Happiness Is…
A Brilliant New Album From Marillion

A shout-out to start us off – congratulations to Chris L’Etoile, one of my oldest friends, on the birth of his second child, Caleb. Chris and his gal Jamie live in faraway Alberta, Canada, so I’ve missed seeing their first son, Jeremiah, grow up – he’s nearly four now. Chris sent a picture of Jeremiah holding newborn Caleb in his lap, and I would post it here, but it far exceeds the legal limit of adorable in this state. Congrats, Chris and Jamie. I hope I get to meet the new little one soon.

So I had this whole column planned out – I was going to try another experiment in concise writing, whipping through four or five reviews as quickly as I could. But then my friendly postman delivered my deluxe edition of Marillion’s Happiness is the Road this week, and that plan flew out the window. Of course, we’re in the middle of the Autumn avalanche – there’s so much new music coming out that I just can’t get to it all, or cover it in the depth that I would like, and devoting this week’s missive to Happiness will just put me farther behind.

So I did both columns. The other is listed on the archive page, and examines new ones from the Dears, Copeland, Ray LaMontagne and Shearwater, as well as the physical release of Bloc Party’s Intimacy. This one, though… this one is all Happiness. It deserves the space. I hope you think so too.

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True story: I hated Marillion’s Brave the first time I heard it.

It struck me as too simple and too meandering. Honestly, I just didn’t hear any great songs – Marillion music is ordinarily immediate for me, and only grows deeper from there, because they write fantastic songs. They are equally adept at the three-minute pop ditty and the 15-minute multi-part epic, but I didn’t hear them doing either one very well on Brave. The worst offender was “Goodbye to All That,” which, I thought, wasted 12 minutes on formless atmosphere, something I’ve chastised bands like Radiohead for doing. I didn’t get this album at all on first listen.

But I kept at it. And slowly, Brave took shape for me. Now I consider it one of the band’s finest records, a seamless 70-minute outpouring of beauty, anger and despair. There is so much emotion hidden in the corners of this album that I feel ridiculous for not having heard it immediately. But that’s the trick – Brave is not an album you hear as much as one you feel. And it needs time to penetrate, to reveal its secrets.

I tell you all this because I went through something similar with Happiness is the Road, Marillion’s just-released 15th album, and I suppose I should have sensed history about ready to repeat.

I’ve been waiting for Happiness for about a year now. Long-time readers will know that I consider Marillion one of the best bands in the world. They started in the early ‘80s as pretty typical prog-rockers, aping an early Genesis sound, but they set themselves apart by singing about some truly emo things – mainly, original singer Fish’s broken heart and alcohol addiction. It was huge, massive music, but still intensely personal.

Marillion didn’t really find its identity until Steve Hogarth arrived in 1988, taking over for Fish. Hogarth has a high, strong, soaring voice, and he uses it like another instrument, another way of bringing the listener in. With Hogarth at the helm, the band has gone from strength to strength – the timid first steps of Seasons End, the brilliance of Brave, the aching beauty of Afraid of Sunlight, and more recently, the explosive power of Anoraknophobia and the all-encompassing career summation of Marbles. There have been some lesser lights, like last year’s half-baked Somewhere Else, but every one of the band’s 11 albums with Hogarth is worth hearing.

Marillion has also embraced the Internet like few bands have, using it to build and maintain a massive worldwide fanbase. They’ve figured out a way to exist independently, just them and their fans, and they engender a loyalty that a lot of musicians would kill for. The last few album releases (excepting Somewhere Else) have been financed through a pre-order system – fans like me pony up our money in advance, before the record button is pressed even once, and it’s through our faith in the band that they can pay for recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, distribution and marketing, all on their own.

The upshot of this is Marillion is free to make any music they want, and for a band like this, that’s better than any reward the major labels could offer. They’re only beholden to us, their biggest fans, and while we’re a notoriously picky bunch, Marillion has formed magic from the air so many times by now that I, for one, am always excited to hear what they come up with.

I will admit, though, to a bit of hesitation this time. I waited months to send in my $60 for the album 15 pre-order, partially because I was so disappointed with Somewhere Else. It’s grown on me since I first heard it, but after the amazing Marbles, it kind of sits there, an average Marillion album. And then there were the plans for this new one – two discs, made up mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut on Marbles and Somewhere Else. I expected an overlong clearing house, a White Album-style mess.

But I ponied up anyway. And I did what every Marillion fan has somehow gotten used to doing. I waited.

Then, about a month ago, the band did something brilliant. They made the entirety of Happiness is the Road, the new double album, available for free download. It was a gift to those of us who pre-ordered, and it came with a mission – seed every torrent and download site with a particular version of this album, one that would redirect those who downloaded it to marillion.com. We can’t stop illegal file sharing, the band said, but we can at least try to tap into that market, and get the downloaders on our side.

I wouldn’t even know where to go to seed these files to sharing sites, so I didn’t do any of that. But I did download the album, hands trembling, heart pounding. 110 minutes of new Marillion music. I couldn’t breathe. I pressed play. I listened.

I hated it.

Formless, poorly-produced mush, I said. Nothing stands out from the murk, I said. These songs are among the weakest the band has ever foisted on us. This is the first Marillion album I hate. There is nothing here for me at all. What a crushing disappointment. I put the album away for a couple of days, unable to believe how much I didn’t like it.

You know where this is headed, right? I kept listening, and within a week, Happiness is the Road had blossomed into something beautiful. It’s so rich, powerful, emotional and grand that I don’t know how I missed all of its virtues the first time through. Even in low-quality mp3 format, these songs pulse with life, and the real deal, the actual CDs… wow. This is, musically, thematically, sonically and emotionally, one of Marillion’s finest hours.

Happiness is the Road is really two albums, called Essence and The Hard Shoulder. Disc one is a conceptual journey, a cohesive 50-minute suite. Disc two is all the songs that didn’t fit the concept. Far from being a clearing house, Happiness is two distinct pieces of music with no filler tracks, two solid albums each with its own character. They are sold separately, and the sumptuous deluxe edition packages each disc in its own hardcover book, then houses them in a slipcase. It’s clearly not a double album, but you’d be forgiven for treating it like one.

Taken as a whole, Happiness is the Road is one of the least immediate collections Marillion has ever made. The quintet has stripped back everything that has come to identify their sound – Steve Rothery’s soaring guitar is muted throughout, Steve Hogarth spends much of the album singing quietly or reaching for a wavery falsetto instead of belting the songs out. There is no 15-minute epic – the longest song is 10 minutes, but most are around four. If you’re looking for the prog-rock of old (or even of Marbles), you won’t find it here.

This music needs time to burrow under your skin, but once it’s there, you’ll hear new things every time you listen. Songs that seemed flat and stagnant at first will reveal hidden melodies. On repeated listens, you’ll especially grow to admire Pete Trewavas’ extraordinary bass playing, and Ian Mosley’s deceptive, almost jazz-like drumming. It takes some time, but it’s worth it.

I’m on listen number 48 or so, and here’s what I’m hearing now.

Essence is the most consistently fragile and beautiful album Marillion has ever made. I was initially disappointed on a song-by-song basis, but it’s the cumulative effect that packs the punch. It opens with “Dreamy Street,” a minute-long piano-vocal intro that finds Hogarth stumbling around for a metaphor. He finds one on “This Train is My Life,” and if there’s any song here that exemplifies What Marillion Does, it’s this one. Every element is here – Rothery’s understated guitars, Mark Kelly’s chiming keyboard bells, a spine-tingling melody from Hogarth, and a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment. (“Take my hand, squeeze it tight…”)

From there, though, little else sounds like Marillion. “Essence” is a glorious mini-epic, starting softly but building and building to an orchestrated finale. “Wrapped Up in Time” moves from synth segue to chorus-less piano ballad, which slips perfectly into “Liquidity,” a brief instrumental. And “Nothing Fills the Hole” sustains the placid mood, even while paying homage to Motown. (Seriously.) But for the majority of its running time, Essence is about setting an atmosphere and building it up.

The band kicks in on “Woke Up,” a mid-tempo guitar-rocker, but even that song is restrained, part of the crescendo. “Trap the Spark” is gorgeous, Hogarth’s falsetto melody dripping with feeling, and “State of Mind” kicks things up a gear, ending with an almost gospel-style, joyous refrain. But the whole thing is prelude to “Happiness is the Road,” a 10-minute excursion that begins like a hymn and ends like an anthem. The chorus is very simple – just the title, repeated in an ascending pattern – but it took a while to realize that it’s the first thing on this album Hogarth really sings with all he has. It’s an amazing moment.

Lyrically, Essence is about appreciating every moment. It was inspired by Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which is about letting go of both the past and the future. Hogarth spends the first half of the album watching time go by, and the second half (after “Woke Up”) catching every moment like fireflies. You can’t trap the spark, he says, you have to enjoy it while it’s here. Or, put another way, “Happiness ain’t at the end of the road, happiness is the road.”

The music fits this progression perfectly. “Wrapped Up in Time,” for example, is almost mournful, Hogarth using starlight as a metaphor for echoes of things long extinct, while Kelly’s piano rings out behind him. Even the structures of the songs fit the theme – there’s very little musical repetition here. Each part of “Essence” happens only once, and the chorus of “Nothing Fills the Hole” is only sung one time. But when the album explodes lyrically, the music matches – “Happiness” is massive, its slight reggae inflection belying the layers and layers of sound atop it. It all leads to the chorus, as monolithic a Marillion moment as there has ever been.

Yeah, I like Essence. But what of its twin, The Hard Shoulder?

This one’s a little more difficult, simply because there’s no concept – this is just an album of nine songs, so each one has to stand or fall on its own. Thankfully, after a few listens, they stand just fine. The sequence of The Hard Shoulder baffles me – it starts with its three most impenetrable songs, each more than six minutes long, and it shuffles the melodic pop singles to the end. If you bought this for “Whatever is Wrong With You,” Marillion’s punchiest single since “You’re Gone,” you have to wade through six less punchy tracks to get to it.

“Thunder Fly” starts off like a barnburner, Rothery turning in his most rollicking guitar riff to this point, but it slowly unfolds into a more complex rock epic. Here, finally, are the soaring solos – the lengthy one that ends “Thunder Fly” is the best on Happiness – but they’re more restrained than, say, the ones on “Neverland.”

I have struggled the most with “The Man From the Planet Marzipan,” which sounds like a novelty tune from the title, but ends up a seven-minute prog-rock extravaganza. The 3-D production is amazing here – every element is separated and distinct, and it’s like flying through an asteroid belt. The song is strikingly complex, even for Marillion, and I think I have it mapped out in my head now, but I hear new things each time. Hogarth shines here, especially when he wails, “There’s so much that I can’t take in…” I have almost no idea what this song is about, however.

And then there is “Asylum Satellite #1,” a nine-minute sci-fi monster that imagines a world in which the crazy people are sent into orbit for life. This is a difficult beast to tame, as it has no chorus, and is propelled by one of Trewavas’ trickiest bass parts. But when Hogarth sings “we can see the madness perfectly from here,” it lifts off – the rest is all instrumental, Rothery making his magic over a dense keyboard and bass bed. The little coda is wonderful, too.

“Older Than Me” is a charming ballad, all bells and voice, all about loving an older woman. It’s so slight it nearly gets lost, but it’s gorgeous, and it contains my favorite line on the album: “We’ll be over the hill and far away,” sung in a lovely falsetto with a choir of angels backing it up. “Throw Me Out” is the only song here that directly references Hogarth’s recent divorce, and the tune has a Crowded House feel, shuffling along until the clarinets come in. And “Half the World” is a delightful, mid-tempo pop song with a sweet chorus.

The final three songs rock harder than anything else on Happiness, and it’s puzzling to me why they were relegated to the end. “Whatever is Wrong With You” remains a winner, even with an extra minute added. Rothery cranks up the amps, and delivers his most striking solo – it sounds like it was pieced together from a much longer recording, jumping from tone to tone. The song is a celebration of oddness – “whatever is wrong with you is so right for me” – and it deserves to be a hit.

It segues smartly into “Especially True,” a song about embracing America. It’s a surprising lyric, especially after “The Last Century for Man” on Somewhere Else, but the sometimes sinister music betrays the hidden fangs. It all leads up to “Real Tears for Sale,” a seven-minute excursion that is part classic rock, part Celtic ambience. It’s the hardest-hitting thing here, a song reportedly inspired by Sinead O’Connor that lashes out at those who would sell real emotions to the masses. “Even whores don’t kiss with tongues,” Hogarth sings, “nevertheless I do believe you cried real tears…” I like this song, but it’s a surprisingly bitter note to end this album on. Musically speaking, though, it had to be the finale.

The Hard Shoulder doesn’t cohere nearly as well as Essence, but it isn’t supposed to. As a set of songs, it works well – just on its own, it’s a fine rebound from Somewhere Else, and it continues to reveal its riches with each play. Paired with Essence, though, it is one-half of an exceptionally strong release for a band in its third decade. Only time will tell if Happiness is the Road takes its place next to Brave, Afraid of Sunlight and Marbles in the pantheon – if it does, it will be the first one not produced by Dave Meegan to do so, and Mike Hunter should take a bow for his fantastic work on this record.

I have talked to numerous others who had the same immediate negative reaction to Happiness, and all I can say is, stick with it. There’s more here than you can take in at first. It’s taken me some time to come to grips with it, but Happiness is the Road has taken root, and it just keeps growing in stature. It’s a bold choice to release something that demands repeated listens, demands much more attention than most are willing to give a piece of music these days.

Stay with it, though, and Happiness will transform before your ears into something amazing. It’s hard to believe this is album 15 – Marillion is at the top of their game here, turning out some of the most creative and beautiful music they’ve ever made. And they did it their way, no compromises.

As a final note, the band outdid themselves with the deluxe packaging this time. Artist Antonio Seijas provided hundreds of eerie, jaw-dropping images, and the covers of the books and the slipcase are embossed. It’s a hefty thing, but it’s incredible. And, of course, they included the names of everyone who pre-ordered. You’d think the thrill of finding your name in a list like that would wear off, but it doesn’t.

You can order the deluxe Happiness at www.marillion.com. Needless to say, I recommend it highly.

Next week, the Cure, Ryan Adams, Of Montreal, and maybe Queen and Paul Rodgers.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Not Only But Also
Five More Reasons to Love 2008

So much music! Let’s go!

First off, I assume you’ve all heard “Chinese Democracy,” the honest-to-Christ first real single from the mythical Guns n’ Roses album of the same name? If not, go here. I kind of like it. It’s very mid-‘90s industrial in tone, but I think Axl may have waited just long enough – the sound of 1997 is charmingly retro now. And I love the intro, with that cloud-clearing guitar that signals the song proper. As my first Axl-approved taste of Democracy, I have to say, it ain’t bad.

This is my second column of this week, because I’m just drowning in new tunes. The first one is a long ramble on Marillion’s brilliant 15th album, Happiness is the Road. If you don’t feel like wading through my pulse-pounding prose, here’s the summary: it’s two discs, one a conceptual journey and one a bunch of songs. The first one is beautiful and simple, the second difficult and complex. Put them together, you have a near-masterpiece. Buy it here.

For this column, I’m going to try that “being concise” thing again. I have five CDs to get through, and I hope I can do it without breaking 3,000 words. Then again, have you seen my Marillion review? Concise and I don’t get along that well. Anyway, here goes.

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Physical Intimacy

About two months ago, I reviewed what I thought was Bloc Party’s third album, Intimacy. The band had made the 10-song set available as a download through their website, in advance of its Oct. 28 release date. At the time, it was one of the quickest studio-to-customer turnarounds I’d seen, and I remarked then that a modest, 45-minute, 10-song affair felt to me like an Internet-only release.

Well, the physical version of Intimacy hit my mailbox this week, and as it turns out, it contains four more songs than the digital release – one of them, “Talons,” is integrated into the album itself at track nine, and the others are tacked on as bonus cuts. Although what separates them from the “real” songs isn’t quite clear – it isn’t quality, that’s for sure. The bonus tracks are just as good as anything on the record proper, especially the semi-acoustic “Letter to My Son” and the blistering “Flux.”

How about “Talons”? It’s good too – it kind of bridges the gap between the guitar-heavy rock songs and the electro-dance rave-ups that populate this disc, and Kele Okereke has rarely sounded more like Robert Smith. “Talons” goes some way toward balancing out what I still consider an uneven effort, one that seems in search of a direction.

But in the two months since I first heard it, Intimacy has grown on me tremendously. I’m still turned off by the jump-cut seizures of “Ares” and “Mercury,” but experiments like “Zephyrus” and “Ion Square” have improved with time, and I still can’t say enough good things about the slower tracks, like “Biko” and “Signs.” This is the most urgent-sounding Bloc Party album, and I can forgive it for being a little scattered – it’s like a cat darting from shiny thing to shiny thing, eyes wide, ready to pounce. Hopefully Bloc Party’s fourth effort will be more focused, but Intimacy has intensity and curiosity on its side.

Needless to say, I recommend the physical release over the digital one. Plus, with the CD, you get the arresting cover image, one of my favorites of the year.

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Our Dear Dead Dears

As I understand it, Missiles, the fourth album from Canadian drama-rockers The Dears, pretty much broke up the band.

This isn’t the first time, either. The center of the band is, was, and always will be Murray Lightburn, who, with his wife/keyboardist Natalia Yanchak, sets the tone for every Dears project. They are known for long, slow, serious songs, drowned in orchestration and buoyed by Lightburn’s strong, even voice. But two years ago, on Gang of Losers, they stripped back and turned in shorter, louder songs that didn’t fit quite as well.

Missiles is a return to form, one of the finest Dears albums. Its creation was apparently marked by so much tension that of the six-piece lineup that made Losers, only Lightburn and Yanchak remain. I’m not sure if the resulting record was worth the loss, but it’s very good. You know you’re in for classic Dears when you hear the opener, the seven-minute “Disclaimer.” It starts with an extended intro, all oscillating guitars and saxophones, before picking up steam. Well, relatively speaking – this album rarely rises above a slow boil, and it’s perfect that way.

Lightburn goes all Thom Yorke on the eight-minute “Lights Off,” which is, in a way, his “Paranoid Android.” Over sweet strings and plaintive acoustic guitar, heading off into strange and wonderful chords, he sings, “Turn out the lights, just hold me tight, sleep through the night, could you, with me?” The song concludes with a two-and-a-half-minute guitar solo that is more Lindsey Buckingham than David Gilmour, but it works.

The album continues in a similar vein – “Demons” is hummable and string-laden, while the title song is hushed and offbeat. But it’s on closer “Saviour” that Lightburn’s vision for the band comes through the loudest. Here is an 11-minute, paper-thin monster – it starts with organ and sparse electronic drums, but slowly (verrrry slowly), Lightburn adds instruments, including a brass band and a choir. It never changes tempo, it’s basically a dirge, but listening to the whole thing is mesmerizing.

Out of turbulent times comes great art, and this may be my favorite Dears album. Reportedly, Lightburn and Yanchak have put a new, seven-piece lineup together, and I’m interested to hear how the new Dears compare with the old Dears. But even without that backstory, Missiles is a fine, ambitious, self-serious, dramatic record that may be the best thing the band has ever done.

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Let the Sunshine In

The year is 2005. I’m at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, watching the Violet Burning play an amazing set, and highly anticipating the next act on the Gallery Stage: the Choir, one of my favorite bands ever. They play once in a blue moon, so I wasn’t going to miss this chance to see them. But many of the younger people I was next to did – they got up and left after TVB, headed off to see this band called Copeland.

I ended up cursing the festival organizers for slotting the two shows at the same time, denying younger fans the chance to see a legendary band they might just fall in love with. I think I even ended up cursing Copeland for their strange hold over the Cornerstone youth. But it was that juxtaposition that forced me to hear Copeland for the first time – I had to know what band was worth missing the Choir.

I’m still glad I saw the Choir, of course. But in the years since that Cornerstone performance, Copeland has evolved into a very interesting band. Their early work was loud but melodic, still fitting the mold of indie-rock. On 2006’s Eat, Sleep, Repeat, however, they stripped all that away, and turned into an airy dream-pop band. I didn’t know quite what to make of it at first, but now I consider Repeat to be a minor masterpiece.

The hits keep on coming with You Are My Sunshine, Copeland’s fourth album. Ignore the lazy title – it has no bearing on the record at all, surprisingly. This is the album on which the band finishes smoothing off all its rough edges – every song is clean, atmospheric and dreamy. Singer Aaron Marsh has never sounded better. His voice is high, almost feminine, and it rises above the cloud cover his band lays down, turning every melody into something beautiful.

Sunshine finally finds a proper home for “Chin Up,” a wonderful song that first appeared on the band’s b-sides collection, Dressed Up and In Line. Here, it is a string-fueled waltz, but it still pivots on the great line “you break your neck to keep your chin up.” It’s far from the best song, though. First single “The Grey Man” is immediately memorable, as is the great “To Be Happy Now,” the most energetic thing here. The ascending melody of “On the Safest Ledge” will stay with you, as will Rae Cassidy’s guest vocal turn on the fragile “The Day I Lost My Voice (The Suitcase Song).”

Every song here is terrific, even the 10-minute closer “Not So Tough Found Out” – that one’s very similar in structure to the Dears’ “Saviour.” But my favorite moment of Sunshine may be the smallest one. “Strange and Unprepared” is just Marsh and an electric piano, but when he sings “now we’ll always never know,” it’s heartbreaking. Copeland never leaves the realm of pop-rock, but their music is so light and lovely you’ll feel like you’re levitating. This is their best album, and I’m very much looking forward to tracking their evolution further, and seeing them live, as long as the Choir isn’t playing at the same time.

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The Cult of Ray

I admit I was surprised to learn that Ray LaMontagne is from Maine. Apparently he still lives there, in Farmington. I keep telling people that Maine has a rich and diverse music scene, but nobody believes me. I think LaMontagne is one of the best arguments I could make for the artistic validity of Vacationland, as the license plates call it.

Who is Ray LaMontagne? He’s a husky-voiced singer, a songwriter who draws from a deep well of traditions, and a record maker like few others these days. Every LaMontagne album sounds vintage, like a collection of old standards. His second, Till the Sun Turns Black, opened with “Be Here Now,” six of the most beautiful minutes of 2006 – simple acoustic guitars, otherworldly strings, and LaMontagne’s moving voice. You must hear it, and the rest of the album, if you haven’t.

His third, Gossip in the Grain, starts very differently. “You Are the Best Thing” is pure Motown soul, complete with crisp horns and a trio of female backing vocalists. This is LaMontagne letting loose, and his voice takes on something of a Joe Cocker feel. But he’s back to classic balladry on the next couple of tracks, particularly the timeless “Let It Be Me.” I’ve always thought he was at his best when accompanied by little more than guitars and violins, and he proves me right again on “Sarah” and the devastating “Winter Birds.”

If you can imagine it, “Meg White” is a serious romantic paean to the White Stripes’ drummer, performed without a stitch of irony. “Meg White, I saw you on the big screen, Old Jack was keen, but you stole the scene…” The song starts with a lick from the Stripes’ version of “Conquest,” and features a particularly Meg White drum beat. It’s great.

But nothing will prepare you for “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame),” an explosive blues shuffle. LaMontagne goes all out vocally on this one, and you wonder if he’ll be able to do it live. Naturally, he slows it right down for the captivating title track that ends the record. It’s 45 minutes, in and out, but Gossip in the Grain is remarkably diverse, further proving Ray LaMontagne’s singular talent. I haven’t heard a record quite like it this year.

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Shear Beauty

I’ve been doing this column for eight years now. During much of that time, one of my most faithful correspondents has been Lucas Beeley. I haven’t always been as faithful in return – anyone who knows me knows it often takes a long time for me to reply to emails – but I’ve always appreciated his ear, his taste and his willingness to share his recommendations. He and I agree on Fleet Foxes this year. He knows what he’s talking about.

So when he sent me an instant message a couple of weeks ago, chastising me for not including Shearwater’s new album Rook in my top 10 list, I knew I had to hear it. One problem – I’d honestly never heard of Shearwater before. Turns out, it started as a side project for Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg of Okkervil River. That band, you may remember, made my 2007 top 10 list with their wonderful The Stage Names.

That’s a good pedigree. Armed with that info and Beeley’s recommendation, I picked up Rook. And man, am I glad I did.

Rook is quiet, stately, artfully arranged, and just gorgeous. In Okkervil River, Meiburg is relegated to piano and organ parts, overshadowed completely by the unkempt genius of Sheff. Who knew he had such a striking voice, or such a gift for off-kilter, folksy melodies? Rook opens with a piano-vocal lullabye called “On the Death of the Waters” that sets the tone – Meiburg’s voice soars, and the whole thing is so hushed and lovely that when the electric guitars crash in halfway through, it’s genuinely startling.

Things slowly build from there, with the magnificent “Home Life” truly picking up the momentum. It’s a seven-minute epic folk tune, arranged with strings and woodwinds, and it features a melody that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Richard Thompson record. It’s just fantastic, and unlike anything else I’ve heard this year.

Even when Meiburg kicks up the tempo with electric guitars on the brief “Century Eyes,” the effect is still unique – like the Decemberists and Woven Hand jamming. One song later, he’s singing another breathtaking melody over gently picked guitar and light piano on the aptly titled “I Was a Cloud.” “The Snow Leopard” is striking, with a strident melody that once again brings Woven Hand to mind. And then the album ends as it began, with the quiet piano-and-strings number “The Hunter’s Star.”

As usual, Beeley is right – this album is great, and is a candidate for the top 10 list. It feels like a consistent suite, like it should only be played in order live. I am dumbfounded that I never heard Shearwater before this, but I’m certainly going to seek out their other records now. Special thanks to Lucas Beeley for another strong suggestion.

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Next week, the Cure, Ryan Adams, Of Montreal… there’s just so much!

See you in line Tuesday morning.