The New Breed of Troubadour
Living Life in Song With Josh Garrels and Frank Turner

Good morning, good morning. Lots to talk about this week.

If you haven’t heard the terrific first single from Quiet Company’s new album, We Are All Where We Belong, well, you need to. It’s called “Fear and Fallacy, Sitting in a Tree,” and there’s even a nifty video for it here. (This is the shortened version. It’s worth hearing the full thing, which you can for free here.) The new album comes out on Oct. 4, and I’m afraid this place is gonna seem like Quiet Company hype central for a while. After hearing this (and the new tracks on the live DVD), I’m beyond excited for this record.

Speaking of first singles, here is the title track from Mutemath’s third record, Odd Soul, also out Oct. 4. Not sure yet what I think of this. First, I think it’s interesting that they lost their guitar player, and then suddenly turned into the Black Keys. This is not the Mutemath I know and love, and if this were the first single of theirs I’d heard, I may not have explored much further. But it isn’t. This is the new tune from a band I’m invested in, so I’ve been giving it a lot of play. It’s growing on me. I’m now doubly curious to hear the album.

One more first single, this one from the great Jonathan Coulton’s new one, Artificial Heart. The song’s called “Nemeses,” and I heard him play it live earlier this year in Chicago. But the studio version is a strange disappointment to me, because JoCo decided not to sing it himself. The lead vocals were handled by John Roderick of the Long Winters, a decent enough band. But I liked hearing Coulton sing “Nemeses” live, and this feels like a bait-and-switch. Hopefully he doesn’t give up the mic too often on the album.

Artificial Heart is JoCo’s first record with a full band, and first with an outside producer: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. The song is classic Coulton – expect 10 or 12 more songs just like it, which will make me very happy. Check out his prior work here.

All right, new releases announced since last we spoke.

You’ll get to hear more about the new Fountains of Wayne next week, but let me just say it’s a stunning return to form for a band I’ve always liked. Ignore the jokey, kinda-lame single “Richie and Ruben.” The rest of the album is sometimes joyous, sometimes sad power pop of the highest order. Why am I bringing this up? Because Adam Schlesinger is about to drop a double whammy – the fourth album from his other band, Ivy, comes out on Sept. 20. It’s called All Hours, and if it’s as good as the FoW record, we’re in for a treat. (I guess I should say “one of his other bands,” since Schlesinger also does time in Tinted Windows.)

Some of you may not like Jack’s Mannequin, but I’m a fan. 2008’s The Glass Passenger contained some very nice piano-pop, and one absolute classic, as far as I’m concerned: “Annie Use Your Telescope” will forever be the soundtrack to the last scene of a movie that plays in my head. The new Jack’s album is called People and Things, and comes out on Oct. 4, officially the best music day of the year. (Feist’s new one, Metals, will also hit on that date.)

And hey! Have you seen the track listing for that Ben Folds retrospective, out Oct. 11? It’s called The Best Imitation of Myself, it spans three CDs, and two of them are full of previously unreleased goodness. A full disc of live stuff. A full disc of rarities. And that isn’t even the big news. The big news is that The Best Imitation of Myself contains three new Ben Folds Five songs. You read that right. The band is back together and recording again. All that, plus access to 55 more rare tracks online? Way to make it worth my cash to buy disc one, which is full of songs I already have. This is extremely exciting stuff.

And finally, a bit of news that made me smile. Ronnie Martin has been spending his time on various other projects, including Said Fantasy and the Foxglove Hunt, but he hasn’t given up on Joy Electric yet. A new full-length, with the very Joy Electric title of Dwarf Mountain Alphabet, is slated for this fall. Speaking as someone who loves the bizarre, blipping, beautiful music Martin creates, I’m very much anticipating this one as well.

See? Best. Year. Ever.

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I’m a big fan of Gilmore Girls, the fast-talking, whip-smart show created by Amy Sherman-Palladino in the ‘90s. It was a quirk fest, certainly, but the characters were so wonderful that I didn’t want each episode to end. One of the show’s strongest characters was the small Connecticut town of Stars Hollow (officially the best name for a fictional small town ever, besting Bedford Falls by a significant margin). Everywhere you looked in Stars Hollow, you’d find something unusual, interesting, and just plain lovely.

For example, the town had its own troubadour. Played by Grant-Lee Phillips, the unnamed guitar slinger would wander the streets, singing tunes. He never seemed to ask for money or any other kind of recompense, he just wanted to play and sing music for people. Now, I just love the word troubadour, and I’m on a one-man mission to bring it back. (This is why I’m always referring to Kevin Trudo as Patch’s troubadour when he sings the news for us.) Some musicians just feel like old-time, good-hearted wandering minstrels to me, writing and sharing songs because that’s just what they do.

Josh Garrels is one of those. I’d never heard of Garrels before this year’s Cornerstone festival, but of everyone I saw there, he’s the one who most reminded me of the troubadours of old, moving from town to town, guitar in hand, to share what he’s come up with. Of course, Garrels is a new breed of troubadour – his sound takes from folk music, certainly, but also from modern acoustic pop, and from hip-hop, and from a dozen other places. He travels, picks up what he hears, and uses it.

Of course, it could just be that Garrels has decided to give his new album away for free. More precisely, the deeply Christian Garrels believes God has told him to give it away. And it’s no half-assed effort – the record is called Love & War & the Sea In Between, and it spans 18 songs over 66 minutes. It’s his best work, and a strong contender for best of the year. And you can have it for nothing. You can download it at He also made CD copies, and if you ask (as I did), he’ll give you one of those for free as well.

I’m an old-fashioned work-for-money kind of guy, so this strategy is wonderfully insane to me. It’s doing the job, though, of getting his name out there. I’ve read so many reviews of this album recently, reviews that all begin (as this one does) by pointing out that it’s all free. Ironically, it’s a huge selling point. Let me say this, though: after hearing Love & War & the Sea In Between just one time, I would have paid whatever Garrels asked me to. (And I will, for his next one, which is probably the point.)

Because Love & War is a feast for the ears. Breathtakingly ambitious, and yet intimate and direct, it’s a sprawling album that never feels like it. It begins with acoustic guitar, but deftly moves into sample-laden coffeehouse hip-hop, over oceans of instrumental sweep, and into an astonishing final third that makes my jaw drop each time I hear it. As a songwriter, Garrels has a deft touch that carries you along, and he’s found a way to turn his admittedly strange-at-first voice into a remarkable instrument. This is an album with scope, with weighty subjects on its mind, but crafted like a single 66-minute thought that flies right by.

The album opens with a one-two caress of acoustic pop songs – the delicate and soaring “White Owl” and the infinitely hummable “Flood Waters.” The latter emphasizes how Garrels deals with matters of faith on this record – he never preaches, but he never goes much deeper than Sunday school either. “Somewhere in between forever and the passing days there’s a place moth and rust cannot lay waste, this is grace, the face of love…” The album’s lyrics are laced with Bible references, but if you didn’t know that he dropped one in the line above (from Matthew 6:19), you probably won’t realize it.

Still, I am always hoping for a more personal reflection of faith in song, which artists like Terry Taylor and the Choir provide me. Garrels doesn’t really do that. One of the most Christian songs here is the third, “Farther Along,” which takes its chorus from the old hymn – “Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine, we’ll understand it all by and by.” That’s kind of the guiding principle here. Garrels doesn’t pick at his faith, in an attempt to understand it. He just presents it as a part of him that needs no explanation. His failure to go deeper is, quite honestly, the only flaw in what is otherwise a pretty amazing album.

So we’re up to track four now, and unless you’re familiar with Garrels, the next two tracks will surprise you. “A Far-Off Hope” is an organic electro instrumental, dissonant horns providing a sweeping bed, and it leads into “The Resistance,” a full-on hip hop number. Garrels is a nimble rapper, and the relentless beat he’s chosen hits like a bomb after four slower, subtler numbers. “The Resistance” was one of the highlights of my Cornerstone fest, and it loses none of its power here. “How do good men become a part of the machine? They don’t believe in resistance…”

I could honestly talk about all 18 songs, but I’ll restrain myself. Some favorites: the moving “Ulysses” is the tale of a sailor pressing on homeward, and its simple music builds and builds until it explodes. There’s a stretch of love songs in the middle of the record, and my favorite of those (to my surprise) is “For You,” a quick, almost Jack Johnson-esque ditty with a full-to-bursting heart. I find myself humming it all the time.

But the album’s conclusion… wow. Love & War ends with a six-song suite about rising up. It’s the “war” portion of the program, and half of it is instrumental. Taken as a whole, it’s a brilliant finish. First, we move from the gently ominous “No Man’s Land” into the simply indomitable folk song “Rise”: “Though they may surround me like lions and crush me on all sides, I may fall, but I will rise…” Things get heavier with instrumental “The March,” and then we’re in “Revelator,” in which Garrels describes John’s revelation over a stunning beat. “Holy, holy is the one who was and is and is to come,” he sings, and it sounds simultaneously terrifying and comforting.

But no sooner has that ended when the sweet tones of “Pilot Me” take over. I found the almost hippie style jarring at first, but now I think it’s the best way to end – the song is Garrels surveying the war-torn landscape of the last four songs, and asking God to get him through it. “When I have no more strength left to follow, fall on my knees, pilot me…” The record ends with “Processional,” a one-minute acoustic benediction, the sound of Garrels picking up and moving out, full of purpose. The final suite is, by any measure, fantastic.

Love & War’s straightforward Christianity is the only reason I can think of that this album won’t be at the top of nearly every critic’s list in December. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the best records I’ve heard in an already amazing year. Ambitious in all the right ways, masterfully crafted, moving and powerful, sonically rich, with a perfect balance of light and shade – this record has it all. It is the sound of an already talented artist becoming truly great before your ears.

It is not, by any means, the kind of record you would expect to get for free – it seems almost superhumanly generous, and you should take Garrels up on it before he realizes just how good his album is. I don’t say this often, but when I do, I mean it: Love & War & the Sea In Between is a masterpiece. Go here.

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But when I say the word troubadour, it’s someone like Frank Turner that I’m picturing.

A 29-year-old from Wessex, England, Turner just looks like a guy who wanders from bar to bar, playing drinking songs for the unwashed masses. He’s got that five-o’clock shadow thing going on, and he seems to have been born with a guitar in his hand. He plays a revved-up form of English folk music, songs about watching the world grow up around you and fighting to hold on to your ideals. You know, Important Stuff.

Turner’s been around a while – he was the singer with loudloudLOUD band Million Dead, and he’s released four albums and three EPs on his own. I’d never heard of him until recently, though, when Aurora Schnorr and Andrea Dahlberg sent his songs my way. One in particular, “Photosynthesis,” grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. “I won’t sit down, and I won’t shut up, and most of all I will not grow up…”

Turner is still holding to that principle on his fourth record, England Keep My Bones, but he’s managed to slip in some maturity anyway. Turner’s last effort, Poetry of the Deed, found him edging a little too close to a wall of noise and frenetic energy, and this one dials down the electric guitars for a nice, even mix.

And yeah, there are songs like “I Still Believe,” about the power of rock and roll, and “If I Ever Stray,” about the value of staying on the path you’ve set for yourself. And it opens with “Eulogy,” a brief statement of purpose that ends with this line: “But on the day I die, I’ll say, ‘At least I fucking tried,’ and that’s the only eulogy I need.” If you want to pump your fist in the air while drinking a mug of ale, I certainly won’t stop you.

But there are signs here that, despite his best intentions, Turner is growing up. And it suits him. Much of it can be considered his love letter to his homeland – “Rivers,” for instance, is about tracing the coastline of England, Turner’s way of reminding himself where he comes from. (“And though I’ve seen a thousand rivers, from the Mississippi to the Rhine, the only place where I’ll lay my hat down is by an English riverside.”) “Wessex Boy” is self-explanatory (and terrific), and the a cappella “English Curse” could be centuries old, so authentic is its sound.

The best songs here, though, are the ones that dig deeper. “I Am Disappeared” is magnificent, a song of restlessness and dreams of escape. “One Foot Before the Other” is a stunning beat-poet stream of consciousness, with a stinging electric guitar kick. “Nights Become Days” may be the first Frank Turner song that looks back on youth with something less than longing, depicting drug use and suicide with an unflinching eye. And “Redemption” is just marvelous, a song of desperate leaving. “Can any of us hope for redemption, or are we all merely biding our time down to lonely conclusions?”

But don’t worry, Turner doesn’t leave you like that. The final song is ready for a football game singalong: it’s an atheist hymn called “Glory Hallelujah.” Here Turner stands as the anti-Josh Garrels, seeing the existence of God as something holding us back – he sings “there is no God” as if just the thought would free people from their chains. “There is no God, we’re all in this together, so ring that victory bell,” he shouts, before getting to the heart of it: “If we accept that there’s an endgame and we haven’t got much time, then in the here and now we can try to do things right.”

Don’t get me wrong, I do love that sweaty-barroom shout-along style Turner does so well, but with this album, he’s shown he’s more than just an anthem generator. He’s growing up, tackling bigger themes with more subtlety, and it works for him. As he dives into his 30s, Frank Turner has made his best album yet with England Keep My Bones. Go here to check him out.

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Next week, Fountains of Wayne. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.