cure-like web of guitars circling galloping drums. It’s just amazing from there, sporting one of the record’s best melodies.

But that’s just one bright spot of many on an album that sweeps me away each time I hear it. I’ve enjoyed the last few Appleseed Cast albums, but this one seems to take a step up somehow. It’s a confident and fully formed thing. There’s been some speculation, given the title of the album and the last song (“Last Words and Final Celebrations”), that this may be the last Appleseed Cast album. I hope this is not the case, but if they choose to go out on this one, I wouldn’t blame them. It’s their best in some time, and record store or no, I’m glad to own it.

Next week, some rock and roll, maybe? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Summer Mourning
Where I've Been for the Entire Month of June

Well. Hello. It’s been a while.

I honestly did not intend to take all of June off from this column. I’ve been writing Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. regularly for almost 19 years, and sometimes I have felt like the momentum of those years is all that has kept carrying it forward. I still enjoy it when I’m doing it, but the desire to sit down and actually do it has waned, if I am being honest. (Also, I’m not sure anyone is reading it, which doesn’t help.)

Still, I’d like to finish out 20 years if I can, and then see how I feel. So I had planned to take my somewhat traditional week off to celebrate my 45th birthday and then jump right back into it. I had ideas for the next three columns, and with the extra week I was looking forward to exploring more complicated records like Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. (Spoiler: It’s really good, but it takes several listens to penetrate.)

And then my beloved cat died.

I will probably not be able to explain this properly to people who don’t own and love pets. I have always had cats – my childhood cat was named Pebbles (because her mother’s name was Marblehead, you see, ha ha) and she was a sweet little creature, especially as she grew older. Ever since then, I’ve been a committed cat person, and the bond that grows between a cat and her human is just indescribable to anyone who hasn’t been through it.

And Shadow was a special cat. She came into my life entirely by accident. I had lost my previous cat, the fiercely loyal Miss Kitty, about a year prior and was still not sure if I wanted another. But then a co-worker’s mother died, and that co-worker begged for help finding a new home for her mom’s cat. And I took a chance. She was named Noirah when I got her, but that felt too exotic for this lovable little black furball. It was my nephew Luke who re-named her: she was a black cat who followed me everywhere, so Shadow seemed to fit.

I had her for four years, and we became good friends. I know that sounds weird to people who don’t have pets, but it’s true. She was a snuggly, affectionate cat, and I couldn’t have asked for a better four-legged companion. But she was old when I took her in, and I knew even then it wouldn’t last long. She had bladder problems for the entire time I knew her, and was on medication and special food. Finally, a week or so before my birthday, she developed a tumor in her bladder that prevented her from using the litter box. (Well, that’s not true. She would go to the litter box and sit there for whole minutes while nothing happened, and leave frustrated. It was the saddest thing.)

Finally she stopped eating and drinking, knowing in that way that cats know that things were not going to get better. My vet told me there was nothing we could do. We put her on pain meds and made her as comfortable as we could. And on June 10, with me petting her and telling her it was OK, she died. It was awful. I am singularly incapable of describing in words how awful it was.

And afterward I kind of stopped everything for a bit. Some of you may know that I have this ongoing daily Star Trek project I do. I stopped that as well. I told myself that these things are mine, and I can stop them if I want to for as long as I want to. So I did. Like I said, I honestly did not expect this mourning period-slash-hiatus to last all month, but it has. Oddly, it took traveling to another country to put my spirits right – I’m writing this in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a hotel that overlooks Lake Geneva. I’m here for work, but just being in this place has felt like healing.

So this is the first tm3am column in a month, the longest break I have ever taken. And I don’t know what the future of this little project is, but I felt inspired to write this re-introductory piece and, hopefully, get back on the weekly horse. I’ve been listening to plenty of great new music – I’m especially excited by the new Bryan Scary, which is finally, finally out, but there’s Buddy and Julie Miller and the Appleseed Cast and the Raconteurs and Baroness and the Divine Comedy, and there’s a new Keane coming. I have plenty to write about. I just need the will to write it.

So I will leave this as a statement of purpose, and I’ll be back to this very soon. Thanks to everyone who sent messages of support. And thanks to Shadow for the last four years. It was an honor being your human.

We will return to your regularly scheduled silly music column shortly. Thank you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Under No Obligation
Where Supposed to Love Meets Want to Love

I’m trying to get away from thinking of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. as a review column.

I know, that’s a little silly, since literally all I do in this space is review music. But I’m talking about a different headspace for myself. This project started 22 years (!) ago as a bi-weekly feature in Face Magazine covering contemporary music as it came out. It was a vacuum that needed filling – Face’s excellent staff featured a lot of focus on the classic decades of rock and punk, without lavishing much attention on the new stuff.

Granted, in the late ‘90s a lot of that new stuff was terrible. But I took it upon myself to dutifully cover that stuff, listening to it and giving my take on it. (Once upon a time I wasted some ink on a positive review of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, and I blame the ‘90s the way hippies blame the ‘60s for bell bottoms.) When I left Face and started this version of the column up, I stayed in the same mode, reviewing new music whether or not I liked it, as if it were still my job to do so. And for nearly 19 years I have essentially thought of this thing the same way.

But now, with my stated intention to make this more fun for me, I’m starting to interrogate those impulses. I’ve spent a lot of time responding to high-profile releases (or important lower-profile releases) just because that’s what would be expected of a weekly music column, and that’s time that I have not spent talking about the music I truly love. I’m hoping to address that balance. There is a sense of duty to it for me, still – I waxed ecstatic about Marillion last week, so I should really dip into the records the rest of the world is interested in this week.

Here’s a good case in point, though: I’m tired of talking about the National. Not only are they the darlings of the critical press, they’re well-loved among my friends, and people ask me about them all the time. So I’m kind of forced to find new ways to say “I don’t like them,” and to justify my own disinterest in them. Let’s be clear: I buy every National album, hoping that it will hook me, and that I will finally be able to join in the cultural conversation about them in a positive way.

So I did buy I Am Easy to Find, the band’s eighth record. (As a side note, someone had to remind me that they’ve had seven albums, since I totally forgot about 2017’s Sleep Well Beast.) I’ve heard it four times now, and I’m happy to say it’s my favorite National album. But I still don’t like it much. They’ve worked overtime here to address some of my big issues with their work – the textures and orchestration are lush and beautiful, and Matt Berninger is essentially a featured performer on his own band’s record, his mopey, somnambulant voice bolstered by strong lead spots from Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and others. The rotating lead vocalists give this long record an appealing mixtape feel.

But the songs are still boring, and none of them stick. If I were to review this album, I would right now come up with examples where the elements all work, but the bones are weak. (OK, I’ll name one: “The Pull of You,” which includes vocals by Hannigan and Van Etten, a spoken-word section and some cresting and crashing instrumentation, all of which is in service of a song that repeats four chords for four minutes, with no chorus. It’s superficially interesting, and certainly a nice step forward for the band, but underneath there isn’t anything for me to grab onto.)

I don’t want to, though. I’m still listening to this and trying to love it, because it feels like something I should love. But I don’t, not yet. More than that, though, I feel like it’s something I’m supposed to love, and I’m trying to get beyond that idea. I’ve been trying for years, though, and I’m still susceptible to it. I make myself want to like it, and that only adds to the pressure when I don’t. I Am Easy to Find, while absolutely the best thing I have heard from this band, isn’t working for me as well as I know it is working for other people and other critics. I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.

But I’m even trying to move past the idea of having to review something I’m supposed to like, whether or not I like it. Here’s a really good example: Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. I’ve been watching for her name ever since my friend Javi told me about her, and I’ve liked everything I’ve heard from her. I liked Lizzo even before I heard her records, just for what she represents – she looks nothing like the typical pop star, and instead of hiding it, she flaunts it, saying with every confident move that she knows she is beautiful, and she knows you are too. It’s a look the music industry needs, desperately.

But she’s also pretty awesome, musically speaking. Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s third record, is a 42-minute burst of infectious energy. She has a powerful, bold voice and she matches it with bold songs about life, love and throwing like a girl. This is a record that struts, and every song is exactly as long as it needs to be, handing off to the next in three minutes or so. Flashy banger “Juice” is basically the song of the summer, but I love that it passes the baton to “Soulmate,” an ode to loving yourself that makes me smile every time. (“Woke up in the mirror, like, damn, she’s the one.”)

Basically, I love this record, which means I agree with the cultural zeitgeist for what is probably the first time in a while. Cuz I Love You deserves all the praise I’m lavishing on it – Lizzo makes me swoon for a soulful kiss-off tune like “Jerome,” proves she can hang with Missy Elliott on the clubby “Tempo,” gets sexy on “Lingerie” and leaves us with my favorite song, the effervescent “Water Me,” all with a remarkable energy that never flags. I’m excited to talk about it.

And yet I also feel oddly obligated to talk about it, because of the moment Lizzo is having right now, and I’m working on resisting that feeling. I waited quite a while to talk about it (essentially holding out for the CD release, which came more than a month after the digital release), riding out the hype. Normally when I dig something this much I’m jazzed to share my thoughts, but this time I kind of held back. I’m glad to be on record (ha!) with my love for this thing, especially since I’ve been asked where my review of it is. I’m trying to find the balance between obligation and joy, even when I really like something and could easily add to the chorus of praise.

I know, this is all very strange, and I’m probably the only one who thinks this way. That said, though, I’m glad to have a record to close things out with that a) I quite like and b) nobody is waiting for me to talk about. I’ve been kind of in love with The Head and the Heart since their debut in 2011, and that love only grew when they fully embraced their Fleetwood Mac influences on 2016’s Signs of Light. Their fourth record, Living Mirage, continues in that vein, and it’s similarly lovely.

This record is so sunny and sing-able that I don’t know how anyone could hate it. The Head and the Heart have mastered the art of positivity without treacle – their sentiments should come off as cheesy, but they never do. “People Need a Melody” ought to be so gooey that it collapses, but it soars. Opener “See You Through My Eyes” is exactly what you think it will be – singer Jonathan Russell wishing a loved one could see the beauty he does – but the band makes it work. There’s an organic quality to what they do – pianos, acoustic guitars, down-home harmonies – and this underpins all of their emotional moments, making them click.

I’m still not sure that something like “Honeybee” should work as well as it does, but it does. There are a lot of electronic drum patterns on this record, but somehow they don’t detract from the down-to-earth feel. Even a song called “Running Through Hell” is joyous – it’s simple, and it has a War on Drugs feel, but I like it way more than the National’s attempts at the same kind of thing. Hell, this is a band that ends their record by saying, out loud, “I believe in the glory of music,” and it doesn’t make me gag. It makes me smile.

Living Mirage is another winner from a band that doesn’t get as much attention as I think they should. Absolutely no one has been waiting for my thoughts on this one, which paradoxically makes me much more eager to share them. This is the strange headspace I am living in now, as I try to make this weekly labor of love less labor and more love.

Next week, I may or may not take the week off for my 45th birthday. When I return, though, I’ll talk about the strange and splendid new records from Esperanza Spalding and Brad Mehldau. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

My Marillion Diary
Notes from the Montreal Weekend 2019


I’m writing this from O’Hare International Airport, where I plan to make use of the “international” part of the name. I’m waiting for my flight to Montreal, where I will experience my second Marillion Weekend.

The last time I attended a Weekend was in 2015, and it was one of the best concert-going experiences of my life. Even aside from the music, which I know is divisive (although I am not sure why), a Marillion show is unlike any other, and a Marillion Weekend even more amazing. Over more than 40 years this band has cultivated a fanbase like no other, and to be in a room with them as band and audience feed off of the reciprocal love for one another is an incredible thing. You really have to be there to understand it.

And I will be there. The fans are one reason, but I love this band the way I love very few others. I have tried and failed for decades to explain why at this point. All I know is that the particular combination of things that they do hits my soul in exactly the right way. Yeah, there are all kinds of intellectual reasons why I consider them one of the best bands in the world. They’re without genre, for instance, equally at home with three-minute pop tunes and 20-minute epics and dabbling in just about everything in between, and their musical chops are without peer.

But honestly, none of that explains it. None of that explains why I am planning to board a plane in a couple hours and fly to another country, shacking up with people I have only met once, just to hear them play. I can’t explain it. This thing they do, it just works for me. This weekend I will get to hear them play some of my favorites, from “Ocean Cloud” to “This Strange Engine” to “This Is the 21st Century” to all of Essence, the first disc of their wonderful Happiness is the Road album. I know the contours of this music inside and out, and I am still jumping out of my skin with excitement.

They’re Marillion, and I’m a fan, and I get to hear them three times this weekend in the company of fellow fans. For me, that’s magic. I’m so ready.

Friday night

There is just no explaining the vibe of a Marillion Weekend, but I’m gonna try.

Montreal is a gorgeous city, its old-stone buildings and streets very reminiscent of the parts of France I have been lucky to see. Everyone speaks French and English, but French is preferred. There are dozens of little cafes and shops, and winding little avenues that promise hidden adventures. And this weekend, there are Marillion fans everywhere. It’s like slipping into an alternate universe in which the obscure band I  love is suddenly a household name.

I’m staying this time at a first-floor home one of my traveling companions found on AirBnB, and it feels like an authentic Montreal experience. I mentioned this above, but I’m staying with two people I have only ever met once, at a previous Marillion Weekend, and one person I met just today. This is the kind of instant camaraderie that I have rarely felt with the fans of any band. There’s an immediate connection with fellow Marillion fans, like we’re sharing a secret. That feeling is a rare one, and usually only happens in small doses, but this weekend is like swimming in it.

In defiance of Jeremy Piven’s advice, wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see is encouraged, so that fans can find one another. One of my compatriots tonight wore an original shirt from the 1981 tour, which is pretty amazing, but I also saw a veritable sea of shirts from previous Weekends and the 2016 North American tour. Again, I have to emphasize how surreal this is, to see thousands of people proudly showing off their devotion to a band I have loved in a lonely way for decades. We ate in a corner bar before the show and met probably a dozen fellow fans, just randomly.

L’Olympia is a lovely theater, with a balcony and a tiered floor to make it easier for everyone to see. I will not be able to adequately describe the vibe of love in the room, reflected from band to audience and back, but it’s something to be a part of. Tonight’s opening band was District 97 from Chicago, and I had a few good laughs about the fact that I traveled to another country to see a band from my neighborhood. (They were fine, but maybe not for this audience. They have all the pieces, but I wasn’t a fan of what they built with them.)

OK, so here is what you need to know to understand the music choices for this Marillion Weekend. The band used to have a singer called Fish, but he left in 1988. The “new guy,” Steve Hogarth, joined the band in 1989, which means this year is his 30th anniversary at the helm. So this weekend is basically a guided tour-slash-retrospective of his three decades with the band. Tonight’s show drew from their first four albums with H, as he is known, spanning 1989 to 1995. I knew this going in, because the setlists for other 2019 Weekends had been posted online, but it was fun to be with people who didn’t know, and were pleasantly surprised.

Early H-era Marillion tended to be a little more straightforward, a little more prog-pop, a little more synth-driven than the current stuff. It’s a sound I think of as classic, but some might consider dated. The band faithfully reproduced it tonight, beginning with the long and glorious keyboard intro to “The King of Sunset Town,” which kicks off Seasons End, the first Hogarth-led Marillion album. The soaring melodies and even more soaring lead guitar parts are hallmarks of this era, and I can’t get enough of them.

Tonight I got to see so many older tunes I had never seen live. “The Bell in the Sea” remains incredible, especially the pirate-shanty guitar melodies. Hogarth brought out the MIDI gloves for “The Uninvited Guest,” which was a treat. They played almost all of Holidays in Eden, their most accessible record, including the rarely-performed title track. That album is full of guitar-heavy pop-rock songs which went down like candy. Being part of an audience that not only knows “Cover My Eyes” but sings every word of it is an amazing thing.

Highlights? So many. The snippet of “Montreal” the band played early was one, certainly. I knew we would get this song at some point this weekend, as it has become a staple here, and joining in with the crowd on the line “welcome back to Montreal” was joyous. “Dry Land” was wonderful. Hogarth still sings the living hell out of it. The suite from 1994’s Brave, still one of their most complex and dark records, was phenomenal, especially the beautiful title track, which I had never heard live. And the encore consisted of three upbeat songs from 1995’s Afraid of Sunlight, including “Cannibal Surf Babe,” which was an absolute delight.

The vibe, though. It was the vibe that made this special, and that’s something I have never really experienced anywhere else. This weekend was already worth the money and time, and there are two nights to go. I know what’s coming – I can’t stop myself from peeking at setlists – and I am so very excited. Now, to sleep!

Saturday night

The second day of our tour through the music of Steve Hogarth began with the music of Fish.

As I mentioned above, Marillion’s original singer – a tall, brooding Scotsman named Derek Dick who goes by the moniker Fish – left the band in 1988. Hogarth does occasionally sing songs from the Fish era (four albums dating from 1983 to 1987), but with three decades of extraordinary material with the band, he has no need to rely on the older work. But the fans still love it.

Enter Scripted, a Fish-era tribute band from Montreal, who performed a wonderful two-hour set of the early stuff at a pub named Brutopia this afternoon. Brutopia is one of the strangest pubs I have been in, in terms of layout – there’s a stage that is not visible to about 2/3 of the venue, including an upstairs area that overlooks only part of the performance space. This place fills up pretty quickly, so I was preparing to merely hear Scripted, but as it turns out one of my traveling companions scored us a table right next to the stage. It was an extraordinary bit of luck that turned a pre-concert lark into an unforgettable musical moment.

I’m the guy who loves every era of Marillion, so hearing the Fish-era stuff is always a treat for me, especially since the opportunity to see it live is rare. Scripted is a really good band, and singer Patrick Turcotte puts everything he has into these performances. It was incredible to see him up so close, and to be part of a massive, roiling crowd that knew every word and shouted them along. This never happens – I never get to be part of something like this, with so many people who love the same obscure thing I do, screaming and dancing and going insane. I honestly thought the floor of the bar would buckle under our joyous cacophony. Being right in the middle of it for “Market Square Heroes” and “Incommunicado” is an experience I will never forget.

Of course, that was only act one. Marillion proper gave us an epic set of music tonight, spanning their middle period with Hogarth, from 1997 to 2003. They took from four albums again – This Strange Engine, Dotcom, Anoraknophobia and the amazing Marbles – and mixed up the setlist rather than guiding us through a series of suites. I definitely think it was the right way to go. This set lasted two and a half hours, and a full hour of it was given over to four lengthy songs, interspersed throughout. The ebb and flow was magnificent. They opened with the 15-minute “Interior Lulu,” a song I’d never heard them play, and it set the tone wonderfully.

Honestly, I have never heard this band sound better than they did tonight. I’m still buzzing from being in a room with thousands of people who love this stuff the way I do. We stood right in front of guitarist Steve Rothery while he played some of his best soaring lines – he does them the same way every time, but he puts so much feeling into them that they feel like his first forays. Hogarth took “One Fine Day” to a new level, and the whole band killed it on “An Accidental Man.” And then there was “Ocean Cloud,” my favorite Marillion song. Being part of the five-minute ovation for this number was something special. “Ocean Cloud” is 18 minutes long, and this whole crowd was just INTO IT, every second of it, and they applauded like the band had just played all of their wedding songs. It was soul-lifting.

The encores felt like they were chosen for me – “Estonia,” a song I want played at my funeral, and the incredible “This Is the 21st Century,” followed by a full-on emotional performance of the 15-minute “This Strange Engine.” I could not have asked for better. Seeing Rothery play THAT solo in “Engine” was, as usual, astonishing, and Hogarth put so much of himself into the finale of the song that I thought he would burst. The vibe was even better tonight than it was last night – you could almost literally see the love being passed back and forth between band and crowd, and I was right there in it. Unforgettable.

Tonight’s opening act was Rothery’s daughter, Jennifer, playing songs from an EP she has just released under the name Sylf. Strong, moody songs delivered with a powerful, melodious voice. A really terrific lead-in for one of the best nights of music I have ever treated myself to. And I get to do this again tomorrow. Very much looking forward to wrapping up this journey with the late-period work, but in no way am I looking forward to all of this being over.

Sunday night

It rained here in Montreal today while we were waiting in line at L’Olympia. The experience of thousands of us shivering in the downpour while smiling and getting to know each other sort of summed up this weird third day for me. The setlist was my least favorite of the weekend, but the real Marillion weekend was the friends we made along the way. Or something like that.

And I definitely made new friends this weekend. One of the best things about these get-togethers is that our shared love for a band few others know makes for a ready-made conversation starter. I heard stories from so many people about the various ways they got into this music, from old veterans to newbies. In the rainy line we met a woman who lives in Montreal but had never heard of the band before a few weeks ago. In the venue we met two people from Massachusetts, my old stomping grounds, who had been following the band for years and years.

I think every fan has a favorite era, and the way the songs were organized this weekend felt like an attempt to argue for the strengths of each of those eras. Tonight we got the late-period work, from the band’s last four records: 2007’s Somewhere Else, 2008’s Happiness is the Road, 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made and 2016’s Fuck Everyone and Run. I love all of these records, and if I were to create a setlist that honored them, it would feel very different to the one we got tonight.

That was the slight downfall of night three for me: the band chose to eschew a lot of crowd-pleasers (like “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” or “The Leavers”) in favor of a more downbeat set. It was still great, but it never really approached the greatness of the previous two nights. It didn’t successfully argue for its era like I think it should have. I enjoyed what we got, certainly, and would put tonight’s performance up against 90% of the shows I have seen in my life. But in comparison to the first two nights, it was a bit of a comedown.

I should mention first that there was no opening act today. Instead the band took the stage with their manager, the amazing Lucy Jordache, to answer fan questions. That was a lot of fun. They are genuinely charming and humble folks, and their bond is obvious. Hogarth told a hilarious story about bassist Pete Trewavas’ ill-fated attempt to learn the ukulele, and Lucy brought a few fans on stage to have their photos taken with the group. I enjoyed this semi-intimate peek at the band as people.

I also knew going in that about an hour of this show would be taken up by a full performance of an imperfect yet beautiful and meditative album called Essence. It’s the first half of the Happiness is the Road double record, and long stretches of it are quiet and patient. It’s an album about being lost and finding peace within yourself, and while it never seems to be anyone’s favorite Marillion album, I have always loved it. I expected it to be a transporting live experience, and it wasn’t quite that, though the more joyous second half really worked. The crashing first chords of “Woke Up” brought us out of the quiet with a burst of energy, and the finale, the ten-minute “Happiness is the Road,” had the crowd singing with gusto. What a great moment to be part of.

After that more sedate record I think I expected the band to let it rip, given the coiled-up excitement of a last night at a Marillion Weekend. They didn’t quite do that – “Whatever is Wrong With You” went down very well, but they stuck with some more thoughtful pieces like “Invisible Ink” and “Somewhere Else” when the crowd really wanted to dance. They ended the set proper with a long, slow, sad epic called “The Sky Above the Rain,” and at that point the disconnect between what we wanted and what we were getting felt strong in the room.

But the encores made up for everything. The band found their fire and ripped through a few favorites, including their cover of “Toxic” (which I still maintain is one of the best pop songs of the last 20 years) and the only Fish-era song to see an airing, “Slainte Mhath.” It was so much fun being near the front of that crowd for that song in particular – it has energized and connected these people for more than 30 years. The band showered us in confetti during closer “All One Tonight,” and that was magical.

And then it was over. Afterward hundreds of us stood on a floor covered in bits of colored paper and reminisced about what we’d seen, not wanting this weekend to end. But we’ll take these new friendships and lovely memories with us as we board our separate planes tomorrow. (As a quick side note, 28 countries were represented at this weekend. 28 countries!) Marillion is a band unlike any other, and its fanbase is unique as well. Being a part of it for the last three nights has been amazing. Thank you to everyone I shared this with. Let’s do it again in two years.

Next week, who knows? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Worthy On Their Own
Joy Williams and John Paul White Move On From Their Civil Wars

I had a conversation today about the fact that some of my favorite albums grew from turmoil within the bands that created them.

The most obvious example, of course, is Rumours, in which the members of Fleetwood Mac aired dirty laundry about each other to some of their most indelible grooves. One of my favorites is Keane’s Under the Iron Sea, which is basically a suite of angry letters from pianist Tim Rice-Oxley to singer Tom Chaplin, which Chaplin then had to sing.

And of course, there is the 2013 self-titled record from the Civil Wars. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White announced their breakup almost simultaneously with the release of this album, and people pored over it for clues to their abrupt separation. People wondered if the two of them, both married to other people, were secretly a couple, and whether the darker emotions on their breakup record were drawn from real life. It was like the indie-folk equivalent of reality TV.

Usually I don’t care about this sort of thing, and even in this case, I don’t care very much. But it is tempting to consider Williams and White in parallel, and question whether the songs on their new solo albums, released within weeks of each other, touch on the feelings that led to the end of the Civil Wars. This honestly is not particularly fruitful – it’s speculating about people’s lives, and about stories we may never know, nor have any right to know. But some lingering questions are unavoidable.

But I also think this does both of them a disservice. White and Williams were both accomplished songwriters before they formed a band, and they’re still working that trade now. Both of their new albums are lovely things that clearly were labored over, and should be considered on their own merits. It’s an easy thing to talk about them together, and to wonder if, for example, White’s “Yesterday’s Love” is about Williams, but let’s not do that. Let’s take them one at a time, as the singer-songwriter efforts they are, because they are both very much worth hearing.

White’s album is called The Hurting Kind, and its vintage-looking cover perfectly sets expectations for the music within. This is like a Roy Orbison record, with some classic country balladry enhanced by rich strings. White’s music has always been influenced by this old-timey material, but this is the first time he’s taken the full plunge. “Heart Like a Kite” could easily be a Hank Williams ballad, as could the aforementioned “Yesterday’s Love.” There’s a healthy helping of pedal steel and those twangy electric guitars over loping strums, and White’s clear, strong voice.

I’d put “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” up against the best of his work. This one is full Roy Orbison, and I could honestly hear Roy singing this piece. The chorus soars: “A melody with harmony, soft and sweet, that sounds like what it feels like when you dance with me…” This one will stick with you. On the other end of the spectrum, though just as terrific, is “The Long Way Home,” a dark and strummy rocker that could find a home on country radio.

I don’t know if that’s his aim, though. The Hurting Kind eschews pop country for traditional sounds, as on the sad and pretty “This Isn’t Gonna End Well,” which features a dynamite vocal from Lee Ann Womack. (Speaking of someone immersed in traditional country.) The 6/8 shuffle of “You Lost Me” is pure George Jones. Closer “My Dreams Have All Come True” is in the same time signature, but is totally Roy, with its floating, gorgeous falsetto. This isn’t an album that panders in any way to modern audiences. It’s a celebration of White’s ability to write new songs that sound timeless.

People certainly accused Williams of pandering last time out. 2015’s Venus was a striking piece of work, incorporating electronic elements to bolster her folksy tunes. And there were some corkers on there, particularly “Woman (Oh Mama),” an invigorating feminist anthem. Her new one, Front Porch, is in many ways the musical opposite of Venus – it’s a quiet country-folk record that feels organic from first note to last, and emphasizes her glorious voice. If you like Sara Watkins’ softer material, you will like this.

The subject matter here doesn’t need a lot of speculation: Williams recently split with her husband of 15 years, and many songs on Front Porch directly reference this. “When Does a Heart Move On” is a lament for a broken relationship, and for the strength to move forward. “All I Need” is about finding solace in being alone: “I may not have everything I want, but I’ve got all I need.” “The Trouble With Wanting” is about being drawn to someone even though it’s clearly not going to work. That song has some absolutely breathtaking harmonies from Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids.

This whole album is beautiful, and I hope it catches the ears of people who like, for example, Sarah Jarosz. The instrumentation is sparse – the sweet “No Place Like You” is just Williams and an acoustic guitar – which shines a spotlight on the songwriting, and Williams has stepped up with some stunners. I’m a big fan of “When Creation Was Young,” a new twist on the old “I’ve been loving you forever” trope, and “Preacher’s Daughter” is a pretty tribute to Williams’ father.

And I love that she chose to end this heartache of a record with something sweet and optimistic. The brief “Look How Far We’ve Come” is a ray of sunshine right at the end, a song that sounds a hundred years old but is born from a contemporary belief that things will get better. It leaves me with a smile, and even through all the pain on this record that smile is what has lingered the longest. Front Porch is a superb little record, and it deserves to catapult Joy Williams into the next level of her solo career.

Hell, both of these records are swell, and proof that the Civil Wars may be over, but Williams and White haven’t stopped making tremendous music that deserves our attention. I have no idea whether any lingering feelings about their collaboration made their way into the corners of these tunes, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Both White and Williams are strong songwriters who deserve success on their own terms, and their names should be as well-known as that of their former band.

Next week I will be in Montreal for the 2019 Marillion Weekend. I plan to keep a diary of each night’s show and bore you to tears with it next Tuesday. After that it’s back to your regularly scheduled review column with the National, the Head and the Heart, Eperanza Spalding and Lizzo, to name a few. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook atwww.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles