News to Me
Trying Out Bat for Lashes and Richard Swift

Waiting for the End of the World

So you may have heard about this. Yes, that’s my company. Yes, there were layoffs in my newsroom. No, I was not one of them, but there were many. Yes, I am terrified. To everyone who has written or called, thank you for your concern. No, I don’t know where my paper, or journalism in general, goes from here. I wish I did.

I’m trying to be upbeat about things, but it’s difficult. I have finally found something I do well, something which pays regularly and doesn’t feel like work at all, and just as I’m settling in, the entire business model that has funded this kind of work for centuries collapses. I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe I should have gone to church more. I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m not going to dwell on it here. You clicked over for a silly music column, and a silly music column you shall have. I’ve just received such an outpouring of kindness and support that I thought it deserved a public thank you. So, thank you.

* * * * *

A Tale of Two Singles

Back in 2002, I’d never heard a Tori Amos song like “A Sorta Fairytale.”

It was the first single from Scarlet’s Walk, her Epic Records debut, and at the time, it was absolutely striking. Never had Tori tried to sound so inoffensive, so accessible and spit-shined. The song was simple to the point of banal – anyone could have written it. But the performance was equally sanded down. That could have been anyone singing, anyone playing the basic piano chords. It ably answered the question “Can Tori Amos ever be truly boring?” with a resounding yes.

As an experiment, “A Sorta Fairytale” was fascinating. Little did I know it would be the blueprint for this once-great artist’s next seven years and counting. With the exception of some of 2007’s American Doll Posse, Amos has made one bland and forgettable pile of fluff after another since ’02. And if you thought she was past all that, think again – her new single, “Welcome to England,” is so forgettable it makes Sarah McLachlan sound like Karen O.

The further Tori gets from her emotionally riveting roots, the more depressing her career arc becomes. Doll Posse showed signs of life, but by all indications, her new one, saddled with the terrible name Abnormally Attracted to Sin, gets back to music for waiting rooms. It’s sad, because she was once the most important female artist in the world. I listened to Boys for Pele again a few weeks ago, and damn, that album is like a gut punch. Then I listened to The Beekeeper, and it floated by without leaving a mark. Where have you gone, Tori?

But if Amos is headed back to sleep, it sounds like the Dave Matthews Band is waking up. In June, they’re going to release Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, their tribute to saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died last year after an accident. DMB has been drifting for a while now, and their last record, 2005’s Stand Up, was one of their worst.

They were working on Groogrux before Moore’s death, but his passing seems to have focused them, if advance word is any indication. The first single, “Funny the Way It Is,” is the best Matthews song in many, many years, and the recording pulses with life. Listen to that awesome bridge section, and marvel at drummer Carter Beauford’s punchy, complex work – if he’s not one of the best drummers around right now, I don’t know who is. Check out Boyd Tinsley’s live-sounding fiddle solo, and listen in awe as someone (either Matthews or Tim Reynolds) takes a sky-reaching electric guitar break.

This song is very good, and bodes well for the album. My only complaint is that Moore doesn’t seem to be on it – the band used recordings he made before his death as the basis for many of the songs, and I’m curious to hear how they managed that. Still, it’s not far until June, and for the first time since about 2000 that I’m seriously anticipating a Dave Matthews Band album. That’s what a good single can do.

* * * * *

The Craft of Khan

The more music I hear, the more certain I am of one thing: I will never hear everything. I miss stuff all the time – I’ve even started up a whole semi-regular section of this column dedicated to Stuff I Missed. But in recent memory, I can’t say I regret missing something as much as Fur and Gold, the first Bat for Lashes album. That’s two years I spent not knowing about Natasha Khan, and I’ll never get that time back.

I can’t remember why I first listened to Bat for Lashes, but it was by accident. The song was “Daniel,” the zippy first single from Khan’s second BFL album, Two Suns. It was unlike anything I’d heard in some time, and Khan’s strange and wonderful voice pulled me in. Curious, I bought Fur and Gold, and was immediately entranced. This was only a couple of weeks ago, mind – I totally missed this train, but I committed to catching the next one the day it came out.

But even Fur and Gold would not have prepared me for the ambitious, nearly perfect Two Suns. This is sublime music, full stop, and I simply cannot stop listening to it.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Tori Amos has fallen off the artistic map. Amos used to make music like this. Not like this in a literal sense, although I hear Amos in the nooks and crannies here, but like this in an emotional sense. This is music that reaches out and moves you, music that grips you right away and then only grows in stature as it seeps its way into your life.

The hardest question to answer here is just what this sounds like. The first touchstone is Kate Bush, naturally – Khan has a high, strong voice that she pushes into a ghostly falsetto, and her melodies are as off-kilter as her instrumentation. Khan has a gift for mood, like Bush does, and her palate focuses on keyboards and pianos most often. Plus, she’s saddled Two Suns with a batty and superfluous (and Bush-like) concept – it’s told from two points of view, bouncing between dark-haired Khan and her blond alter ego, Pearl. You need not know this at all. The music stands on its own very well, thank you.

But Khan has many more influences, and mixes them in with her own original sound. While Two Suns maintains a fairly consistent minor-key mood, no two songs sound quite alike. Some, like “Two Planets,” sound like they were produced by Bjork. Some, like “Peace of Mind,” sound like spectral field recordings, taken around a campfire in another dimension. And some, like the absolutely riveting opener “Glass,” sound like nothing else I know – that one slowly reveals itself, slipping out of deep water one inch at a time, on a bed of synthesizers, bells and thumping hand percussion. The melody is amazing, and it builds and builds relentlessly, Khan finally reaching for those higher-than-high notes in the chorus.

It’s an incredible opening song, a grabber in the most subtle sense, and when the chugging electronic drum beat of the second track, “Sleep Alone,” crashes in, it’s startling – Khan has set the mood so convincingly already. But just listen to the up-up-up chorus melody, buoyed by the dancefloor touches – it’s simply awesome. And third track “Moon and Moon” completes the opening trilogy perfectly, showing Khan’s slower, more beautiful side. This one is most like Tori Amos used to be, a glorious piano figure leading into a haunting refrain.

For 11 tracks and 45 minutes, this album never even starts to suck. “Daniel” is the most invigorating almost-pop song here, its borderline-cheesy drum beat supporting an insidious melody. “Siren Song” harnesses an unstoppable power, moving in a heartbeat from calm waters to raging storms. (Khan’s voice is particularly amazing on this one.) “Good Love” is like a ‘50s ballad done Julee Cruise style, then recorded in an echo chamber on the moon. The album closes with a brief piano coda called “The Big Sleep,” a sort-of duet with the inimitable Scott Walker, and the entire 2:53 is like waiting to fall off a cliff.

I don’t know anyone else making music like this. I wish more people were. I want more music like this, and yet I know that the very things that make Khan an arresting artist also make her unique. I don’t expect to find an album like this one very often – hell, I never really expect to find one like this at all. By following her own muse, Natasha Khan has made something alien, yet beautiful. Two Suns is spellbinding, enveloping, submerging, music that rushes into your lungs and fills them to bursting, gently drowning you while you drift off to blissful, joyous sleep.

I cannot explain it better than that. But let me close with this: if Two Suns is not in my top 10 list at the end of the year, then we’re in for an astonishing next eight months.

* * * * *

Big Swifty

I’m not entirely sure why I bought Richard Swift’s new album, The Atlantic Ocean.

I’m never quite sure why I buy anything I’ve never heard, to tell you the truth. It’s just a feeling, most of the time, a little nudge. I’ll see an album cover I like, or read a song title that does it for me, or I’ll just get this notion that I should take a gamble on something new. Believe it or not, most of the time, my little hunches pay off. I couldn’t give you a reason, but by my quick reckoning, I’m at about an 80-20 ratio of good surprises to bad ones.

It might have been the title. I’m a fan of vast expanses of water, especially as metaphors. It might have been the cover, a fascinatingly lo-fi cut and paste job right out of the psychedelic ‘60s. It’s the kind of cover you scan for clues, trying to read the names of the books on the shelf, or the records by the turntable. (Those actually do turn out to be clues, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself.) And I did hear one song, the strikingly Motown-sounding “Lady Luck,” but by that point I’d already decided to buy the thing.

So who is Richard Swift? He’s a singer and songwriter and record-maker with a dozen or so prior releases, although I’ve heard none of them. I can’t tell you what he used to sound like, but on The Atlantic Ocean, he inhabits this odd, appealing middle ground between Ray Davies and Thomas Dolby. His voice is almost Dylan, but his soundscapes are part McCartney, part Michael Penn, part ‘80s synth-pop. His songs are mainly in traditional veins, but all have these little melodic moments that stand out. He’s a ‘60s piano-popper with an ‘80s flavor and the soul of a poet.

On some songs, Swift has assembled other musicians to help him, and these are the most organic. “Ballad of Old What’s His Name” is the fullest-sounding here, and even has Ryan Adams sitting in on backing vocals. But songs like “R.I.P.” make great use of the Mellotron and viola. These tunes sound like old-time pop songs. But then there are the ones Swift performed solo, and these rely on computer drums and bizarre ‘80s synthesizer noises, creating something totally different. “Hallelujah, Goodnight” is the weirdest plastic Beatles song you’ll ever hear, and the title track kicks things off by balancing the ‘60s piano with big, fat keyboard brass sounds. Somehow, it works.

And the reason it works? These songs are unfailingly solid. The highlight for me is “The End of an Age,” coincidentally the sparsest thing here – it’s drums and piano, with a trombone solo in the middle. But the melody is just sweet, with the faintest hint of Randy Newman creeping in. “A Song for Milton Feher” is a ’66 Beatles barrelhouse number with synth accents, but you’ll be singing along with the refrain (“I will listen to your every word”). And “Lady Luck” closes things out like a lost Marvin Gaye song, Swift unveiling a surprisingly elastic falsetto. It’s just great.

I’m not sure why I bought The Atlantic Ocean, but I’m glad I did. I’ve cut down on my gambles significantly, what with my uncertain economic situation, but I like this album enough that it’s only going to encourage me to go with my next hunch. And now I’ve got Richard Swift’s entire catalog to track down, too. It’s a rough life, it really is.

* * * * *

Next week, we explore the joys of effervescent, disposable pop music. I mean, even more effervescent and disposable than the pop music we usually explore.

See you in line Tuesday morning.