Just Give Me 30 Minutes
Three Short Records From Three Big Artists

The standard compact disc can hold about 80 minutes of music.

In the days of vinyl (by which I mean the days when no other technology was available), the average album was between 40 and 45 minutes long. Now, the average is closer to an hour, and many artists feel like they aren’t serving the audience if they don’t fill up the CD. Some songwriters can sustain quality over 75 minutes, but most can’t.

And yet, the format dictates how much material we expect. Look at Blu-Ray discs. We can fit so much more extra material on a Blu-Ray, so if producers don’t – if they just don’t have 10 new documentaries to slot alongside their movie – the audience feels cheated. I sometimes feel the same way about albums, but I’m trying to let that go. I truly support an artist’s right to say just how long, or how short, their record should be.

Still, I think 30 minutes is about the minimum I’d expect from a full-length album. If you’re going to charge me 10 or 12 bucks, you should give me half an hour’s enjoyment. When good bands restrict themselves to 30 minutes, I usually find myself aching for more. Case in point: every Starflyer 59 album for the last decade has clocked in at around half an hour, and every one has left me wishing Jason Martin had just dug in and written a few more awesome songs. (Particularly since he regularly releases EPs, each one around 15 or 20 minutes long.)

But in some cases, like the three records I have on tap this week, 30 minutes is just fine. I found all three of these just long enough – I wasn’t crying for more at the end, and I never got bored as they were unspooling. Sometimes, a short record is exactly the right length.

* * * * *

Keane, at least, has the courtesy to call their 30-minute marvel, Night Train, an EP, and price it accordingly. I’m grateful, but as this is no less satisfying than their longer works, I would have bought it no matter what they were asking.

Night Train was written and recorded while the band was on tour for 2008’s wonderful Perfect Symmetry. In some ways, it’s the Zooropa to that record’s Achtung Baby, a hodgepodge of experiments that hangs together remarkably well, and points to half a dozen new directions. Symmetry found the band hopping into the Delorean, hitting 88 miles per hour and winding up in the ‘80s, and it wasn’t received nearly as well as the stately piano-pop of their first two albums. But rather than retreat, Keane has boldly gone even weirder, even further from the sound that made them famous.

What I like best about this effort is its fearlessness. The band has torn open its signature sound, but retained its soul – none of this album sounds like Keane, and yet, it all sounds like Keane, in a way. They’re a quartet now – guitarist Jesse Quin is officially part of the band – and you’d think that a more traditional lineup would lead them down more typical paths. If that’s what you’re expecting, Night Train is gonna knock you out.

Take the first single, “Stop For a Minute.” It’s got a trippy mid-tempo beat, a pounding piano and a soaring chorus, but it’s also a collaboration with Somalian rapper-singer K’Naan, who throws down rhymes over the bridge and takes half the lead vocals on the verses. And it works. “Back in Time” sounds like Joy Electric in places, its swooping synthesizers surrounding Tom Chaplin’s high, clear voice. (Chaplin’s one of the best singers working today, and he sounds typically excellent here.) And “Clear Skies” is all acoustic guitars, handclaps and vibraphones, a barreling ride through a dark tunnel. “Clear skies gonna fall on you…”

But wait, they’re not done. “Your Love” is the type of song that could have found its way onto 120 Minutes in 1985, and marks the singing debut of keyboard genius Tim Rice-Oxley. (He sounds like Chaplin, but not as strong.) “Looking Back” brings K’Naan back into the mix, but also incorporates a full horn section, for a brassy stomp that sounds nothing like anything else in the band’s catalog. (Think the theme from Rocky, only great.)

The only experiment that doesn’t work is a throbbing cover of Japanese electro-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1983 song “Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself),” featuring vocals from Baile Funk star Tigarah. It’s fine, just a little too Live Aid in its execution. But with so many strange detours on display, it’s kind of amazing that this is the only one that leads nowhere.

Night Train ends with longtime live favorite “My Shadow,” and I’m glad they waited until Quin joined the band to record it – it benefits greatly from the crashing guitars in its second half. Perhaps the most Keane-like song here, “My Shadow” begins delicately, but builds into an anthem. “We won’t be leaving by the same road that we came by,” Chaplin sings, his voice yearning for connection atop his band’s beautiful noise. I’ve heard this song live a couple of times, and this studio rendition absolutely does it justice.

I’ve said this before, but it still stands: one day Keane will write a song I don’t like. That day has yet to arrive. With Night Train, they continue a hot streak, and even better, they sound liberated, like they’re free to try anything. If you thought Keane was ridiculous before, nothing here will change your mind. But if you love the sound of great musicians breaking new ground for themselves, and having a hell of a great time doing it, check this out.

* * * * *

I’ll cop to initially being disappointed in Richard Julian’s new record, Girls Need Attention.

Julian’s been a favorite of mine for more than 10 years. He’s snarky and sharp-witted, no doubt, but he’s consistently able to give his listeners a look past the thorny exterior to the warm heart beneath. Julian has a great way with a melody, and an even better way with a phrase. Unfortunately, he’s just one of those casualties of the music biz – a genuinely talented guy who can’t catch a break, and has never found the audience he richly deserves. (He doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. His name redirects to an entry on animated series Chris Colorado.)

And so, after two solid records on EMI, Julian’s signed with folk/bluegrass label Compass Records for his sixth effort. Girls Need Attention is his simplest and sparsest album, comprising nine originals and a cover, and running about 35 minutes. Couple that with the fact that these new songs are his most serious – you won’t hear much of the smirking humor or clever storytelling that has so far defined him – and you can probably see how this record might not leave its mark at first.

But stay with it, and Girls reveals hidden pleasures. For one thing, it is perhaps Julian’s most diverse work – it zips through stark acoustic folk, muddy blues, jangly pop and stomping rock, just in the first four songs. Those four also feature Wilco guitarist Nels Cline lending a hand, and Julian puts him through his paces, particularly on the dark and dirty “Words.” “Lost in Your Light” is simple enough that Julian probably wrote it in 20 minutes, but it’s sweet and sunny, and the title track is the only song here that will make you laugh. (The chorus is “Get your drunk ass up, don’t you know girls need attention.”)

Throughout this record, Julian only uses the instruments he needs. Only four of these 10 songs have drums, and there are moments here where the music all but disappears. “Georgie” definitely sounds like a song Compass Records would release: it’s all banjo, tuba and clarinets, and very traditional-sounding pop-jazz. Julian mines several American musical forms for this album – check out the ukulele dance-along “Sweet Little Sway” – but he does them all well. And the sparse cover of Randy Newman’s “Wedding in Cherokee County” sends this album away with a smirk.

I do find myself missing Julian’s trademark humor, and his often more robust production. But as an earthy side trip, Girls Need Attention works well. This isn’t the album to find Julian a wider audience, but it sounds like he had fun making it, and it feels like he’s in a good place. That’s really all I can hope for my favorite artists – that they find a corner of the world, live in it, love it, and let me in every once in a while. Hear Julian at his site.

* * * * *

Both the Keane and Julian records are sweet little affairs. But if you want something that will barge in, smack you with a barstool, flip over tables, set the place on fire and saunter out 35 minutes later, you can’t go wrong with Sea of Cowards, the second album by the Dead Weather.

Now, I’m not your typical Jack White fan. I like the White Stripes well enough, I dig the Raconteurs, and White’s work as a producer makes me smile. But I absolutely love the Dead Weather, White’s third and best band. It’s a supergroup of sorts, featuring White on drums, his Raconteurs bandmate Jack Lawrence on bass, Queens of the Stone Age madman Dean Feritia on guitar and organ, and the Kills’ Alison Mosshart on vocals. But rather than try for a mix of their sounds, the Dead Weather has gone for a scummy, dirty blues vibe, and on Sea of Cowards, they’ve perfected it.

Everything on this record sounds like shit, in the best way. Everything is louder than everything else, the tones all bleed into one another, and the whole thing feels like it was recorded in a garage. (Don’t get me wrong – it’s meticulously crafted to sound that way.) While the first Dead Weather album indulged in slower blues every once in a while, Sea of Cowards rocks like Ben Grimm all the way through. Songs segue into one another, and the whole thing feels like a live show, played in the corner of a dingy basement while drunken bikers beat the crap out of each other with pool cues.

Most of these songs are built around a single riff, bludgeoned over and over with kickass precision. Mosshart is superb here, screeching like a woman possessed on “Hustle and Cuss” and exploding all over “I’m Mad.” Fertita makes more use of his organ here – some songs sound like they don’t have guitars at all, in fact. On every track, White proves he’s a better drummer than his fellow Stripe, Meg White. This record, even more than the first, is about the feeling. It would be hard for me to call “I Can’t Hear You” a good song, for instance, but it rocks like you wouldn’t believe, and in context (between fiery singles “Die By the Drop” and “Gasoline”), it smokes.

And in this case, 35 minutes is exactly right. Once the sinister tones of “Old Mary” fade, you’ll be exhausted and sweaty and ready to collapse. This thing rocks that hard. Much as I like Jack White’s other endeavors, this is the one I hope he sticks with for as long as he can. Sea of Cowards is sleazy, scuzzy fun, and it’ll leave you needing a shower, but fully entertained.

* * * * *

Here’s a strange irony for you. I’m about to cap off a column about short records with an essay on a long one. In fact, if you play all three of the albums above back to back, you’ll still come up shorter than my choice for the third-best album of the 2000s:

#3. Marillion, Marbles (2004).

The best thing about Marbles is that it shouldn’t exist.

Marillion has been around since 1981. They had their day in the sun in the late ‘80s (at least in Britain), with a singer named Fish and a song named “Kayleigh.” Fish left, the band replaced him, their popularity waned in the ‘90s, and they got dropped from their label. And for most bands, that’s where the story would have ended. But those looking for Marillion on an episode of Where Are They Now will be sorely disappointed.

Marillion spent the years following their exit from EMI getting better and better, building a fanbase online, and developing a model for their continued survival. Marbles was the album that proved it could work. In a remarkable leap of faith, more than 13,000 fans (including yours truly) ponied up about 50 bucks each to finance the recording, release and promotion of Marbles, a year or so before we actually heard a note of it. The fans came through for the band, and the band did the same for the fans, taking their time to craft a masterpiece, free of record company interference, and then getting it directly into the hands of the people who made it happen.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Lots of bands do it this way now. But this was 2003, and an online-only campaign of this magnitude was still a rarity. I can tell you, as a participant, that I felt a part of Marbles’ creation in a way I’ve never really experienced before. The reward was magnificent, however: Marbles is the sound of a brilliant band given total artistic freedom, and coming up with the record of their lives. It is everything I love about Marillion, a band that plays equally to my head and my heart, and every note and every line of this thing is etched onto my life.

At first glance, this record is daunting. It is three epics and two suites, connected by the four-movement title track. Its opening song is more than 13 minutes long. This thing is a commitment, but it doesn’t feel like one as it’s playing. Through sheer depth of sound and songwriting, it carries you from one end to the other, and when it’s over, you’ll feel like you’ve been somewhere and back again. This is music to get lost in.

Marbles is an album about overcoming. Opener “The Invisible Man” begins with a sinister techno pulse, but soon is rushing like a river all around singer Steve Hogarth, who makes you feel the title character’s anguish as his life evaporates in front of him. Hogarth, who jokingly likes to refer to himself as the band’s “new lead singer since 1989,” has one of the most expressive and expansive voices in music today. He has a flawless falsetto, and can do soaring like few others, but he’s equally good at whispering those emotions, and making you feel them even more.

Throughout Marbles, Hogarth’s lyrics pit darkness against light. “Genie” and “The Damage” are about self-destruction, both sharing couplets to drive the theme home. “The Only Unforgivable Thing,” a seven-minute lament with gorgeous guitar from Steve Rothery, is about how difficult it is to let go and live. And in the astounding 12-minute closer “Neverland,” Hogarth hits upon a line that is both self-loathing and inspirational: “I want to be someone someone would want to be.” I cannot explain to you the joy of listening to the ecstatic eight-minute widescreen playout that ends the record.

And then there is “Ocean Cloud,” perhaps my favorite Marillion song. It is about Donald Allum, who rowed across the Atlantic in 1987, and nearly died in the process. The song is just about 18 minutes long, but you’ll never notice. Between Hogarth’s impassioned delivery, the abundance of brilliant melodies, and the uncannily watery music that ebbs and flows through it, this piece will knock you flat. Better than that, though, it will fill you with terror and joy and wonder, and make you feel something new every few seconds.

That’s Marillion at their best, when they’re creating technically advanced, powerful music that cuts right to the emotional center. It’s head music you feel. They’re equally adept at the extended epic and the five-minute pop song – see “You’re Gone,” which landed in the British top 10 through sheer fan willpower. Whatever they’re doing, Marillion is always trying to move you. The best music always is, of course, but so few bands manage it as often as this one does.

The best thing about Marbles is that it shouldn’t exist, and in many ways, that’s the best thing about Marillion, too. The world just isn’t set up to support a band like this one, which is why they now rely on the people who love them, the people who have been touched by their music, and would do anything to hear more. That’s a level of loyalty very few bands enjoy, which ought to tell you something, and one listen to Marbles will tell you why. It’s one of the very best from a band I love deeply. It’s the kind of record that will change your life.

Go here. You won’t regret it.

* * * * *

Next week, hopefully the Lost Dogs, but also the Black Keys, Hammock, the National and LCD Soundsystem. Or some variation thereof. 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.