People I Know, 2011 Edition
On Archer, Boerner and Tanner

I keep saying 2011 is an amazing year for new music. And it just keeps getting better.

Here are some records I’m buying in September: Lindsey Buckingham’s Seeds We Sow, Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events, Wilco’s The Whole Love, Bjork’s Biophilia, Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters, Blitzen Trapper’s American Goldwing, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, Mogwai’s Earth Division, Anthrax’s Worship Music (finally!), Thrice’s Major/Minor, Switchfoot’s Vice Verses, a retrospective (with loads of new stuff) from Ben Folds (called Best Imitation of Myself, naturally), and the self-titled debut from Neil Finn’s new band, Pajama Club. Oh, and the next five Queen reissues as well.

But with all that, the day I am most looking forward to – the day I have circled in red on my calendar – is October 4. Two huge releases make their way into my hands on that date. First up is Odd Soul, the third album from Mutemath, and their first as a trio after the departure of guitarist Greg Hill. I am out-of-my-skin excited to hear where they’ve taken their sound.

But eclipsing even that in my mind is We Are All Where We Belong, the third album from Quiet Company. If you don’t know Austin’s best band, you should. This album promises to be their most epic, most undeniable record yet, and considering the sheer quality of everything else they’ve done, that’s got me pretty stoked. A dozen-plus more Taylor Muse songs? Yes, please.

Even before we get there, we’ll see new ones from They Might Be Giants, Boston Spaceships, Fountains of Wayne, Jane’s Addiction, Stephin Merritt, Tom Morello’s Nightwatchman project, and a little thing called Artificial Heart by the great Jonathan Coulton. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

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Me being who I am, I get to meet a lot of musicians.

In fact, it’s been that way my whole life. I’ve always been drawn to people who create or are otherwise involved with music. I’ve been in bands since I was a teen, and watched and supported the musical careers of countless people, both in my professional capacity and as a fan. It’s sort of the circle I run in.

So as you can imagine, it happens pretty frequently that musicians I know release albums I love. And most of the time, these are local artists with small followings that deserve more and better. So that’s what I aim to do with these semi-regular People I Know columns. It’s my way of introducing you to friends of mine, and hoping you hit it off.

For instance, I’ve known Chris Callaway since we were both in junior high school. We went to the same church together, and traded music with each other. He got me into the Alarm, I gave him crap like the Bulletboys. (I think I got the better end of that deal.) Callaway and I were in a terrible (like, indescribably terrible) band in our early teen years. He started as the singer, but soon picked up the bass. And he’s stuck with it – he’s kept me apprised of the bands he’s formed and joined since then, and he’s grown into a fantastic player.

Callaway’s most recent project is the Denver-based Able Archer. They’ve had two EPs, and now they have a full-length record, called The Way Machines See Us. And even if I didn’t know their bass player, I’d be a fan of this band. This is a superb dramatic rock record, and it deserves a wide audience.

Able Archer – named after a 1983 NATO war games exercise – jumps all over the map on this record. They’re an ambitious band with a smart sonic sensibility, and a good way with a sweeping melody. The best songs here were already released on their Arc1 EP – “In Support of the Steady State Theory” is a winner and a half, a galloping existential pickup line with quirk to spare, and “Mouthful of Knives” reminds me of when Radiohead was good. The repeated “it weighs us down completely” coda, delivered beautifully by singer Matt Huseman, is the album’s most remarkable moment. And the sprightly “Currency” is its most hummable song.

But the rest of Machines is pretty tremendous as well. “Coma” is a minor-key acoustic-and-synth excursion that sounds simultaneously grand and homespun, like the best of Grandaddy’s material. “Rex 84” is a twisty mini-epic, and Callaway takes center stage on the marching verses of “The New Action Army.” Closer “Antarctica Starts Here” brings the machines into sharper focus – electronic drums patter while Huseman’s digitally-altered voice sings a half-lilting, half-menacing melody. The song then eats itself while you listen. It’s a great finish.

Believe me that I would be plugging this anyway, old friend or no. It’s a fascinating, well-written modern rock record, produced with a quirky sensibility, and it serves as a calling card for a band that deserves a wide audience. Check Able Archer out here and here.

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I’m writing this on Sunday, just a few hours after the Made in Aurora local artist showcase. And man, that was a damn good time.

Made in Aurora, if you don’t know, is a local artists compilation representing some of the best musicians from the second-largest city in Illinois. It was produced by Steve Warrenfeltz, owner of my favorite record store, Kiss the Sky, and recorded at Backthird Audio, owned by my friend Benjie Hughes. The record (an actual, honest-to-god record!) features people I’m proud to call my friends, including Kevin Trudo, Jeremy Keen, the guys in HOSS, and Greg Boerner.

I’ve known Greg for about five years. I wrote a story about the making of his third album, World So Blue, for my former newspaper – the album centered around Boerner’s divorce, and I spoke to both him and his ex-wife about the circumstances and the songs they inspired. I loved writing that story, and I also enjoyed getting to know Greg and his music. He’s one of the few people I know making a living playing music, which means he plays, locally and elsewhere, all the time, and he has years of practice capturing an audience’s attention with nothing more than his voice and his acoustic guitar.

You can hear all of that experience brought to bear on his new album, Prophetstown. It is not so much an evolution of his bluesy, engaging sound as it is a refinement of it – he’s grown into this style so completely at this point that this album gives you the best sense yet of what Boerner does. There’s lots of loneliness and desolation here, lots of minor keys, but there’s a real feeling of a terrific performer happily coming into his own on record.

Take the title track, for instance. It’s a simple, smoky piece, but you’ll be amazed at how much atmosphere Boerner conjures up with just two guitars and voice. Everything he’s doing on guitar makes your ears perk up – lesser guitarists could play this song and not get the feel of it even remotely right. “For You” is similar, an epic tale of love and theft that floats along on choppy waters. It’s marvelous. Boerner does get lighter and more upbeat here and there, most notably on “Honey B” – I dare you not to smile when you hear this one. But largely, Prophetstown is a slower and darker ride than Boerner’s given us in the past.

The last three songs are my favorites. “Down” is like driving through a tunnel, lights speeding by overhead, lonely and alone. It’s one of Boerner’s best melodies, simple yet effective. The same can be said for “This Ain’t Me,” a gently loping tune about realizing the depths of one’s behavior. The effect, after the previous nine songs, is like rubbing one’s eyes and facing the sun. And it leads into the tremendous closer, “Hong Kong Café.” If you have Made in Aurora, you know this trippy fantasy, and it’s just as good here. The spoken section is a knockout: “His name was Russell Morgan, but he called himself Pete…”

Of course, Greg Boerner is a performer you need to see live. But Prophetstown is the next best thing, and is Boerner’s best and most consistent effort. Check it out here.

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I don’t actually know Ian Tanner. But I do know Dr. Tony Shore, and he knows Ian Tanner, and without him, I might never have heard Tanner’s nifty new album. So I’m considering this close enough for a People I Know column.

Tony Shore, as longtime readers know, is the man behind ObviousPop, a music blog and podcast that sheds light on power pop albums both well-known and obscure. Even though I haven’t seen the good Doctor in years, he’s been a loyal supporter of TM3AM, and he gives me tips and recommendations on a regular basis. I appreciate his friendship and his taste.

Now, I’d heard Ian Tanner before I met the Doc. Tanner was in a progressive pop band called One Hundred Days, and they made four splendid little records before calling it quits in 1998. Since then, Tanner’s been relatively quiet – he made a download-only solo record in 2009 called Things Never to Say Out Loud, and he composed the ObviousPop theme song, but those are the only efforts I’ve heard from him. And that’s a shame, because he’s a remarkable talent. This is a guy who once covered the Beach Boys’ “Our Prayer” all by himself, overdubbing all the vocal lines, just because he could. He’s oceans of musical skill searching for a beach.

So the release of Tanner’s first CD album in more than 10 years is cause for celebration. He worked with Dr. Shore on this one, who helped him bring it into the real world, as opposed to the virtual one. And it was worth the effort. The record is called Italian Waffles and Scotch, and it’s quirky and fun and biting and sincere and an all-around joy.

Of course, it’s also a pretty bitter piece of work – Tanner makes you earn every bit of happiness and grace here. It opens with the sorta-funky “This Started Out a Love Song,” and it sets the tone with its first line: “I’m so sick of your crap.” He describes the object of his affection and scorn as “beautiful, craptacular,” and as the guitars slash and burn behind him, the two sides of his heart wage war. It’s a very cool beginning, and it leads right into a song actually called “Bitter,” so you know where this is headed.

Tanner played every instrument and sang every word on Italian Waffles and Scotch, but this never sounds like a homemade project. Tanner’s so good, and his ability to harmonize with himself is so unmatched, that you’ll think you’re listening to a full band. Check out the giddiest tune here, “Ten Cartwheels” – it feels to me like one of Ross Rice’s home runs. “Though you think I’m psychopathic, I am really just ecstatic, I love you, and that’s why I am acting weird…” It’s a great melody you’ll be singing for weeks, and even if he had a live band at his disposal, he couldn’t have gotten a better vibe out of them.

Tanner taps into his inner McCartney here and there, but it’s the McCartney of Band on the Run – melodically complex and eminently memorable. “Father Like Son” and “Reflected Sense of Self” fit this mold, while others, like the bizarre “Killed By Cleats/Finnish Sauna Torture/The Night He Drowned Himself” (yes, that’s the real title) spin off into their own worlds. But each time, Tanner brings things back to earth.

The final tracks are the record’s most earnest, coming down off the rollicking high of “Come to the Window Tonight.” “Wondering” has a John Lennon edge to it, and some incredibly cool chords in the soaring chorus. It’s a song of yearning, of aching for something more, and it’s fantastic. But the record ends with its most graceful note – “Hearing Shelley Play the Piano” is a delightful acoustic piece about the girl who lives in the apartment next to him. There’s nothing clever or bitter about this one. It’s just lovely, and it brings things to a close perfectly.

Ian Tanner is one of those guys who is just too good to stop making music, so I’m glad he’s working his magic again. This is an album that will stay with you, one that deepens with each new listen. It’s off-kilter, the work of a true individual, but give it a few spins and it will sound exactly right. Welcome back, Ian. Hope you stay a while. Check this record out here.

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And that’ll do it for me this week. Next, They Might Be Giants, Old ‘97s, and Eleanor Friedberger. Or something else entirely.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.