Three of a Perfect Pair
Good New Records With Nothing in Common

The new Choir album is called The Loudest Sound Ever Heard, and it comes out on April 10.

If you know me, you know that puts just about every other new release announcement on the back burner. There’s certainly music over the next two months that I’m excited about, including new things from the Magnetic Fields, Lyle Lovett, the Shins, the Mars Volta, the Cowboy Junkies, Spiritualized, BT, Brendan Benson, Jack White and Rufus Wainwright. But if I had to pick one that has me scouring the web for any information at all, and counting the days, it’s The Loudest Sound Ever Heard.

This is the way I live my life – always in a state of anticipation. I mark my mental calendar with gold stars representing album, film, book, TV and DVD releases, and I wait, nervously, until those days arrive. I have a little less than a month until that new Shins album, Port of Morrow, hits stores, and I’m excited for it, and dreading it at the same time. Same with Rufus Wainwright’s new one, Out of the Game. His last few have been all over the map, and this one promises to bring back the lushness of prior efforts. Rufus hasn’t knocked one out of the park since Want One in 2003, so there’s a lot riding on this one.

Now, take all that consternation and multiply it by 100, and you have about what I’m feeling as the release of The Loudest Sound Ever Heard draws closer. The Choir may be my favorite band, and they’ve been on such a roll lately – their last two records are among their best ever. I’m sincerely hoping they can keep the magic going. We’ll see in about a month and a half.

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I’m anal-retentive about a lot of things. Punctuation is a big one. I truly hate pretentious misuses of punctuation – I’m looking at you, moe., and you, Panic! at the Disco.

So you can imagine how thrilled I am to review the new album from Fun. That’s f-u-n-period. It’s impossibly annoying. Even though I reservedly liked their debut, 2009’s Aim and Ignite, I never reviewed it here, at least partially because I didn’t want to type that damn period over and over in the middle of sentences. But alas, the new one, Some Nights, really deserves some digital ink.

Three years ago, Fun. was a modest little pop band, one that took from the Beatles and Queen in equal measure. But Some Nights is a massive sophomore effort, an ambitious piece of popcraft that rarely sounds like the work of the same band who made Aim and Ignite. This is an album that reaches for the brass ring with everything it has – nothing less than millions singing along with these anthems will do.

And it’s built around “We Are Young,” a single that is, by some measure, bigger than the band. It’s the kind of song they just have to wrestle to the ground, and not screw up. It’s already everywhere – on TV shows, in car commercials, seeping into our lives with inexorable force. It’s almost impossibly catchy, with a fists-in-the-air sentiment that means nothing, but sounds life-changing when you’re singing along. “Tonight we are young, so let’s set the world on fire, we can burn brighter than the sun…”

In many ways, Some Nights feels constructed around “We Are Young,” the other nine songs desperately trying to capture that universality again. To the band’s credit, they actually pull it off more than once. “Carry On” is a synth-driven pick-me-up that will soon be the song of choice for supportive friends to link to on Facebook. “It Gets Better” starts with a nervous squiggle, but soon explodes into an Auto-Tuned flurry of optimism.

There is little on Some Nights that sounds like the work of a real live band – this is almost fully synthetic, pitched somewhere between ‘80s Queen and the Flaming Lips at their most anthemic. “Why Am I the One” is a pleasant exception, built around strummed acoustics and chiming electrics, giving way to real-life strings on the wonderful coda.

The record doesn’t put a foot wrong until near the end, on a song fittingly titled “One Foot.” Its repetitive synth hook gets old after about 10 seconds, and there are 202 seconds to go after that. And the seven-minute finale “Stars” is clearly meant to be the anthem to end all anthems, but it dissipates into an Auto-Tuned mess. But before it crashes and burns, Some Nights gets at least five good-to-great songs out there into the world, and that’s worth celebrating.

It’s true that they never better “We Are Young,” but then, that’s a tall order. You’ll be hearing that song for years, and chances are it will live beyond the band who created it. That’s kind of a shame, so when you hear that song on the radio, remember the band’s name. It’s Fun. With a period at the end.

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I said up top that the Choir’s new album overshadows everything else coming out this year, but that’s not completely true. My other favorite band, Marillion, has a new one slated for this fall, and while I don’t know much about it yet (except for some dispiriting rumblings about “funk rock”), I’m looking forward to it. Marillion is like no other band out there, at once monolithic and intimate, cerebral and intensely emotional. Every time they make a record, it’s an event.

I have no idea when to expect that one, alas. So until it makes its appearance, I will have to be satisfied with frontman Steve Hogarth’s new album, a collaboration with Richard Barbieri called Not the Weapon But the Hand. Thankfully, Hogarth and Barbieri make it easy to be satisfied. This is a dark and ambient piece of work, rich and layered and simply hypnotic. It sounds nothing like Marillion, and I wouldn’t want Hogarth’s main band to sound like this, but as a one-off collection of atmospheres, it’s tremendous.

Hogarth’s partner in crime here, Richard Barbieri, is the full-time keyboard player for Porcupine Tree and No-Man. He brings a lot more of the latter project’s mood to this record – Barbieri composed and performed synth-driven instrumental tracks, over which Hogarth wrote lyrics and vocal melodies. Nothing here rocks, and only one song (the great “Only Love Will Make You Free”) has an identifiable chorus. The rest meanders in the best possible way, taking time to weave in and out of corners and detour down back alleys.

Some of these tracks may test the patience of pop music fans. Despite some fine guitar work from XTC’s Dave Gregory, “A Cat With Seven Souls” doesn’t really go anywhere, and “Naked” takes its one melodic idea and surrounds it with a sea of moody dulcimers and bells. But it’s like someone once said about Marillion – either you’re waiting the whole time for the good part, or you think it’s all basically the good part. The seven longish songs here (and one postlude) all weave a particular spell, and if you’re not under it, you’ll probably find this a bit boring.

But for those of us who can get on this record’s wavelength, it’s pretty cool. The production is dense and intricate – there’s something new to catch the ear every few seconds, if you’re listening for it. Barbieri’s synth tracks mesh with Gregory’s guitar like they were meant to be together. And Hogarth’s voice is amazing. He’s one of my favorite singers on the planet. Here he spends a lot of time whispering – check out “Your Beautiful Face,” essentially a spoken word piece that Hogarth infuses with menace. But he can also put amazing power behind that voice, and aim it straight for your soul.

For proof, look no further than the centerpiece of this album, “Only Love Will Make You Free.” It starts slow and mellow, a rolling synth over exotic percussion, as Hogarth sing-speaks the verse. But starting with the soaring chorus, the tune rises and falls over eight wonderful minutes. The best parts come when the waves crest and crash, leaving nothing but Hogarth’s whispers. In the end, it stands as a fitting counterpart to Marillion’s grand “Happiness Is the Road.”

Not the Weapon But the Hand is unlike anything Steve Hogarth has done, a real shift in tone and direction for one of my favorite singers. But if you like ambient music (which I do), and you’re able to just let a record like this drift over you, it’ll put you in the best kind of trance. It’s an album of surprising depth and beauty, and a fine way to tide yourself over until the Marillion album, which will no doubt sound nothing like this. (Funk rock? Really?) Get it here.

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I am new to the wonders of Chris Thile, and I owe Kevin Trudo for making the musical introduction.

Kevin – an accomplished musician and songwriter – simply loves Thile, and it’s easy to see why. I’ve only heard his now-three Punch Brothers albums and a couple of solo records, but I’m ready to call Thile a once-in-a-lifetime kind of musician. He’s a mandolin player, and an absolute magician on that instrument. He can make it do things that will boggle your mind. But he’s not a showoff, by any means – Thile is all about the song, the arrangement, the full power of music.

He spent his early years in Nickel Creek, a band at the forefront of the “newgrass” movement. But it’s with his new outfit, the five-piece Punch Brothers, that Thile is really making his mark. They’re a standard bluegrass lineup – guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin and fiddle – but the last thing they would play is standard bluegrass. The first Punch Brothers album included a 42-minute prog-rock epic of stunning complexity, and the follow-up Antifogmatic presented a beautiful, streamlined vision of complex bluegrass pop.

The third, Who’s Feeling Young Now, takes that vision even farther. This record contains no drums or percussion whatsoever, but is a full-on rock album nonetheless. These are Arcade Fire-type songs in scope and power, and though they’re played on acoustic instruments, they’ll still bowl you over. Opener “Movement and Direction,” about pitcher Greg Maddux, is one of the most impressively-arranged pieces of music you will hear all year. The banjo and mandolin lock into a wrist-breaking, almost ghostly groove while the bass flits around it, and the fiddle lifts it into the stratosphere. There are points when the instruments seem to be playing in different time signatures, but it all coheres under Thile’s strong, clear voice.

“No Concern of Yours” holds the title of 2012’s prettiest song thus far. Thile’s melody is heartbreaking, Gabe Witcher’s fiddle playing simply lovely, and when the band reaches for that high lonesome sound in the bridge, it’s magic. The title track would be indie rock, if played on electric guitars (and with a lot less subtlety). The fact that this song has no drums at all is simply incredible. “Patchwork Girlfriend” is a drunken shanty, “Hundred Dollars” flirts with blues rock, and “Soon or Never” is soaring, heartrending folk music. The one thing they rarely play on this record is bluegrass.

The Brothers include two covers, both instrumentals. The first is Vasen’s bluegrass workout “Flippen (The Flip),” and is the closest this record comes to the traditional. The second is an astonishing arrangement of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” With nothing but their five acoustic instruments, the Brothers perfectly mimic every electronic blip and whir of the original. They even somehow capture the tone of Thom Yorke’s processed vocals, with nothing but fiddle and stand-up bass. It’s just incredible.

Who’s Feeling Young Now closes with a much simpler piece – the poppy “Don’t Get Married Without Me.” It’s a showcase for Thile’s voice, and the arrangement is top notch, and it ends the record with a bang. This is the best and clearest elucidation yet of Thile’s vision, of the directions he believes bluegrass can go. And it’s just awe-inspiring stuff. Thile’s one in a million, and with this band, he’s reaching new heights. I may be new to his world, but I’m excited to follow wherever he goes.

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I did finally get that Guided by Voices album, but I may just refuse to review it for a while, just to keep the streak going. By the time I get to it, there will likely be another – Class Clown Spots a UFO, which has already been announced. Before that, Pollard has another solo record, called Mouseman Cloud, set for March 6. Seriously, when does the man sleep?

Next week, Field Music and Shearwater. Spoiler alert: they’re both fantastic. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.