Why So Serious?
Three New Records With Earnest Intentions

So no sooner does Arcade Fire win the Grammy for Album of the Year, when Radiohead announces their eighth album, to be released on Saturday? Wow. Pretty good week.

I don’t know that I care so much about the Grammy win. I find it interesting that after years of talking about how the Grammys mean nothing, and how they’re just a self-congratulatory circle jerk for the old-guard record industry, suddenly the indie cognoscenti is all over this win as if it’s Truly Significant. I don’t know what combination of factors led to Win Butler and his crew taking home the prize, especially since they beat out industry darlings Eminem, Katy Perry and the two Ladies (Gaga and Antebellum). It feels like a bit of a seismic shift, but is it? If an absolutely irrelevant award goes to the right band for once, does that make the award suddenly relevant?

I don’t know. But I’m happy about it. The Suburbs was easily the finest of the nominated albums, and considered a long shot to win. And I’m happy for major-minor label Merge Records, too. They put out some amazing music, and engender loyalty from the bands they sign. There’s no bad here. I just don’t think this means anything for the industry or the Grammy awards. A few more years of this, maybe, but I’m betting Lady Gaga will win next year and all will go back to normal.

Although, they did give a practically unknown jazz musician the Best New Artist trophy over Justin Bieber, so maybe…

The Radiohead news, now, that has me excited. The band’s eighth album is called The King of Limbs, its cover is suitably creepy, and for the second time, Radiohead is self-releasing it. You can pre-order the album here, in two ways: a digital-only download (MP3 or WAV), available Saturday, or a deluxe “newspaper” edition with two vinyl records, “many large sheets of artwork, 625 tiny pieces of artwork and a full-colour piece of oxo-degradable plastic to hold it all together.” Mmm-hmm. That comes out May 9.

Initially, I was distressed by this. I don’t care that Radiohead has done away with their pay-what-you-want method, unveiled with 2007’s In Rainbows. Nine bucks is a fair price. But I’m a physical product kind of guy, and I honestly have no use for vinyl, and don’t want to pay $48 for the big package. That’s why I was glad to hear that TBD Records will release The King of Limbs in a standard edition on March 29, in record stores. Now I get to (gladly) buy the thing twice, once from the band this week, and once from my local record shop next month.

As for the music itself? I have hope. I will always be a Radiohead fan, but I think they fell off track with Kid A in 2000. Granted, OK Computer is a nearly-impossible act to follow, but since then, they haven’t really tried, churning out one forgettable computerized blip after another. I do think that In Rainbows was a step in the right direction, their best album since the glory days, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly good. Could The King of Limbs be the full redemption I’m seeking? We’ll see.

Of course, expect a full report next week.

As for this week, we’ve got a trio of albums ranging from the very good to the marvelous. For all intents and purposes, 2011 starts here.

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Conor Oberst is Bright Eyes. Bright Eyes is Conor Oberst. There’s no denying that simple fact. The first Bright Eyes album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, is all Conor, with his guitar, in his bedroom. Other musicians have drifted in and out since then, but Oberst is the only one who really matters. If he decided not to show up to the studio, there would be no Bright Eyes records, no matter who else turned up.

That’s why it was so confusing when he “went solo” in 2008. Oberst made two albums and an EP under his own name, and it wasn’t much of a leap to assume that the Bright Eyes moniker was dead. But no. Just to make things even more confusing, Oberst is back under his band name with a new album, The People’s Key. You’d be forgiven for wondering just what the difference is. If Oberst is behind this music too, why not release it under his own name? Or why not just keep Bright Eyes for everything?

All of that confusion slipped away, at least for me, after my first listen to The People’s Key. This is absolutely a Bright Eyes album, in a way the two Oberst albums weren’t. What separates them? Believe it or not, it’s pretension.

As Bright Eyes, Oberst was always a pretentious little scrapper. Fashioning himself a modern Bob Dylan, he composed poetry and sang (and sometimes screamed) it to Very Serious Music, meaning folksy strumming and contemplative production. Over time, he got better at writing this Very Serious Music, and his last few albums as Bright Eyes were pretty damn good. But they were still overwrought affairs concerned with Big Ideas and Big Themes, and most importantly, they were No Fun at All.

Nothing wrong with that, but the two albums he made under his own name were revelations. Loose and shambling and funny, they were like Bright Eyes taking a holiday. Despite its 70-minute length, Outer South is the most fun I’ve ever heard Conor Oberst have in a studio – he let members of his band, the Mystic Valley Band, sing their own songs, and let a few tunes spin out into rustic jams.

The People’s Key is not that, at all. It is Very Serious Music. The album begins and ends with a rambling monologue about spirituality by Denny Brewer, singer of Refried Ice Cream. Every song is tightly arranged and produced – Oberst’s voice never appears without some kind of effect on it – and the whole thing is obviously meant as a statement, not just a rock record. I think it suffers for it, even though these are some of Oberst’s most accomplished songs.

Too bad they don’t really get to breathe. Take the sort-of title track, “A Machine Spiritual in the People’s Key.” (Now that’s a Bright Eyes song title.) Oberst’s voice is loaded with reverb, his acoustic guitar buried under piles of synths and noise, and his melodies trapped in a claustrophobic space. Which is a shame, because the melodies are nice. Same goes for many of these songs. Even though I like them, particularly the spry “Shell Games” and the thudding “Triple Spiral,” Oberst’s desire to make this record sound huge has made it sound suffocated.

There is one wonderful exception: “Ladder Song,” written in the wake of a close friend’s suicide, is heartbreaking. It works mainly because it’s so sparse – a keyboard, Oberst’s voice, and little else. It stands alone on this record as a reminder of where Oberst has been, and should serve as a path to where he should go. His material just sounds remote and confused when given the full sonic overload. “Ladder Song” is nowhere near his best work, but just by being honest and open, it’s the best thing here.

The rest of this album wants to be a Grand Statement about oneness and spirituality, and it doesn’t quite get there. Don’t get me wrong, these are fine little songs, and Oberst still has a way with meaningful-sounding lyrics, but when The People’s Key is over, I don’t feel enlightened, and I don’t feel changed. I don’t even feel like pressing play again. This is a C-plus album from a guy who can do better, and it’s the first Conor Oberst album in more than a decade that feels like a backslide. Perhaps it’s time for Oberst to say goodbye to Bright Eyes, and just be himself.

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PJ Harvey should be considered a national treasure. Who cares that she’s not from this nation?

The English songwriter has amassed a catalog unlike that of any other musician I know. From the raw power of Dry and Rid of Me to the dramatic rock of To Bring You My Love to the experimental pop of her collaborations with John Parish, Harvey has never stood still, and has always been worth hearing. It’s never a matter of whether the new Harvey album is any good, merely what kind of good it is this time.

Initial reports surrounding her eighth solo album, Let England Shake, called it a return to rock after the spare and haunting White Chalk. I can’t say I wouldn’t have welcomed that. White Chalk is an amazing record, Harvey pushing her voice up and out of her range again and again to tell ghost stories over pianos and little else. But it freaked me right out, and I wasn’t looking forward to that experience again.

But Let England Shake isn’t that promised rock record, either. It’s sort of a mid-point: quieter than she often is, but still propulsive and moving, like music to drive though a snowstorm to. There are electric guitars aplenty, but they’re mostly for texture and movement. Nothing about this album will leave blisters, but all of it will leave a mark. This is Harvey’s love/hate letter to her homeland and its bloody history, and it makes sense that the music is both lovely and prickly.

Some have described Let England Shake as a war documentary in song, and that’s not far off. The word “death” appears as often as the word “England,” and songs like “All and Everyone” and “In the Dark Places” detail the horrors of warfare with sickening precision. But this album is about a history steeped in blood, and what it takes to still love your country despite that. “I live and die through England, it leaves sadness, it leaves a taste, a bitter one,” she sings on the raw and tough “England,” but then concludes, “Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all to which I cling.”

“Bitter Branches” explores what war means to those left behind: “Their young wives with white hands wave goodbye, their arms as bitter branches spreading into the white world.” And final track, the duet “The Colour of the Earth,” surveys the damage: “If I was asked, I’d tell, the colour of the earth that day, it was dull and browny-red, the colour of blood, I’d say.” The music remains dark and powerful throughout, even more so with Harvey’s restraint. She sings each of these songs in a high, floaty tone, like a spirit looking down upon a battlefield. And she sings most of these songs with Parish, the strongest musical presence here apart from Harvey herself, and the counterpoint is chilling at times.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, what separates this from Bright Eyes’ album? Surely both seem to be Very Serious Works, yes? Why would Harvey get a pass when Oberst doesn’t? The answer is, Harvey’s album is alive, while Oberst’s sounds stifled. Let England Shake simply jumps from the speakers, a sparse work, yet one full of blood and bone and bile. You can feel Harvey’s anguish – she’s not trying to make a statement, she is simply making one, like the astonishing artist she is.

If you couldn’t tell, I think this album is simply magnificent. I’m only starting to explore its contours, but already this record hurts and heals in ways Harvey never has before. Let England Shake is, as usual, a PJ Harvey album unlike any other PJ Harvey album. It is also her most wide-ranging and terrifying work. Beyond just proving once again that she’s a phenomenon, Harvey has expanded the very idea of what she does, and what her music means. This album is important, and if I don’t hear a smarter, more powerful one all year, I won’t be surprised.

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The third of our Serious Artists has a pretty un-serious name: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. But it would be a mistake to discount what they do because of it. The Austin band started out making a stripped-back post-hardcore racket, but as they’ve progressed, they’ve added instruments and sonic colors and a real sense of prog-rock ambition.

It’s exactly that ambition many critics don’t like. As inconsistent as their last two albums for Interscope (2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s So Divided) were, they were remarkably imaginative affairs, and 2009’s The Century of Self carried that into the indie realm, paring the sound back but keeping the intricate songs. The closer Trail of Dead have come to Yes territory, the further the critical gatekeepers have backed away from them. But it’s exactly that prog-tastic sensibility that keeps me coming back.

So I’m very happy with Tao of the Dead, the most freakishly ambitious album this band has ever made. It is uncompromising, particularly in its intended two-disc form. It’s a record in two parts – the first, Tao of the Dead, can be listened to as 11 tracks or as one, and the second, Strange News From Another Planet, is a 16-minute suite in five movements. The whole thing tells the story of a comic book singer Conrad Keeley wrote and drew, the first 16 pages of which are included in the (gorgeous) package.

I know, right? Just reading that either made you want to give up, or buy the album as soon as you can. There’s no middle ground with something like this. The band presents the album in two tracks on the first disc, with Tao of the Dead in one seamless 36-minute medley. It’s this band’s equivalent of the sidelong epics on Tales From Topographic Oceans, one moment segueing into the next beautifully, and in this form, it stands as the finest composition of the band’s career.

Here’s the interesting thing: the song itself is a long and winding ode, but the production is much more minimal than Trail of Dead has been known for lately. Tao is a guitar-based piece, and is full of driving rhythms and powerful hairpin turns. It almost sounds like it was recorded live, although the richness of the sound and complexity of the segues belies that. Best of all, it hangs together as a single piece – themes restate, the entire enterprise builds to the lovely “Ebb Away,” and it ends with a five-minute instrumental freak-out called “The Fairlight Pendant” that’s simply scorching.

Tao of the Dead is included on the second disc as 11 separate tracks, with no segues, and while that allows more of a focus on the individual songs, it doesn’t work as well. Without the connective tissue, there’s no reason for the reprise of “Pure Radio Cosplay” that shows up at track nine. And on its own, “The Fairlight Pendant” sounds like a self-indulgent mess. Hearing it in disconnected form is interesting, but only serves to underline what a singular piece of music this is in its single-track rendition. Oddly, though, the 11-track version is the one you’ll get if you buy the standard edition.

All editions of this record contain Strange News From Another Planet, though, and that’s a minor miracle in itself. Just like “Siberian Khatru” on Close to the Edge, this is the more compact but no less awesome piece that counterpoints the massive suite. It’s similar to Tao, but rocks a little harder, and makes its point in less time. For most bands, this would be the epic masterpiece on the album. For this one, it’s the lesser achievement, but it still sparkles.

Tao of the Dead is Trail of Dead’s crowning achievement, in every conceivable way. It hearkens back to the sound of their older albums while expanding the reach of their later ones, and balances the progressive and pummeling sides of what they do perfectly. I still have no idea what most of these songs mean, but that doesn’t matter – I don’t understand Tales From Topographic Oceans either, and I still love that. While this may not be the best album for the uninitiated, it’s the one on which everything clicks.

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2011 keeps getting better. Just in the past week, we’ve had announcements about a new Death Cab for Cutie (Codes and Keys, May 31), a new Moby (Destroyed, May 17), a new TV on the Radio (Nine Types of Light, April 12) and a new Foo Fighters (Wasting Light, also April 12). The Violet Burning has finalized the track list for their new triple album, The Story of Our Lives. And it’s seeming more and more likely that we’ll get a new Daniel Amos this year too. I’m just beside myself with joy.

Next week, Radiohead. Oh yes, Radiohead. 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.