Four Records and a Concert
Intimacy, Lies, Letters and Live

“I have yet to find a way to describe what Joanna Newsom does and make it sound appealing.”

That’s my friend Michael Ferrier talking, and sadly, I agree. I’ve come up with a dozen different ways to explain her music – it’s epic harp-prog-folk with chirpy vocals, for example – but I’ve never found one that makes people say, “Yeah, I want to hear that.”

In fact, even playing Joanna Newsom songs for people often has a detrimental effect. When I named her second album, Ys, the best record of 2006, many just shook their heads in confusion. Many more thought I was kidding, pulling a large-scale prank on my friends and readers. Ten-minute songs, harp and strings, that childlike voice – most people I know just couldn’t wrap their heads around it, which I totally understand.

So for them, sitting third-row-center in Chicago’s Symphony Hall for two and a half hours as Newsom plays most of her ouvre might seem like torture. But to me, it was a magical Friday night. For the first half, Newsom, looking absolutely radiant, played all of Ys in order, backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The shortest song on this album is seven minutes, and the longest is 18, but that hour just flew by. It was almost sensory overload, trying to watch Newsom deftly pluck her harp while catching drummer Neal Morgan rearranging his kit to add subtle shadings, and taking in the whole orchestra all at once too. It was amazing.

For the second half, Newsom returned with just her three-piece Ys Street Band – Morgan, violinist Lila Sklar and guitar/banjo/tambura player Ryan Francesconi. They played almost all of The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom’s 2004 debut. The quartet harmonized beautifully, adding so much to the old songs – “Bridges and Balloons” was particularly beautiful, and “The Book of Right-On” took on a sinister edge. They slammed through “Colleen,” the new song included on last year’s live EP, and I think that was my favorite of the set. But it’s hard to choose.

Newsom also played a selection of new songs, and they were all old-time folk numbers. I suspect, in reaction to the massive Ys, she’s planning her third album as a small, simple set, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she used her touring band in the studio. The new tunes were very old Americana, and while I don’t know the names of any of them, I was especially thrilled with the final encore, a sweet, direct love song.

I learned, watching her play, that Newsom is in complete control of that high, idiosyncratic voice – what sounds random and surprising on record comes off as meticulously arranged live, her mouth contorting to get different sounds out at exact times, and she’s really learned to use her voice as an instrument in the years since Mender. I also learned that playing the harp is hard – Newsom’s hands were flying at all times, and it looked like a pretty good cardio workout.

The show was magical, and I’m very glad I got to see it. Thanks to Mike and Joyce for coming with me – seeing something this wonderfully odd is always better when you’re with people who get it too. I’m excited for Newsom’s third, and for the opportunity to play her bizarre, beautiful work for more people, despite the head-scratches and quizzical looks I’ll no doubt get.

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It seems like every week now, there’s something new to download. New singles from bands like Coldplay and Keane, whole albums from Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead – it seems like the movement is growing daily, with more and more bands getting into the act.

The latest is Bloc Party. The cleverly-named British quartet released their third album, Intimacy, online last week for a cool ten bucks. (If, like me, you enjoy packaging and want the hard copy, that’s 20 bucks, and you have to wait until October. But the download is included, and you get that now.) If nothing else, this plays up the immediacy of the web – according to band members, Intimacy was finished about two weeks ago. Most revenue-eating leaks take place in that four-to-six-month lead time the record companies need to set up packaging, marketing and distribution, so releasing something online days after it’s finished heads that off at the pass, too. Hard to leak something if you don’t know it exists.

Oddly enough, though, Intimacy feels like an online-only release, a transitional experiment on the way to a real third album. Maybe it’s just my bias towards tangible context coming out, but these 10 songs don’t hang together as an album to me, and taken all at once, they depict a band still searching for a new direction, instead of a band confidently striding off in one.

About half of this album sounds like Bloc Party. The jittery rock explosions of Silent Alarm are here (“Halo,” “One Month Off”), as well as the expansive ambient balladry of A Weekend in the City (“Biko,” “Ion Square”). The other half, though, brings in a new big beat influence, and concentrates on electronic texture rather than melody. Opener “Ares” sounds like Run-DMC (really) before sliding into a spectral middle eight, and “Mercury” may as well be its own dance remix, singer Kele Okereke repeating “My Mercury’s in retrograde” over a thumping beat until you want to smack him.

Some experiments work better, though. “Signs” is lovely, opening with chimes right out of Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto” and building up to a trance-like synthesizer cloudwalk. “Zepherus” is even better, floating on what sounds like a full choir (hard to tell without liner notes), electronic beats skating in and out – it’s like a lost Bjork production.

Still and all, there aren’t a lot of captivating songs here, and the emotional heft of Weekend is all but missing. Perhaps the most memorable thing here is “Biko,” which is not the famous Peter Gabriel song, but another one (seemingly) about the anti-apartheid activist. Over glorious atmospheric guitar and a skittering beat, Okereke sings, “Biko, toughen up, I need you to be strong for us.” Of all 10 songs here, this is the only one that has stayed with me for longer than a few minutes.

In the same way that digital distribution is still feeling its way around, trying to choose one of the 20,000 forms it could take, Bloc Party is trying to decide what kind of band it will turn into next. Intimacy is the sound of the chrysalis slowly pushing open – it’s not fully formed, but you can see the shape of the wings, and feel its desire to fly. The fourth album is going to be fascinating, but for now, Intimacy is just a rest stop on the way there.

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I can count the number of Matthew Sweet songs I don’t like without running out of fingers. Considering he’s made 10 albums and an EP over 22 years, that’s a very good average.

Unfortunately, about half of those lousy songs can be found on Living Things, Sweet’s last album, released in 2004. A gloopy, pseudo-psychedelic, melodically-challenged mess, Living Things dimmed my hope for Sweet’s post-label career, and the fact that he’s only surfaced for a light, breezy covers album with Susannah Hoffs since then has done little to change that impression.

Sweet didn’t necessarily need to return to form – some people liked Living Things, and it was a minor speed bump in an otherwise exemplary pop career for me. But he has anyway with Sunshine Lies, his 10th album, which takes all the psychedelic touches of his last few records and marries them to a) terrific songs, and b) loud, crunchy guitars.

Lies most resembles 1999’s In Reverse, which is a good thing for me – I think that’s Sweet’s best album. Sunshine Lies isn’t quite as good, but amidst the looping backwards guitar noise and the oceans of often random-sounding backing vocals are some excellent songs. “Time Machine,” the opener, is a bit sing-songy, but the album really picks up with “Room to Rock,” with its stomping, dirty-ass riff.

The album goes back and forth like that for most of its running time, alternating gentle moments with rock and roll gems. “Byrdgirl” lives up to its name, with its ringing Roger McGuinn guitar sound and soaring melody, and it’s followed immediately by “Flying,” which pushes Sweet’s “rawk” voice to its limits. The louder songs benefit most from the trademark Sweet production – feedback and noise are accentuated, lead guitars toppling over one another in a seemingly haphazard fashion.

That said, my favorites here are the softer numbers. The title track, featuring Hoffs on backing vocals, sports one of Sweet’s more indelible tunes, and “Pleasure is Mine” is a delightful little song without, it seems, a trace of irony. The album ends with “Back of My Mind,” an epic ballad that will keep on playing in your head after its 5:07 has run out.

Sweet made a huge splash in the ‘90s with a simple (and simply great) little record called Girlfriend. He’s never captured the public’s attention in quite the same way since, and that’s the public’s loss. Sweet’s catalog is overflowing with masterful pop songs, and Sunshine Lies fits right in. It’s another splendid Matthew Sweet record, and it’s been too damn long since we’ve had one of those.

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It’s been a while since I enjoyed a Levellers album.

Their golden age, for me, started with 1991’s awesome Levelling the Land and ended with 2000’s studio masterpiece, Hello Pig. Those five albums (excluding the disappointing self-titled effort from 1993) firmly established their punk-pop-rock-with-a-fiddle sound, and then obliterated it, ending up in a psychedelic ‘60s pop place that suited them brilliantly. Since then, Levellers albums have been restrained affairs, hearkening back to Levelling without capturing that fire.

It turns out, all they needed was to get really, really angry. That’s the secret behind Letters From the Underground, the best and most incendiary Levs record this decade. The album is a 36-minute double-barrel barrage, loud and pissed and spitting vinegar, and the band sounds revitalized, as if they’ve awoken from a coma. Staying with that image, it’s almost as if the band woke up, took a look around, found the world had gone to shit, and immediately vomited up these 11 songs.

You can hear the change right away. “The Cholera Well” will knock you over if you’re not careful, Jon Sevink’s blistering fiddle kicking things off before the thunderous guitars crash in. The song is a two-and-a-half-minute scathing indictment of U.S. and U.K. foreign policies, and the genocides and terrorist acts that grow out of them. “By night the U.S. planes descend, deals are struck with payroll friends, an arms bazaar that never ends, and the Russians land by morning,” spits Mark Chadwick over the most awesome musical firescape the band has laid down in years.

The tone remains constant, even when the music slows down. “Burn America Burn,” the first single, takes aim at school shootings, calling them a symptom of America’s disease. (You know the song isn’t going to be subtle when it starts with, “There’s a shooter in the school, keep your fucking heads down…”) The devastating “Behold a Pale Rider” (the album’s epic at 4:50) references the London bombings and ties them to the war for oil, culminating in a long look in the mirror: “And millions cried sweet Mary, a million more cried tears of shame, when they saw what they had done in the name of all their hopes and fears, when they realized what they’d became…”

The band’s hearts are with the soldiers and the searchers throughout this album. “Heart of the Country” is about looking for the titular core of one’s homeland, and only finding “restricted zones,” while closer “Fight or Flight” depicts a man pushed to the brink: “Can you help me, ‘cause I need to understand the truth behind the plan…” Even the album’s one love song, “Before the End,” is relentlessly dark, lamenting the “one kiss to build a dream upon.”

But if I’ve made it sound like this album is no fun, I’m telling it wrong. Letters is a bullet – it’s over before you know it, a flurry of drums, guitars and fiddles burning up the sky. The songs are all tight, and none is longer than it needs to be – it’s the closest the Levs have come to a punk album in years, maybe ever. And while the wonderful pop sound they discovered in the late ‘90s is absent, for the first time, I don’t miss it – this is a perfect mission statement for the Levellers, an important dose of social criticism wrapped up in some of the most fiery music they’ve ever made.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a Levellers album, but with Letters From the Underground, they’ve stormed the hill and held it. It’s their best record in nearly a decade. Try it here.

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We begin and end with Mike Ferrier, who originally got me into Girlyman. Mike saw the golden-voiced trio open for the Indigo Girls, and loved them straight away. He bought me their debut album, Remember Who I Am, and I liked it quite a bit. But subsequent albums sounded much too similar to me, and I never even got around to reviewing Joyful Sign, their third effort. I admit I’ve never really heard what Mike heard in them, and I was about ready to give up trying.

And then, they went and wowed me. Somewhere Different Now, the trio’s first live album, is in many ways the only Girlyman album you’ll ever need. (That’s a compliment, but I doubt the band will take it as such.) At 29 tracks and 77 minutes, it looks exhausting on paper, but it’s a joyous breeze, an old-time hootenanny.

About half of those 29 tracks are snippets of between-song banter and Nate Borofsky’s infamous tuning songs – little ditties he makes up while his bandmates Ty Greenstein and Doris Muramatsu tune up their guitars. And they make the album. The bit about cannons in pop songs is priceless, the running gag about “Hava Nagila” is a riot, and the spontaneous “Let’s Go to Church” is hilarious. Girlyman concerts are, clearly, just a chance for these three friends to hang out on stage together, and the atmosphere is loose and light.

And then there is the music, which for some reason sounds so much better on stage than in the sterile confines of the studio. The Girlyman secret is, of course, the three voices, intertwining and dancing together, and live, they play off of each other, not just harmonizing (which they do beautifully) but flying around each other, arcing skyward with unrestrained joy. I’ve rarely heard three voices that belong together more than these – Nate, Ty and Doris are all good singers on their own, but together, their voices are impossibly beautiful. They’re like Voltron – the lions are formidable on their own, but when they combine to form the giant robot, they are unstoppable.

Girlyman songs are generally simple and understated, focusing on the voices. “This is Me,” early on, sets the tone – strummed guitars, harmonies, autobiographical observations. They just work better live for some reason. Songs that didn’t grab me on the records, like “Storms Were Mine” and “Say Goodbye,” are captivating on this collection. That humor is everywhere, though – halfway through “Hey Rose” they slip into Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” without warning, and the audience reaction is hysterical.

As expected, there are some covers here, but they’re fascinating choices, making a case for AM radio. Here is “All Through the Night,” a Jules Shear song popularized by Cyndi Lauper, and it’s lovely. Here as well is “Angel of the Morning” – yes, that one, written by Chip Taylor and sung by Juice Newton. And here is “Son of a Preacher Man,” the Dusty Springfield classic, used here as the punchline to the “Let’s Go to Church” gag. But the version here is a serious homage, and a terrific one.

And nestled at track 23 is the title song, a Ty Greenstein piece that has never appeared on a studio album. It may be the most beautiful Girlyman song I have heard, a simple coming-of-age ballad with some incredible harmonies. I’m not sure why this song has grabbed me so much, but it’s taken up residence in my head, and it won’t leave. For this song alone, I’m glad I didn’t give up on Girlyman.

If you’ve never tried Girlyman before, this is the one to get. Somewhere Different Now proves that Girlyman is a live act more than a studio one, and that I misjudged them just from their recorded output. There are more sides to this band than I suspected, and they’ve got me for at least the next couple of records. Meanwhile, you can buy this one here.

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Next week, Brian Wilson. I’m equal parts excited and terrified for this one.

See you in line Tuesday morning.