All New England, All the Time
New Ones by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones

It’s all New England all the time this week, but before we launch into that, I wanted to share some pretty cool announcements. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of that unclassifiable group of spiritual pop rock bands that sprouted up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are bands that have survived for 20 years or more in near-total obscurity, deemed “too church for radio and too radio for church,” even though none of them are as “Christian” as, say, U2 or Jars of Clay. Anyway, two of the more long-lasting bands have announced cool new projects that make it a good time to get into them, if you’ve never heard them before.

All of my friends are probably sick to death of hearing about the Choir. I’ve been raving about them for more than 10 years, and the band themselves have just come up with an ideal way for anyone to find out what I’ve been talking about. Never Say Never is an eight-CD box set that includes, oh, everything the band has ever done. All nine albums (Voices in Shadows, Shades of Gray, Diamonds and Rain, Chase the Kangaroo, Wide-Eyed Wonder, Circle Slide, Kissers and Killers, Speckled Bird and Free Flying Soul) are here in their entirety, as well as two new tunes and a disc full of rarities. It goes for the absurdly low price of $60, and if you rush to and order it, they’ll throw in a copy of their 10th album, Flap Your Wings, for nothing. This is the deal of the century, folks. You get the whole story of an amazing, overlooked band for an unbeatable price.

Daniel Amos is another long-running spiritual rock band, only they’ve been around since 1975. They’re the brainchild of Terry Scott Taylor, a prolific and ignored genius. Between DA, the Swirling Eddies, the Lost Dogs and his numerous solo projects, Taylor’s released 27 albums. For the last five years, he’s been focusing on solo works, but Daniel Amos roars back on July 3 with Mr. Buechner’s Dream, their 14th full-lengther. It’s a 33-song double-disc affair that’s being hailed as Taylor’s finest work, a claim that I find difficult to believe considering his history. Expect a full-blown analysis and retrospective when this baby hits.

Okay, time to head north.

My time at Face Magazine was, overall, a positive experience. For those unaware of Portland’s long-running music mag, Face started in 1988 under the ownership of Bennie Green. It was a bi-weekly underground paper that touted local bands and basically did everything it could to support the local music scene. I’m all for that, so I started working for Face in 1996. I was editor-in-chief by 1999, and I left under less-than-optimum circumstances in September of 2000.

During those four years, I met dozens of bands struggling for attention from the major labels, and I got a pretty revealing glimpse into the process of managing and marketing an original act. This is not an easy thing, and the more I learned about it, the more amazed I became at northern New England’s wealth of talent and perseverance. Even though there have been many worthy contenders, there hasn’t been a major label album out of Maine or New Hampshire in nine years.

Until now. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

I often wondered what else labels could be looking for that the bands I was encountering weren’t providing. An excellent case in point is New Hampshire’s Motorplant. On the surface of it, they have everything. They write great songs, they play them with energy and skill, they’ve built up a sizeable fan base all on their own, and their live shows are terrific. They’ve released two good records by themselves, Inside the Walnut and the new American Postcard. Oh, and they’re all pretty damn cute.

So what’s missing? Why the hell aren’t these guys on a major label?

I have no idea. I’ve bought several major-label records recently that aren’t as tight, polished, well-played or well-written as American Postcard. (I’m listening to one right now, in fact – Dave Navarro’s Trust No One.) They play an invigorating, no-bullshit style of melodic rock, the kind that pulls you in from the first note. It doesn’t waste any time – Postcard’s 13 tracks clock in at a lean 48 minutes – and it never wears out its welcome. It comes in, kicks your ass and goes home.

Motorplant most impresses me when they’re making inventive use of their multiple guitars. The great first single, “Awkward Girl,” spins a web of electric guitar lines, and the band keeps enough distance between each one that the song fills in the holes. Vocalist Steve Blanchard sings his ass off on this song, and in fact on the whole record. I can’t think of a single reason why pseudo-rockers like Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20 are all over the radio and this tune isn’t.

Motorplant keeps the crunching guitars and upbeat tempos throughout, and yet varies the production enough so that Postcard is never stale. “Mary,” just by itself, is a great example, slipping as it does from double-guitar and three-part harmony in the chorus to a hushed bridge section, to vocals, bass and drums in some parts. This record never slows down, though. It’s a masterful chunk of classic power pop-rock, and if you like the sound of guitars at all, you’ll dig it. The only thing that could have made it cooler is if they’d included their live version of Ratt’s “Round and Round.”

So what’s the problem here? Let’s get Motorplant on a major label. Go to and order American Postcard. If you like it, lobby your local radio station to start playing it. Then, start going to local shows and supporting local bands, because no matter where you are, there are bands like Motorplant struggling to get a major label deal.

The other side of the coin seems to be this: when these bands get major label deals, they often seem to muck it up. The major label record is nowhere near as good as the independently produced records, for some reason. As much as it saddens me, I’m talking about Portland’s golden children, Rustic Overtones.

When Rustic was signed to Arista Records in 1998, it was a big deal around the state of Maine. Finally, it seemed, two things had happened: one of the local scene’s best and brightest would get a shot at the big time, and the doors of the scene would blow wide open. Rustic Overtones landing a major deal was good for everyone.

And then the songs started leaking out. The major label record, which was at different times called Volume Up and the even more hideous This is Rock and Roll, was produced by Tony Visconti, and obviously had massive funding poured into it. All manner of embellishments were used: electronic drums, synthetic noises, David Bowie, etc. The songs, though, were pretty damn weak.

After a year and a half of delays and legalities, Arista rescinded its claim to Rustic, and the material was shelved, as were the hopes of every local act that Portland would become the new Seattle, circa 1992. But now, Rustic has landed a deal with super-cool rap label Tommy Boy, and given their major-label dreams new life. Hence the (finally!) terrific title of their Tommy Boy debut, Viva Nueva. If only the album were as good as its name.

If this is the first Rustic album you’ve tried, you should know a few things. First and foremost, they have never, ever sounded like this before. Viva Nueva is over-produced, bass-heavy and relatively tuneless. Over half of it is the Visconti sessions, mixed with five superior new recordings and two inferior re-recordings of old tunes. You’d never know it, though, because thankfully Viva Nueva flows remarkably well. The new stuff (“C’mon,” “Love Underground,” “Baby Blue,” “Combustible” and “Boys and Girls”) sounds like the Rustic of old somewhat. The Visconti sessions are an aberration.

I’d highly recommend trying their older stuff, particularly Long Division and Rooms By the Hour. Those sound like the work of a band, and make much better use of the three-piece horn section. Track ‘em down, they’re worth it.

That said, Viva Nueva is a challenging, accomplished, schizoid record that may grow on me over time, but I kind of doubt it. The band went to some new places on this disc, but they should have known that not all side paths lead to brilliance. “Gas on Skin,” for instance, strips the sound down to a repetitive bassline over an electronic drumbeat, and that gets real old real fast. “Crash Landing” sounds remarkably like Dave Matthews covering Ricky Martin. And don’t even get me started on “Sector Z,” the track featuring Bowie and lyrical references to both rejected album titles. I give them credit for trying new things, but I take that credit away for not realizing that new is not always better.

Again, if this is your first Rustic album, this may not matter to you. These guys are far better than this record, though, and it seems they’ve fallen victim to the major-label slump. I don’t know if it’s just the added pressure or the additional cash at one’s disposal, but this happens a lot to some really good bands. I hate to do it, but I have to number Rustic Overtones among them. Next time, guys…

While we’re on the subject of local bands, I got another e-mail from Broken Clown drummer Shane Kinney, who reports that his band’s badass anthem “Feelgood Hit of the Summer” is in contention for the top spot on You can help out by surfing over there and reviewing the tune. Last I checked, they were at #19 on the main chart, and #4 on the metal chart. Congrats, guys, now take it all the way.

As a quick aside, when Rustic Overtones announced in 2000 that the title of their album would be This is Rock and Roll, Kinney confided in me that Broken Clown would be titling their upcoming record No, THIS is Rock and Roll. That would have been too damn funny.

Next time, Stone Temple Pilots, maybe.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

My Fingers Hurt From Typing
Six Reviews, 3600 Words

I tried a little experiment the other day.

I mentioned in my review of Radiohead’s disappointing new wank-fest that the band’s last two albums (Kid A and Amnesiac), recorded simultaneously and originally planned as a double album, would work much better edited down to a strong single disc. Well, guess what. It works.

My edit runs 53 minutes, plenty short enough for a single disc and plenty long enough to be considered an album. I called it Kid Amnesia, and I’ve found myself reaching for this edit far more often than either of the records it came from. It’s still pretty weak, but it flows surprisingly well and sets the paranoid mood the group seemed to be after.

In case you’re curious, here’s my running order: “Everything in its Right Place,” “Pyramid Song,” “Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” “You and Whose Army,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Idioteque,” “Morning Bell,” “Dollars and Cents” and “How to Disappear Completely.”

Radiohead fans who might want to try this are encouraged to send me their running orders, should they differ from mine. This, naturally, flies right in the face of my philosophy of listening to an artist’s work the way they intended it, and I’m working on a rationalization for this lapse as we speak. (Well, as you speak, if you’re reading this out loud.) I’ll let you know what I come up with.

I promised a long-assed column this week, and here it is. I hope to play catch-up on about half a dozen new things. I’ve broken the column up into bite-sized, digestible chunks for you if you just don’t want to commit to reading the whole thing at once. That’s just the kind of considerate guy I am. You’re welcome.

Okay, here we go.


In what’s being termed the Battle of the Brit-Poppers (by someone, somewhere, I’m sure), Radiohead’s Amnesiac is being followed up one week later by Radiohead wannabes Travis’ third album. It’s no contest, really. While Radiohead have wallowed in ego for the past two releases, Travis have named their delightfully ego-free release The Invisible Band. While Radiohead were off in the stratosphere somewhere praying to the atmosphere faeries, Travis were writing songs to hang their atmospheres on. While it once may have been true that Travis at their best couldn’t outdo Radiohead at their worst, these two new releases prove that’s no longer the case.

One reason that it’s hard to knock Travis is that they’re such a nice band. Everything they do is grounded in contentment and happiness. Even when Fran Healy is bemoaning his current state of affairs, he does so with such a sunny outlook that you’re pulling for the guy to get over his minor slump. (See their big hit, “Why Does it Always Rain on Me.”) While I often wish something bad would happen to my favorite artists to inspire them artistically, I find it’s impossible to bear Healy and the boys any ill will. They’re so honestly, genuinely sweet that I feel like an ass for criticizing them.

I will, though, but only a little. Travis’ songwriting is fairly stagnant on The Invisible Band, gaining no ground from their wonderful breakthrough, The Man Who. The guitars still shimmer and shine, Healy’s voice still soars without whining, and the lyrics are (with a few exceptions) typically sunny. This album exhibits exactly zero growth.

Travis fans everywhere may breathe a sigh of relief at that. They didn’t forge ahead with some grand artistic vision, they didn’t embrace electronic beats and blips, and they certainly didn’t use their popular platform to engage the ills of the world. They’re just four blokes who like to make lighter-than-air pop music, and it shows through winningly. There’s not a moment of The Invisible Band that breaks new ground, but there’s not a moment when you’re wishing it would.

I want to say a few things about Nigel Godrich, the album’s producer. I just found out that this guy is only 27 years old. That’s my age. Godrich has, over the past few years, impressed me more than any other producer working. I’ll check something out just because he had something to do with it. (Even the last two Radiohead records sounded impeccable – the fact that the songs were lacking isn’t Godrich’s fault.) The Invisible Band is another perfect production, filled with beautiful touches that only this guy seems to bring to his work. Finding out that he’s the same age as me gives me the same feeling I got when I learned how old Orson Welles was when he made Citizen Kane. He’s too young to be this brilliant.

Godrich’s input is paramount to this record’s success. Like he did with The Man Who, Godrich has woven glorious sound tapestries out of Healy’s simple songs and elevated the whole project. What was cloying on their first record (called Good Feeling – don’t seek it out, it’s not worth it) is delightfully earnest here. Healy bases whole songs on sentiments like “let the caged bird go free” (“The Cage”) and “the grass is never greener on the other side” (“Side”). The first track is about convincing his girlfriend to sing in front of him. Really. There’s even a track called “Dear Diary,” which, like the rest of this band’s output, is totally irony-free.

What sounds sickeningly sweet on paper is refreshingly honest on record. Try not to sing along with “Flowers in the Window” or “Indefinitely,” a lighter-raiser if ever there was one. And brace yourself for “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song,” a layered epic whose chorus actually goes “You’ve got the glue, so I’m gonna give my heart to you.” I’m telling you, it works, and you won’t crack up once.

Travis does step over their own line once on this disc, in the relatively haunting “Last Train.” Over a great organ bed from Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner, Healy moans, “I’m gonna buy a gun, gonna shoot everything, everyone, and then I’m coming for you.” In context, “Last Train” is a jarring piece of work, one that might point to future artistic experimentation. In almost any other case, this might be a good thing, but a few more miserable sentiments might have cast a fatal pall over The Invisible Band. Very few groups these days sound happy to be happy, and losing one of them would be tragic.

Near the end of this record, Healy sings, “I’m gonna be here indefinitely.” For Travis fans like myself who love their silly little epics, let’s hope he means it.


And on the sixth try, they got it right.

Rufus Wainwright’s second album, Poses, has blown through six release dates in the last year. Certain fans of his terrific first album wondered if the follow-up actually existed and would ever be released. Fret no more, because here it is, and man, was it worth the wait.

Rufus Wainwright sounds like no other current performer. God bless Dreamworks Records for finding this guy and setting him up with a record contract. I doubt any profitable label would have touched him with a 10-foot stock option. Dreamworks is one of those integrated companies that can indulge artistry. They make enough money on their film projects to float the recording careers of non-sellers like Eels, Creeper Lagoon and Wainwright. When one of their bands hits (like Lifehouse has), it’s cause for celebration.

I don’t see Wainwright making a similar commercial splash, but regardless, he’s made one of the best records of the year so far. Poses is several leaps above his self-titled debut, both in songwriting and production. His voice has even improved immensely, with all the minor quirks smoothed out into a soaring even tone.

Ah, it’s the songs, though, those glorious, dramatic, Broadway-ready songs. Imagine a dandily-dressed young lad sitting on a barstool center stage, with a spotlight softly illuminating him, as he sings “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” with a bittersweet grin. “Cigarettes and chocolate milk, these are just a couple of my cravings, everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me…”

Every song on Poses seems to flow forth from the mouth of a fully realized character in a well-written play. How many of these characters may be Wainwright himself we’re left to guess, as he dances his voice atop these lovely piano musings, just out of reach. His lyrics are a dance as well, skirting their subjects (and the characters who sing them) with artful grace.

Song after song, Wainwright achieves near-perfection. It’s like he’s performing a revue of the best of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Ira Newbern, and yet they’re all originals (except for his cover of his dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy”). He even slips into Sondheim territory once with “Evil Angel.” These are lovely, dance-on-air pieces of music, filled with strings and dramatic shifts. Even when he piles on more typical pop instrumentation, like guitars and drums, he maintains that classic sense about his work.

For all its traditional leanings, Poses is a series of modern riddles, speaking obliquely through character studies on what it means to be young, gay and style-conscious. Wainwright’s point of view is one you don’t find very often in the pop music field, and that’s as refreshing as his attitude about what, exactly, constitutes pop music in the first place. His songs, if nothing else, certainly hearken back to the origins of the pop song, and drag that sound into the modern world with a dapper elegance.

The long and short of it is, Poses is terrific. Rufus Wainwright certainly didn’t need much improvement, and the fact that he did improve, immensely, makes this album a lock for the Top 10 List. I can only hope that his songs endure as long as those of his influences, because they deserve to.


About a month ago, I brought a little stereo system into work, because as anyone who’s known me for more than a day or two knows, I can’t live for very long without music. I didn’t set up this CD player at my desk specifically to drive my co-workers batty, but it sure has had that effect. I listen to some weird shit, as sports writer Gale Cavness, who sits to my left, can attest.

Gale’s a dyed-in-the-wool music fan who hasn’t liked much of anything from the last few decades. He’s into Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and the like, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. He just happens to have the misfortune of sitting next to the writer of a new music column. He’s been very good, all things considered, about rarely telling me to shut my damn noise off.

I told you all that to tell you this. I can remember just one time that Gale asked me to turn my music up. I can also remember just one time that he requested a certain album. It just happened to be the same album both times, and that album just happened to be Michael Roe’s Safe as Milk.

In my experience, anyone who hears Michael Roe ends up liking his stuff. As I mentioned when reviewing his live record It’s for You, Roe’s career has been long and varied. Though his solo material is wonderful (especially the aforementioned Safe as Milk), he’s best known as the voice and guitar of the 77s. That band’s career has been marked by terrific songwriting, solid albums and interminably long waits between those albums. The last one, Tom Tom Blues, was in 1995.

In true feast or famine tradition, there have been four new 77s discs over the last few months, culminating in the release of their new full-length album A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows. First came an EP (cleverly titled EP) described as a taste of the new record. Then came Radioactive Singles, a bunch of remixes of tracks off the new album. Then, after Golden Field blew its third release date, came the aptly named Late, a collection of everything from the EP, most of Radioactive Singles and a few new things. Then, finally, the album itself. Late makes the two that preceded it redundant, so that and the new album are all you need to catch up.

I’ve heard it said that the 77s have been creating a season cycle with their records, and that theory holds up. They started as a summery blues-rock band, slowly darkening their sound over their first three albums. Pray Naked from 1992 was largely as gentle and sad as an autumn rain, and the follow-up, Drowning with Land in Sight, raged like a winter storm. Spring sprung with Tom Tom Blues, a more optimistic record, and now the group has come full circle with Golden Field, the happiest, sunniest album since their debut.

Fans of Roe’s solo work will probably be surprised at how loud Golden Field is, but this band has always rocked. They became a trio with Tom Tom, and Golden Field is the sound of that trio having a grand old time. Even the slower tracks, like “There Forever,” end up swimming in electric guitars, and when they lock into a groove, like they do on “Mean Green Season,” they don’t sound anywhere near their mid-40s. Which they are, of course.

Highlights include the single “Mr. Magoo,” a fun rocker that begins with the line, “I may be Mr. Magoo but I see through you,” and “Down From You,” one of the most energetic and melodic pieces in the band’s catalog. A standout is “Related,” which sounds like nothing the band has done before. It’s all jacked-up hip hop beats and phased guitars, and it works, though nothing else on Golden Field even tries to be that modern. Roe and company save the best for last with the ironically titled closer “Begin,” a classic Roe semi-acoustic piece.

As good as Golden Field is, I have to mention my vague sense of disappointment with it. The songs are decent, but they’re not extraordinary. Roe never really cuts loose with a solo here, and I could listen to him play guitar all day and not get bored. The album is solid, quick and raucous, but it’s nowhere near as good as the 77s can get. It still ranks higher than a good 80% of what’s out there now, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the band.

For that, you should get Late. The five songs from the EP are definitely extraordinary, especially the opener, “Unbalanced,” which contains one of Roe’s best lines: “You’re so inviting but I still can’t come.” “The Years Go Down” exists in a state of divine fury, and it’s balanced off by the sweet “Sevens.” Where Golden Field sticks to one style throughout, the EP flits from mood to mood marvelously.

The alternate takes of “Flowers in the Sand,” “Outskirts” and “You Still Love Me” from Tom Tom Blues are all superior versions, particularly “Flowers,” with its stripped-down instrumentation and terrific guitar work. The 77s’ version of Daniel Amos’ “Shotgun Angel” is note-perfect. Late closes with three outtakes from It’s for You, including a longer, better version of “Go With God, But Go.”

If you want to check out Michael Roe and the 77s, and you do, my recommendation is to snag Late first. It’s an almost-perfect document of the different styles this band does so well, and of the guitar-playing master at its helm. Last time I mentioned Roe, I couldn’t recommend a starting point. If nothing else, Late provides that, and Golden Field thankfully continues the band’s sterling output. The 77s may be the best band you’ve never heard.


Speaking of bands you’ve never heard, there’s a new Starflyer 59 album. Starflyer fans are encouraged to write me, for two reasons. First, I don’t think there are that many of you out there, and second, if you dig this band, you’re probably pretty interesting.

Leave Here a Stranger is Starflyer’s sixth full-length album on tiny Tooth and Nail Records. (They’ve also released three EPs, a host of singles and a box set that collects ‘em all.) They’re a great example of mutual loyalty between company and band. Starflyer’s self-titled debut was the third album to come out on Tooth and Nail, and the new one is almost the 200th. Along the way, T&N broke MxPx big, losing them to A&M Records, and they’ve nearly done the same with a half-dozen of their other acts, but not Starflyer, even though they’d get my vote for Most Likely to Succeed. Jason Martin (the brains behind the band) is happy with Tooth and Nail, and they’re happy with him.

Plus, Martin gets to record and release deep, bizarre pop records like Leave Here a Stranger. A calliope of often-depressing lyrics and vocals atop bright, swirling accompaniment, Stranger is the group’s most fully realized effort. Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering it’s a collaboration between Martin and ignored genius producer Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos, Lost Dogs, Swirling Eddies, and a host of production credits). Taylor elevates Martin’s signature guitar lines and vintage keyboard sounds from cheese to magnificence.

Not that Martin hasn’t always been magnificent on his own. The first three Starflyer albums have some of the thickest, heaviest, slowest guitars you’ll ever find, layered atop each other in a near-infinite blanket. With album four, The Fashion Focus, Martin dropped the guitars and focused on acoustics and synths, maintaining his high melodic standard. The new Starflyer sound hasn’t really coalesced until now. Leave Here a Stranger is a quirky, soaring suite, and the only complaint Starflyer fans should have with it is the same one they’ve had all along: it’s over too quickly.


I don’t usually review soundtracks, but this one’s really hooked me, largely because of the movie it accompanies. I’m talking about Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling wonderama, Moulin Rouge.

I highly recommend seeing the movie before hearing the soundtrack, but then, I highly recommend seeing the movie anyway. I can scarcely believe this thing got made at all, and I’d have liked to have sat in on the original pitch: “I want to make a modern musical that sucks up the last 100 years of popular songs and Cuisinarts them, and I’d like it to look like a drug-addled live-action cartoon with, oh, three times the regular number of cuts, and I want the actors to do all their own singing, and by the way, let’s release it opposite Pearl Harbor. What do you say?”

I say bravo, Baz. This is the type of film that makes you want to applaud after every musical number, and most of those numbers are present on the soundtrack. Most exciting to me is the inclusion of the “Elephant Love Medley,” which needs no explanation for those who’ve seen the film, and will get none from me for those who haven’t. I spent the whole scene with a wild, manic grin on my face. This movie is a music lover’s dream.

The soundtrack’s not so bad itself. The highlights are, of course, the film’s sly rewrites of classic (and not-so-classic) pop tunes, but apart from the film, the soundtrack features Bono’s great rendition of “Children of the Revolution,” Fatboy Slim’s reworking of Jim Broadbent’s lines in “Because We Can,” Beck’s terrific take on David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” and the aforementioned and always brilliant Rufus Wainwright’s “Complainte de la Butte,” in which he proves that he rules in any language. (That was quite the run-on sentence, huh?)

Baz Luhrmann even adds dramatic heft to newly-written trifles like “Come What May.” If you can see the film and still dismiss this fluff as weightless, I’d be surprised. Luhrmann has tapped into what makes a popular tune work, what makes one cry at a silly love song, what makes one agree wholeheartedly with the most banal statements of passion uttered by pop singers. In so doing, he’s given new life to the most ephemeral, disposable music of the last century. The film is a heartfelt work of wonder that doesn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, make a false note.

And the soundtrack ain’t half bad, either.


Damn, huh? Could I possibly babble any more?

Next time, it’s an all New England throwdown with new releases by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones. Be there or be…not there. Um, whatever.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Forget Amnesiac
Radiohead Spaces Out on Us Again

I don’t know what’s wrong with Radiohead.

For a while there, they seemed flawless. Their first three albums are a perfect model of ascendancy, each improving on its predecessor at a breathtaking rate. Their average debut Pablo Honey offered the barest hint of the sweeping melodicism of The Bends, which in turn couldn’t have prepared anyone for the genius of OK Computer. Plus, they attained major-label acceptance and great standing with the critics. Like many artistic wunderkinds when they hit this stage of their careers, the only people who could stop Radiohead’s ascent were the members of Radiohead themselves.

And so they did.

It’s taken me a long time to like Kid A, the band’s fourth effort, and I’m still not sure I do like it. They took their creepy soundscapes just a step too far into stratospheric meandering, and the album sounds like a weak collection of b-side experiments strung together. It’s quite cohesive in its tone and style, but it still constitutes an appalling lack of effort on the compositional side. Stacked next to OK Computer, it’s a deeply painful disappointment.

I can’t say that I’m as disappointed in Amnesiac, Radiohead’s just-released fifth album, but that’s simply because its predecessor didn’t leave me with the same level of expectation. Recorded at the same time as Kid A, this new one is another impeccably produced slab of wispy, tuneless slop that evaporates before your ears.

I’ve listened to Amnesiac four times now. After the first go-round, I barely restrained the urge to tear the disc from my stereo, hurl it to the ground and step on it. After the fourth, I’m still not convinced that I shouldn’t have followed through on my impulse. Amnesiac is maddening in its inconsistency, its simplicity and its depressingly marginal quality. The only reason I keep looking to this disc (and to its predecessor) for hidden qualities that obviously aren’t there is that I believe it’s impossible to make the best album of the past 20 years by accident.

The true accomplishment of OK Computer was its creation of otherworldly atmospheres wrapped around intelligent, moving melodies. A song like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” lives up to the care and time put into its sonic architecture. A song like “Paranoid Android” or “Karma Police” has sections and movements and a deep sense of musicianship lying beneath its multicolored palette. OK Computer synthesized studio wizardry and musical artistry like few records before it, and like none since. If you’re looking for a distorted-reflection equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, well, there it is in all its shimmering dystopian glory.

Kid A and Amnesiac were rumored to have been conceived as a double album, and the stylistic similarities are certainly abundant. The tragedy of these two albums is that you could edit roughly half the tracks out and make a decent single disc out of the remainder. The real tragedy is that the best song on that resultant single disc wouldn’t even be the equal of the worst song on OK Computer. The atmospheres are all here in spades, but the songs are missing.

Amnesiac actually starts strong, which may lead to false hope for the rest of the record. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (trust me, there are no typos there) is very nearly the demo version of “Everything In Its Right Place” from Kid A. It’s based around pitter-patter electronic drums and electric piano, like so much of Kid A, but it has an instantly memorable melody. “Pyramid Song,” inexplicably the first single, sounds like a series of false starts at first until the drums kick in, cementing the piano rhythm. The tune is buoyed aloft by the string section and Thom Yorke’s vocal, in one of the few cases here that makes good use of him.

The paradox of Thom Yorke is this: when he has a melody to wrap himself around, he’s one of the best, most powerful singers working today. The man can sing the paint off a battleship. Unfortunately, when he’s given nothing to work with and must meander about melodically, he’s terribly annoying. He whines, he wails, he caterwauls, and you sometimes find yourself wishing he’d stumble across a tune or just shut up. Yorke’s not the only one given no grounding here. If you’ve ever heard this band act as one to attack a song, you’ll come away from Amnesiac wondering how they could release something in which they never once come fully together.

Like Kid A, Amnesiac contains its share of throwaway tracks. When it comes to repetitive clanging like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” or tuneless interludes like “Hunting Bears,” this band needs to ask itself what purpose would be served including them on their record. Likewise “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” a lethargic reprise of Kid A’s “Morning Bell” that’s here for no apparent thematic reason. Considering how much the rest of the disc sounds like filler, that these three stand out is impressive.

Another striking thing about Amnesiac is how defensive it is. Songs like “You and Whose Army” and “Knives Out” seem reflexive, even reactionary. Yorke intones the phrase “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case” repeatedly in “Packt Like Sardines…,” and one can’t help but wonder at whom he’s lashing out. It can’t be the critics, because as usual, they’re falling all over themselves to praise this thing. As was the case with Kid A, the emperor is still running about stark raving naked, and Rolling Stone is complimenting his designer suit.

What’s undeniably depressing about an album like Amnesiac is that Radiohead is a far better band than this. I hope this is just a phase that they’ll snap out of soon. Both Kid A and Amnesiac are ear candy, sonic wallpaper that never gets under your skin because it has no substance. There’s a mild irony in the title they’ve chosen for such a forgettable record, but irony certainly isn’t enough to excuse this slump. Even more disconcerting is that Yorke has said in interviews that the band is quite proud of this disc. If that’s true, then they may truly have lost it, and that would be a shame.

Anyway, I’m working on a big, huge, gigantic column for next time that plays catch-up on just about everything I’ve gotten recently. As a bit of a preview, though, I present my half-year Top 10 List below. This is a silly experiment that will bear no resemblance to the final list at the end of the year, I hope. If I had to rank the top 10 discs now, though, this is what they would be:

#10. The 77s, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows.

#9. The Black Crowes, Lions.

#8. Tool, Lateralus.

#7. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.

#6. Glen Phillips, Abulum.

#5. Mark Eitzel, The Invisible Man.

#4. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.

#3. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.

#2. R.E.M., Reveal.

#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.

Don’t read too much into this list, because if the second half of the year is as good as the first half has been, it will change. So next time, Travis, Rufus Wainwright, the 77s, Starflyer 59 and whatever else I find lying about unreviewed.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hang On to Your Depression
Mark Eitzel's Gloriously Sad The Invisible Man

I came to a disturbing realization the other day.

For those of you just joining the ongoing saga of my scintillating existence in this west Tennessee town, I’m the education and features reporter for the State Gazette here in Dyersburg. This means that, by and large, I cover school events. So I was lining a bunch of third-graders up for a photo the other day when it struck me that since I started in this position (three months ago), I have yet to meet anyone my own age.

At first I thought it was just a side effect of my beat, since most of my time is spent in schools and at school functions. Then I started looking about this town, trying to discern the ages of the people milling about me, and remarkably, there just aren’t any twenty-somethings here at all. I’m not sure where they all go between the ages of 19 and 30, but it’s not Dyersburg.

Yeah, I know, not very interesting, but I had fabled first-line writer’s block this time, and I needed something to start with. There you go, and piss off if you don’t like it.

Some random notes to begin:

All you Portlandites have this info already, I’m sure, but I just found out, so I thought I’d spread the good news. Portland’s own Rustic Overtones have salvaged their major-label career by signing with Tommy Boy Records, the long-running purveyor of ground-breaking hip-hop. Tommy Boy is also famous for sticking with artists through thick and thin to watch them develop. Witness De La Soul, who hit huge with their debut and haven’t had a hit since. When the trio proposed the idea of a triple album, released in stages over a year and a half, Tommy Boy went for it. Most labels would have laughed in their faces.

All of which leads me to believe that the Rustic Overtones /Tommy Boy relationship will be a long and fruitful one. If you’re not from Portland, Rustic is a long-running (like 11 years) band that mashes several styles into a horn-driven stew. They’ve gone through several stylistic shifts, which culminated in a big contract with Arista in 1999. The proposed album, This Is Rock and Roll, died on the vine, which is okay because that awful title would have haunted them to the grave. They’ve regrouped and reassembled the new album, calling the finished product Viva Nueva, which means “new life.” That’s out sometime in June, or so says the Tommy Boy website. Congrats, guys, and may this second shot be the keeper.

There are a number of artists who are contenders for my Top 10 List every time they release something, just by dint of their past excellence. Two of them have new records this year, one week apart. I’ve already reported that Tori Amos will release Strange Little Girls on September 18. A week before that, Ben Folds will unveil his solo album, his first without the Five. He’s called it Rockin’ the Suburbs. Can’t wait…

On to the review:

I’ve heard it said that everyone should own one Mark Eitzel album. The reason for this is simple, at least to me: no one does sadness like Eitzel. He is perhaps the most honestly depressing songwriter currently working. Listening to his haunted vocals alone lends the impression that this guy has never had a good day in his life, and the lyrics and arrangements of his tunes do nothing to alter that notion. Eitzel’s music is soul-deadening, numbing, powerful stuff.

Whether or not it should be mandatory to own one of his long-players, everyone should at least hear “Saved,” the highlight (or lowlight, depending on your perspective) of Eitzel’s first solo album, 60-Watt Silver Lining. It was on this tune that he abandoned the indie-rock roots of his former band, American Music Club, for a richer, more jazz-oriented sound that perfectly complemented his sad-sack voice. “Saved” has lyrics and a melody that would have been almost uplifting if sung by anyone else. In Eitzel’s hands, it’s a melancholy wonder that plays like a dialogue between singer and instrumentalists, the vocals daring the music to cheer them up.

To his credit, Eitzel has wildly varied his approach each time out. West was a jangly pop collaboration with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck that transformed the dialogue to an all-out argument, and the stripped-down Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby showed that Eitzel could be just as chillingly effective with little or no instrumentation at all. (That album, in fact, was the product of a very strange clause in his Warner Bros. contract that allowed him to do albums for other, smaller labels if those albums evidenced “no commercial appeal.”)

And now we have number four, The Invisible Man. It’s so titled because of a lyric in the gorgeous “Shine” that reads, “The only costume prize I’ll win is if I go as the invisible man,” a typical sentiment here. Eitzel has definitely not lost his touch, even though he’s spent the last two years reportedly working on the complex production of this album. What’s cool about The Invisible Man is that it’s still an Eitzel album underneath it all.

On the surface, though, Eitzel has expanded his sonic palette greatly here. He’s incorporated subtle electronic percussion, backwards loops, strange synth noises and an overarching sense of studio wizardry. Every track is layered several times over, and it’s very easy to imagine this album as a stunning disaster. That it isn’t is a testament to the skill with which Eitzel has assembled the sonic building blocks here, never losing sense of the songs he was augmenting or of the voice that leads the whole production.

In typical Mark Eitzel fashion, The Invisible Man is undoubtedly his biggest album sonically, yet it still sounds small and intimate. Eitzel has a particular talent for making even the most optimistic songs into mournful elegies, and his lyrics are fantastic models of stream-of-consciousness observation and emotion. Take, for example, the entirety of “Christian Science Reading Room”:

“I was so high I stood for an hour outside the Christian Science Reading Room and suddenly I could not resist – I became a Christian Scientist – and I studied light and I studied sound and every question that I asked was suddenly profound – the holy martyrs of gravity, the absolute measure of being free. I was so high that I even scared the cat, and using the language of his tail he said he had a vision a thousand white flags circling around my hat and then he hid under the bed, and his eyes were as big as bells, and suddenly he could not resist and he became a Christian Scientist, and together we explored our world, and found it became more beautiful as its teeth were revealed.”

Eitzel’s worldview is represented in the words here. Everything would be funny, if it weren’t so depressing to actually laugh. He has spent a good chunk of his solo career mourning his sense of humor, and unlike most pseudo-depressives in pop music, he never dwells on death. Far worse, it seems to him, to remain alive and not be able to enjoy a single thing.

All of which makes the closing track, “Proclaim Your Joy,” such a strange revelation. It is, by far, the happiest and most irony-free piece of music to bear Eitzel’s name, and it finds him repeating in nearly giddy tones, “It is important throughout your life to proclaim your joy.” Even though the liner notes call this tune a joke, it’s impressively sincere-sounding, as if it’s taken Eitzel years to reach the point where he can make his voice dance. He simply revels in it, and from such an honest musician, it’s explosive in its pure emotional turnabout. That song alone is worth the price of admission for Eitzel fans.

If it’s true that everyone should own one Eitzel album, well, there are four of them now to choose from, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The Invisible Man is another idiosyncratic achievement from a true depressive, and it’s impressive both for the growth it exhibits as well as the glorious stagnation it represents. Mark Eitzel is truly one of a kind.

Next time, the long-awaited Radiohead album, the subject of more dread and anticipation than any other record this year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Five Years is a Long, Long Time
Tool and Weezer Remind Us That They're Alive

I’ve got two reviews this time, and I thought I might size my reviews to the respective lengths of the albums in question. Shall we?

I’m not sure how Weezer has sustained their popularity. They’ve been gone for five years, following a disastrously unpopular second album (Pinkerton) that, no matter what Rivers Cuomo might say, isn’t that bad. Their just-released third album had a lot of strikes against it for me. First, it’s an obvious attempt to regain past glory – it’s self-titled, the cover art is strikingly similar to that of the first album, and they called producer Ric Ocasek back to punch up the hit potential. Plus, the thing’s only 28 minutes long.

Surprise surprise, though, Weezer is great: ten short, sharp songs that come on stage, state their business and leave without wearing out their welcome. “Photograph” is terrific pop, “Crab” will stay in your head forever, and if “Island in the Sun” isn’t the hit of the summer, it won’t be the band’s fault. Weezer(also known as the Green Album) is an old-time pop record, perfect for short attention spans. It’s the best example of spending five years on 28 minutes and making them all count.

Tool has also been missing in action for five years, but their return album, Lateralus, is nearly three times as long as Weezer’s. It needs every second of it.

There is no band in the world that sounds quite like Tool. The quartet uses the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals, and in fact Presence-era Zep might have been one of their primary influences. They write twisty, progressive epics that hardly ever clock in at under six minutes, and they have a pronounced disdain for radio-fodder choruses. Their albums take time to digest. In fact, the first listen will probably leave you a little bewildered.

If Lateralus is your first Tool album, I don’t envy you. The band has been pretty good about easing their audience into their vision. Even so, their last album, Aenima, gave me more trouble as a reviewer than almost anything else that year. Listening to the 78-minute Aenima straight is quite a bit like being run over by a steamroller in slow motion. Each song pummels you at an agonizing crawl, never varying from the same three or four notes. Aenima sounds like the missing link between Helmet and Dream Theater. I found that it was best in small doses, one or two songs at a time.

Lateralus is best all at once. That may be because I’ve heard and digested Aenima, though. Lateralus builds upon the sound they created on that album, and like skipping a grade in school, if you don’t have the basic foundation, you’ll probably have no idea what the band is going for. Even for those of us familiar with the group’s sound, Lateralus doesn’t offer easy answers.

For starters, the album contains exactly two instantly memorable hooks, one in “Schism” and one in “Ticks and Leeches.” While the rest will leave you in slack-jawed silence, it purposely won’t stick in your head. The songs all shift, move and mutate beyond their original riffs. The opener, “The Grudge,” weighs in at eight minutes, and exists in a state of perpetual motion. The dynamic shifts alone are breathtaking, and when vocalist Maynard James Keenan (the not-so-secret weapon of the band) opens up full throttle, even if only for a slipped-in two-beat measure, Tool achieves a power the guitar-rock bands they’re usually lumped in with can’t match.

In fact, one of the main reasons you won’t find universal praise for Lateralus is that very alt-rock environment they’re associated with. The members of Tool have, to their credit, done everything possible to avoid that very association. They never appear in their own videos, they hardly ever print pictures of themselves in their CD jackets, and they tend to perform incognito. The foursome could walk down virtually any street in America and not be recognized. The idea is that the focus should be on the music, not the people making it.

Unfortunately, the great majority of music critics don’t have any idea how to talk about the music, so they’re forced to comment on the social and cultural environment, the moody atmosphere of the lyrics, the theatrical masks – anything but the actual musical art. Yes, Tool came to prominence during the grunge-rock era of the early ‘90s, and yes, Keenan’s lyrics have an indecipherable gloom, but the band comes from an entirely different, much more musical place than Saint Cobain and his Not-So-Merry Men. They’ve gone to every effort to make timeless music, and to distance themselves from any cultural phase they may have existed alongside.

But here I am, commenting on something other than the music.

Lateralus plays like a single thought, a 79-minute suite that builds and recedes at perfect intervals. At times, it’s difficult to believe there are only four members, the mass of sound is so huge. Paradoxically, at times it’s difficult to believe the sound wasn’t created by a single organism, the band is so tight. There are no solos, no random moments. Each song has so many sections and turns that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the transitions from song to song.

On top of all that, the 22-minute trilogy that closes the album (not counting the noise sculpture “Faaip de Oiad”) is unlike anything the band has done before. It takes their trademark buildup to new levels, unfolding at a snail’s pace, and adding strange textures. “Reflection,” the middle section, soars with a shakuhachi flute melody. Keenan’s contributions are atmospheric and subtle, and they provide the only concessions to traditional songcraft.

If I’ve made Lateralus sound daunting, well, it is. Not only do you have to devote 80 minutes of your time to digesting it, you’ll have to do it three or four times at least. Unlike Aenima, it can’t be taken in chunks. It has to be swallowed whole, another admirable stance in the face of the single-oriented alt-rock revolution. If you let it, though, Lateralus will blow your mind.

To sum up, then: Weezer’s Green Album is a satisfying snack, while Tool’s album is a filling seven-course feast. It depends on what you’re hungry for. Sometimes a box of Cracker Jack will do it for you, and sometimes you need a lasagna feast with a side of garlic bread.

And sometimes a metaphor should be put out of its misery before it causes irreparable harm.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Just Like Brian Wilson Did
R.E.M.'s Pure Pop Excursion Reveal

Douglas Adams died on Friday of a sudden heart attack. He was only 49 years old.

I wanted to say a couple of words about Adams because he was one of three writers (Stephen King and Stan Lee being the other two) who inspired a slightly overimaginative grade school kid to start stringing sentences together. Before I discovered Steinbeck, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis or Alan Moore, I believed Douglas Adams was the best writer in the world.

That’s not to say he wrote children’s books. In fact, his central work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, gains more resonance for me as I age. While Adams was thought of primarily as a comedy writer, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly very funny, what Adams did best was to mirror the absurdity of modern life through a unique use of language. His only peer in this regard was Joseph Heller, and the similarities between the Hitchhiker’s Guide books and Catch-22 are many.

I started reading at an early age, and by fifth grade I was already somewhat bored with the books I was being given to read. Douglas Adams got me excited about the language again. His sentences were twisty, run-on affairs that had to be read twice to be fully understood. His characters and situations were original and deceptively thoughtful. Besides, if you can make a 12-year-old laugh on every page, you’ve pretty much got him hooked.

As I grew older, though, I began to really get Adams’ joke. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is an utterly ridiculous, often frustratingly clever read in which things that seem to have no rational explanation are later explained in maddeningly rational detail. Adams’ universe is strange and complex, and yet every event or circumstance has behind it a web of improbable, yet wholly explainable reasoning. The world, I’ve discovered, is actually like this. Everything is frustrating and absurd and ridiculous, but it all makes an odd sort of sense. Even the anticlimactic conclusion to the bleak final book, Mostly Harmless, seems, like the anticlimactic conclusions to all of our lives, inevitable and strangely beautiful.

Adams’ work doesn’t exactly lend itself to somber reflection on its author’s life, so I just want to say this. Mr. Adams, the 12-year-old me will be eternally grateful for your stories, and more often than you’d think, the 26-year-old me still enjoys them. Even though it’s no doubt been overused by now, I can think of no better send-off than the one you penned yourself.

So long, Mr. Adams, and thanks for all the fish.

* * * * *

Glory be, people actually voted. I got the most votes for R.E.M. (and Wally Fenderson didn‘t even vote…), so that’s what I’m going to talk about, but I want to add that this week in music made me very, very happy. The Weezer album is short, sharp and perfect pop, the Cowboy Junkies issued another wondrous slab of somnambulant melancholia, and Tool, well, Lateralus blew my fucking mind. They’re all worthy of your hard-earned cash.

If you look at the R.E.M. catalog as a whole, you can see the ebb and flow of their inspiration. The band definitely goes in cycles, letting their muse lead them to green pastures, even if they have to go through dung-strewn minefields to get there. Over a 20-year career, they’ve never sat still long enough to get sedentary. Pick any three R.E.M. albums at random and you’re guaranteed three totally different listening experiences.

I believe the band has only made three truly great albums: Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People. Diehards could, no doubt, make a substantial case for the worthiness of all of their 13 studio albums, and I’d agree to a point. While R.E.M. has never made an album that’s not, in some way, worth owning (even Monster), the three I’ve mentioned are the only flawless works in their canon. Amazingly, they sound nothing alike, to the point that one unfamiliar with the band might not believe the same musicians produced all three. Such are the rewards of being a constantly growing artist.

I’m coming around to the idea that Reveal, the group’s 13th album, is their fourth truly great record. It’s shorter and more focused than Up, their first album without drummer Bill Berry, and the songwriting borders on the sublime in more than a few cases. It’s certainly the group’s best work since Automatic for the People in 1992.

And again, if you played this disc immediately after any of their three other great albums, you’d never think it was the same band. Reveal is big-sounding, covered in layers of texture and color that only occasionally threaten to drown out the songs themselves. The songs win out, though, because Reveal is the most tune-centric R.E.M. album to date. The melodies are sweet and satisfying, and Stipe’s tendency to lyrically roam all around his enormous consciousness has thankfully been reined in. I’ve been struggling with how to describe the sound of this album, and I’ve settled on this: it’s Brian Wilson in space. If Wilson had recorded Pet Sounds in 1983 from orbit, it might sound a bit like Reveal.

The sheer mass of sound is achieved largely without the use of electric guitars. Only sporadically does Peter Buck whip out the amplifiers, and then only to send songs like “She Just Wants to Be” into the stratosphere with a soaring lead line. Acoustic guitars, piano, synthesizers and giant string sections make up the rest of the sonic pattern, and for the most part, they sit quietly next to each other, playing nice. Buck called this album “lush” in interviews, and that might be a super-sized understatement.

The star of the show is Stipe’s voice, mixed high and clear throughout. The vocal melodies sparkle and shine, and nowhere here is there an incomplete, unsatisfying song. (R.E.M. has given us those in the past: “Hairshirt,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Airportman,” etc.) “The Lifting,” which opens the record, twists and turns in lovely ways, the bridge section being my favorite. “Summer Turns to High” is glorious, as is “Disappear.” Note for note, these might be the best songs to come out of the band in 10 years.

(It’s ironic to note that just as Stipe’s vocals became clearer and his lyrics less oblique, the band began printing those lyrics on the sleeve. Guys, what we really need is a lyric sheet to Fables of the Reconstruction…)

It’s that excellent songwriting, though, that causes my biggest reservations about the production style. “Saturn Return,” for example, is a beautiful piano-vocal number, but it’s coated in bizarre sonic blips and swirls that almost obscure the heartbreaking clarity of the melody. The same can be said of “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” The latter is forced to support synths, strings, electronic drums and all kinds of little noises.

The production here makes Reveal one of those pure pop albums that’s instantly suspect. The consistent sunniness of the lyrics only adds to the impression that the band isn’t quite sincere. R.E.M. has never been a happy pop band (“Shiny Happy People” notwithstanding), and the frozen smile that faces outward at all times on Reveal feels like a lie. The preponderance of additional instruments makes sense if you’re trying to hide an inner sadness behind a sunny wall of sound. In many ways, that Brian Wilson analogy seems right on.

Suspicious intentions aside, though, Reveal is a great pop record, one that makes the last three transitional works worth it. This band has felt like a group of profoundly unhappy people for a long time now, with Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi opening wounds and Up salving them with melancholy. Reveal is a see-thru mask, a terrific exploration of one of pop music’s most confounding cliches – the tragic clown. There’s a lot of facepaint to wash off here, but Reveal hides itself so well that you can enjoy the show without digging deeper. If the members of R.E.M. were attempting to honor the spirit of Brian Wilson, they did it masterfully.

Next time, Tool. Uh-huh.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World
The Black Crowes Strike Back with Lions

The Black Crowes are the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is going to be one of those columns where I make a bold, blanket statement and then spend the rest of several thousand words defending it. The cool thing about doing it this way is that those that violently disagree with me have already stopped reading and are readying their vitriolic return e-mails. Bring ‘em on, I say. Spirited debate is the lifeblood of passionate, intelligent people, and I’m sure you all consider yourselves both of the above. One more time for the world:

The Black Crowes are the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

How you feel about this statement probably depends largely on your definition of rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of bands purport to play rock ‘n’ roll simply because they have the guitars-bass-drums lineup. Of all the bands to appear in the last 10 years or so, only one has come forth to challenge the Crowes, and that’s Buckcherry. They’re a band whose roots go back farther than Nirvana, and whose whole attitude screams that almost indefinable spirit of rock.

Some fool with a magazine column said of Radiohead’s Kid A that the British quintet had “redefined the rock band.” Radiohead is not now, and has never been, a rock band. Rock as a style requires a near-bypassing of the cerebrum entirely. Real rock ‘n’ roll sounds as if it’s being made up on the spot, and fired with an energy that can’t be planned, thought out or faked in any way. Whether or not you like Buckcherry, you can’t deny their energy and sloppy passion.

But we’re not here to talk about Buckcherry. We’re here to talk about the Black Crowes, the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

Admittedly, the Crowes have attained their title largely by default. I have a long-running argument with my old publisher, Bennie Green, who would scoff, “As long as the Rolling Stones are still playing, they’ll be the greatest rock band in the world.” I think that statement can only be made by ignoring the last quarter-century of sheer, monumental crap the Stones have consistently produced. At one time, yeah, they had it, but at this point the Stones have sucked for 25 years and no one’s had the heart to tell them.

Aerosmith is another contender, or they were before Diane Warren and a host of awful studio producers got their hands on them. They’ve alternated between glimmers of greatness and torrents of awfulness since re-forming in 1985, and they seem genuinely pleased to warble crap like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and share a stage with Britney and Nelly at the Super Bowl. The tragedy of Aerosmith is that when they’re on, they’re terrific.

Besides those two, though, who’s the competition? On sheer attitude and consistency, the Crowes have had the field to themselves ever since their 1990 debut. When you put on a Black Crowes album, you feel it. They’re a band that hearkens back to the grand resurgence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, drawing on influences like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grand Funk Railroad and, yes, the Rolling Stones. To call them clones is to miss the point. They’re torch-bearers, and without them, the ‘90s would have been intolerably rock-free.

As something of an acknowledgement of their royal position, the Crowes have titled their sixth album Lions, after the king of the jungle. Like all of their works, this record could have been released in 1972 and no one would have bat an eye.

Lions most resembles the Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. In fact, they seem to be going in a bit of a cycle. Their debut was a slick rock record, and they followed it up with Companion, a glorious mess. After the challenging double album that became Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm, the boys returned to the sound of the debut with the powerhouse By Your Side in 1998. Lions, like Companion, follows up a slick rock record with a wondrous, sloppy mess that sounds spontaneously created.

Indeed, it even kicks off with a false start, a feedback-drenched mistake that only cements the impression that Lions is a live recording. A little checking found that the basic tracks (guitars, bass, drums, keys and lead vocals) were laid down live, a rarity these days. Even Phish is assembling their studio albums rather than performing them. What you get with Lions is a great rock band being just that.

Even notorious over-producer Don Was couldn’t sink the vibe the live recording created. He occasionally piles the strings on, which almost ruins “Losing My Mind,” one of the weaker tracks to begin with. His production touches are appreciated in the closer, “Lay It All On Me,” though. Remember on those great Zeppelin records when Jimmy Page would let loose a wailing electric guitar solo in the midst of a flurry of orchestration, and the effect was monolithic? A similar effect is achieved here, and even though we’ve heard this sort of thing before, it still soars.

Don Was also learned well the lesson Paul McCartney taught on the second side of Abbey Road: a bunch of unrelated songs can be made to sound like a suite simply by segueing them. Every track on Lions flows directly into the next (except, of course, for the last one), and even though the songs mean nothing to each other, they seem inseparable. In this age of the three-minute single, it’s a defiant statement that Lions is meant to be heard as a whole.

Driving the whole train, however, is the awesome rock ‘n’ roll presence of the Crowes themselves. Guitarist Rich Robinson has perfected his deceptively messy style, and his tone here is harsh and distorted. A Hendrix parallel wouldn’t be too far off. His singing brother Chris is, God bless him, absolutely live here, just like he was on Companion. Remember “Sometime Salvation,” in which he sounded on the verge of snapping his vocal cords at any second? Remember how invigorating it was to hear a singer thrust that much of himself through the microphone and onto the disc? Robinson hits wrong notes, flubs rhythms and strains his little heart out to reach the high notes, and all the while he presents himself with unrestrained conviction. He is a born rock ‘n’ roll singer.

In an age of computer-adjusted pre-fab pop stars and safe-for-radio “modern rock,” whatever the hell that means, it’s a rare, refreshing treat to hear a great band just get down and play. That’s an opportunity that Lions affords you, and in all its unkempt imperfection, it’s a joy. If you can get through the whole thing without playing air guitar once, you may want to invest in that Steely Dan box set, ‘cause rock ‘n’ roll has passed you by.

End of review proper. Here’s a few scattered notes that couldn’t be squeezed in:

In keeping with what seems to be a ridiculous tradition these days, the album’s weakest track, “Lickin’,” is also the first single. I’m not sure why they did this, especially when the very next song, “Come On,” would have been a far superior choice.

The Crowes have long been supporters of the Internet as a music distribution outlet. Their live album with Jimmy Page first appeared as a download months before it hit stores. For a limited time, when you purchase Lions, you get a password that links you to a site chock full of Crowes live performances. You can stream whole shows, download highlights and even download one entire show, and the band endorses your next impulse, which would be to burn it onto a CD. For the price of one disc, you get a free live album out of the deal. That’s pretty cool, and it also shows this band’s devotion to the ‘net as the future of artist-fan relations.

That’s all for now. Next week is huge, with Tool, R.E.M., Weezer and the Cowboy Junkies. I’m not sure which I’ll choose, but if you have a preference, e-mail me and let me know. Thanks for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Open Skies, Electric Miles and a Guy Named Glen
Three Good Reasons to Like 2001

I got an e-mail from Shane Kinney, drummer for the Portland band Broken Clown. Kinney’s one of the funniest people you’d ever hope to meet, as well as one of the nicest, and his band is one of the only Portland-area groups to remember what real rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like. They’re loud, abrasive, distinctive, hilarious and terrific. If you don’t believe me, go to and check them out.

I’m going to ask a favor on Shane’s behalf. Go to, website for Portland’s only “modern rock” station, and request Broken Clown’s tune “Feelgood Hit of the Summer.” The band’s trying to get the tune into rotation on the notoriously local-phobic station, and your votes could seriously help them out. The Portland music scene provided me with my first professional writing gig, and I’d take it as a personal favor if you’d help me give a bit back. Thanks.

Oh, and while I’m shamelessly plugging the boy, surf on over to to read his columns and other funny bits. His second (and rapidly becoming first) career is as a stand-up comedian, and he’s a natural.

The new music well is overflowing in the next couple of weeks, especially on the 15th, when we’ll get the new Cowboy Junkies, the new R.E.M., the new Tool and the long-awaited new Weezer. Megadeth lays another egg on the 15th as well, called The World Needs a Hero. I logged onto in the vain hope that this record would be better than the last three. My spirits rose when I saw that Vic Rattlehead, the band’s erstwhile mascot, will make another cover appearance for the first time since Rust in Peace in 1992.

And then I heard the song, “Burning Bridges.” Feh. Crap. Ass. It sucks mightily. I think I’m all done with Dave Mustaine.

Anywho, with the new Black Crowes coming next week, and no end in sight for the new stuff until October or so, I realized that if I wanted to mention some of the great new releases I’ve picked up in the past month, I’d have to do it this week. Already, 2001 has it all over 2000, and here are three of the reasons why:

I can’t understand why G. Love is not a superstar. His laid-back, hip-hop-inflected funk has actually gone in and out of vogue twice since he started his career in 1993. To his credit, he’s never done anything differently, and yet he remains ignored by the radio gods. Meanwhile, Sugar Ray cops his style (badly) and gets rewarded with hit after hit. I don’t get it.

The fifth album by G. Love and Special Sauce, titled Electric Mile, sounds just like the fourth album, which sounds just like the third album, and so on. Ordinarily I’d be adverse to this lack of artistic growth, but it meshes perfectly with G. Love’s easygoing style. For the entire running time of Electric Mile, Love sounds like he’s just woken up in a peaceful field of flowers and smoked a big fat doob. This is not a tortured soul. In G. Love’s world, everyone can just get along.

I was a big fan of Love’s first album, and since he hasn’t changed a thing since then, I’ve liked everything since. Electric Mile shimmies and shakes in all the right places, and Love seems to know exactly when in a song to demonstrate that he really can play that guitar. Love was merging folk and hip-hop years before Ani DiFranco got around to it, and he turns in another couple of acoustic-based, Bob-Dylan-meets-the-inner-city anthems in “Free at Last” and “Sara’s Song.”

Electric Mile, like all of Love’s albums, wafts on a sweet, sweet vibe. Even when he’s decrying social ills (“Parasite”) or describing his own death (“Poison”), that vibe remains. Electric Mile is another in a series of G. Love albums that never try too hard and succeed winningly because of it. Now, if we can just get “Unified” or “Shy Girl” on the radio…

I have a friend (hi, Chris) who thinks that Glen Phillips, singer for the now-defunct acoustic pop group Toad the Wet Sprocket, is a great lyricist. While I’ve always liked Toad, I never paid too much attention to their lyrics, so when it came time to hear Phillips’ solo album, called Abulum, I read the words first.

Chris, you were so right.

Maybe it was there all along, or maybe the breakup of his band brought something out in him, but Phillips has crafted a great set of lyrics for his solo debut. If the music doesn’t quite match up to the standards set by the lyrics, well, that’s okay. Every song is, at the very least, memorably singable, and that just puts the focus back on the lyrics anyway.

One thing I’ve always liked about Phillips is that he’s one of the only male songwriters who seems to hate men as much as some female songwriters do. (For a good example, see “Hold Her Down,” on Toad’s third album, fear.) Here he takes deadly aim with a song called “Men Just Leave” that’s a definite highlight of the record. Dig this:

“There’s a place in the desert where the men all meet/They park their vans in the shade and talk about Kerouac and the works of the Beats/Let their dogs play together, drink beer and they sing/They’ve all got a secret treasure, wallet pictures in their pockets of the kids they never see/One and one ends up to be three, don’t need to have love, don’t need to be sweet/But when the air gets heavy and it’s hard to breathe, the women get stuck and the men just leave.”

If you can imagine this, that’s sung to a jolly acoustic accompaniment. Later on, he offers a cautionary tale about men who prey on women called “Professional Victim”: “They can smell the weak ones and just pick you off like a pigeon/And each one is worse than the last one until you’re a professional victim.” My favorite is the last line of that song: “All the pretty girls and the stupid boys make the same mistakes until they’ve got no choice.”

For all his gender politics, Phillips is at his best when he’s observing and describing. “Fred Myers” is a terrific portrait of happy-go-lucky homelessness, and “Trainwreck” describes its protagonist thusly: “She was as desperate as a salesman at a company that’s folding, but they haven’t told the staff yet that they’re bankrupt and backordered, and they’re funneling the pensions to the CEO’s back pocket so in one week they’ll have nothing.” That fits the melody perfectly, by the way.

In “Drive By,” Phillips remembers a fateful trip with his dad to shoot the neighbor’s dog. Along the way, the young Phillips prays to God: “Dear God, if you save this dog, I will never get high, I will never jack off/I will be all the things that I should but have not/ I’ll be a good boy from now on.” I won’t spoil how the song ends up, but it’s poetic storytelling.

The whole record is filled with gems like those. They’re all sung in Phillips’ sweet tenor, and much of the aggressive nature of the last two Toad albums has been thankfully excised. Phillips, like Freedy Johnston, never sounds right with swirls of electric guitar all around him. He’s better with a bed of acoustic guitars beneath him, and all of Abulum fits
that bill nicely. It’s a sweet surprise, and one that makes me want to go back and read the lyric sheets from his old band’s records.

I mentioned Iona’s new one about three or four weeks ago, and never got around to reviewing it. As much as I despise labels, the one Iona has come up with for themselves works as well as any: they’re a Celtic progressive band. In other words, imagine Dream Theater and Clannad getting together for a jam session. It sounds much better than you’d think.

Open Sky, the seventh Iona album, is worth getting just for the panoramic wide-angle photography that adorns the cover. The music inside is just as beautiful. The idea of a Celtic progressive band works so well that it’s a wonder no one’s thought of it before. The opener, “Woven Cord” (reprised from last year’s live album of the same name), is like a mission statement: thudding, cinematic drums and powerful bass guitar supporting a complex yet hummable melody played simultaneously on soaring electric guitar and uilleann pipes. There are synth washes atop tin whistles, violins and Celtic harps, and every once in a while, there’s a stunning Dave Bainbridge electric guitar solo. Floating above everything, an instrument in its own right, is the voice of Joanne Hogg.

Open Sky is the most complete Iona album. It flows like a single piece better than any of their other works, connected by lovely instrumentals like “A Million Stars” and buoyed by some of their most transcendent melodies. “Hinba,” especially, is a stunner. The album’s centerpiece is unquestionably the 22-minute “Songs of Ascent,” which drifts perfectly from melody to melody, instrumental save for a short section at the beginning. Unlike some progressive rock, this doesn’t noodle about. It sets glorious moods through jaw-dropping musicianship and arrangements, and somehow, it makes its bizarre blend of styles work. It’s best in one long 73-minute sitting, since it’s one of those albums that makes you feel as if you’ve been somewhere when you’re done with it.

As you may have guessed, I didn’t finish this whole thing on my lunch break. It’s now well past 10 p.m., so I’m going to say goodnight. Next week, Lions by the Crowes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Mark Your Calendars
New Releases Through the Summer

I’ve got to start this off with a recommendation for a film that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it.

Christopher Nolan’s film Memento is an entirely new kind of movie-watching experience, or at least, it was for me. You may have heard about it, and you may have noticed that it’s been receiving the best reviews of any film released this year. Memento is so critically adored that pretty soon it’s going to be fashionable to hate it.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I didn’t hate it. Memento is disguised as a standard thriller – good guy must hunt down the bad guy who raped and murdered the good guy’s saintly wife. Steven Seagal’s done that plotline three or four times, I think. There are a number of things that distinguish Memento, though, and I’ll just list a few of the more interesting ones:

1) The main character has short-term memory loss. He was injured in the assault that left his wife dead, and while he can remember everything up to that point, the recent present fades away every few minutes. Hence, he must leave notes for himself and take photographs to remind himself where he has been.

2) The film is mostly edited in reverse chronological order. Each sequence you see happens in the film directly before each sequence you just saw. (It makes sense. Really.) The stunning effect of this is it puts you in the same position as the main character – each scene is like waking up suddenly, with no context. In a revenge thriller film, that effect is spine-tingling.

3) The film races towards a towering mindfuck of a conclusion that I wouldn’t even dream of spoiling here. In fact, I’ve only spoiled as much as I have to make Memento sound intriguing enough for you to hunt down. It’s playing on only about 120 screens across the country right now. Wherever you live, it’s worth the drive.

For once, I think Roger Ebert missed the boat on this one. While he dug the film, he calls the backwards editing a device. On the contrary, it’s integral to the story and the audience’s appreciation of the character’s plight. Non-chronological editing has been used as a device before – in Pulp Fiction, for example. If you re-edit Pulp Fiction chronologically, the story remains the same. If you do the same with Memento, it doesn’t work at all. The way the story is told is, in fact, more important than the story. You’ll understand when you see it.

But I digress…

It’s time for the seasonal new releases roundup here at Tuesday Morning. I’m going to try to work this out so that every three months I provide you with a handy list of the interesting new music coming your way. None of this is information you couldn’t go get yourself, if you wanted to, but why would you when I’ve been so kind as to arrange it all here for you?

Think of this as a coming attractions sort of thing. For the next few months, here’s what I’ll be writing about:

On May 8, Mark Eitzel, the most depressed man in pop music, releases his fourth solo album, The Invisible Man. Eitzel used to be the frontman for American Music Club, but his solo stuff (especially West, which featured Peter Buck of R.E.M.) has really shined.

Speaking of R.E.M., their new one, Reveal, hits the following week, on May 15. I can’t say I’m a fan of “Imitation of Life,” the first single. It sounds to me like the Out of Time-era band covering Matthew Sweet, but worse, because ordinarily that description would be intriguing. Also on the 15th is Lions, the new Black Crowes disc. The cover alone is worth it. Oh yeah, the new Tool, Lateralus, also hits on the 15th, as does Open, the new Cowboy Junkies. Oh, wait, and some band called Weezer is putting out The Green Album on that date as well. Other than that, though, nothing on the 15th.

The 22nd sees the estimable comeback of Deep Blue Something, as well as the completely unwarranted return of Stabbing Westward. Both albums are self-titled. The French invade our shores again (HA!) when Air releases their fourth album, 10,000hz Legend, on May 29.

On June 5th, I was born. As if that wasn’t enough reason to celebrate, you can also dig Radiohead’s fifth album, Amnesiac. I’m quite looking forward to this, and I must admit I caved and listened to a few seconds of the first song. Instantly better than Kid A, and I can’t wait to hear more. The 5th also brings us Fatboy Slim’s wittily titled A Break From the Norm, Rufus Wainwright’s long-awaited Poses (date subject to change at God’s childlike whim), and Starflyer 59’s longest and fullest album yet, Leave Here a Stranger. As a side note, that was produced by long-ignored genius Terry Taylor.

June keeps rocking on the 12th with Travis’ follow-up, The Invisible Band. (I’m betting this record and Mark Eitzel’s back to back would be an experience.) Plus, the debut of Brian Setzer’s new rockabilly band, ‘68 Comeback Special. They call their first album Ignition.

Perry Farrell finally surfaces on June 19 with an album long rumored to be called The Diamond Jubilee. Guess what, though. It’s now called Song Yet To Be Sung. In the immortal words of Frank Barone, I could have eaten a box of Alpha-Bits and crapped something better. You don’t work for five years on something and then call it Song Yet To Be Sung unless you don’t like it much…

The 26th of June is quite promising, promising as it does the second Basement Jaxx album Rooty, the new Lindsey Buckingham solo disc Gift of Screws (and boy, is that guy underrated), and a double-disc effort from Stone Temple Pilots called Shangri-La-Deeda. At least it’s not called Robert Downey Jr. Made Me His Bitch In Prison.

July kicks off with Slayer (yes, fucking Slayer) and their new album, which they’ve sunnily titled God Hates Us All. The 3rd also sees the re-emergence of a great pop band called PFR. Their fifth album, to be released on Steve Taylor’s financially struggling Squint Entertainment label, is called Disappear. That’s only funny if you know that they’ve been away since 1994. Squint Entertainment is also promising us the new Sixpence None the Richer album sometime this year.

Wilco checks in on July 10 with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and a week later, Built to Spill hits with my favorite pretentious album title of the year so far, Ancient Melodies of the Future. Thing is, those guys always live up to titles like that…

And now we’re into stuff that may or may not come out on these dates. No guarantees from here on out:

Fantomas is the name of Mike Patton’s (of Faith No More) and Trevor Dunn’s (of Patton’s other band, Mr. Bungle) new project, and it’s supposed to come out on July 24. They Might Be Giants are following the trend of re-naming a perfectly well-titled album with something dumb by changing their August 15 album Nooooo!! to Mink Car. Silly decision. Busta Rhymes slinks back with Genesis on August 21, and Bjork’s Vespertine is slated for August 28. Finally, the one I’m most looking forward to, and naturally the furthest away: Tori Amos returns with an album called Strange Little Girls on September 18.

Other stuff that may or may not hit this year: Brand New Heavies are rumored to be working on Heavy Rhyme Experience Volume II, and if you remember the first one, you know how cool that was. New ones this summer are expected from Cake, De La Soul, Filter, Ben Folds (making his solo debut), Garbage, Freedy Johnston, Jude, Korn, Live, Alanis Morissette, Grant Lee Phillips, Prodigy, Seal, Wu-Tang Clan and a supergroup called Oysterhead that consists of bassist Les Claypool (Primus), drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police) and guitarist Trey Anastasio (Phish). More news as I know it.

If you hate these long lists, I’m sorry. More music next time.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together
Ani DiFranco's Superb Double Disc Revelling/Reckoning

There are people who think Ani DiFranco’s gotten too mainstream, too popular for her own good. Here’s a little story to dispel that notion, and it’s got a familiar chorus to it:

I tried to order her new album from both local record stores. To my knowledge, they still don’t have any copies in stock. One clerk I talked to had never heard of DiFranco. Here in Tennessee this new double album retails (if they ever stock it) for $27. I got mine (sing along now) from Bull Moose in Portland (thank you, Allison) for a grand total of $17.82. Tax included. The moral of the story is, not only does heartland America have no clue who Ani DiFranco is, they couldn’t afford her anyway. Mainstream? Not by half.

In fact, DiFranco has always been the furthest thing from mainstream you’d be likely to find. Over 12 years she’s afforded the serious listener the chance to watch the growth and maturation of an amazing artist on her own terms. DiFranco has never done anything musically for anyone but herself, as the legions of fans who have abandoned her as she’s turned away from her confessional folk roots will attest. She’s been on a trip since 1996’s Dilate, one that’s led her to create a series of strange, twisting records that defy easy categorization and casual listening. Since Righteous Babe Records, her label, is owned and operated by DiFranco herself (and always has been), she’s also able to release these records quite rapidly. In 1999 alone she had three full-length discs on the shelves, and they were all defiantly musical and oddly rewarding, but only after several listens.

She took all of 2000 off to write and record, and the fruits of her labor are now here. It’s called Revelling/Reckoning, it’s two hours long, and it’s her finest achievement. In fact, it’s so good that she can misspell “reveling” all she wants. I won’t mind.

In the truest sense, Revelling/Reckoning is not a double album, but rather two complete works packaged together. Her last few albums have managed a delicate balance between her sparse guitar-vocal material and her increasingly fuller jazz-folk stuff. The new one discards that balance completely, separating the two styles. Revelling is full of tasty horns and upbeat folk-pop, and Reckoning is a slow, peaceful, emotional slice of melancholia. The two records complement each other nicely, though, and the elaborate packaging emphasizes this. Instead of presenting a constantly shifting roller coaster, like she has in the past, here DiFranco has expertly simulated just the first treacherous rise and sickening drop. In slow motion.

If you take DiFranco’s catalog as a whole, it becomes apparent that some records are practice sessions for other ones. Now that Revelling/Reckoning is here, it puts her recent output into perspective. Every album since Little Plastic Castle has been a trial run for this beast – the arrangements have gotten more complicated, the jazz elements have been a little more prominent, and everything has slowed down. Completely absent from this two-hour tour is the wrist-breaking acoustic troubadour that made Puddle Dive, Out of Range and Not a Pretty Girl, to name three. In her place is Ani the studio wizard, Ani the constantly blooming songwriter, Ani the sonic innovator. Like it or loathe it, this is where she is now. I love it.

The great thing about Revelling/Reckoning is that each disc can stand on its own. Either one would have been an acceptable, even terrific new album. Together, though, they form a tour de force, the most consistent argument yet that this woman is a national treasure. Two hours of music this idiosyncratic, this emotional, and yes, this non-commercial would have had an uphill battle at any major record company. Ani produces her own records and owns the company that releases them. From no other living artist could you be so certain of experiencing an honest, uncensored artistic journey over an extended period of time.

And I haven’t even talked specifically about the record yet.

Revelling, taken on its own, is the culmination of DiFranco’s fascination over the last few years with melding jazz and folk into a new musical form. The horn arrangements that jump off of this disc are her most harmonically complex, and the songs are the most complete they’ve ever been. “Ain’t That the Way” grooves along while the wonderfully dissonant horns try to derail it for four minutes. “Marrow” is a big, bold pop song, “What How When Where (Why Who)” is almost ridiculously enjoyable, and “Rock Paper Scissors” is deep and lovely. Revelling also contains the most experimental tracks, especially “Kazoointoit,” which does indeed contain a kazoo part, albeit one played through an answering machine. By itself, Revelling feels like a destination, one that’s been a long time coming.

By contrast, Reckoning feels like a rediscovery. It’s almost entirely guitar and voice – only three of the 16 tracks contain drums. Even on her last few records, DiFranco has kept her slower tunes pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Here, she allows the jazz influence that permeates Revelling to inform her acoustic songwriting and arranging, and the result is her best material in ages. The tempo never rises above glacial, but those tasty horns come in at perfect intervals, and the whole thing sets a mood that she’s never tried to set before. It almost comes off as an hour-long song, stitched together by five small electric guitar pieces that really unify it. For all that, though, “So What,” Grey” and “Subdivision” are standouts.

But together, ah, together these discs paint a complete picture of the current state of Ani DiFranco. I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics, and I won’t do her the disservice of excerpting them, but suffice it to say that her reputation as a wordsmith remains unblemished. Revelling/Reckoning, like all of her albums, is as enjoyable to read as poems as it is to hear as songs. These tunes probe themes of faith, trust, identity and justice, as always, and she finds new and striking ways to broach each of these topics, like always.

Listening to Revelling/Reckoning as a single work is quite an experience. Instead of taking you to many different places, this album gives you in-depth knowledge of two musical landscapes, one sunny, one snow-covered, and to its credit, you end up not wanting to leave either one. Sure, two hours may seem like a long time to invest in a single release, but unlike a lot of double disc sets, this one doesn’t feel padded at all. Each record stands on its own, and the genius of pairing them is that each one prepares you for the other. You could listen to them as a circuitous whole for days and not get tired of them.

It’s amazing, really. Before our eyes, the little folksinger that could has developed into one of our most literate and original singer/songwriters, and all without losing touch of her emotional core. If you’re one of those pining for DiFranco to return to her old style, let this album serve as the final nail in that particular coffin. If, however, you’re one of those willing to trust an artist to take you places neither one of you has been, then this ride’s for you. In an astonishingly small amount of time, Ani DiFranco has grown into a musical force to be reckoned with. And revelled in.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles