On the Periphery
New Ones From Artists Who Shouldn't Be Ignored

I was hoping this year would get off to a good start. But we lost both Johnny Otis and Etta James already. This is not putting your best foot forward, 2012.

In other sad news, I still don’t have the new Guided by Voices album. Yes, it out. No, it hasn’t arrived at my local music store, and I’m pretty adamant about supporting them when I can. It’s on its way, apparently, so I wait. But that’s OK, because I have a couple of corkers to talk about this week anyway. So we’ll do that, and then we’ll do some miscellaneous wrap-up and call it a week.

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Nada Surf are survivors.

Every time I review a new effort by this New York trio, I have to fight off the urge to start it by saying that yes, the “Popular” band is still around, and still making music, and yes, they’re terrific. This is old news by now. Matthew Caws, Daniel Lorca and Ira Elliot have long since shed their ironic grunge past, and their string of great records now stands at six. I’m sure they get asked about their big hit all the time, but it’s just irrelevant now.

Since 1998, Nada Surf has been releasing one finely-crafted, straight-ahead rock record after another, seemingly oblivious to anyone’s incredulity. They’ve been on Barsuk Records since 2002’s lovely Let Go, and with each new album, they just get tighter, better, and (remarkably) more optimistic. Their new one is called The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, and the title is the only self-serious thing about it.

This album, just like the last few, is a pristine slice of guitar-rock with no frills, no dead spots, and no bad songs. Its 10 tracks glide by in 38 short minutes, but its repeat play value is infinite. I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of a well-constructed, pulsing song like “Waiting for Something,” or a low-key epic like “When I Was Young.” The latter song evolves over five minutes from placid acoustics to full-bore drama, Caws’ guitar filling all the important spaces while he sings a devastating melody.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard guitars that truly chime the way Caws’ do on “Jules and Jim,” a song that never seems to run out of nifty twists. (And it helps if you’ve seen the movie it’s named after: “I am all three, I am Catherine,” Caws sings, a line that won’t make sense without the source material.) The band shifts from referencing Truffaut to picking up where Katy Perry left off on “Teenage Dreams,” a little pop gem that redeems that title.

This is the kind of album on which every song could have been the leadoff track. The energy never flags, the songwriting never falters. (If the tunes on the new Shins album are this good, I’ll be a happy guy.) Final song “The Future” is no less a winner than the first few tracks, and it brings the album’s theme – the passage of time, and how to overcome it – to a fitting conclusion. (“I cannot believe the future’s happening to me…”)

If there’s a secret to staying indifferent to the years, Nada Surf seems to have found it. If you wrote them off as a one-hit wonder in the ‘90s, you don’t know what you’re missing. A fine guitar-rock record like this one shouldn’t go unnoticed. But I get the sense that whether or not anyone cares, this trio will keep cranking out splendid little discs like this one until the world ends, or they do.

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And now for this week’s edition of I’m an Idiot.

Singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards first hit the scene in 2003 with an album called Failer. I heard all about it, and held it in my hands once, but never bought it. The same thing happened when she put out Back to Me in 2005. Deep down, I knew Edwards was a talent I should explore – I had heard “Six O’Clock News,” and liked it – but for some reason I just didn’t. Her third album, Asking for Flowers, came and went, and I didn’t even notice.

Now she’s back with her fourth, Voyageur, and the acclaim has been hard to ignore. So I didn’t – I finally plunked down my cash and picked up a Kathleen Edwards album. And now I realize what a moron I’ve been, and I’m in the process of picking up her prior three records. I don’t love all of these songs, but I love enough of them with enough force that I need to hear more.

Edwards is a strong singer, a fine lyricist, and a developing songwriter. The first couple tunes on Voyageur, in fact, are lesser lights, falling into standard strum-and-sang patterns. But the album takes off with a gorgeous piece called “A Soft Place to Land,” a track that seems to be made of clouds. Edwards entwines her voice with that of her producer, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and they sound magical together. Vernon’s involvement has led to a lot of attention for this record, and though he plays or sings on nearly every track, he does a remarkable job of standing back and letting Edwards’ vision rule the day.

Other highlights: “Change the Sheets” is as splendid an anthem of independence as I’ve heard in years, taking a bit from Shawn Colvin and running with it. “Sidecar” is just lovely, a rollicking song of companionship with a fuzzy bass line and backing vocals by John Roderick of the Long Winters. Closer “For the Record” is a seven-minute electric-piano ballad that amazingly resists the temptation to build to a climax. “Hang me up on your cross, for the record I only wanted to sing songs,” Edwards laments, leaving you with an off-kilter feeling that somehow really works.

But the gem of the album, the song that convinced me I need to hear Edwards’ other albums rightfreakingnow, is “House Full of Empty Rooms.” Slow and plaintive, built around a subtle organ line, this song is just breathtakingly beautiful. The rising and falling melody brings goosebumps, and though you may not notice it at first, there’s a choir here, buried but crucial to the song’s atmosphere. Vernon and Edwards outdid themselves – it’s the perfect realization of a simple, absolutely crushing song.

So yeah, I’m an idiot. Had I just gone with my instincts nine years ago, I could have been telling you about how sweet it is to hear a record like this from Edwards, having followed her career. But no. Instead, I’m telling you how much I liked this album from an artist I’ve never really paid attention to, and how it’s convinced me to start. If you’re in the same boat as me, you should check this out. And if you’re one of those people who has been here all along, well, I humbly ask your forgiveness. I’m here now, ready to help spread the word.

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So, the next few weeks? They look kind of like this.

Next week sees the new Leonard Cohen, called Old Ideas. (That’s our humble Len.) Mike Doughty will also release a double-disc live album called The Question Jar Show, and Metallica will try to make up for Lulu with a CD release of their Beyond Magnetic EP. And the U.S. finally gets Gotye’s Making Mirrors, the album with “Someone I Used to Know” on it. Yes, that song.

February 7 sees many returns, some happy and some not. Paul McCartney has taken the extraordinary step of calling his new covers album Kisses on the Bottom. (Not making that up, wish I was.) The Fray is back with Scars and Stories, while Of Montreal disco-dances into our hearts with something called Paralytic Stalks. But the real story is A Different Kind of Truth, the first album from the reunited Van Halen. The single is godawful, and I expect the album to follow suit, meaning we may have a winner in the Most Unintentionally Hilarious Record of the Year category.

Not a lot on Valentine’s Day. A Todd Rundgren live album, and a new one from alt-pop collective Islands. But the next week, February 21, sees Field Music return with Plumb, which I promise, cross my heart, I will actually review. Sophie B. Hawkins and Amy Ray will put out new things on February 28, and the Magnetic Fields will grace March 6.

After that, look for that new Shins album, as well as new things from Soulfly, the Decemberists (a live album at last!), Esperanza Spalding, Spiritualized, Iron Maiden, the Mars Volta (a new record with the very Mars Volta title Noctourniquet), Paul Weller, and the reunited Orbital. April 10 sees the new Choir album, which I’m pretty excited about, and the furthest outpost on my release calendar is May 8, when Rufus Wainwright drops his reportedly rocking new set Out of the Game.

So that’ll do it for me this week. Next week, that damn Guided by Voices album, and some other things.

As a quick parting note, my good friend Dr. Tony Shore has unveiled his latest Obvious PopCast, in which he runs down his top 12 songs of the year. It’s a fine listen, especially for fans of melodic power pop. I say this as an impartial observer and fan, despite the fact that he name-checks me for getting him into Quiet Company. (You’re welcome, Doc.) Here, check it out.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.