Ode to Joy
In Which Phish Returns, And Three Other Records Get Their Due

For those wondering about the state of my job, well, I should find out tomorrow what the future holds. But things are looking up. If the Chicago Sun-Times actually does go into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, I’m sure you won’t need me to tell you about it. But thanks for all the good wishes. Fingers crossed.

I’ve been trying not to think about it, so I’ve been immersing myself in new music. I got Marillion’s Less Is More this week, and it’s terrific – I plan to review that next week, along with a slew of other recent records by my favorite artists that are similarly ineligible for my top 10 list. (I’ll explain the rules again next week, for those who don’t know them.) But this week I just have a bunch of new albums to talk about, some I liked and some I didn’t. It’s my way of pretending that this is just another week, with some days I like and some days I don’t.

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We’ll start with one I like, much to my surprise. Last time Phish broke up and reunited, I was pretty harsh. But neither 2002’s sloppy Round Room nor 2004’s last gasp Undermind worked for me. The Vermont quartet had been sounding tired and worn out for years prior to their hiatus in 2000, but these two attempts at prolonging the magic were dead on arrival. The concurrent tours were reportedly pretty bad as well, and their final weekend festival, in Coventry, Vermont, was more of a relieved collapse than anything else. It was a sad case of a band marching on long after the war had been lost.

So when the four Phishers announced they were reuniting again earlier this year, I didn’t hold out much hope. Phish started off as an amazing group, blending the jam band aesthetic of the Grateful Dead with the proggy absurdity of Frank Zappa, and their marathon live shows were legendary. It’s true that the studio records don’t give the most accurate or complete picture of the band, but they do trace the decay – the first four were fantastic, bouncing from one fun-filled idea to the next, but when they started streamlining and simplifying, they also started to bore.

You don’t even need to go to the post-hiatus records to hear the rot set in. Just listen to 1998’s slipshod The Story of the Ghost, or 2000’s pop-boogie snoozer Farmhouse. These are extremely simple songs, played by musicians who should have been pushing themselves, but were instead sleepwalking. Live, they stretched these bare-bones songs to 15 or 20 minutes, their white-boy funk and lame jamming just filling time unremarkably. It felt to me like the Phantastic Phour just didn’t have it in them anymore to play together, especially since their solo projects felt more alive and vital.

But wonder of wonders, the reunion record, Joy, is my favorite Phish release since… well, probably the last time they worked with producer Steve Lillywhite, on 1996’s Billy Breathes. Against all odds, this album just bursts with life, and you can hear in every nook and cranny just how glad these four guys are to be playing together again. It’s a true reunion album, and based on this evidence, I see Phish Phase Two lasting quite some time.

The songs on Joy aren’t miles away from the ones on Farmhouse – there are still some basic rock and boogie moments, and a lot of one-four-five chord progressions. But within this framework, the band finds interesting arrangement ideas, and their much-vaunted telepathic interplay is in full force. Just check out “Ocelot,” by far the simplest song here. But listen to the way guitarist Trey Anastasio and pianist Page McConnell bounce off each other, keeping things moving. And dig the Easter egg-style nod to “Dear Prudence.” It’s things like this that keep me coming back to Joy.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is just a well-played version of the stuff they did before the breakup, though. The quartet actually wrote some very good tunes here, particularly “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan,” which pivots on the line “Got a blank space where my mind should be,” and bassist Mike Gordon’s superb “Sugar Shack.” The title song is dark and pretty, dedicated to Anastasio’s sister Kristy, who died after a long battle with cancer in April, and you can hear the emotion in his voice as he sings it.

And of course, there is “Time Turns Elastic,” the 13-minute prog-rock wonder at track nine. Originally a work arranged for strings, “Time” is the result of a ridiculous number of takes in the studio, but the results are apparent. True, this is no “The Divided Sky,” or even “Guyute,” but it is a very well-written and arranged piece, with musical right turns every couple of minutes – it’s exactly the kind of thing Phish hasn’t done in ages, showing off just how good these four guys really are.

Still, it’s the simpler ones that stand out to me this time, and maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve grown to appreciate stripped-down songwriting, but I don’t think that’s all of it. Yes, something as basic as “Kill Devil Falls” could have fit on Undermind, but just listen to how they play it here. This is a band revitalized, reborn. Closer “Twenty Years Later,” which obliquely references the 20th anniversary of album one, Junta, is boundlessly optimistic, and beautifully played. “It’s a small world,” Anastasio sings, “but we all start out small.”

Joy is aptly named, a celebratory record that rights this band’s ship and finds them heading off to the horizon again. For the first time in more than a decade, Phish sounds comfortable just being Phish, and the four guys who call this band home sound connected, together, acting as one again. And that’s a (forgive me) joy to behold. Welcome back, guys.

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I’m a music fan, first and foremost. That means I want to like everything I buy. Ideally, I want to follow an artist from strength to strength, through decades of both of our lives. Some find pleasure in reporting failures. I don’t. I hate it when artists I admire go off the rails and start producing sub-par work.

So it pains me to have to say this, but Mike Doughty has lost his way.

It seemed for a while that he could do no wrong. Soul Coughing was one of the most original bands of the ‘90s, kind of an indie-dance outfit with Doughty, every inch a beat poet, at its center. With his solo debut, Skittish, Doughty found a way to translate that rat-a-tat hard-consonant rasp to stripped-down folk music, and it worked tremendously. By the time he made his first major-label solo album, Haughty Melodic, in 2006, Doughty had blossomed into a strong songwriter while preserving the rhythmic flow that made his name.

So last year, when he released the crushingly lame Golden Delicious, I wrote it off. Here was an album so thoroughly bereft of good ideas that it felt like an aberration, an expensive mistake. Doughty is better than this, better than an album whose best song was a remake of an old EP track. He’d right himself before long, I said. Just you watch.

But sadly, his third ATO Records album, Sad Man Happy Man, finds Doughty retrenching and feeling gun-shy, and the results are just as bad as Golden Delicious, in a different way. Somehow assuming that his fans just didn’t like the big sound and big budget of his last effort, Doughty stripped Sad Man down to the basics: his acoustic guitar, his drum machine, his voice, and a cello player named Scrap. That’s it. The album has an appealing skeletal feel to it, much like Skittish did, and the focus is on Doughty’s boom-ah-boom vocals.

All well and good, but he went and forgot to write any songs again. That was the problem with Golden Delicious, not the showroom shine. For all its bells and whistles, that record only had two worthwhile songs, “Wednesday” and “Navigating By the Stars At Night.” Sad Man Happy Man doesn’t even match those. For 33 minutes, Doughty whips out one two-chord nothing after another, repetitively rap-singing gibberish and failing to find a melody. Nearly every song is a variation of “Busting Up a Starbucks,” but not as good.

The opening track is actually a direct sequel, to Golden’s “Nectarine (Part One).” (Guess what the new one’s called.) Simple, folksy guitar, some cello whines, repeat, the end, and then we’re in drum machine territory. I suppose “(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)” is catchy, but that’s because it contains the closest thing to a chorus on the whole album. You can probably hear in your head just how “Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On” and “(He’s Got the) Whole World (in His Hands)” sound, the title phrases repeated over and over again. (And what’s with the odd parentheses?)

Doughty’s lyrics are usually chosen for their consonance, not for any deeper meaning. “Pleasure on Credit” is nominally about the buy-now-pay-later mentality of America, but you won’t get much of that from the verses. And you may be intrigued by the title of “How to Fuck a Republican,” but Doughty will let you down even there, with lyrics that bear it no connection. The guitar thumps, Scrap’s cello whinnies (sometimes in the wrong key), and the whole thing is over before you know it. The best song here is a 92-second cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” tacked on at the end.

This is Mike Doughty’s second disappointing effort in a row, if you can even consider Sad Man Happy Man an effort. It’s clear he’s trying to get back to his roots – even the cover looks like something he pressed up in his basement to sell out of the back of his van. But his roots involved writing good songs to batter with that remarkable voice, and I hope he remembers that soon.

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And now, your long-awaited Imogen Heap review.

Eagle-eyed viewers probably noticed that Heap’s third solo album, Ellipse, found its way into my Third Quarter Report last week. Yes, it’s that good. I’ve known how good it is for more than a month. But for some reason, I just haven’t found the time to give it the proper review it deserves. Well, that ends now. For the record: Imogen Heap’s Ellipse is one of the best albums of the year, and here’s why.

I suppose it’s accurate to say Heap makes pop records, but it’s not the full picture. She’s always been as interested in sonic detail as she is compelling melodies, and though she collaborated with Guy Sigworth in Frou Frou, when she’s on her own, she’s truly on her own. Heap played virtually every note on Ellipse, and when you hear how many notes there are, how dense and intricate her productions are, you’ll be amazed at that little factoid. It takes Heap a long time to put these albums together, and it’s obvious why – she clearly spends years hunched over her mixing setup, twiddling knobs and setting levels and arranging particular sounds.

But the best thing about what Heap does is that all of that complex detail works towards the song, every time. Even if you don’t care about the art of making electronic pop records, you can still hear what a great little song “First Train Home,” the low-key opener, is. Heap’s voice is versatile and strong, her melody unerring, and you can pay attention to just those things and enjoy this tune. If you notice the lattice-work of swirling, interlocking synths, the impeccable buildups and comedowns, the moments when everything drops away but that multi-tracked voice, even the perfect, burbling percussion, well, that’s the cake beneath the sweet frosting.

Heap’s last album, 2006’s Speak For Yourself, was produced the same way, but Ellipse is leaps and bounds ahead of it, both in song and sound. Heap writes little epics here, like the amazing “Wait It Out,” but pairs them with bizarre experiments like the clockwork madness of “Aha!,” on which she really shows off those pipes, her voice folded and spindled and mutilated over a mad-scientist march. She takes on the apocalypse on the dark and dramatic “2-1,” and one song later lays down a slinky vamp and laments female body issues on the hilarious (and eminently danceable) “Bad Body Double.”

But three years ago, it wasn’t the intricate pop dioramas that caught the public’s attention. She struck gold with the a cappella “Hide and Seek,” the simplest thing on Speak For Yourself. She never even tries to replicate that success on Ellipse (thank God), but she does it several exponents better on “Earth,” a jaunty eco-anthem that sounds like it was constructed using nothing but her voice. There must be a hundred multi-tracks here, spinning web after web, and the result is awesome, like something Bobby McFerrin would need his entire Voicestra to emulate.

Ellipse is often fun like this, but just as often serious and beautiful. Brief piano instrumental “The Fire” leads into the final two tracks on this record, and Heap has never written two more lovely songs. “Canvas” is a creeping spiral of guitars and pianos circling a mantra-like melody. The buildup is subtle, but devastating by the end, and it dissolves into “Half-Life,” the sparse piano closer. After an album full of dramatic highs, Heap leaves you clinging to every half-whispered word right to the end.

Let me put it this way: the deluxe edition of Ellipse comes with a second disc of instrumental versions of the album’s songs, and it’s worth it just to hear the depth of what Heap does. But if you don’t care about any of that, Ellipse is still a fantastic album of fantastic songs. It takes Heap a long time to work her magic, and the fact that the results are so smooth and enjoyable is a testament to how well she does it. All of her sweat and toil was definitely worth it. Ellipse is not only Heap’s best work, but one of the year’s very best.

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I used to love the Elms.

Back in 2002, the Seymour, Indiana foursome released Truth, Soul, Rock and Roll, a winning mix of Midwestern rock and British pop. I hailed them as one of the best new bands I’d heard in a long time, and I spun that album until it wore out. (That’s not true, since it’s a CD, but remember when you could actually wear out an album, on vinyl or cassette? It was a sign of affection, like you’d loved it to death.) I predicted big things for Owen Thomas and his merry band.

But in 2006, the Elms suddenly remembered they’re from Indiana, and decided that Americana is where their fortunes lied. Third album The Chess Hotel certainly rocked more than the first two, but the songs were lacking, and the John Mellencamp-isms were everywhere. It wasn’t bad, and it did grow on me, but it wasn’t the band I fell in love with. One of two things was happening: either the Brit-pop influences were all affectations, or this new rootsy focus was a put-on. But the Elms do both so convincingly that I still can’t tell.

Now here’s album four, and the title alone should tell you that they’ve continued down that path. It’s called The Great American Midrange, and it contains songs with titles like “County Fair,” “The Wildest Heart” and first single “Back to Indiana.” This is their full-on American rock band moment, and they embrace it, taking one cue from modern country, and the other from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And again, the result is just… okay.

Let’s get the embarrassing ones out of the way first. The album opens with “Strut,” a bar band blues-rock stomp that, unfortunately, sets the tone. “What’s a man to do when he’s had enough? You put on your boots and you strut your stuff,” Thomas sings over a sadly typical backbeat. The other roadhouse tune, “The Shake,” is even worse. “Shake it ‘till you can’t shake it out no more,” Thomas spits, apparently without irony, while his band plays the kind of blues-based arena rock that went out with the Reagan era.

Elsewhere, the good ol’ boy tone continues – “Unless God Appears First” is the kind of I-go-to-church-and-I-do-my-job everyman anthem country radio loves, one that mentions the rust buckle in the second line. “The Good Guys” actually includes the sub-Mellencamp line “it’s a long road for the simple man to get a helping hand.” Musically, these songs are mostly simplistic rockers and mid-tempo pieces, and there’s virtually no trace of the dazzling melodies Thomas used to write.

There are a couple of tunes I like, especially “The Little Ways,” with its sweet harmonies, and “The Wildest Heart,” which, despite its title, is actually something of a classic pop song. And there is one I love, for some reason: “This Is How the World Will End” is a simple plea for peace and understanding, one that fits this more straightforward style without slipping into cliché. But most of this album is like “Back to Indiana” – it rocks, no doubt, but it does so in the most hackneyed, middle-of-the-road way possible.

Three years ago, I suggested that the Elms have every right to change horses midstream, and try on a new style if they think it works better for them. I still believe that, but on the evidence of The Great American Midrange, I don’t think this style suits them as well. In fact, I think they sound like a million other bands now, when before, they had an intriguing mix of influences. This album competently executes its formula, but it’s lacking any spark. I still think Owen Thomas has good songs left in him, but with rare exceptions, you won’t find any of them on this record.

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Whoa, harsh ending. Let’s rectify that by trumpeting a new songwriter I’ve just stumbled on. His name is Harper Simon, and yes, he’s Paul Simon’s kid. But he writes some wonderful songs, as you can hear here. His self-titled debut is out next week, and I’ll be first in line, hoping the rest of it is as good as the three songs I’ve heard.

Next week, Marillion, Neil Finn and Rufus Wainwright.Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.