Small World
Jeremy Enigk Returns With a Low-Key Winner

I’m back. I don’t even have to ask if you all missed me – I got half a dozen concerned emails from regular readers, wondering if I had died or been deported or joined a monastery or something. It’s the first week I’ve taken off in almost two years, and you’d think the world ended.

Seriously, thanks to everyone who wrote inquiring about my health. I’m fine, I just took a weekend and went to a pair of concerts in Minnesota. If you’d like to read all about my exploits, I detailed them in the other column I posted this week, which should be in the archive.

But this column is for business, so let’s get started with a look at new releases through the end of the year. It’s pretty slim pickings, and I think my top 10 list is fairly well set in stone right now, unless something comes along and surprises me. December, in particular, is the most barren final month of any year I can remember, populated as it is with dismal rap records and best-ofs. If you’ve been breathlessly awaiting that new Bow Wow, well, then December is the month for you. But if you’re a Bow Wow fan, I can’t imagine what you’re doing reading this in the first place.

Starting with next week, there’s Endless Wire, the first Who album in a quarter-century. I’m half-surprised to not find a cover of Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money” amongst the tracks here – it would fit right in with this cash-grubbing effort. What I have heard is simply godawful. Roger Daltrey can’t hit any of the notes he’s aiming for, and Pete Townshend, bless his heart, ran out of good melodies decades ago. John Entwistle probably would have added some class, but alas…

Anyway, also out next week is the second album from jazzy upstart Nellie McKay, the new one from the Deftones (produced by Bob Ezrin, the guy who made The Wall), guitar workout discs from Joe Satriani and Phil Keaggy, and the new Copeland, which I’m excited about. Also out is Willie Nelson’s umpteenth album, but this one’s special – he created it with Ryan Adams producing and the Cardinals as his backup band. Should be an interesting listen.

November 7 sees Frank Zappa’s Trance-Fusion, one of three unreleased albums he finished before he died. This one’s a collection of guitar solos, focusing on his final tour from 1988. (The others, by the way, are Dance Me This, a synth-symphony album, and The Rage and the Fury, a collection of Edgard Varese pieces Zappa conducted.) That week also will see Skin and Bones, a live acoustic album from the Foo Fighters. I quite liked the quiet half of In Your Honor, so this should be at least enjoyable.

November 14 boasts a number of minor releases, the most important of which (relatively speaking) is the new And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, So Divided. What I’ve heard of this has been excellent, with the band expanding the sonic palette they tried out for Worlds Apart. New ones by Damien Rice, Joanna Newsom and Mark Knopfler, as well as the debut from Army of Anyone (Filter’s Richard Patrick with Stone Temple Pilots’ DeLeo brothers), round out the week.

But hark! November 21, the last big week of the year, gives us a Sufjan Stevens box set! Five CDs! Of Christmas songs! I’m not kidding! Stevens never does anything small, so his homemade yuletide discs from the past five years are coming out boxed together, in a lavish package, just in time for the shopping season. A likely more interesting box set comes from Tom Waits that same week – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is part rarities collection, part new album, with 54 tracks separated into three categories.

Finishing us off are new ones from Spock’s Beard (self-titled, and sounding much more progressive than they have recently) and Loreena McKennitt (sounding exactly the same as she did when her last record came out, 10 years ago). And after that, nothing interesting at all until the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away in January. If anyone knows of anything else I might be interested in, something to fill those winter doldrums, let me know. And no funny emails recommending Bow Wow, you hear me?

* * * * *

With all that, I think I can safely call Jeremy Enigk’s World Waits the last major new album of the year.

Enigk is the much-respected mastermind behind Sunny Day Real Estate, one of the best and least-remembered groups of the ‘90s. Over four albums, they perfected a dramatic, melodic style, the ripples of which can still be felt in the modern rock pool. Since 2000, when SDRE released The Rising Tide, their final and most complete-sounding album, Enigk has been laying low. One album with the Fire Theft (3/4 of SDRE) in 2003, and that’s been it.

The title of Enigk’s new solo album is a cheeky one, but the record is, blessedly, another grand slice of dramatic rock. This one is more toned down, more restrained and more traditionally beautiful than much of what Enigk has given us in the past, but it’s no less a work of art. And Enigk’s voice remains a singular instrument, floating and wailing and carrying his melodies, and in fact the whole album, on its back.

The record begins with, fittingly, “A New Beginning,” a textured instrumental that leads into the chiming, clean guitars of “Been Here Before.” That song is a mini-masterpiece, and in its melody and 7/4 beat betrays a surprising influence – Peter Gabriel. At numerous points on World Waits, Enigk brings Gabriel to mind, both vocally and instrumentally, something that will no doubt cause the fans of Sunny Day’s first two albums to recoil. But the dramatic organ break in “Been Here Before” is simply irresistible, and should bring those folks back.

For all its grandeur, most of World Waits is fairly simple. “River to Sea” is a sweeping folk waltz, the strings and backing chorale bringing it to life, and “Canons” follows its repeated piano figure into melodic bliss. The biggest surprise is “City Tonight,” which draws on U2’s Pop period for influence – it is by far the most “normal” song Enigk has ever leant his voice to.

The second half brings the majesty, even though tempos remain sedate throughout. “Damien Dreams” is low-key and suspenseful, the rumbling cello filling out the bottom end while Enigk reaches for the sky vocally. “Wayward Love” is a progressive collage of vocals and acoustic guitars, while “Dare a Smile” adds mandolin and Brian May-style guitar harmonies to an otherwise simple piece. And in the title track, Enigk has crafted one of the year’s best songs, a mix of Gabriel and Death Cab that works surprisingly well.

World Waits is not the unbridled hunk of brilliance some may have expected from Jeremy Enigk after so long, and its quiet tones and textures don’t quite match up with the power he wielded in SDRE. But give it time, and the subtle beauties begin to present themselves. In a year marked by underachievers, Enigk’s commitment to drama and melody, no matter how sedate the trappings, sound refreshingly complete. The world was waiting, and Enigk has delivered.

Next week, a bunch of reviews, including Ben Folds, Deftones, Copeland and others. Thanks again for all the letters of concern – I’m back, and here to stay.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Sacred and the Profane
A Tale of Twin Cities

So you know how Muslims are supposed to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives? Well, if music is my religion (and many who know me would agree that it is), I may have to start making regular pilgrimages to Dr. Tony Shore’s music room.

Yes, the man has an entire room set aside for music, for the collected spoils of decades of obsessive fandom. Three of the four walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in CDs, be they singles, albums or box sets. His closet is stuffed with vinyl and other collectibles. He has pictures of himself with his heroes, and framed gold albums that he worked on and helped promote during his years in the music industry.

I could have spent all weekend in there, easy, just pulling out and listening to the albums I hadn’t heard. (Thousands of them – there’s nothing like finding an even more obsessive music fan to drive home just how much you have to learn and hear.) But that wasn’t why I was there.

No, Dr. Shore and his wife Sara graciously opened their home to me for two reasons – Frank Zappa and Jars of Clay. It’s not often that you find a fan of both FZ and Jars, since they seem to operate on opposite ends of the musical and lyrical spectrum, which makes Dr. Shore and I two specimens of a rare breed. So I made the six-hour trek to Minnesota last weekend to join the good doctor and revel in our shared love of all kinds of music, and to see two concerts that undoubtedly drew none of the same fans, except us.

Zappa was first – the aptly named Zappa Plays Zappa show at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. First of all, it’s a beautiful venue, just breathtaking. Every major city should have at least one old stage-show theater like this, perfectly preserved and ornate while still being cozy. It’s the kind of place that elevates the artistic merit of whatever’s being performed on stage, and encourages people to remain seated, which is exactly the way Frank Zappa liked it.

How to explain Frank Zappa’s music to people who’ve never heard it? His work was complex (some would say impossible), yet earthy. He was a master of many different styles of composition, and he combined them all – he brought jazz structures to rock music, composed orchestral pieces and then transformed them into guitar workouts, took everyday events from the lives of those around him and crafted progressive epics about them, and slathered everything with a crude sense of comedy and attitude. He was a rock star with the brain of Stravinsky, and a guitar player the likes of which the world has rarely seen.

Zappa died of cancer in 1993, 17 days shy of his 53rd birthday. In his wake, he left one of the most extensive and rewarding catalogs in modern music, spanning more than 60 albums in fewer than 30 years. I am one of those Zappa fans who feels that it’s all worth hearing, that it all contributes to one long, cohesive album (a phenomenon Zappa called “conceptual continuity”). Zappa never got his due as a composer, and I think it’s because he never adopted a self-serious attitude about his work. Even his magnum opus, a two-hour orchestral piece called Civilization Phaze III, is about people living inside a piano and talking about pigs and ponies.

But if you want a case for why Frank Zappa should be revered, you couldn’t do much better than catching a Zappa Plays Zappa show. This is Frank’s son Dweezil’s labor of love, his way of turning more people onto his father’s genius. It’s three hours and 20 minutes (at least, the show I saw) of Zappa songs, played to perfection by an incredible band, and featuring some special guests. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

There were two things I worried about before seeing the show. First, I was afraid that Dweezil and his band would pick the easiest numbers, and we’d get an evening of “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Camarillo Brillo.” Not so. While they didn’t get into “Sinister Footwear” or “G-Spot Tornado” or anything like that, the band did bite into some seriously difficult pieces, like “Inca Roads” and the great “Cheepnis.” They did the “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite, but skipped all the easy parts, diving right into “Father O’Blivion.” I could not have been happier with the song selection.

My second worry was Dweezil himself. For whatever reason, I’ve never had much time for Dweezil Zappa. I’ve heard his five solo albums (including the decent new one, Go With What You Know), and his two records with Z, featuring his brother Ahmet. But I’ve never thought him up to the level of his father, and hence dismissed him, without really considering that very few people are up to Frank’s level.

But man, this was a whole new Dweezil. His guitar playing was perfect, especially in the long solo sections, and his skill as a bandleader was extraordinary. While Frank’s shows had a hint of a sneer to them each time out, Dweezil, with his laid-back demeanor, fostered an atmosphere of love for the music, and it was contagious. There are three guitar pieces that Frank bequeathed to Dweezil upon his death, requesting that no one else play them. Dweezil performed one of them that night, the bluesy “Black Napkins,” and if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine Frank up on stage, so exact was the tone and phrasing.

In short, Dweezil did a swell job – reverent and exacting and still boatloads of fun.

But the special guests made the evening. On vocals for most of the show was Napoleon Murphy Brock, the voice of the early 1970s Mothers of Invention. Brock sang and played flute on some of Zappa’s most beloved albums, including Roxy and Elsewhere and One Size Fits All. The man has to be in his 60s, but he was a boundless reserve of energy, and he hasn’t lost a note. His voice was crystal clear the whole night, and he performed some of Zappa’s trickiest vocal pieces (like the first half of “Inca Roads”) brilliantly. And, he never stopped moving.

Roughly halfway through the show, Terry Bozzio made his way out. This guy’s a legend, one of the finest drummers you’ll ever hear – he played this massive drum kit that encircled him on all sides, little toms and cymbals surrounding him. And as he did with Zappa’s bands, not only did Terry play like a madman, but he sang lead vocals while doing so. I was stunned to hear a full rendition of “Punky’s Whips,” one of the most difficult pieces of Zappa’s late-‘70s canon. It’s a labyrinthine piece of work, on which Bozzio sang and played up a storm.

And then there was Steve Vai. I’ve never seen Vai play before, but he’s been one of my favorite guitarists since I was 15. No one plays like Vai. His tone is otherworldly, and he’s able to make his six-string (and sometimes seven-string) talk, sing, wail and weep. He came out to help perform “The Black Page,” a percussion-led piece that got its name from the amount of notes on the sheet music – it looked like a black page. Needless to say, it’s nearly impossible to play correctly, but the band nailed it.

So I got to hear Steve Vai and Dweezil Zappa trade leads on an extended, amazing “Montana,” and I got to hear one of my favorite (and often forgotten) Zappa tunes, “Village of the Sun.” Dweezil and the band stretched out on a 10-plus-minute “The Torture Never Stops,” and encored with “More Trouble Every Day,” which in my world is an enduring classic. And then Dweezil nearly choked up while talking about his dad and his music, then left us with “Regyptian Strut,” a fine and glorious fanfare. It was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

One thing I will say, though, is that the Zappa family could be a little better at self-promotion. Their merchandise booth held no music at all, not even the posthumous Frank albums that you can’t get from any other source. This has been a good year for Zappa fans, with the dizzying live document Imaginary Diseases, and the forthcoming four-CD Making of Freak Out box set. But the capper is Trance-Fusion, one of three records Frank finished before he died. It’s out now through the Zappa family, and you’d think that Dweezil might have mentioned that from the stage or something. But no.

Trance-Fusion was expected in stores on October 24, but it’s been pushed back to November 7 for some reason, even though it’s been finished and awaiting release for 13 years. The Zappas just this week posted information about it to their website, but it’s not comprehensive in any way. People who wander to the site and don’t know what Trance-Fusion is won’t find out from the so-called official source. Additionally, I and many others have already pre-ordered the Freak Out box set, for $75. The release date has been pushed back twice, and we still don’t even know what’s on this thing – there’s no track list available.

It’s obvious that Dweezil and the family care about Frank’s music. But they need to learn to channel that care into regular information and customer service, or the fanbase is going to go elsewhere for their Zappa fix. And we don’t want to do that. We’d rather buy it from the family, especially a family that creates something as magical and loving as the Zappa Plays Zappa show.

Anyway, rant over. The next night was utterly different – we segued from the author of “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” the guy who led crowd chants of “ram it up your poop chute,” to a quartet of devout and thoughtful Christians named Jars of Clay. Jars played at Northwestern Bible College in St. Paul, a thoroughly different atmosphere than the Zappa show, but a moving one nonetheless.

Of course, Dr. Shore insisted on wearing his Zappa Plays Zappa t-shirt to the Jars show, which earned him a bunch of dirty looks. But that was okay, since Shore promoted the boys in the band when he worked for Essential Records, and he knows them pretty well. We got to slip backstage and meet the band, which was a nice experience. They seem like sweet guys.

I have a hard time explaining to people what I see in Jars of Clay. I have that same problem with most of the Christian bands I like, because people really get caught up in the Jesus angle without listening to the music. I play people Jars of Clay, and they listen for the J-word, almost hoping to be turned off by it. It’s strange, because musically, they’re a top-notch pop-rock band, and lyrically, they’re deeper and more thoughtful than 90 percent of what gets marketed as Christian music.

Case in point – backstage, the band members were complaining about a magazine review they just received, one which concentrated on the Christian angle and ignored the artistry. “You’d never hear them say, ‘You know, for an atheist, this guy plays guitar well,’” six-stringer Steve Mason said, and he’s right. It’s a strange bias, but it’s there, undeniably.

Adding insult to injury, that particular review was for Jars’ new album, Good Monsters, which is quite possibly the best thing they’ve ever done. After two records of low-key, acoustic folk-pop, Monsters is a loud, explosive piece of work, storming out of the gate with “Work” and “Dead Man,” two of the catchiest songs they’ve written. The whole thing sounds live and full of energy, more so than any previous record of theirs, and the lyrics follow suit, with tales of doubt and faith that find new ways to explore old themes.

That energy translated to the stage – they slammed through the first three tracks on Monsters right off the bat, opening with the third, a powerful rendition of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “All My Tears.” They played almost the entire new album, and the surprising highlight was the extended, poetic coda of “Oh My God,” a prayer of repentance and despair: “Hospitals that cannot treat, all the wounds that money causes, all the comforts of cathedrals, all the cries of thirsty children, this is our inheritance, all the rage of watching mothers, this is our greatest offense…”

They cranked out some old classics, of course, like “Flood” and “The Eleventh Hour,” but to be honest, the new material just blew the old stuff away. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that Jars remembered how to rock, because they have never rocked like this before. They’ve made a lot of good albums (honestly, all you doubters, they have), but Good Monsters may well be their first great one.

The biggest surprise of the night for me, however, was the opening act. The sports editor at my newspaper, Dave Parro, got me into the music of one of his friends, Matt Wertz, earlier this year. Wertz plays an amiable mix of acoustic pop and Motown soul, and he has a great voice, if a generic way with words. His new album, Everything In Between, was scheduled to come out on Nettwerk in September, and I’m not sure what happened, but it never materialized.

But lo and behold, there was Matt Wertz taking the stage before Jars, playing a strong set of fun acoustic tunes. The audience loved him, and frankly, he’s pretty lovable – he has a winning sense of himself, and a self-deprecating demeanor on stage that gets you on his side immediately. He conducted singalongs for several songs, and invited Mason on stage to join him for “Carolina.” His sweet disposition followed him off stage, where he wandered the lobby, introducing himself to people and shaking hands.

And of course, he had Everything In Between with him. It’s a short disc, barely half an hour, but it is sonically his biggest record, and his most varied. It contains “Heartbreaker,” a shuffling, bouncing song that stands as my favorite of his, but also whispery ballads like “5:19” and the closing “Capitol City.” “The Way I Feel” is soulful, while “Over You” is a straight-ahead rock song. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the album is just as likeable and pleasant as Wertz himself.

You can hear it and buy it here.

Many thanks to Dr. Tony Shore and his family for letting me stay the weekend. It was a blast. You can read the good doctor’s blog here. He said he’d have something up about the Zappa show before I did, but as of yet, no dice… But what else should I expect from a guy who won’t acknowledge Steve Hogarth’s brilliance. (“Post-Fish Marillion,” he insists on calling it…) Seriously, thanks again, Doc.

This is one of two columns I’ve posted this week. The other is a more traditional tm3am, with a review of Jeremy Enigk’s long-awaited new solo album. I’ll be back on track after that, one a week for the foreseeable future. That’s right, you’re all stuck with me…

See you in line Tuesday morning.