Fantastic Four
More Reasons to Love 2007

And the deaths just keep on coming this year. I just heard that Drew Hayes, creator of Poison Elves, succumbed to a heart attack earlier this week.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Poison Elves was a comic book about a nasty, nasty elf named Lusiphur. Drew Hayes, a physically imposing and yet, by all accounts, incredibly nice man with a knack for detailed linework, wrote, drew and self-published Poison Elves for 20 issues. Then he hooked up with publisher Sirius Entertainment and wrote and drew 79 more.

It’s been years since we’ve seen a new Poison Elves issue, and more than once, I’d thought that stopping with #79 was a cruel joke – if you add the self-published issues, then Drew got to #99, just one shy of that magical one hundred. Rumors of ill health abounded for years, and Hayes spent some time in the hospital, but in his public statements, he remained upbeat. His heart attack came after a long bout with pneumonia, just as he had been discussing re-starting Poison Elves. He was only 37.

Even at its best, Poison Elves was crude, full of typos and sketchy backgrounds. But it also had a phenomenal energy, and was obviously the work of a committed creator. I met Drew a couple of times while working on Tapestry, and he had even agreed to do a cover for our ninth issue. We never got past issue six, so I never got to see what Drew would have done with our characters, unfortunately.

Sirius has kept the Poison Elves universe alive in recent years with a number of ancillary books, including Lost Tales, Ventures and Dominion. But without Drew Hayes, it just wasn’t the same. And now, it never will be again. So long, Drew. You’ll be missed.

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On to happier things. If you need further proof that 2007 is the best year in a long time for new music, well, my plan today is to provide that proof. It hardly matters what kind of music you like, this year has slaked your thirst and then some. This week I have new records for people who dig indie rock, piano balladry, epic metal and electro-pop, and they’re all superb. If you read music reviews for the witty bitching about the state of the music industry, you may want to check somewhere else, because I’m all smiles right now.

We’ll start with the most anticipated, and most discussed, of our fantastic four: Modest Mouse. Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of Isaac Brock and his crew, especially their early work. This is the kind of admission that can get my membership in the Snotty Music Reviewers Club revoked, but I can still, to this day, barely get through all of their ass-aching debut, This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. (In my house, it is alternately known as This is a Long Record for Someone with Nothing to Sing About.)

But like any good band, Modest Mouse has grown progressively better, often by giant steps. Follow-up The Lonesome Crowded West was much better, if still a little sparse and overly long, and breakthrough The Moon and Antarctica was even better than that. Then came 2004’s ubiquitous Good News for People who Love Bad News, the band’s biggest leap away from their roots and into fascinating new musical styles. Even if you don’t think you have, you’ve heard “Float On,” the massive hit from that album, and the new textures (coupled with the newfound popularity) incensed some fans and critics.

Naturally, it was my favorite Modest Mouse album. I say “was” because the new one, blessed with the extraordinary title We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, has supplanted it. To my mind, there’s no question that We Were Dead is the finest Modest Mouse record to date, and the first one I can unreservedly recommend.

As you’ve probably guessed, that means We Were Dead leaps even further away from their scrappy rock roots. If you liked Good News, well, good news: this album dives wholeheartedly into glorious, lush production, and expands the group’s songwriting further into the realms of epic pop. To these ears, We Were Dead sounds like the funeral party for the Lonesome Crowded West band, and though some will mourn, I think it’s an unqualified good thing.

I’m not sure how much of the new sound is attributable to Modest Mouse’s newest member, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. But I can tell you this – the band has never produced anything like the liquid guitar tones on “Fire it Up,” or like the shimmering melodies of “Little Motel.” The album squonks to life with “March Into the Sea,” an accordion-driven beast that finds Brock making Cookie Monster noises, but before long, “Dashboard” takes over, its dance beat and clipped six-string lines making it the perfect first single.

Most of the record vacillates between those two poles, Brock shouting over controlled mayhem one minute and delivering sweet singalongs the next. The astonishing “Parting of the Sensory” hits all the spots at once, starting with a slinky crawl and building to a grand breakdown, complete with tribal drums. “Florida” finds Brock doing a dynamite David Byrne impression over a pounding backdrop. “We’ve Got Everything” perfects the dance beat style, taking from new wave as much as from classic indie rock. And the great “Spitting Venom” takes its sea shanty framework and expands it into an eight-minute wonder, with shining clean guitars weaving in between subdued horn lines. It’s the first of the Mouse’s longer songs that I think earns the extra space.

Shins leader James Mercer guests on vocals on three songs, and wow, what a contribution he makes. He’s especially effective on the aforementioned “We’ve Got Everything,” providing high countermelodies and a great bit where he’s repeating “We’ve got, we’ve got” as the band shimmies and shakes behind him. I’m in a real Shins mood lately – their excellent Wincing the Night Away is still my favorite record of the year – so Mercer’s appearance here was a nice surprise.

But it’s Brock’s show, and he’s stepped up with the best songs of his career. We Were Dead is Modest Mouse’s most consistent album, and unlike the endless drone of Long Drive and other early works, this album pulls you along in its current. You won’t even notice its 62-minute running time. I can fully understand the bad reviews of this record from the more indie-minded publications – this is the most polished, shiny, squeaky-clean album the band has ever made. It’s also the best, and if, like me, you’ve been waiting for Brock to grab hold of his potential and realize it, then buckle up and take the dive, because he’s done it.

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Matt Hales calls himself Aqualung. I don’t understand it, I don’t agree with it, and I think of Jethro Tull every time I hear someone say it. But there it is – somehow, Hales has picked the worst possible name for himself, considering what he does. (Okay, something like Fuckbutcher would probably be worse, but you know what I mean.)

The shame of the name is that Hales is a great piano-pop songwriter, in the modern Brit-pop tradition. He has the charm and melodic sense of Coldplay (and now that I think about it, I guess Coldplay is a stupid name, too) and the same love of atmosphere that Marillion brings to their work. (Marillion’s not that great of a name either. Maybe it’s just the Brits. They also gave us Mansun, Echobelly, Menswear… yeah, it’s the Brits.)

Sticking with the odd names, Hales has titled his just-released third album Memory Man, after an effects module that can create analog-sounding delay and reverb. That little box with knobs on it above his keyboard on the cover? That’s a Memory Man.

Americans have never really heard an Aqualung album. Hales’ first U.S. release was Strange and Beautiful, a compilation of the 12 best tracks from his first two albums, Aqualung and Still Life. Like most compilations, Strange had no dead spots, but since I’ve never heard the two albums it drew from, I wondered what Hales’ hit-to-miss ratio would be when delivering 11 new songs all at once. As it turns out, it’s pretty damn good – Memory Man is pretty much extraordinary from the first note.

The first thing you’ll notice about this new album is how sonically rich it is. Opener “Cinderella” takes its cues from Radiohead (by which I mean good, early period Radiohead, not later period, self-indulgent ass party Radiohead), throwing in a brass section and, in one breathtaking section, a choir. It’s enormous, and yet still delicate, like the best of Hales’ work. First single “Pressure Suit” is superb – what could have been a simple, bare ballad becomes a masterpiece thanks to some great production, and Hales’ falsetto carries the melody beautifully.

“Something to Believe In” is as close as Hales comes to rocking, with its insistent beat and sharp chorus. But most of Memory Man is given over to fragile, graceful ballads, like the grand “Glimmer” and the gentle, almost creepy “The Lake.” Hales takes on a soulful tone with “Rolls So Deep,” backed by a gospel choir. Two songs later, he’s defying gravity on “Black Hole,” a thick, oscillating number that revolves around the line “If love is not the answer, then maybe I misunderstood the question…”

Like Modest Mouse, Aqualung includes a guest vocalist – Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile sings on “Garden of Love,” which could easily be a Blue Nile song. Like his special guest, Hales writes sweet little epics that take time to sink in, and “Garden of Love” is perhaps the least immediate of these tunes. But give it a few listens, and its beauty becomes undeniable, especially when Buchanan comes in over Hales’ rolling piano chords, which build to a massive climax. It’s a great little moment.

Memory Man concludes with perhaps its most affecting song, “Broken Bones.” Played with just piano and voice, it is a plaintive plea for grace. Its first half sounds like it was recorded through an old radio system, far away and doused in static, with occasional noisy breaks as the signal cuts out. Before long, though, Hales is right next to you, playing and singing his heart out on a piano that seems to drop out of tune here and there, adding to the effect. “This world is burning and I’m terrified,” he sings. “I need a little more time with you.”

Against the odds, Memory Man is actually a better album than Strange and Beautiful, with a better batting average. Hales has turned in his finest work here, and if your tastes range towards the peaceful and heartbreaking, I’d recommend picking this up. It takes a lot to get me to look past a name like Aqualung, but Hales is a terrific songwriter and record maker. Don’t let a lousy sobriquet keep you away from his work.

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Pretty high on the list of Bands People Can’t Believe I Like is Type O Negative.

How to explain what I love about them? Type O is often pegged as a Black Sabbath tribute band, but this is only partly true. The quartet does take their slow-as-death crawl and riff-heavy style from Sabbath, but they also take liberally from the Beatles, from gothic music, from hardcore, and from a hundred other sources. When they mix all this up with fantastic production and an ever-present sense of black humor, the result is usually both musically fascinating and completely enjoyable.

No question, Type O is a dark, dark band, at least on the surface. Listen more closely, though, and you’ll realize that these are the guys who crack up at funerals, who laugh at death and despair because it’s better than succumbing to it. They first drew national attention with “Black #1,” a song that was somehow embraced by the goth-music community, despite its taking the piss out of the whole goth scene. Type O records deal with drug abuse, misery, pain and, of course, death – lots and lots of death – but they do so with a whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of wryness that I find inexplicably appealing.

The band’s seventh album has a very Type O title, Dead Again, and a very Type O cover picture, an all-green shot of Russian mystic Gregori Rasputin, who was assassinated in 1916. The CD jacket folds out into a cross, and the four band members are not pictured, though they are depicted as skeletons in coffins. They’re in on this joke, folks – the Type O boys will never let you forget they’re just a bunch of goofballs from Brooklyn.

But one thing that’s never a joke is the quality of the band’s music. On the heels of the quirky, shorter pop songs of Life is Killing Me, Dead Again features 10 songs over 77 minutes, and hails the return of the band’s epic side. It also includes some of the heaviest, fastest material the band has released since its debut back in 1991. Don’t be fooled by the crawling, sludgy intro to the title track – one minute in, Johnny Kelly’s drums explode with fury, and bassist/singer/giant freaking man Peter Steele is shouting at himself, condemning his own drug problem: “First to admit I’m a doomed drug addict, and I always will be…”

From there, the band launches into some of its finest longer songs. “Tripping a Blind Man” takes its Sabbath core and tears it apart, with delirious harmonies all over the chorus. “The Profit of Doom” (love that title) snakes its way through a dozen movements and styles, and “September Sun” starts off with a cheesy piano part (a la “Changes” on Black Sabbath Vol. 4), but soon morphs into a trademark Type O heavy ballad, with slow chords and winding, oddly lovely vocals.

The album does include a few shorter corkers as well, including “Halloween in Heaven,” a stomper about dead musicians, and “Some Stupid Tomorrow,” the closest the band has come to real hardcore since maybe “Kill All the White People.” But the heart of the record is in its masterful longer tracks. The longest of them is “These Three Things,” a song that begins with a verse condemning abortion, the clearest sign of Steele’s recently regained Catholic faith. The song itself is a stunner, 14 minutes of confident, thick, powerful Type O goodness. (Listen for the “Hey Jude” quote right around minute 12, just where you’d least expect it.)

I suppose I can’t really explain why I love Type O Negative. Some of it is Steele’s lower-than-low voice, complete with self-mocking rolls on the Rs, but some of it is the great production by keyboardist Josh Silver, and some of it is just the pure musicianship of the quartet. Type O records are silly, yet deadly serious at the same time – they’re no joke, but every once in a while, amidst all the heavy riffing and dark imagery, they’ll wink at you.

Dead Again is a classic Type O record – ironically, the band sounds more alive here than on their past couple of albums, and they’ve turned in one of their best sets. Everything that makes this band special is here, infused with some of their most energetic and incendiary playing in a long time. Every Type O album is rumored to be the final Type O album, but if they were, in fact, to go out with this one, it would be a great way to finish up. For newbies, it’s also a great place to start.

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Which brings us to Joy Electric. I’ve gone on at length before about Ronnie Martin’s brainchild and what makes it special, so I’ll summarize here – Martin writes dazzling pop songs, tunes that would be hits if he played them with an electric guitar, and then records them using nothing but analog synthesizers. The result is like nothing else. It’s quirky, gurgling and initially quite odd, but it’s also unfailingly melodic, well-crafted and brilliant.

If you don’t like synthesizers, you’ll probably listen to the Joy E discography (10 albums, eight EPs and one box set, and counting) and hear sameness. It takes a while to break into Martin’s pocket universe, but once you’re there, you can hear the obvious, amazing progression his work has undergone. In recent years, he’s perfected his pop-punk-synth hybrid (2004’s Hello, Mannequin) and set out into uncharted waters with last year’s percussive, creepy The Ministry of Archers. He’s working exclusively with Moog synths now, and his range of sound has opened up considerably.

Album 10 is called The Otherly Opus, and it’s one of the most daring evolutions Martin has attempted. Opus is a vocal album – the instrumentation is almost minimal, with little of the swirling synth lines that characterized some of his earlier work. In their place is layer upon layer of stacked, harmonized vocals, sometimes a dozen or more tracks worth, filling in the spaces and carrying the melodies. Many songs begin with a capella sections, something Martin’s never done before.

Amazingly, it works. I say amazingly because vocals have always been Martin’s weakest point. It took him more than 10 years of albums and live shows to get his voice in the shape it’s in now – listen to Melody and Robot Rock to hear how weak it used to be. His vocals still have a thin, breathy quality, but he puts surprising force behind them, and it’s especially strong when he overdubs them into a near-choir. Even his solo vocal turn in “Write Your Last Paragraph” here finds his voice in good shape – we turned our backs for a second and he’s become a singer on us.

Just listen to the awesome vocal melodies on “The Memory of Alpha,” the original title track to this album. He repeats “memory” several times, adding harmonies, until the chorus explodes with counterpoints and “ah-ah” bits. It’s great stuff. I reviewed “Red Will Dye These Snows of Silver” before, when it was released as the single, but man, those “oh-oh” sections are awesome. “Ponderance Need Not Know” is probably my favorite here, largely due to the sweet vocal lines, and Martin’s voice simply shines on the closing melancholy ballad “A Glass to Count All the Hours.”

With the spotlight on the vocals, naturally the lyrics are in focus more than ever, and Martin has stepped up with his trademark cryptic poetry. Dig this from “Ponderance Need Not Know”: “All the icicles from the house that hanged us, I realize they still melt on us, you decline to reach for the apparatus, I cry as they carry you out…” His words, as always, reward careful readings, but they’re never as direct and accessible as his melodies.

Despite that, my only complaint with The Otherly Opus is the same one I have with virtually every project from Ronnie and Jason (Starflyer 59) Martin – it’s too short. This album is 32 minutes, and most of the songs hover around the three-minute mark. Martin does stretch out once here, on the five-minute “The Ushering In of the Magical Era,” and it’s a highlight – he repeats one of his best vocal arrangements, building it into a near-remix by the end before dropping everything else out. It’s just great.

I don’t know if I want Martin to continue down this vocal-driven path or not. On the one hand, The Otherly Opus is superb, one of Joy E’s finest releases, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more like it. But on the other, Ronnie Martin has proven himself to be a restless artist, always looking for new directions and new angles, and I’m excited to hear what he comes up with next. He’s said that his 11th album could be out by the end of the year, and whatever style he chooses, he’ll remain one of the most visionary performers we have, continuing to author a catalog driven by no outside trends or market forces. Ronnie Martin’s Joy Electric is one of a kind, and The Otherly Opus is another simply fantastic album.

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Next week, Grant Lee Phillips, and my first quarter report. Did I mention it’s been an amazing year so far?

See you in line Tuesday morning.