How Long Is Too Long?
Diving Into Triple Albums From Joanna Newsom and Leyland Kirby

I’m going to start this column off by saying “I like the long ones,” and let you get all the “that’s what she said” jokes out of your system. “Big 10-Inch Record” jokes should be worked through now as well.

When I say I like the long ones, I mean albums, of course. Always have. There’s nothing wrong with your standard single-CD, 50-minute-long record, and in fact some of my favorites of the past 50 years fit that description. But there’s just something about the lengthier works that piques my interest. For some reason, I consider double and triple albums to be weightier, more important statements than single-disc affairs. Maybe it comes from hearing Tommy and The Wall at a young age, I don’t know.

It’s something of a sickness, though. I will buy double albums from artists I have no interest in otherwise, just to see what they can do across two discs. Case in point: Natalie Merchant is gearing up to release Leave Your Sleep on April 13. I haven’t bought a Merchant album since Ophelia in 1998 (and I didn’t even like that one), but when news broke that Leave Your Sleep would be a double record, I put it on my list. Don’t know why. I’m just more interested.

Ambition always flips my switches, so you’d think I’d be three times as interested in triple albums as in single ones. You’d mostly be right – I’m definitely fascinated by musical works that demand to be spread out over three CDs (or even more). But I’m a little more cautious about them too. I can only think of three triple albums I own off the top of my head – Frank Zappa’s Lather, Prince’s Emancipation, and the Early November’s The Mother, The Mechanic and the Path – and all of them could use a trim. Or, at least, some more solid songs to replace the filler.

Still, I can’t deny the little tingle I get at news of a triple album on the horizon. This week, I have two of them, and they both illuminate the good and bad things about lengthy studio projects. I will readily admit that the sheer size and scope of these records made me want to own them. But as for my experience listening to them? Read on…

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A lot of people thought I was kidding when I named Joanna Newsom’s second album, Ys, the best of 2006. I wasn’t, at all, and in the three-plus years since I first heard it, my appreciation (and often fiercely protective love) of Ys has only deepened. Newsom’s not for everyone – she plays a harp as her primary instrument, she writes long and twisty songs, and her voice… well, I described it in 2006 as akin to a drunken 10-year-old’s, and that still sounds about right to me.

But if you let it, Ys will enchant you. It’s gloriously ambitious – five songs, ranging from seven minutes to 17, and all but one of them accompanied by a full orchestra, arranged by Van Dyke Parks. It’s also determinedly difficult, its songs telling fractured fairy tales and giving astronomy lessons more than forging direct connections. I loved it immediately, but I understand why many were put off. On Ys, Newsom created her own world, and forced you to enter it on her terms. That’s an experience I always enjoy.

You can imagine, then, how my ears perked up when word started tricking out about Have One on Me, Newsom’s third album. It’s 18 songs spread across three discs, totaling 124 minutes. You’d be forgiven for expecting that she’d indulged her orchestral leanings even more this time, and perhaps crafted something impenetrable. Truth be told, I was kind of hoping for that – I had a terrific time deciphering Ys, diving down into its nooks and crannies, and the thought of two hours of music that challenging made me smile.

Newsom is much too savvy for that, though. She’s done something altogether more fascinating: Have One on Me is simultaneously massive and tiny, a sweeping album of fragile little songs. She’s aimed for a mix of Patsy Cline and Joni Mitchell on the bulk of these new tunes. There’s an air of authentic earthiness to the whole thing, which is even more remarkable when you consider that Newsom plays the harp, not traditionally a rootsy instrument.

For an album that lasts more than two hours, Have One on Me is often ghostly and sparse. Many songs here consist of harp, vocals and little else, and when the orchestral arrangements come in, they’re restrained – gone is the epic power of Van Dyke Parks. The emphasis is quite clearly on Newsom’s voice, and I’m not sure how she’s done it, but she’s learned how to harness that instrument – she’s become a singer before our ears. I mentioned Joni Mitchell before, and many of the vocal lines on Have One on Me sound modeled on Mitchell’s, and could even give her a run for her money. Newsom never falters as a vocalist here, yet somehow she’s kept the quirks, the little squeaks and odd timbres, that I love.

It all sounds good, right? Well, not quite. The first time I dove into Have One on Me, I did it all at once, and I would definitely not recommend that experience. By the time it was done, I felt like I’d spent months listening to Newsom – the whole third disc wore me down so much that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Is it too much of a good thing? I went back over the next few days to find out, and while the album is easier to digest in pieces, it still gets weaker as it goes along.

The biggest shame is that the first disc is the album of the year, no question. Opener “Easy” is a jazz ballad unlike anything Newsom’s ever done. It’s the first of five tunes that find her playing piano, an instrument she dabbled in on her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and she makes it work here. “Easy” sets the tone with its opening lines: “Easy, easy, my man and me, we could rest and remain here easily.” This is an album about love, one that foregoes the stories of monkeys and bears and stuffed animals that populated Ys. Many of her words this time are accessible and relatable.

The first disc is balanced perfectly. The knotty 11-minute title track is followed by “‘81,” a spare and gorgeous ballad, which is then knocked aside by “Good Intentions Paving Company,” a carnival ride of a tune that finds Newsom overdubbing her voice numerous times. “No Provenance” is mid-tempo and lovely – you will be singing the “in your arms” part before it’s over – and perfectly orchestrated, with flutes, oboes, bassoons and bass clarinets.

And then there is “Baby Birch,” on which she perfects a style she stumbles over later. “Baby Birch” is nine minutes long, and designed like a traditional folk song. Its verses are three chords repeated over and over, its chorus picks two of those and plays them again, and its sound is airy and empty – harp and electric guitar and that’s it, until the final minutes. It’s like a Cowboy Junkies song, and it goes on forever, but I love it to bits. Had this stretched-out and repetitive piece been the exception and not the rule on the next two discs, I would have been fine with it.

Unfortunately, as Have One on Me progresses, it gets simpler and duller. I like almost all of the second disc. “In California” hides its repetition well beneath its orchestration, and “Go Long” may be the prettiest four-chord mantra ever, Newsom spinning gossamer webs on three harps. And “Jackrabbits” is wonderful, another harp-vocals piece that will send shivers.

But the rest of the second disc, and most of the third, are sleepers. I’ve tried everything I can do to like “Occident,” and it just isn’t happening. Newsom isn’t as fine a piano player as she is a harpist, and the creaky songwriting stands out on a more typical instrument. “Soft as Chalk” is better, the energetic piano runs and percussion battles showing signs of life. But Newsom quickly snuffs those out with “Esme,” “Autumn” and “Ribbon Bows,” three lengthy slow burns that make up the bulk of disc three.

The nine-minute “Kingfisher” is a miniature masterpiece, sequenced near the end, but closer “Does Not Suffice” lives up to its title, repeating a few boring chords on piano until you’ll want to scream. On my first listen, I couldn’t wait for the third disc to be over. I’ve revisited it in isolation, and like much of it just fine, but it takes a lot of time to appreciate, and even then the sparse, simple songs – all of which hover around the seven-minute mark – are merely pleasant, not revelatory.

You hear this every time an artist releases a sweeping, multi-disc work, but this time I think it’s true: Have One on Me could have benefited from some judicious editing. Take the weakest 40 or 50 minutes off of this thing, and it’s a solid winner. It still wouldn’t be as good as Ys, but it would be a more compact and riveting work. The highs on this album are towering, but they sometimes get lost in the sprawl, and they take time to find and unearth.

Have One on Me is certainly better in smaller chunks, and I understand what Newsom was going for here. This is an album rooted in folk and gospel music, stripped down and natural-sounding. It’s a far cry from the Ren Faire opulence of Ys, and it lives and dies by its performances, which are marvelous. But it doesn’t pluck me from my life and transport me somewhere else. For long stretches of its running time, it remains earthbound. It may still be the best album I’ve heard this year, but it’s a bit of a letdown.

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If you think two hours is too long, try four.

Yes, four hours. 235 minutes and 35 seconds, to be exact. That’s how much time it takes to listen to Sadly, The Past is No Longer What It Was, the new triple album from Leyland Kirby. He’s gone by many names, including the Caretaker and V/Vm, but this is his first release under his own name. (Well, his second two names – his first is James.) It’s also the first thing I’ve heard from him, even though his catalog is vast and expansive. (The last Caretaker release spanned six CDs, so long works are nothing new for him.)

Leyland Kirby is an ambient instrumental artist. That means his music is often formless, built from air and water. Sounds creep in, drone on beautifully, and creep out without stirring up much trouble. Some people find this stuff boring, but I find that putting on ambient music in a darkened room is like flying. I love it – I’d never make a steady diet of it, but it often reaches levels of beauty that more melodic music doesn’t even approach. And there’s a lot of that magic on this record.

But again, I wouldn’t recommend listening to it all at once. I tried, but midway through the third disc I had to shut it off. My head was swimming, the room was refusing to stay solid, and I felt like I had been underwater for three days. There’s just too much here to process, and so much of it is droning and cloud-like, washing over you.

So as I did with Newsom’s record, I digested this one in smaller pieces over the next few days. Taken in smaller bites, it’s pretty amazing. The tracks are evenly divided between piano pieces (heavily reverbed electric piano that sounds like it’s being played by ghosts in a centuries-old house), synth shimmers, and churning noise sculptures. Some of this will lull you to sleep, but some will wake you up screaming. It’s fascinating.

The song titles tell a story of sadness and despair giving way to hope, and the music follows suit. The first two discs are all minor keys, and feature songs with names like “And As I Sat Beside You I Felt the Great Sadness Today” and “Not Even Nostalgia is As Good as It Used to Be.” The third is a journey to a new dawn, as the piano exults in the closing track, called (deep breath) “And at Dawn, Armed With Glowing Patience, We Shall Enter the Cities of Glory.” That’s the one advantage to listening all at once – that journey makes itself plain.

But there’s just too much material here to assess with a couple of listens. This is the type of music that simultaneously demands and resists close attention, the kind of experience that can best be described by impressions and feelings rather than analysis. There’s no reason that this album has to be four hours long, nor that some of its songs need to be 12, 15 or 20 minutes. But the drowning sensation is part of the design, I think.

While I’d never recommend listening to this for fun, Sadly, The Future is No Longer What it Was is one of the best ambient records I’ve ever heard. For most listeners, one disc of this (or even one song) would suffice, but I like the idea of wading through this vast ocean of sound. Unlike Newsom’s record, editing would not have made Sadly any better, or any worse. It would only have made it shorter, and for music like this, which one can dip in and out of like a dream, there’s no such thing as too long.

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And now, the next installment of my Top 20 of the 2000s. After disparaging critics that rave about new bands last week, and essentially saying I like double and triple records more than single discs this week, I’m about to wax ecstatic about a 57-minute debut. The irony is not lost on me.

#13. Mutemath.

I did the Mutemath experience the right way – I saw the New Orleans quartet live first. They were the last show of an otherwise lackluster Cornerstone Festival in 2005, and did their traveling-musical-carnival act. As they jumped all over each other to play the intricate, astounding “Reset,” I knew I’d found a new favorite band.

Shaking with excitement, I bought their Reset EP right there and then, and was disappointed. It was glossy and removed, a far cry from the live explosion I’d just seen. That’s the awful truth of the studio – sometimes it sucks a band dry, draining them of the very things that make them special. Having been signed to Word Records didn’t help, as I’m sure the label pressured the band to give them something fit for goopy Christian radio.

But Mutemath was never that band. True, they grew from the ashes of underrated Christian outfit Earthsuit, but the new sound was darker and more conflicted, adults wrestling with the insanity of the world while trying to stay true to themselves. Over the next year, they fought a legal battle to escape the Christian music ghetto, while finishing and self-releasing their debut record. The clear implication was that this music was too good, too complex and fascinating, to be buried under the expectations of a limited audience. That implication was spot on.

Mutemath is, from the start, an entirely different beast from the EP. Songs stretch to six and seven minutes, soundscapes link interconnected pieces, songs shift and change and live and breathe. There is no sickly radio single – only “Typical” flirts with the mainstream. The rest is dark and beautiful and triumphant, one of the most perfect first albums I’ve heard in many years. And even if they never make another one like it again, I’ll still treasure this one.

Mutemath’s sound is difficult to encapsulate, but try this: imagine if the Police had grown up listening to Radiohead, and had decided not to start sucking after Regatta de Blanc. Singer Paul Meany has a bit of the old, cool Sting to his voice, and he plays a mean electric piano. Guitarist Greg Hill can make his six-string sound like just about anything, and bassist Roy Mitchell-Cardenas switches off between electric, acoustic and synth instruments, based on what the song needs.

But it’s drummer Darren King who is the bedrock of this band. Before taking the stage at every show, he literally duct-tapes his headphone monitors to his head – his playing is so energetic that they wouldn’t stay on otherwise. I have no idea how many drum heads this guy goes through in a month, but he beats the living hell out of them, and his lightning-quick hi-hat work is reminiscent of Stewart Copeland, particularly on Police-pop numbers like “Noticed.”

For all their ear-catching style, it’s the songs that make this album what it is. The furious flurry of “Chaos,” the classic pop of “Noticed,” the supple darkness of “You Are Mine,” the anthemic joy of “Without It.” These are wonderful songs, and nearly all of them tackle big themes. The amazing “Stare at the Sun” is about looking for God and finding no trace. “Chaos” is about holding true to something as the world crumbles around you. “Without It,” the record’s forgotten masterpiece, is about learning to live without the things life takes from you. Closing heartbreaker “Stall Out” sounds like it’s going to end on a down note, until the magnificent coda: “We are still far from over.”

That’s turned out to be true – second album Armistice wasn’t as stunning as the debut, but it was still excellent, and I predict a bright future for this band. You still need to see them live to get the full effect, but the recorded evidence so far paints Mutemath as one of the greatest new bands of the decade. Long may they reign.

Of course, I need to add a caveat – the self-released version of the Mutemath album (you know, the perfect one) is out of print. Mutemath signed to Warner Bros., and put out an inferior re-working with the same title and artwork. The new version shortens songs (by more than a minute in some cases), adds inferior tracks from Reset that screw up the flow, and most damningly, omits “Without It.” It’s still a good record, but if you can somehow find the Teleprompt Records version, that’s the one to get.

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Next week, three of 2010’s most beautiful records so far. The new music just keeps on coming – I’m spending more than $100 on March 9, to get albums from Broken Bells (a collaboration between Danger Mouse and James Mercer of the Shins), Gorillaz, Serj Tankian, Frightened Rabbit, Liars, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Ted Leo, Titus Andronicus, the Knife, and Jimi Hendrix. All in one week. And things show no sign of slowing down from there. I’m excited and exhausted just thinking about it.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.