88 Keys and the Truth
Great New Piano Albums from Aqualung and Rufus Wainwright

I’m writing this on Record Store Day. I spent a ridiculous $114 on limited-edition stuff today at Kiss the Sky in Geneva, but it was absolutely worth it. I picked up some quality tunes from Nada Surf, Ani Difranco, Manchester Orchestra, Weezer and Fun, to name a few.

Better than that, though, was the opportunity to see something I never get to witness: a line of people in a record store. And I mean a line – more than a dozen people at a time, waiting for their chance to buy real-life, physical-product music from a brick-and-mortar shop. Since there are only about a thousand of those stores still in existence in the U.S., the show of support for them was heartening.

Record Store Day started in 2007, as a way to help the independent music store weather the current storm. With digital delivery quickly taking the place of my beloved CD as the preferred format, and the sheer number of people illegally downloading anything they want to hear on the rise, record stores have taken a significant hit in the last decade. The vinyl resurgence has helped, but not enough.

Me, I love independent record stores, and I love music in its physical form. For me, you can’t ever replace the feeling of browsing through stacks of music, uncovering that hidden gem. Downloading music just doesn’t bring me the sense of ownership that holding the CD does – for me, reading the notes and looking at the artwork is as much a part of the experience as listening to the music.

I know, I’m a dying breed. I get that all the time. But Record Store Day was created by and for people like me. It’s like having an international holiday of my very own. It was so gratifying to me to see so many people coming out to Kiss the Sky to revel in the same things I do – physical products sold by real, actual people. I know by the time you read this, we’ll have already gone back to the same old iPod culture, and I will again be the odd man out.

But for one day, it’s nice to be part of something like this. Soon both the CD and the independent record store will be gone. Until then, I’m happy to support both of those things any way I can, and events like Record Store Day make me feel like it isn’t a futile effort. And for that, I’m grateful.

* * * * *

I’ve been looking forward to this week’s releases for a long time.

I play piano myself, so I’m always drawn to artists who do the same. I know some who think the piano is a weak-sister instrument, one that adds too much sweetness to the Real Rawk they love. But it’s a tough thing to play. Well, like all instruments, it’s an easy thing to play, but a tough thing to play well. And I always love hearing people play it well.

Matt Hales and Rufus Wainwright play it well, so you can imagine how excited I was to learn that they’d both be releasing new albums on the same day. The piano is, honestly, the only thing that unites the two of them. Hales is a British popster who goes by the name Aqualung, and writes somewhat reserved, accessible and pretty songs. Wainwright is a dramatic showman whose opulent arrangements and melodies often hit operatic heights. I like them both, but they definitely scratch different itches.

Still, there is one other thing that connects them: they’ve both made terrific new records. Longer reviews follow, but if you want a spoiler, here you go: buy both of these albums now.

* * * * *

I’ve gone on and on before about what a lousy stage name Aqualung is, with its Jethro Tull associations and all. Matt Hales is unlikely to change it at this point, so I just have to live with it, and honestly, whatever he calls himself, his music is still worth hearing.

In 2007, Hales unleashed Memory Man, one of the finest albums of the last decade. A monolithic piano-pop masterpiece, Memory Man took Hales from decent to extraordinary in my eyes. The subsequent Words and Music was a bit of a hodgepodge, combining new songs and old, but was warm and pretty, and contained his most beautiful song, “Arrivals.” Still, it wasn’t quite the proper follow-up.

The new Magnetic North, on the other hand, is the next chapter. And where Memory Man was a massive studio construct, here Hales mostly just relaxes, giving us an album of breezy, sunny piano-pop ditties. I admit to being underwhelmed by the opening half on first listen, save for a couple of stunners – the rising-and-falling “Reel Me In,” and the goofy yet invigorating “Fingertip,” a song that always makes me want to dance. It’s so delightful that I don’t even notice how silly the lyrics are as I’m singing along.

The rest of the first half is, initially at least, merely pleasant. “36 Hours,” co-written with Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile, sounds like an afternoon in the sun, its lazy melody floating by without making much of a mark. I quite like the somber “Sundowning,” but even that is missing one of those Matt Hales moments that make you gasp and smile. The drama of Memory Man is all but absent, and in its place, Hales has given us something cozy and comfortable.

But listen all the way through, and it will pull you in slowly. In fact, Magnetic North’s final four songs are its best, and the warm glow they leave you with elevates the less immediate ones at the beginning. After the brief yet glorious “California,” Hales digs in deep with “Remember Us,” an absolutely stunning six-minute ballad. From here, he can do no wrong. “Hummingbird” is a sprightly joy, Hales’ wife Kim Oliver joining him on vocals, and the haunting “Thin Air” contains several of those my-god-listen-to-this melodic moments.

As usual, Hales saves his prettiest and most affecting piece for last. The title track is just piano and voice, and it’s crushingly gorgeous. “You’re my compass, my magnetic north, you keep this old ship on course,” Hales sings, and when the melody soars upwards for the line “I’m begging you to stay true,” it’s a heart-stopper.

Magnetic North may not be as layered or as powerful as Memory Man, but it has enough graceful and well-written songs to keep Matt Hales’ streak going, and it grows and grows with repeated listens. It’s a simpler, more down-to-earth record, but its warm atmosphere works in its favor – this is the sound of a songwriter who loves his life and has nothing to prove. It is as confident and as lovely an album as one could hope for.

* * * * *

But if you really want to have your heart ripped out, you need to hear Rufus Wainwright’s new one, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu. I’ve always said that tragedy brings out the best in an artist, and while I would never wish horrible things on anyone, the resulting art is often honest, painful and brilliant. That’s the case here – Wainwright wrote and recorded All Days are Nights while his mother, the venerable Kate McGarrigle, struggled against the cancer that would eventually kill her, on January 18 of this year.

The album is stripped bare, down to nothing but Wainwright’s piano and voice. The one picture of our host here finds him looking terrible – sad, heartbroken, unshaven, with one eye and eyebrow slathered with black makeup. (A close-up of that eye adorns the cover.) The record seems like a single thought, like Wainwright wandered into the studio one day in a reflective mood and played this entire sequence in one go.

The songs here are mostly slow and meditative. Wainwright is a fantastic piano player – just listen to his work on “The Dream” – and he takes his time, letting these pieces unfold at their own pace. The result is spellbinding, easily the most naked and emotionally real thing he’s given us. I was worried that removing his usual outsize arrangements would leave these songs too skeletal, but Wainwright sounds free here – free to be himself, with no pretense. Of course, Wainwright is a showman, so even his most honest work carries some of that drama. But this is the sound of a talented performer alone at night, with no spotlights, no curtain, and no cheering crowd.

Opener “Who Are You New York” sets the tone, Wainwright wandering the streets of his home city, looking for something indefinable. He takes stock in “Sad With What I Have,” one of the most crushing songs he’s ever written, and it segues beautifully into “Martha,” the tale of a late-night phone call to his sister. “Time to go up north and see mother, things are harder for her now,” he sings, and it’s like reality caves in on him.

Three of these songs are based on Shakespeare sonnets (including “Sonnet 43,” from which the title is taken: “All days are nights to see till I see thee, and nights bright days when dreams do show me thee”), and they are lovely. They slide right into this stream of consciousness, as does “Les Feux D’Artifice T’Appellant,” an aria taken from his opera Prima Donna, on which Wainwright unveils his flawless French accent. These pieces of Wainwright’s life only add to the sense that this is one long thought, like him telling his ailing mother what he’s been interested in lately.

But it’s closer “Zebulon” that leaves the most lasting impression. Written shortly after visiting his mother’s hospital room, the song is about trying desperately to hold on to and reconnect with the past. Wainwright conjures an old lover to talk to, hoping to take his mind off of things, and ends up confiding in him. “My mother’s in the hospital, my sister’s at the opera, I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it,” he sings, and between verses, the music mimics a slow, painful journey back to reality. It’s simply gorgeous, more heart-rending than I can even describe. It hurts.

The second half of the album’s title refers to Lulu, the mythical dark child within each one of us. (See also: Marillion’s “Interior Lulu.”) But this is not a depressing work, by any means. This is Wainwright healing himself through song, praying for the magic and wonder he feels at the piano to take him away. It’s incredibly sad and beautiful and brave, Wainwright simply being himself, by himself, and letting us listen in. Wainwright’s always been great, but this album is an absolute treasure.

* * * * *

And now, the next installment in my top 20 of the 2000s.

#6. Fleet Foxes (2008).

This is the highest a debut album has placed on this chart, but Fleet Foxes isn’t just any old debut album. In fact, if there’s anything on this list I would call timeless, it’s this.

I don’t know how they did it, but this quintet from Seattle has somehow tapped into the deepest part of the endless river we call music. They play woodsy folk, sure, but through some magical alchemy I can’t explain or describe, the end result sounds older than time itself, like music that was grown by hand over centuries, tended to by generations of people. It sounds like tradition handed down, father to son, from a time when life was communicated through song.

Much of that magic comes from the harmonies, at once earthy and unearthly. All five Foxes sing, and most of the vocals here are given spellbinding arrangements. From these guys, it sounds effortless, like they simply open their mouths and this sound, older than time, comes out. But the songs are all marvelous, from the light-breaking-through “Sun It Rises” to the wistful closer, “Oliver James.” The songs on Fleet Foxes are all small, breakable things, but they seem grand and strong.

My favorites are “He Doesn’t Know Why,” which has a melody that could have come from Brian Wilson at his best; “Quiet Houses,” which is simply lovely; and “Your Protector,” which adds a bit of melancholy menace to the mix. But every single song sounds out of time, carefully preserved, yet vital and shimmering. It’s amazing to me that this is a debut album, since every element of it is so perfectly realized. Hearing this for the first time was one of those “where have you been all my life” moments for me, and I can’t wait to see where this band goes next.

A good sign for their future is the Sun Giant EP, recorded after the album, but released before it. This five-song gem contains my favorite Fleet Foxes song, “Mykonos.” I’m hoping they can even top this one in the future – a new album is expected later this year. But even if they can’t, Robin Pecknold and his band have at least given us this one perfect piece of work, and that’s more than most musicians manage in a lifetime.

* * * * *

I’m running quite long this week, but I still wanted to mention one more thing.

If I had to put my finger on the loudest concert I’ve ever been to, it would be Type O Negative’s gig at the Asylum in Portland, Maine in 1999. Hundreds of people were crammed into this tiny box of a club, all screaming, and the music somehow battered all of that noise into submission. My ears were ringing for days afterwards. From my vantage point in the back, I could really only see one thing: immensely tall bassist/vocalist Peter Steele, towering over his bandmates, and leaning down to sing into a microphone straining up to reach him.

Peter Steele was an enigma, and his band no less of one. Type O Negative was billed as a metal band, but they were so much more than that – they combined Black Sabbath with the Beatles and progressive rock and goth and a hundred other things. Their six studio albums are all intense, huge affairs, with 10-minute songs and layered orchestration, but at the same time, they never let you forget that they were just four guys from Brooklyn. They covered Seals and Crofts, and Neil Young, and the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch with equal aplomb, and while they were at times the heaviest band you’ve ever heard, they could also be one of the most graceful.

At the center of it all was Steele, with his morbid sense of humor, his endless willingness to poke fun at himself, but also his very real depression. Steele made fun of goth culture on “Black No. 1,” but he often tapped into real pain, and let it bleed all over the stage. Type O was a band unlike any other, and once they hit their stride (with Bloody Kisses in 1993), they never made a bad record. Their latest, 2007’s Dead Again, is one of their best.

Peter Steele died of heart failure on April 14. He was 48 years old. You’re not going to hear an awful lot about his life and death, because innovative goth-metal-prog bands from Brooklyn don’t bring out the tributes, so I wanted to say something here. I loved Type O Negative, and I’ll miss hearing new music from them. Rest in peace, Peter.

* * * * *

Next week, I’ll be catching up with a few records I’ve missed. The week after that, the deluge begins, with new ones from the Hold Steady, Minus the Bear, the New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, the Flaming Lips, Justin Currie, and the Deftones. Yes, all in one week. Whew!

Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.