Across the Sea
Marillion and Silverchair, Par Avion

I had a great trip back east, thanks for asking.

I got to catch up with some friends I haven’t seen in a while, and I got to see a kickass, hilarious movie (Grindhouse) with my best friends in the world. But the highlight of the weekend may have been getting to meet Nolan Jeffrey Maxwell, son of Jeff and Melissa. Nolan is three weeks old now, and cute as a button, and just seeing Jeff and Melis around their kid is quite beautiful in itself, so aglow are they in the awe of new parenthood.

Our municipal election is on April 17 here, so I’ve been really busy since getting back on Monday. But don’t worry, faithful readers, I’ve found time for you too. This week, I thought I’d talk about something that wouldn’t ever have been a topic of this column just three years ago: import CDs.

I used to have this rule that no albums that were not readily available in the United States were ineligible for my top 10 list. It took way too long to realize that this rule was silly. The original idea struck me during my Face Magazine days, when my circulation was only a few thousand. I figured that it would do my readers no good to recommend an album they couldn’t easily buy. Of course, back then, I had only the barest idea of this thing called “the internet,” and how easy it would soon become to get anything and everything you could want, musically speaking.

Without the internet, for example, I probably couldn’t be a Marillion fan.

Here’s a band that has used the internet like few others. As a Marillion fan, I get constant updates on the status of new projects emailed to me, and easy access to all the information I could want at Plus, I get a lively and entertaining message board, and a website-only club that sees a full recorded concert winding its way into my mailbox four times a year. I have roughly 75 Marillion CDs now, thanks to their self-funded and self-operated label, Racket Records, perhaps the best-run internet-based label I’ve ever encountered.

None of that would mean anything if the music were crap, but there’s nothing crap about what this band does. In 24 years, they’ve never made an album I dislike. Marillion is a British band, and I have to pay import prices for their work – between $25 and $30 each, including shipping, on average. And I gladly keep paying it, because their music is like magic to me. I know very few bands that have managed to deliver so consistently for so long, in so many different styles – Marillion covers a sonic range equivalent to that of four or five other bands put together.

Marillion is also a band that gets no respect. In the U.K., they’re best known for a 1985 hit called “Kayleigh,” a sappy yet memorable ballad they penned with their former singer, a guy called Fish. Steve Hogarth has been the singer since 1989, but in the land of the Brits, the number one question the band still gets is, “Where’s Fish?” And that’s the good news – they’re virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, despite a massive catalog of brilliant music.

Three years ago, the band released Marbles, which may well be the best album they’ve ever made. In 100 minutes, they summed up everything that’s always been great about them. Marbles included the best four-minute pop singles they’d written in ages, including “You’re Gone” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” but it also proudly featured three huge epics, each more than 10 minutes long (with the amazing “Ocean Cloud” clocking in at 17:57), and each earning every second of that time.

The release of Marbles was an event. The band spent two full years on it, giving the fans updates all the while, and they funded it through pre-orders, so we all felt like part of the process. The limited edition is a gorgeous hardbound book, with the names of each financial contributor listed in its pages, and when it started landing on people’s doorsteps, the excitement was palpable. And it wasn’t over – the band asked its fans to buy the “You’re Gone” single when it came out, and between us, we gave Marillion their first top 10 single since 1987.

In contrast, the release this month of their 14th album, Somewhere Else, has been pretty quiet. There were no pre-orders this time. The album is half as long as Marbles, and it comes in a regular jewel case. There’s no real sense of excitement this time out, or at least, none that can compare with the Marbles campaign. This time, it’s not about us, it’s about the band and what they’ve come up with.

And sadly, what they’ve come up with is just not that great.

Don’t get me wrong. Somewhere Else is a pretty good album, by just about any other band’s standards. But in the shadow of Marbles, it just doesn’t hold up. This album most resembles Marillion’s late-‘90s trilogy of This Strange Engine, Radiation and, and after the phenomenal leaps forward the band made on its last two albums, this backslide is unfortunate.

Somewhere Else is an album of halves. It is one-half of a double record – album 15, still untitled, was recorded at the same time, and will be out next year. Several of its songs are broken up into halves. And it is also half-excellent, and half, well, not. In fact, some of it sounds half-finished.

In contrast to the multi-dimensional sound of Marbles, the band and producer Michael Hunter have gone for a live feel here. You can hear the difference right away on “The Other Half,” a mid-tempo rock opener with a dynamic chorus that will stick in your head. Just when you think you’ve got this song down, the band launches into a jazz break and then guides you through the, um, other half. As Mark Kelly lays down a bed of piano chords, Hogarth shows off one of the best voices in modern music, singing, “The other half cannot be parted from the other half…”

Alas, he’s right, as the album takes a serious downturn from there. Marillion has, for whatever reason, always tried to write hit singles for every album, and the next three songs are Somewhere Else’s radio fare. “See It Like a Baby” has grown on me, and I have come around to liking what’s there, even if I’m still mystified at what isn’t. This song needed a good bridge, not a second looping guitar solo. It’s just not finished. “Thankyou Whoever You Are” is better, a Coldplay impression that unfortunately pours on the power ballad cheese during the chorus. (Those synth strings, so effective on “Fantastic Place,” sound like overkill here.)

And then there is “Most Toys,” a dreadful attempt at rocking out. It’s only two minutes long, but it overstays its welcome, repeating its bumper sticker chorus (“He who dies with the most toys is still dead!”) over and over until you want to punch something. I’m sure that on stage, this will bring the house down, but on record, it’s just embarrassing.

Thankfully, that’s the worst of the lot. From here on, we get the classic Marillion sound, dripping with atmosphere and chock full of nuance. The title song is a near masterpiece, Kelly’s piano leading the way as Hogarth sings delicately about his recent divorce. The lyrics to this song are among Hogarth’s best – he uses metaphor and imagery throughout (“Mr. Taurus ate a thesaurus, made the girls cry and skipped straight to the chorus”), until the end, where he throws it all away and sings directly. “Everyone I love lives somewhere else,” he wails, as Steve Rothery plays some incredible leads – he’s always tasteful and reserved, but a more emotional guitar player you will never hear.

And on it goes, with the band hitting the mark as often as they miss it. “A Voice From the Past” creeps up on you – you think you’re listening to a soft piano piece, but before you know it, you’re in one of the best extended crescendos the band has ever laid down. It is one of two political pieces on the album, and together, they illustrate the inconsistency here – “Voice” is all subtle rage, Hogarth describing the horrors of worldwide poverty as “perfect nonsense to the next generation.” The song leads up to a wonderful line – “I want you to feel someone else’s pain” – and by that point, he’s made you feel it already through his words.

“The Last Century for Man,” on the other hand, is a clunker, a slow blues with a great orchestral buildup by the end that’s simply ruined by Hogarth’s lyrics. All subtlety evaporates as he croaks out lines like “Let’s decide who the terrorists are” and quotes another bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention.” I don’t mind political statements, I just dislike clumsy ones, and it’s a pity because “Last Century” has some superb melodic moments.

But nothing puts the dichotomy of this album into sharp relief like “The Wound,” the other extended song. Its first half is deadly dull, just two chords played over and over, louder and softer, as Hogarth whines about everything he’s done to heal his pain: “I bandaged it, wrapped it, stitched it, tourniqueted it…” Just when you’re about to write the song off, it segues into an absolutely hypnotic second half, all keyboards and drum loops and spectacular imagery. It drifts off without returning to the original theme, leaving two completely unrelated halves to stand or fall on their own.

You’re probably getting the sense that I don’t like this album, and you’re wrong – what’s good here is very, very good. Take “No Such Thing,” the record’s biggest surprise – it’s a mesmerizing mantra-like song reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan,” new territory for the band. Hogarth sings through a phaser over Rothery’s delicate and unchanging guitar line while the impeccable rhythm section (bassist Pete Trewavas and drummer Ian Mosley) slowly add layers of sound. It’s great.

And then there’s “Faith,” the closing track. Marillion fans know this song – it’s been kicking around the live set for three years, and it’s shown up on a couple of releases. Here it is in finished form, and it’s beautiful, a much better choice for a single than any of the three pop songs written specifically for that purpose. There’s a new French horn part that adds a touch of grace to the ending, and a new line, probably Hogarth’s best on this album: “If you don’t believe in love, you’d have to make it up.” “Faith” has long been a favorite of mine, and this version is pretty much perfect, a great way to close out the album.

It’s almost enough to make you forget what a patchy work this is. Where Marbles sounded like a fully planned out suite, Somewhere Else is just a clutch of songs, some good and some not so good. And I think I know what part of the problem is. No offense to Michael Hunter, but Marillion needs Dave Meegan behind the boards – taking him away is like parting them from their other half.

If you look at the past 18 years of Marillion albums with Steve Hogarth, the undisputed high points (Brave, Afraid of Sunlight, Marbles) were all produced by Meegan. He’s almost like a sixth member of the band, because I think Marillion needs someone to tell them no, to sift through their ideas and find the best ones. They needed someone this time to say, “You know, guys, ‘See It Like a Baby’ isn’t quite finished here, and while I’m sure ‘Most Toys’ is fun to play, it doesn’t belong on a Marillion album.” The records helmed by Meegan have no half-formed ideas. The records helmed by others are mostly inconsistent. It’s a pattern worth paying attention to.

Of course, just watch – “Most Toys” will be released as a single, and will score the band their first #1 hit since “Kayleigh,” proving once again that I don’t know anything.

I do know that if album 15 is similarly spotty, and I find that the good songs from each album could have been combined into one killer disc, I’m going to be disappointed. When Somewhere Else is good, it’s very good, and it certainly sounds like the band had fun making it. Perhaps I’m expecting too much – they can’t make a Marbles each time out. It’s just hard to hear music you don’t like from one of your favorite bands. I was reserving a space on the top 10 list for Somewhere Else, and its inconsistency is a sad surprise. But I’ll get over it.

Speaking of surprises, though, there’s the album that currently sits at #1 on that list. If you didn’t read last week’s column, prepare to be knocked out of your chair when I tell you what it is: Silverchair’s Young Modern.

If you’re my age, you probably remember Silverchair for their grungy 1995 hit “Tomorrow,” a carbon copy of Pearl Jam’s sound written and recorded when the band members were 15 years old. They’re all in their late 20s now, and it’s almost beyond belief, but leader Daniel Johns has grown into one of the finest songwriters on the planet.

That’s right, on the motherfucking planet.

We got hints of his genius on Diorama, Silverchair’s fourth album from 2002, and even more on his side project with techno producer Paul Mac, The Dissociatives, in 2004. That album made it into my ’04 top 10 list, despite sounding a little bit unfinished in places. I wondered then what a fully produced, completely consistent Daniel Johns album might sound like.

And now I know. Young Modern is absolutely brilliant pop music, front to back. If you remember them, you will not believe that music of this quality could come from Silverchair. And even if you don’t (which may be better, in the long run), you’re in for a delirious ride here. Young Modern never seems to run out of incredible melodies, and its ‘60s and ‘70s informed pop music is infectious and delightful. It’s like getting a new Jellyfish album, and longtime readers know how I feel about Jellyfish. Young Modern fulfills my number one criteria handily. You ready? Here it is:

All. The. Songs. Are. Great.

Every single one. The album opens with what may be the catchiest rock song of this year, “Young Modern Station” – the feedback and moans that start the tune make you think you’re in for the Silverchair of old, but the pounding piano part and stunning falsetto melody dash that notion quickly. The chorus is singable and haunting, and the tune is over before you know it, segueing into the single, “Straight Lines.” It’s a great choice, despite being one of the more melodically simple songs here – the sweet piano figure of the verses leads into a great chorus, and that leads into an even greater bridge. It’s awesome.

It’s also one of the weaker songs here. Starting with track three, the record just gets ridiculously good. “If You Keep Losing Sleep” is a creepy wonderland of sound, and the first instance of Van Dyke Parks’ stunning string arrangements. This is like Danny Elfman scoring Yellow Submarine. It’s absolutely extraordinary. “Reflections of a Sound” is a sweet prelude, in a way, to the album’s centerpiece, the breathtaking “These Thieving Birds” suite. In seven and a half minutes, the band and Parks take you to half a dozen different musical continents, never running out of inspiration. There’s an eight-note descending melody played on bells here that just puts a big dumb grin on my face each time.

Can the rest of the album compete with the suite? It can, and it does. If there’s a sweeter song this year than “Waiting All Day,” I’ll be surprised. “Waiting” is almost a 1950s ballad in 1970s clothes, with a chorus melody that does that thing that great music does to me – it makes me sing along, arms outstretched to the sky. “Mind Reader” is a noisy glam rock song, and nestled between a couple of pop masterworks, it’s a nice break. Johns does his best trash-rock vocals in the chorus (“Don’t know what you want, no I’m not a mind reader, baby!”) before the whole thing disintegrates and the doo-doo backing vocals take over. And is that a Theremin I hear? I think it is.

“Low” takes us into ELO territory, with its Jeff-Lynne-producing-George-Harrison guitar lines and electric piano. But man, that chorus – it’s pure pop beauty. “Insomnia” is even better, coming out of nowhere with its foreboding, angular lead lines and piano pounding. And again, here’s a chorus that just moves mountains.

The record ends way too soon with “All Across the World,” another collaboration with Van Dyke Parks. If you want to learn how to write a melody that is both musically complex and immediately memorable, study this song. It’s nigh-on perfect – there is no chorus, just an unbroken melody line from beginning to end, while the sounds shift, divide and recombine behind Johns’ voice. My only complaint is that it ends at all, but then, that’s what the repeat button is for.

I doubt this album will be a success in America. (It already hit #1 in the band’s home continent of Australia.) It will take a lot to erase the history the name Silverchair brings with it for music fans of a certain age group, and the band certainly isn’t playing in a style that’s burning up the charts. But for those who love well-crafted pop music, you owe it to yourselves to track this album down. I ended up paying an import price of $31 for it, and I don’t regret it for a second. (It’s expected to receive a U.S. release in July, if you can wait that long. I couldn’t.)

After the Dissociatives record, I expected the new Silverchair to be pretty good. I wasn’t expecting this. Young Modern is an absolute modern pop masterpiece, and if you think I’m gushing too much, you probably haven’t heard it. I’ll take the weird looks and derisive sneers to push and defend an album this damn good. I expect that I will be saying the following three sentences quite a lot before the end of the year:

Yes, it’s Silverchair. Yes, it’s brilliant. Go buy it.

Next week, Year Zero.

See you in line Tuesday morning.