Everything Hits at Once, Part Two
The Songwriters Strike Back

You can find Part One right here. No time for love, Dr. Jones. Onward!

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I didn’t do this consciously, but I seem to have kept a veritable who’s who of modern songwriters for this second installment. No disrespect intended to Peter Gabriel, or Bjork, or even Julian Lennon, but the names I’m about to trot out belong on any respectable list of great songsmiths from the last 30 or so years. And we’ll start with one who, in my opinion, ought to be higher on those lists than he usually ranks.

Ryan Adams is, put simply, just incredible. As a pure songwriter, he has it all – a strong sense of history, a great way with a melody, lyrics that cut to the bone. Take a walk through his solo catalog sometime. You can even leave the Whiskeytown trilogy aside for now – I know much of his acclaim centers on those three records, and they’re wonderful, but Adams’ solo work has often been just as good, if not better. Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, Easy Tiger, Gold and Heartbreaker are all 100 percent classics to these ears.

So what’s the problem? Why is he merely respected, instead of revered? Well, he’s mercurial, he’s inconsistent, and he’s a bit of an asshole. He’s the guy who will write and record a Rock N Roll just to mess with his record company. He’s the guy who will get into fights with people at his shows, and storm off the stage – in fact, you should never bet on which Ryan will show up at any given concert. Last year, he released a metal album under the name Orion, and a double record of ‘80s-inspired pretty noise with the Cardinals, neither his best work.

So he really needed an album like Ashes and Fire, his best and prettiest work since Easy Tiger in 2007. There are no gimmicks with this one. It’s just 11 well-written country-folk songs, played and sung with heart. This is the kind of record that makes things like Orion and Love is Hell sound like diversions – Adams is so very good at this straightforward, no-frills songcraft that anything else he does feels like a side project.

Ashes and Fire starts with a couple of terrific low-key mid-tempo things, and they connect, particularly the woozy title track. But the third cut begins a series of heartbreakers (no pun intended), stripped-down and lovely. “Come Home” is among his prettiest, and when his all-star backing vocal choir (Norah Jones, Stephen Stills and Adams’ wife Mandy Moore) chime in on the chorus, it’s moving. “Do I Wait” gets me every time I hear it – Benmont Tench’s organ is exactly what the song needed to take off and fly.

Adams incorporates a string quartet on several songs, most prominently the brief “Chains of Love.” But it’s the subtler arrangement on the lovely “Save Me” that I prefer. In fact, the understated moments on Ashes and Fire (and there are a lot of them) are the best. The record ends with two of them – “Lucky Now,” a classic Adams tale of yearning despair, and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say,” which, despite its title, is a wedding song: “I promise you I will keep you safe from harm, and love you all the rest of our days, when the night is silent and we seem so far away, I love you and I don’t know what to say…”

Ashes and Fire is 11 more reasons Ryan Adams should be considered one of the finest songwriters anywhere. It’s a fragile, down-home, flat-out beautiful little record, and for all the diversity on display in his catalog, this is the stuff he does best. I’m glad to put up with the things he doesn’t do quite as well, if it means we will occasionally get albums like this one.

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Bill Mallonee has the opposite problem.

His fans – and I count myself among them – rightly tout Mallonee as a great songwriter, but he’s almost too consistent. He writes the same kind of great song over and over again, to the point where you know exactly what to expect from a new Mallonee release. It’s been five years since we’ve had a proper one (you know, on CD and everything), but the new The Power and the Glory is just what I thought it would be – 12 well-written Americana songs with ringing guitars and heartland-poetic lyrics.

To be fair, I’d already heard most of these songs – they were released in demo form over the last three years as part of a download-only series called Works (In) Progress Administration. In fact, Mallonee has embraced the Internet in ways many of his contemporaries simply haven’t. His Bandcamp page allows you to hear everything he’s ever done, and allows him to release these songs almost as they come to him – The Power and the Glory is his ninth release of 2011, and in between that and Permafrost, his last CD, he’s put out 20 digital-only collections.

But there’s no getting around the sense that this is the first “real” Mallonee album since 2006, the first one he’s poured precious touring money into pressing up. And it’s very good. Its track list pulls from several volumes of his demo series, but here the songs are fleshed out, played by a rock band at the height of its powers. All of the guitars on this album are Mallonee, and the ringing, enveloping six-string tones take these songs to another place entirely. Every note of this thing says it’s the big one, the record we’ve been waiting for.

The lyrics are, of course, tremendous. Mallonee is nothing if not a poet, which may be why he has gravitated recently to Jack Kerouac and the beat generation. He gives them their due in “From the Beats Down to the Buddha”: “Lowell’s lonely factories, post-war America happily leaving all the brightest and the best, you never felt that understood pounding on your Underwood, you were putting all their alloy to the test…” The wonderful “The Ghosts That I Run With” references D.B. Cooper: “And my parachute, it opened wide, I still see blue sky in my dreams, now it’s mysteries left unsolved on your TV.” That song is about thinking you’ve disappeared without a trace.

If there’s one person who gets referenced most often, however, it’s God. “Bring You Around” is the prettiest: “And that love that walked in here without a sound, it will whisper your name, it’ll take all the blame and bring you around.” “Ever Born Into This World” lays Mallonee’s faith bare: “I am saddened for the orphans, for the scared and confused, I am gladdened when the child within each one of use steps forth with his good news, you may come back like a prodigal son to your father’s home, or you may steer clear for a thousand years ‘till the shepherd finds his own…”

But The Power and the Glory runs smack into the same problem every Mallonee album ever has: it all sounds the same after a while. These 12 songs all stick to similar tempos, and the same chord structures, and the same ringing Americana tone. It’s great in small doses, but by the time you’re rounding third in the hour-long effort, you’ll probably want Mallonee to vary it up a little. Song by song, this is great stuff, though, and for a lover of physical objects like me, it’s nice to have another Mallonee title to slide onto the shelf. He’ll probably do exactly this kind of thing until he dies. If you liked him before, you’ll like this. If you’ve never heard him, start here. It’s as good an entry point as any.

For a slightly more ecstatic review, check out my friend Carl Simmons’ blog here. He’ll be unhappy with next week’s column, so I’m trying to get in his good graces now.

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If you’d asked me for a list of my favorite songwriters in 1995, Matthew Sweet would definitely have been on it.

That was his heyday, the GirlfriendAltered Beast100% Fun years, when he could do no wrong. Every album was chock full of sharp tunes with indelible melodies, the guitars – many of them played by the great Robert Quine – were loud and thick, the harmonies lighter than air. Sweet made a string of fantastic pop records, all the way through 1999’s In Reverse, and then kind of… went away for a bit.

When he returned, he came back stranger. These days, it takes me three listens, minimum, to every new Matthew Sweet album to decide whether I like it, or I think it’s a mess. His albums now feature the oddest production you’re likely to hear – hard stereo panning, backwards noises, arrangements that seem like they’re going to fall apart any second. All of this sometimes obscures the songs, which is a shame, since Sweet remains a gifted pop songwriter.

His new one, Modern Art, keeps the streak going. These 12 songs are, for the most part, splendid. But it will take you some time to discover this, as the off-putting “psychedelic” production will keep distracting your ears. “She Walks the Night” is a great example. This is a tune that could have fit on Girlfriend, a free-flowing, Byrds-y ditty with a delightful chorus. But if the weird backwards vocal technique isn’t enough to confuse you, at about the 2:30 mark everything drops away for a bizarre interlude that stops things short.

Some of these tunes are left alone. “When Love Lets Go I’m Falling” is as lovely as you’d hope, its straightforward recording doing it every favor in the world. But bouts of weirdness like “My Ass is Grass” serve to drag this thing down somewhat. It’s still a collection of strong songs from a guy I hope never stops writing them. But I’d like to hear what these tunes would sound like recorded live. Sweet’s voice is in top form, and his songwriting hasn’t suffered. I just wish it didn’t take so much work to hear those attributes on Modern Art.

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The new Bangles album, Sweetheart of the Sun, is probably closer to how longtime fans remember Matthew Sweet records. There’s a reason for that – Sweet produced it, the band recorded it at his home studio, and Sweet plays and sings on it. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that this is a Sweet album under another name. No way. The Bangles reunion is the real deal, and this album is fabulous.

The Bangles are down to a trio now, with the departure of bassist Michael Steele – it’s Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters now. Sweetheart is their first album in eight years, and all three of them brought their A-game. They all contribute splendid, sunny songs to this record, and play them like a band reinvigorated. Check out Debbi Peterson’s “Ball N Chain,” a rocker of the highest order – the double-time drums, the barely-audible pounding piano, the backing vocals (“dragging me down”), everything clicks. It’s just awesome.

I have no idea why Hoffs’ fantastic “I’ll Never Be Through With You” isn’t a worldwide hit right now. It’s a pop classic – I could imagine this song coming from Carole King, and ringing down the halls of the Brill Building. The textured recording is beautiful, Hoffs’ emotional voice blending with her bandmates atop Greg Liesz’ marvelous lap steel lines. It’s one of the best pop singles of the year, and I can’t figure out why the world has been indifferent to it.

The rest of the album is similarly excellent. Vicki Peterson’s “Circle in the Sky” is a strummed delight, and her “What a Life” is a quick-step powerhouse. The three Bangles harmonize like birds on the low-key “Through Your Eyes,” which almost reminds me of Crosby, Stills and Nash. And they take a pair of fun trips through others’ songs: John Carter’s “Sweet and Tender Romance,” here given a garage-rock treatment, and Todd Rundgren’s “Open My Eyes,” which closes the record. (It’s a Nazz song. Super bonus points for reaching that far back into the man’s catalog.)

I can’t say I’d written off the Bangles. I just hadn’t thought about them in years. But Sweetheart of the Sun brought them right back onto my radar screen. This is a wonderful pop record, loud and proud and melodic and graceful and just plain awesome. If you’re like me, you probably haven’t given this band much consideration in a while either. Trust me, this album will change that. Check it out.

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And finally, a guy who has written more great pop songs in the past 15 years than almost anyone.

Yes, before you ask, the fact that Ben Folds has just released a career retrospective makes me feel very, very old. I’ve been with him since the beginning – I bought the self-titled Ben Folds Five debut on a recommendation from Chris L’Etoile in 1995, and loved it immediately. I’ve seen Ben in concert more than just about any other act, except maybe the Lost Dogs. I’ve breathlessly anticipated everything he’s ever done, and felt the joy of the triumphs (Whatever and Ever Amen, Rockin’ the Suburbs, the new Lonely Avenue) and the pain of the stumbles (I still can’t get into Way to Normal at all). It’s been a great ride.

So here is The Best Imitation of Myself, a three-disc collection that looks back over his work since 1992. Normally I leave these things on the shelf, but Folds has done it right – he’s matched up a best-of with two discs of unreleased live tracks and rarities. (Not to mention the 55 other tunes available online.) This is absolutely worth the money, and over almost four hours, it plainly states the case: Ben Folds is one of the finest pop musicians of his time.

Start with the first disc, the best-of. I’m just going to list off some of the titles. “Annie Waits.” “Philosophy.” “Landed.” “Don’t Change Your Plans.” “The Luckiest.” “Smoke.” “Still Fighting It.” And yes, even “Brick.” These are immortal songs, and “From Above,” a highlight of Lonely Avenue, last year’s collaboration with Nick Hornby, fits right alongside them. This is an unbelievable songwriter’s legacy, and the fact that I can come up with at least a dozen other songs that should have been here is further testament. The disc includes the strings version of “Landed” and a live recording of “Smoke” with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, to my delight.

The first disc ends with “House,” the first new Ben Folds Five song in 12 years. There’s little that could live up to that, and “House” barely tries. It’s just a nice little song, with not much on its mind. Go in expecting that, and you’ll be happy with it. Me, I’m looking forward to the Five’s new album, which is reportedly in progress. They sound comfortable together here, like old times, and even more so on the two other new tracks on disc three. (We’ll get there.)

The second disc is all live, and it’s fan-freaking-tastic. Its first six tracks are half of that Ben Folds Five live album we’ve been needing for a while – they jam through “Julianne” and “Song for the Dumped,” and lay down pretty renditions of “Mess” and “Magic,” two highlights from the underrated The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. From there, Folds takes the stage himself – we get live takes of “Zak and Sara,” the great “All You Can Eat,” “Effington,” the overlooked “Sentimental Guy,” and “Picture Window,” one of the most heart-rending Lonely Avenue songs.

We welcome the West Australian Symphony Orchestra back for a gloriously sad “Fred Jones Part 2,” and Rufus Wainwright takes the mic for a cover of “Careless Whisper.” (Yes, the Wham song.) The Five makes a brief return on “Army” and “The Battle of Who Could Care Less.” And there’s a version of “Long Tall Texan” unlike any you’ve ever heard. The disc ends with “Not the Same,” and actually closes out on the trademark audience vocals, which are always pretty amazing to experience.

The third disc is the gem, though. We get to hear demos of “Best Imitation of Myself” and “Boxing,” and an unreleased four-track song called “Rocky.” We get to hear how “Julianne” and “Evaporated” would have sounded on the Five’s aborted first album. (Based on this, it was a good call to scrap those sessions. They’re not bad takes, they just lack all sense of energy.) We get “Amelia Bright,” a song recorded for the Five’s unfinished fourth album in 2000. We get a set of demos from the same year, including the unreleased “Break Up at Food Court” and the great “Wandering,” which deserved wider acclaim.

We get Ben’s take on the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” We get an alternate take of “Time,” another forgotten highlight from Songs for Silverman. We get “Because the Origami,” the best song from his “8in8” collaboration with Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Damian Kulash. We also get his infamous cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” in case you didn’t have that already, and two songs from previously-released compilations.

But I know what you want to hear about. Yes, we also get two new Ben Folds Five tunes, although neither is technically new. “Tell Me What I Did” was written for the fourth Five album, and never recorded until now. It’s a fun stomper with a cool synth line in the middle, and it’s nice to hear these three play with such abandon again. And closer “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues” is a tune drummer Darren Jessee wrote for his Hotel Lights project. This version is fuller and brighter, but no less beautiful. It’s a nice way to fade out.

So yeah, if you’re one of those people not yet sold on Ben Folds, pick this up. It does exactly what a retrospective should: it lays out every reason you’d need to become a lifelong fan, and it leaves you wanting more. It’s a perfect window into Folds’ snarky, sincere, brilliant little world. And once you visit, you’re gonna want to stay.

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Whew! Next week, just one record – I’ll finally deliver that full-fledged Quiet Company review. After that, there’s Coldplay, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, a metal spectacular, and two more installments of God Save the Queen, if I can get to them before year’s end. Thanks for reading.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.