Everything Hits at Once, Part One
Two Good Ones, Two Bad Ones and a Real Surprise

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tidal wave of new releases like we’re experiencing right now.

It’s become pretty damn difficult to keep up. In October, I plan to buy about 30 new albums. In November, about 20. I’m not even sure where I’m going to find the time to listen to all of it. And the backlog has come at just the wrong time – when my job has decided to suck even more hours out of my life than it had been before.

So this week and next week, I’m going to try to move quickly through some of the 30 or so records I’ve picked up recently. And I’ll try to do it as quickly and concisely as I can, although there are some here that deserve a more in-depth look. Hopefully, it’s going to be like speed dating: a few minutes with each contestant, saying what needs to be said, and then moving on. But with fewer awkward stories and a lot less desperation.

Ready? Clock is ticking.

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I am probably alone in still expecting great things from Jane’s Addiction.

I feel like an old man when I say this, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Jane’s Addiction meant something. Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual were, to my teenage mind, seriously important records, the products of a band looking to push things forward as much as they could. They were my first brush with censorship – I still have a cassette copy of Ritual with the made-safe-for-Walmart cover, depicting the First Amendment written on a plain white background. And I’d never heard anything in the world like “Three Days,” or “Then She Did.” They were artists struggling against an artless system, and when they decided to disband because they just couldn’t kick against it any more, it seemed like an act of nobility to me.

So the idea that they’ve become a cash-grab project for Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro makes me sadder than I can tell you. I accepted 2003’s reunion album Strays, despite bassist Eric Avery’s decision not to take part, because it was actually pretty damn good. But the box set of scraps was a bridge too far, and now we have a second reunion record, The Great Escape Artist. And this one doesn’t even try to recapture the magic. It’s Jane’s Addiction in name only.

It would be one thing if this were merely the worst Jane’s Addiction album. That’s kind of a high bar – some bands have gone their entire careers without producing anything as good as Strays, the previous title holder. No, this is just a boring piece of work, from anyone. And it’s not that I dislike the more dreamy pop direction they’ve headed in here – the pretty noise Navarro coaxes from his amp still moves me, and here he’s experimenting with tones and textures like he rarely has before. But the songs are little nothings, and after an eight-year wait, the album is distressingly short.

If you’ve heard “Irresistible Force,” you’ve heard the record’s best song. It’s not bad – it’s one of the few that finds a melody for Farrell to sink his teeth into. Seriously, it’s been eight years since I’ve heard that voice, and this record gives him almost nothing to do. Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio takes up the bass reins this time, and co-wrote most of these songs (except for three inexplicably co-written by Duff McKagan). I’m not the biggest fan of his main band, but they write some catchy, memorable tunes. None of that talent is in evidence here.

I don’t want to make it sound like I hate this. I don’t. It’s acceptable modern rock, with some nice guitar textures. “Twisted Tales” has a nice ascending melody to it. “Broken People” makes the most of its U2-ish framework. The production is thick and dreamy, and on those rare occasions when Navarro cuts loose – as on “Irresistible Force” – he sounds swell. But this is an album almost entirely lacking in ambition, content to stay grounded, satisfied with its half-assed effort. Coming from a band like Jane’s Addiction, that’s sad.

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One thing you can never accuse Peter Gabriel of is a lack of ambition.

In fact, his projects are often so ambitious that they take a decade or more to complete. He’s been working on I/O, the proper follow-up to 2002’s Up, for about eight years now, and there’s still no indication that we’ll get to hear it any time soon. But that’s OK, because the stopgap projects have been amazing. Last year, we had Scratch My Back, a covers album performed entirely with a symphony orchestra. And now, Gabriel’s taken the same approach to his own catalog, with astounding results.

The record is called New Blood, and for a longtime Gabriel fan like me, it’s revelatory, and in places unspeakably beautiful. Like those on Scratch My Back, these are not your average orchestral arrangements. They do not seek to emulate or replace the guitars and synths of the original versions, but rather to reinvent these songs from the ground up. One listen to the first track, the amazing “The Rhythm of the Heat,” will tell you that. The tribal drums of the original tune, still one of Gabriel’s creepiest, are all but gone, and the strings do all the heavy lifting. And they do it well – the arrangement is muscular and surprising and absolutely mindblowing.

To Gabriel’s credit, he waits until about halfway through this 77-minute album to start tackling his hits, like “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up.” The first five tracks are all lesser-known tunes, but some of my personal favorites, here given gorgeous new life. The first time I heard this new “San Jacinto,” for example, I found myself moved to tears. (This was while driving, so you can imagine the looks I got as I was singing along, weeping openly.) The arrangement is like scattered dots for its first half, the strings matching a glittering piano figure, but when the big moment comes (and if you know this song, you know what I mean), the dots become lines, and the strings just take flight. It’s incredible.

Here is “Downside Up,” from the overlooked OVO album, which Gabriel sings with his daughter Melanie. Here is “Intruder,” its new form even more freaky than the original somehow. And here is a true hidden gem from Gabriel’s catalog: “Wallflower,” a song based on his experiences with Amnesty International. The strings never overpower this song’s simple beauty, merely accenting Gabriel’s haunting vocal and piano. (Incidentally, Gabriel is 61 years old now, and he hasn’t lost a note. His voice remains a singular instrument of uncommon resonance.)

And yes, he gets to the hits, and yes, they’re marvelous. “In Your Eyes,” in particular, is a work of wonder in this new form, the cellos taking the piano part during the verses, and the full orchestra exploding all over the choruses. “Mercy Street” is lovely, if understated – the “kissing Mary’s lips” moment is breathtaking – as is “Don’t Give Up,” with Ane Brun singing the Kate Bush part. “Red Rain” is the only arrangement that goes a tiny bit over the top, but it’s forceful and powerful nonetheless.

Gabriel ends things with “Solsbury Hill,” separated from the main program by 4:48 of silence. In the liner notes, he says he did so because its arrangement is lighter than those he wanted to include here. And it is, but it’s still splendid – it’s not a reinvention, but it recasts this stone cold classic in new lights. Even if that’s a little less ambitious than the rest of this amazing album, it’s still worth hearing. New Blood is a treat for longtime fans, but even if you’re not intimately familiar with these songs, it’s still one of the most beautiful things you’re likely to hear this year.

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The buzz surrounding Bjork’s new album, Biophilia, has almost nothing to do with the album itself.

For months, all I heard about was its unique method of release – Biophilia is apparently the first iPhone album, the subject of a series of apps that correspond to each song. Buy all the apps, you have the album, plus an interactive experience of some sort. If I sound indifferent, it’s because I am. The iPhone thing was the only story during the ramp-up to this record’s release, and all I wanted to know about was the music. What was my favorite big-voiced Icelandic visionary going to drop on us this time?

Because here’s the thing: the last time Bjork truly knocked me over, musically speaking, was 1997’s Homogenic. I know a sizeable number of people like Vespertine, but I found it disappointing in comparison, and since then, she’s become more abstract, creating an album solely with the human voice (2004’s Medulla) and drowning another in beats (2007’s Volta). Along the way, she stopped writing memorable songs, concentrating instead on tone poems and mood pieces.

And perhaps the focus was on the iPhone apps for a reason, because Biophilia is Bjork’s most formless work yet. It’s strikingly minimalist – most songs include only one or two instruments, apart from programmed drums. And most of it sounds like a directionless meander, even by Bjork’s standards. Opener “Moon” is harp and voice, and that’s it, and at no point in its 5:45 does its author stumble upon a hook. “Thunderbolt” is the same way, except the harp has been replaced by organ and pitter-pattering drums.

I’m a fan of both “Crystalline” and “Cosmogony.” The former spins a web of chimes and drums, and includes an honest-to-gosh hook in its chorus, while the latter is like an old-school timeless ballad, played on synths, toned drums and horns. But things just take a dive from there. “Dark Matter” and “Hollow” are pipe organ nightmares with no discernible structure. I like the wordless chorus of “Virus,” for what it’s worth, but that’s the last moment of the album that holds anything for me, at least on the first few listens.

And yes, this is definitely something that will require listen after listen to properly absorb. Right now, it’s striking me the same way Jandek albums do, except everything’s in tune. The biggest tragedy of this record is that Bjork’s voice is still as wonderful, as commanding as it ever was. It’s a stunning instrument, and it elevates everything it sings. But this material just doesn’t seem worthy of it. She gives herself no real melodies to sing, no big moments to own, and that’s a shame.

Maybe I need the iPhone apps to really get the big picture here. But taken as 10 songs on a record, Biophilia is a confusing, abstract, messy piece that doesn’t play to its author’s strengths as often as it should. Perhaps further listens will change my mind, but for now, it goes on the disappointment pile.

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I’ve waited a long time for this.

It’s been 13 years since Julian Lennon released Photograph Smile, the album that firmly cemented him as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Beatle John’s firstborn spent his early years avoiding any hint of his father’s influence in his music – see the synth-y pop of his first two records and the incongruous hard rock of Mr. Jordan – but with Photograph Smile, he embraced his heritage. Some of the songs on that album were downright Beatlesque, but others, such as the riveting “Crucified” and the lovely “Faithful,” proved Lennon’s mettle. It was a great album, and it seemed to signal a rebirth.

And then… nothing. And after that, nothing some more.

I don’t know how long he was working on his new one, Everything Changes, out now in the UK. All I can tell you is, it was worth it. This is Lennon’s best album – his most confident, most mature, most consistent effort. And while his penchant for straightforward, often cliched lyrics is still in evidence, he’s managed to come up with his strongest set of 12 songs, and used them to set a hopeful, accepting mood that lasts the entire album. After so many anguished tunes in the past, it’s great to hear Lennon so at peace here, so sure of himself, so seemingly happy.

If there’s a problem with Everything Changes, it’s that it may be a little too consistent. Songs stay in the same mid-tempo range, and there are few sonic surprises. But they’re compact and well-written, without a wasted note, and the production is sharp. Lennon is still happy to drop hints of his father’s work here and there – check the tiny callback to “Imagine” in “Invisible” – but the sound here is his own. There are highlights, like the title track and the lovely “Hold On,” but it’s Lennon’s ability to fill an entire album with these little pop gems that truly impresses here. There are no lowlights, is what I’m saying.

Of all of these songs, I’m happiest with “Just For You,” which marries a sweet acoustic verse with a rising-temperature chorus, one of Lennon’s best. “I’ve danced with the fallen angels, torn down the temple in two, sold my soul to the shadowman, just for you,” Lennon sings, and his voice has rarely sounded better. The record ends with another favorite, “Beautiful,” a classic Julian Lennon piano ballad about saying goodbye to a departed loved one. The words are straightforward – Lennon also shares that characteristic with his father – but his delivery is so earnest and honest that he sells it. “The love you left behind will carry on, you gave your heart and soul to everyone…”

Much of Everything Changes is like that – comfortable with heart-on-sleeve emotion. Just check out “Guess It Was Me,” in which Lennon is simultaneously critical and forgiving of himself: “I told the world that something was wrong, guess it was me all along.” It’s another indication that Lennon has come into his own. Even for a longtime fan like me, Everything Changes is a pleasant surprise. It’s a direct, simple, well-crafted pop album from a guy who has always deserved more respect than he gets. Welcome back, Julian. Don’t stay away so long next time.

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And speaking of surprises, here’s Feist with a superb new record.

I know what you’re saying. Why am I surprised? Well, I’ve been on the verge of becoming a Feist fan for years, but I’ve never quite gotten there. Leslie Feist’s voice is terrific, I’ve just never warmed to the Sade-style light-jazz-pop she’s trafficked in. But as it turns out, all she needed to do to win my love is get a little bit darker.

Metals, her fourth album, is a moody departure, and is chock full of the best songs I’ve ever heard from her. There’s a dusty sense of longing and despair over these tunes, and her voice complements that perfectly. The first two songs alone are perfect tone-setters: “The Bad in Each Other” has a long-desert-road feel to it, and its chorus, with horns and strings attached, digs deep for its soul. And “Graveyard” is fantastic, its dusky minor-key verses leading into a shaft of light (“Bring them all back to life”). “Caught a Long Wind” is similarly terrific, its sparse piano chords leaving the focus right where it belongs – on that voice.

It’s almost a shame when the jazzy single, “How Come You Never Go There,” breaks the mood. But the song is so sweet that I don’t mind that much, and Feist sings the hell out of it. It’s a brief respite before “A Commotion,” the album’s heaviest moment. It begins with a foreboding bed of chugging strings, and even though it builds and builds, nothing will prepare you for the gang vocals shouting the title phrase. It’s startling, and superb.

Feist keeps things that inventive for the whole of the album’s running time. Even something simple like “Bittersweet Melodies” turns into a stunner midway through, and a sparse, bluesy workout like “Anti-Pioneer” just shows off what a great singer she is. This may be the best singer’s album I’ve heard this year, in fact – these songs give her a chance to show off in ways she never has, and man, she makes the most of it. But it’s the smaller, more intimate pieces that stick with me the most, like “Comfort Me,” a strummed highlight near the record’s end.

Metals is tremendous. It’s an album without one pop single, an album that probably made her record company reps sweat buckets. It’s a dark, evocative artistic triumph from a singer I’ve always wanted to like. And now I can. It’s almost as if she made this thing just for me, and if she did, well, I’m grateful. I like it a lot.

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Next week, more. 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.