Better Than Expected
Rave Reviews of Four Surprise Successes

By the time you read this, my site should be up and running. I’ve been working like mad to get this thing ready for launch, and now it’s out there, and the endless treadmill of being a Patch editor has begun. I have to say, it’s a bit more work than I was anticipating, mainly due to the administrative end of things, but I feel like I’ll be in a rhythm soon enough.

And that’ll be just in time for the deluge of good music headed our way. 2011 keeps getting better – the big news last week was Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, out on May 3, but there’s more news since then, including new ones from Panic at the Disco, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Lykke Li, the Baseball Project, Low and Alison Krauss, and reissues of Pearl Jam’s second and third albums, Vs. and Vitalogy, respectively. Speaking of Pearl Jam, bassist Jeff Ament’s project with Dug Pinnick of King’s X, Tres Mts, is finally seeing the light of day on March 8. (Get a free song here.)

So yeah, good year. And this week was a good week, even though it didn’t seem like it would be. In fact, I’m still absorbing one of the week’s big three releases, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s Tao of the Dead. (Seriously, this thing is huge and difficult.) But that’s okay, because I still have a bunch of new things and one wonderful reissue to discuss. Shall we?

Oh, we shall.

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Late last year, I got to see the Dresden Dolls play in Chicago, and they were astounding. I’ve been an Amanda Palmer fan for a long time, but it was at this show that I figured out why she’s developed such a devoted following. In between singing songs about creepy sex and dashed innocence, Mrs. Neil Gaiman was warm and friendly and hilarious. She invited to the stage a local woman she’d met online and sang a duet with her. She sang a tune from the balcony, right next to some lucky concertgoers. She engaged the audience like a natural.

It was a side of her that rarely comes through in her recorded work, both with the Dresden Dolls and on her own. Even bizarre side project Evelyn Evelyn, about conjoined twins who grew up as performers, was more sad and disturbing than funny. I found myself wishing for an Amanda Palmer album I could put on and laugh along with, one that reflected the genuinely delightful performer I’d seen at the Vic Theatre.

And now, here it is. It’s called Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, and I really shouldn’t like it as much as I do. A self-released hodgepodge of live tracks, covers and experiments, Down Under has a slapdash quality to it that normally turns me off. But I love this. It’s a travelogue of Palmer’s recent time in Australia and New Zealand, featuring tracks recorded at the Sydney Opera House and Australian studios. It’s completely off the cuff, hysterically vulgar, occasionally beautiful, and thoroughly enjoyable, in spite of (and really, because of) its freewheeling vibe.

You know what you’re in for from the first track, a ukulele cover of “Makin’ Whoopie.” You might think she’d approach this song the same way she did “What’s the Use of Wond’rin,” a song she laid bare and exposed for the misogynistic artifact it is. But no, she just plays and sings it, almost revels in it. It’s a fitting start for a record that contains songs called “Vegemite (The Black Death)” and “Formidable Marinade.”

The live tracks are awesome, and they leave plenty of Palmer’s stage banter in, showing just how much fun she is. My favorite is “New Zealand,” a song she wrote in 20 minutes to placate angry New Zealanders demanding their own anthem. (She’d already written the great “Australia,” you see.) As you might expect, the song isn’t a polished work – in fact, it rambles through whatever was on Palmer’s mind at the time, including her own menstrual cycle. I laughed out loud at the final lines. I wish I’d seen this show.

There are serious moments on Down Under, including a beautiful rendition of Jeffires Peter Bryce’s “On an Unknown Beach,” and Palmer’s own “Doctor Oz.” The concluding number is Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song,” and it’s lovely. But every song like these is countered and balanced by wonderful insanity like the danceable “Map of Tasmania” and “Formidable Marinade,” a romp about cannibalism written and sung by a guy named Mikelangelo, who sounds like Tim Curry mixed with Jack Skellington.

Yeah, this is terrific stuff. You can get it on CD, or download it (for much less money), at Palmer’s site. I don’t want her to do this kind of thing all the time, but I’m glad to have this, and I’ll probably play it more often than some of her more serious works. If that’s a measure of success, then Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under gets an A from me.

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Synth pop has come full circle, I think.

When it started out, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was cutting edge stuff. No one played synthesizers ironically – this was Pop Music of the Future. All right, the hair might have been a little over the top, but trust me, A-Ha and A Flock of Seagulls were very serious about what they did. The trouble is, technology moves on, and sounds get dated, and the music gets all wrapped up in the colorful shirts and hairspray sculptures, and suddenly synth pop becomes this kitschy thing loaded with irony.

And it took a while to break free of that. It took some time for people to see Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby as honest-to-god innovators, instead of one-hit punchlines. I’m happy to say that practitioners of synth pop today do it seriously and honestly, building on traditions set when I was a wee lad. And as a guy who has always loved this sound, I’m grateful. The big pendulum of life has swung back around in my direction.

All of this is a way of setting up the fact that I adore the new Cut/Copy album Zonoscope. It’s the Australian band’s third, and their most accomplished. You’ll hear traces of ‘80s bands (including fellow Aussies Men at Work) throughout this thing, but there’s nothing plastic or funny about it at all. This is just splendid pop music, performed on keyboards and wonderful reverbed guitars. The first two tracks, “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over,” say it all, really – they pulse along, moving into sweetly melodic choruses, and leave you feeling sunny all over.

There isn’t a song here I don’t like, although some I like more than others. One of those is the single, “Where I’m Going,” a sort-of-bluesy shuffle with out-of-this-world harmonies. Another is the extraordinary closer, “Sun God,” which starts out strong and then builds and builds over a quarter of an hour. Throughout, Cut/Copy play things straight, creating the finest blipping pop music they can. This won’t make you pull out your old Duran Duran t-shirt and ripped jeans. It’s no nostalgia trip. Like it was in the ‘80s, this truly is Pop Music of the Future.

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Teddy Thompson tends to surprise people.

Especially, I’ve found, if those people know his lineage – Teddy is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, folk-rockers extraordinaire. There’s an expectation, it seems, that kids of famous musicians will a) be no good whatsoever, and b) will sound just like their parents. And when they press play on a Teddy Thompson album, and hear his rich, classic country sound and voice, and then listen to his unfailingly solid material, they’re kind of stopped in their tracks.

As a Teddy Thompson fan, I appreciate those moments. I can’t claim to have discovered him on my own – Thompson’s self-titled debut was sent to me during my last year at Face Magazine, and I spun it mainly out of curiosity. But I loved it, and I’ve kept up with his work ever since. His songwriting has grown stronger, and his album of country covers, Upfront and Down Low, is simply marvelous.

And now here’s Bella, Thompson’s fifth album, and it’s no exception. It’s a little slicker, a little fuller, a little more rocking than Thompson’s been in the past, but it’s still a swell collection of solid original tunes, sung with verve. There’s a definite country base to the opening trilogy, particularly single “Looking for a Girl,” but Thompson puts his own stamp on things: “I’ve been looking for a girl easy on the eye, but not so fucking stupid that I want to cry, I know God doesn’t give with both his hands, so I guess I just need someone I can stand…”

But the fourth track, “Over and Over,” is where things get started. A dark acoustic number buoyed by chilling cello, the song takes Bella in a decidedly different direction, and the record keeps on darting left and right, staying interesting until the last note. “Take Me Back Again” is so Roy Orbison it hurts. Thompson enlists Jenni Muldaur to banter with him on the clever call-and-response “Tell Me What You Want,” and hits insane falsetto notes on the pretty “Take Care of Yourself.” With all that, the home run here is the slightly menacing rocker “The Next One.” Listening to this, you just know Thompson’s potential as a songwriter is immense.

As I mentioned, this is album number five for Thompson, with no duds – the closest was his rushed-together fourth, A Piece of What You Need, but Bella more than makes up for it. I’m not sure how many terrific records he’ll have to make before people stop being surprised by his talent, but I’ll be there to buy each one.

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Which brings us to the reissue. I wasn’t sure how I would respond to George Michael’s Faith, 24 years after its release (and 20 years since I last heard it), but I couldn’t resist picking up the spiffy remaster. I was 13 years old when this album came out, and it’s fair to say that the “I Want Your Sex” video had an impact on me. I remember watching it clandestinely, ready to change the channel should my parents walk in. It’s pretty tame in retrospect – the soft-focus body parts remind me of a Victoria’s Secret commercial – but it was pretty sexy at the time.

And if the mechanical horniness of that track were all Faith had to offer, it would have sunk without a trace. But man, this is one top-to-bottom killer pop album. Even now, I think it holds up. The rockabilly title track is a catchy bit of fluff, but Michael was savvy enough to sequence the comparatively deep and serious “Father Figure” next, showing off his range. People make fun of George Michael now – he’s an admittedly easy target – but the man could write a pop song, and Faith is full of great ones.

Let’s start with this: George Michael has an incredible voice. He’s just naturally gifted – he can take on slamming dance tracks like “Monkey,” but can also sing the hell out of ballads like “One More Try.” How many of his contemporaries could pull off a jazzy torch song like “Kissing a Fool”? Not many, I’d wager. Between this album and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, Michael proved himself one of the best singers of his time. You think I’m kidding? Go back and listen.

But Faith isn’t a singer’s album, it’s a songwriter’s album. You have to get past “I Want Your Sex,” presented on the record as an extended nine-minute suite. It’s robotic, it’s silly, and it doesn’t play to Michael’s strengths. It’s here to be the novelty hit, to garner press attention. The meat of the album comes after it, and Michael shows off his remarkable diversity, track after track. I mentioned “One More Try” before, but it’s heartbreaking – a soft synth, some thumping drums and bass, and Michael’s soaring voice. It’s almost a gospel song. That’s followed up by the funky “Hard Day,” which is 20 times the dance track “I Want Your Sex” is.

But then Michael takes us through the dark “Hand to Mouth” and the horn-driven “Look At Your Hands,” and brings us “Kissing a Fool,” a genuine surprise. I wasn’t sure I would still like Faith, but it turns out a great pop album is a great pop album, even 24 years later. I wish Michael’s career had taken different turns, that he hadn’t fallen out with his record label and stayed silent for years, that he hadn’t decided to focus on “serious art” like Older and most of Patience. On the evidence of Faith, he could have gone on to do anything.

But hell, he gave us this, an album that stands up as fun and fantastic a quarter-century after its release. You may be snickering to yourself, remembering the leather jacket and the tight jeans and the cross earring and everything else that just kind of goes along with this music. But strip all that away, and just listen. Faith is an uncommonly strong pop record, a testament to a singular talent who had his moment in the spotlight, and seized it. You wish your most famous record was this good.

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Next week, the deluge begins. Bright Eyes, the Dears, PJ Harvey, Mogwai, and that Trail of Dead album I’m still working through. Hope I can find some time. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.