A Very Good Week
Four Winners and a Genuine Surprise

Well, hello again.

This is TM3AM column #501. Not nearly as momentous as last week, more like business as usual. Thanks to everyone for your kind comments on my 500th. I got a remarkable 1,000 page views last Wednesday alone. I truly appreciate everyone who stopped by to read my stuff, and I hope some of you came back this week to see what this thing is all about.

If you’re new, welcome aboard. This installment is pretty much what you’ll get every week here – a bunch of reviews of new music, of all stripes. We’ve got progressive metal, earthy blues, orchestrated show tunes and whatever it is the Eels do on tap this week, and we’re starting things off with a genuine week-making surprise.

Again, thanks for stopping by my corner of the internet, and reading my labor of love. Here we go.

* * * * *

Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to music, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I resisted CDs for a good long time, longer than reason would suggest, and now, as everyone is moving to digital delivery and selling their plastic discs to second-hand shops, I’m clinging to the physical era, shelling out for hundreds of the singing drink coasters each year. I’m one of those people who feel like I don’t really own an album unless I can hold it in my hand.

But one thing the Internet does better than anything is surprise. It takes weeks, sometimes months for a finished album to make it to the stores – there’s artwork and printing and manufacturing and distribution, and all of that takes a long time. But with digital delivery, an artist can finish a record and have it up for sale the same afternoon. If said artist wants to, he can even do all that without telling anyone first.

Enter Sufjan Stevens, who released, without warning, an hour-long EP of new songs on his website Friday morning. It was a surprise for a number of reasons. First, Stevens has been talking for some time about how mentally blocked he is, saying he’s forgotten how to write songs. The last piece of music we heard from him was The BQE, an orchestral ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. A sterling 40-minute piece, The BQE reportedly messed with Stevens’ head – it was such an ordeal, he said, that he doubted whether he’d ever write another song again.

Another reason for surprise: Stevens rarely does anything small, or without fanfare. This is the man, after all, who made the best album of the last decade, a 74-minute ode to my adopted home state, Illinois. That album is part of a (presumably aborted) attempt to write one album for each of the 50 states, an undertaking several have rightly called insane. Hell, even his Christmas album was a five-CD box set. Stevens is nothing if not ambitious, almost to a fault.

So now here’s this eight-song collection, All Delighted People, his first without a concept behind it since 2004’s Seven Swans, appearing like a thief in the night. Is this the true follow-up to Illinois? Stevens is downplaying that idea, calling it an EP and selling it for five bucks. But I would say it is, or at least the next step in Stevens’ evolution. All Delighted People requires a few listens to truly process, but once it takes hold, it’s an amazing piece of work.

The album is built around two epics, one of which, the title track, appears in two versions. The “original version” kicks things off, and right away, you can hear the difference in Stevens’ approach. The song is 11 minutes long, doesn’t have a chorus as much as it has a nine-note refrain, and is arranged for something like 350 players. On first listen, it’s baffling – it winds on and on, Stevens dropping Paul Simon lyrics in among his own, as the massive waves of sound build up, break and recede. Huge walls of strings and horns, choirs, electronic noise, crazy dissonance – it all makes no sense at first, but over time, the gears lock into place.

Stevens’ voice is very different here as well. He’s grown more confident, and mixed himself right up front. His vocals have grown thicker and gruffer, and he pushes himself, often leaping into a shaky falsetto. I’m still not sure what I think of his new tone, and at first, it’s just as jarring as the crazy arrangements. Needless to say, by the time I finished “All Delighted People” the first time, my head was spinning. But upon hearing the cleaner, sparser “classic rock version,” here at track six, the song started to come together for me.

Now, five listens later, I think it’s something of a masterpiece, in both versions. The classic rock version is closer to his Illinois style, although it’s still grittier, and it ends with a three-minute guitar solo that keeps eating itself. As you start to learn its contours, the song doesn’t meander nearly as much as it first seems to, and its internal logic clicks. I think this can stand as one of Stevens’ most impressive efforts.

The remainder of the EP isn’t as immediately off-putting. In fact, it’s marvelous, although Stevens retains the loose and rough-hewn style – you never get the sense here that he’s completely in control of things, which is a huge change from Illinois. “Enchanting Ghost” and “Heirloom” are acoustic pieces with tender piano, and both are lovely. “From the Mouth of Gabriel” takes things up a notch, kind of – it pulses along nicely, growing as it does, but never too much.

The fifth track, “The Owl and the Tanager,” is a concert favorite, one he’s played since at least 2007. The version here is jaw-droppingly beautiful, all piano and echo-y voice, Stevens reaching up for that falsetto again, but truly nailing it. This one sounds to me like a sonic sequel to “Oh God, Where Are You Now,” its repetition taking it to hypnotic heights. “Arnika” is another acoustic tune, this one buoyed by a subtle choir arrangement, and structured in a way that makes it sound ready to collapse at any time. It’s odd, but gorgeous.

And then there’s the finale, the other epic – “Djohariah” runs for 17 minutes, and remains almost entirely instrumental for the first 11 of them. As backing vocalists moan, and a very 1970s bass thumps away, Stevens whips out a positively Zappa-esque guitar solo. Honestly, the man shreds – I’ve never heard him play like this before. The whole song is an exercise in letting loose, despite its slow tempo. Horns wail, drums flail, the song builds and builds, until it all falls away, leaving Stevens and his acoustic. That is, until the electronic drums come in, and the low-moan backing vocals return. As a whole, “Djohariah” is unlike anything Stevens has ever done, and though it goes on a touch too long, it’s a masterful experiment.

I’ll admit, I was worried. Sufjan Stevens performed a musical miracle with Illinois, and given some of his public statements over the past few months, I was worried he’d never even try to follow it up. All Delighted People has set my mind at ease. Rather than creating a carbon copy of Illinois or flying off in some uncharted direction, Stevens simply took his next step. I’m still absorbing All Delighted People, but as for now, Stevens can count me as one of them.

This is well worth your five bucks. Get it here.

* * * * *

I’m a very loyal music fan.

If I like your stuff, I’ll follow you, no matter what you put out. I’ll buy your Europe-only live album, your three-CD rarities collection, your demos that sound exactly the same as your album versions. What’s more, I’m such an anal-retentive completist that once I decide I’m on board with a band, I have to have everything, and I’ll stick around to hear the end of the story.

This even applies to bands I liked when I was a teenager. I’ll keep on listening long after many have given up, in the hopes that I’ll hear something wonderful. Sometimes it works: I’ve kept up with Tesla, and their last two albums were pretty good. I’ve bought every Enuff Z’Nuff album, and never regretted it once. And had I never listened to Winger as a young metalhead, I’d probably never have heard Kip Winger’s terrific solo material. Sure, sometimes it doesn’t pan out – I could probably have lived without the last Faster Pussycat disc – but I soldier on.

No band has made it easier for me than Iron Maiden. I’ve been a fan my whole life, it seems – in truth, the first full album I heard was probably 1985’s Powerslave – and while I’d have gladly signed on for album after album of slow decline, happy to root around for the good stuff, Maiden has surprised me by getting better and better in their latter years. Sure, we had that Blaze Bayley fiasco in the ‘90s, but since Bruce Dickinson rejoined the fold in 2000, it’s been one killer album after another.

Now here’s the fourth post-reunion disc (and 15th overall), The Final Frontier, and the string remains unbroken. Iron Maiden is the original operatic rock band, embracing its own ridiculousness with deadpan seriousness while ripping out jackhammer riffs and over-the-top guitar solos, but somehow, as the boys have grown older, the band has matured. They still rock like a house on fire, and their songs still stretch to epic lengths, but modern Maiden, even more than the classic ‘80s material, commands respect.

Here’s the thing: these guys have been around for 35 years now. They have a huge, dedicated fanbase all over the world. They don’t need to try as hard as they do – they could easily coast by, playing “The Trooper” and “Aces High” to screaming fans for the rest of their lives. But each new Maiden album feels like a concentrated attempt to outdo the last, and give the fans something special. And they bring it live too. I saw Maiden last month at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in Tinley Park (which they sold out), and they played for two solid hours, Dickinson running and jumping like a madman the entire time. They could have phoned it in and the audience would have still gone home happy, but they keep pushing themselves, even at this late stage of their career.

How about the new record? It kills. At 76 minutes, it’s the longest in the Maiden catalog, and while the first half is full of sharp ass-kickers, the second is all complex, glorious epics. The weakest songs are all up front: percussive dirge “Satellite 15” goes on a little long, the title track is a bit repetitive, and “El Dorado” gets too much mileage out of its Motorhead-style riff. But you know, I say “weakest,” but these songs are all still fantastic, particularly “El Dorado,” which rocked live.

From there, we’re off to the races, and there isn’t a moment that doesn’t make me proud to be a Maiden fan. “Mother of Mercy” and “Coming Home” are both classic, powerful mid-tempo numbers, the old-school “The Alchemist” is all kinds of triple-guitar awesome, and the monolithic suites in the second half are all superb. I’m particularly happy with the nine-minute “The Talisman,” which starts with quiet acoustics, explodes around the two-minute mark, and never comes back down. This song has so many magical melodic moments, and Dickinson is just awe-inspiring throughout. More than three decades after he first took the stage, the little man with the big voice remains one of the best singers in metal.

The Final Frontier closes with its finest track, the 11-minute “When the Wild Wind Blows.” It’s also one of the best epics the band has ever written, moving deftly from section to section, from quiet to loud to anthemic and back. The song tells the tale of two lovers who mistake an earthquake for a nuclear strike, and kill themselves: “When they found them they had their arms around each other, their tins of poison laying nearby their clothes…” The song is intricate and captivating – as I said, I’ve been a Maiden fan most of my life, and they’ve rarely been better than this.

All of which leads to the $25,000 question – how long can they keep this up? Few bands have sustained a late-career renaissance like Iron Maiden has, but the band members are all in their 50s, and each record from here on out could very well be the last. The band certainly fueled those rumors by naming this album The Final Frontier, which they’ve acknowledged with a wink. Let me say this, then: I have no idea if this is the last Maiden album, but if it is, it’s a hell of a way to go out. The Final Frontier is right up there with Maiden’s best, and a sign that even 35 years into their career, they’re still in a class by themselves.

* * * * *

Ray LaMontagne is from Maine, my old stomping grounds. Maine’s a tough place to live year-round – it gets damn cold, and the snow falls from October to May. You get a little rough around the edges, living through that year after year, and in some Mainers, you can hear the decades of cold air in their voices.

LaMontagne has one of those voices. It’s world-weary, rough-hewn and raspy, and carries great weight with it. But somehow, LaMontagne is also able to shape that voice into something silky and smooth when he needs to. It’s an incredible instrument – you don’t notice how special it is at first, but listen deeper, and it reveals itself. Over three albums of songs ranging from skeletal folk to hugely-orchestrated balladry, LaMontagne has become one of my favorite singers. And I’d say that even if he weren’t from my neck of the woods.

His fourth, God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, does nothing to change that opinion. It’s the first credited to both LaMontagne and his band, the Pariah Dogs, and it has an earthy, rustic feel to it, like the five of them got together in a barn and recorded live. The Pariah Dogs include guitarists Greg Liesz and Eric Heywood, bassist Jennifer Condos, and drummer Jay Bellerose, all of whom have been playing this kind of thing for more than a decade. (Just the list of recordings Liesz has contributed to would fill the rest of this column.) These guys are good, and LaMontagne rises to the challenge admirably.

Opener “Repo Man” is a slinky slab of acoustic funk-blues, but most of God Willin’ stays with the slow and melancholy. “New York City’s Killin’ Me” is the kind of song country radio doesn’t play anymore, but should. The title track is an absolute heartbreaker, LaMontagne giving the lyric every ounce of loneliness he has: “I close my eyes and I can see you, I close my eyes and I can feel you here, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be home again before this time next year…”

LaMontagne breaks out a Sade-style beat for “This Love is Over,” a song that finds him exploring his breathy upper register, to grand effect. “For the Summer” is an absolutely gorgeous minor-key country-folk number, with a chorus that’ll lay you flat. LaMontagne goes it alone for the dark delight “Like Rock & Roll and Radio,” a song of separation with a great metaphor at its center. (“Are we strangers now, like rock & roll and the radio?”) The band comes charging back in for closing stomper “Devil’s in the Jukebox,” a traditional blues that ends things on just the right note.

Yep, it’s another 10 great little tunes from one of my favorite singers. If you liked Ray LaMontagne before, there’s no reason you won’t like this. God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise is a down-home slice of dusty beauty from a truly awesome talent. Voices like Ray’s are one in a million, and he knows just how to write for his. Make a former Mainer’s day and check this out.

* * * * *

I’m tired of fighting it. I love the Eels.

It’s been a struggle, and there are a few reasons why. Eels leader Mark Everett writes very simple songs, with very simple lyrics – often straight diary entries with fourth-grade-level rhymes. Everett has a limited voice, and doesn’t really push it, except to bark his way through loud blues tunes. I guess I’ve often felt like Everett doesn’t try very hard, and I’ve felt a little ashamed for liking his stuff anyway.

But I’m over it. I’ve been buying Everett’s records since the early ‘90s, and it’s taken me too long to realize I’ve enjoyed every one. What’s really driven this home? The trilogy of fine pop albums he’s just finished up: 2009’s Hombre Lobo, January’s End Times, and the just-released Tomorrow Morning. Three albums in 18 months, each one different from the last, every one a winner.

These three records detail Everett’s reaction to his recent divorce, and they break down into anger, sadness and joy, respectively. Tomorrow Morning is the emotional flip side to End Times, which found Everett wallowing in loneliness and heartbreak, accompanied often by little more than an acoustic guitar. He’s flush with new love on this new one, and it’s the first Eels album that’s optimistic and wide-hearted from first note to last. I’m not certain if this means he’s over his old love, or just remembering when things were good, but the fact Everett chose to end the trilogy with this one gives me a hint.

But even as a standalone piece, this album is wonderful. It sounds to me like Everett did most of this one himself, breaking out the drum machines and synths for the first time in a while. The first three songs eschew beats entirely, but they’re not sad dirges. Everett describes himself as “beautiful and free” on “I’m a Hummingbird,” and “The Morning” ends with this sentiment: “Why wouldn’t you want to have the greatest day?” “Baby Loves Me” is an undiluted delight, a sort of inverse blues song with a trippy beat. “The neighbors don’t like my flowers, the waiter don’t like my tip, the librarian shushes me, travel agent canceled my trip, but baby loves me…”

The album’s centerpiece is the six-minute “This is Where it Gets Good,” which finds Everett layering a distant string section over a thumping beat and a funky little guitar line. The extended playout is just great, the first time we’ve heard from Everett the sonic manipulator in some time. It’s just joyous, and while you may spend the album’s second half waiting for the other shoe to drop, it never does. “The Man” is a fantasia of confidence, and songs with titles like “Looking Up” and “I Like the Way This is Going” are exactly as breezy as you expect. “Looking Up” is a genuine surprise, an old-time gospel number, complete with ringing tambourine and handclaps.

The album ends with “Mystery of Life,” a song that truly explores Everett’s emotional journey. “Pain in my heart twisting like a knife, disappeared just overnight, good morning, mystery of life,” he sings over a slightly spooky bass line, before the song bursts into a chorus of bright na-na-nas. Everett rhymes “life” with “strife,” something that usually makes me shiver, but I don’t care. It’s impossible to resist something this delightful, and I’m not sure why I tried for so long. Tomorrow Morning is wonderful. I’m an Eels fan, and I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

* * * * *

Which brings us to Brian Wilson.

Wilson is 68 years old now, and there isn’t an artist alive who makes me feel so young. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call what he does children’s music – in many ways, he’s a grown-up man-child, still playing in that sandbox in his living room. Wilson’s work has always been so innocent and full of wonder, and all of his musical sophistication is always in service of pure, child-like joy. Some find this cloying, even saccharine. I don’t hear an ounce of dishonesty in what he does, though. I think it’s just lovely.

Even so, I wasn’t sure I would like Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, his latest effort. I know Wilson has always had a great love for George Gershwin, particularly “Rhapsody in Blue” – he’s said before that his first musical memory is of that piece. I knew he would relish the opportunity to reinvent some of Gershwin’s best and most popular songs, most of which George wrote with his older brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. And yet, I felt like this would be another stopgap, like that Christmas album Wilson made after SMiLE. I buy these things out of obligation, because Brian Wilson is a living legend and a genius, but I don’t always enjoy them.

I enjoyed this one, very much. Granted, if you don’t like Gershwin, you won’t find much to enjoy here. My extensive exposure to musical theater really helped out – there’s only one song on here I didn’t know, and many I knew by heart. Virtually all of these songs were first written for musicals, both on stage and in the movies, and they have that silly romantic sweep to them, which turns off a lot of people. (Myself included, pretty often.) The melodies, however, are marvelous, and there’s nothing like a Brian Wilson arrangement to perk my ears up.

There are some highs and lows here. The samba take on “‘S Wonderful” is definitely a low, until those candy-coated strings come in. But Beach Boys-esque runs through “I Got Rhythm” and (especially) “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” are fun, and Wilson’s gorgeous reading of “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a highlight. He essentially turns it into “You Still Believe in Me,” complete with harpsichord and swell backing vocals. The album’s centerpiece is a four-song medley from Porgy and Bess, including a string-laden blues version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and an instrumental shimmy through “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,” played on harmonicas, Jew’s harps and muted trumpet.

But the draw here is undoubtedly the two new songs, unfinished Gershwin numbers that Wilson was given permission to complete. Closer “Nothing but Love” is a fine, fun romp, but the keeper (and the best song on the album) is opener “The Like in I Love You.” This is a classic, with a delirious Wilson melody and a delightful arrangement. I know this song is cheesy and child-like, but it sweeps me away. There’s nothing I can do. I’m six years old, hearing the possibilities in music for the first time, and I love it. I’m completely disarmed.

Do I think this is up there with SMiLE and That Lucky Old Sun? No way. But Brian Wilson clearly gave this project his all – it’s a labor of love if I ever heard one. As much as I’d like to hear new Wilson songs, especially as he grows older, I’ll take a record that retains his inimitable stamp, especially one he obviously poured his heart into. I was leery, but Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin won me over. Okay, I’ll say it: ‘s wonderful.

* * * * *

Wow, lots of words this week. I’ll shut up now, except to tell you that next week, I expect to review Richard Thompson, Phil Selway, Jenny and Johnny (Lewis and Rice, respectively), and maybe one or two other things. That is, unless another artist I love drops an album by complete surprise. You never know what can happen. Come back in seven days to find out.

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.