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.