Last week’s column was all about surprises, and 2012 has been a year full of them.
Not all of them were pleasant. New records by the Shins, Mumford and Sons and Aimee Mann fizzled, Joe Jackson broke his streak of excellent records with his lamentable Duke Ellington project, and most sadly, the Choir released their first mediocre effort in a long, long time. The Beach Boys reunion collapsed, the Cornerstone Festival breathed its last, and Adam Yauch died.
But this year brought its fair share of positive stunners too. Rufus Wainwright, John Mayer and Fiona Apple all made terrific new records, Jellyfish (Jellyfish!) released a live album and a collection of instrumentals, Bob Mould rocked his way back to Sugary heights, Amanda Palmer used her Kickstarter money to make the album of her life, and most wonderfully, Ben Folds Five reunited after a long absence, and knocked it out of the park with The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
That’s the kind of year it was. Some of the best stuff came out of nowhere, from unexpected directions, and mainly from bands and artists who had been away long enough that I’d taken my eye off them. I have three of those on tap this week, from a very diverse crop of artists. In fact, the only thing that connects them is that they’ve been away from the public eye for ages, and no one expected them to return. Here’s where I welcome them all back.
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Whenever Paul Buchanan returns with an album, it seems to take everyone by surprise.
Perhaps that’s because Buchanan’s music is so unassuming. With the possible exception of Talk Talk, Buchanan’s longtime band The Blue Nile may be the most patient, melancholy pop group to ever come out of Great Britain. Their four albums were each separated by a minimum of six years, and each hovered around 40 minutes. Blue Nile songs were slow, layered in keyboards, and focused with almost laser-like precision on Buchanan’s striking voice. It’s hard to explain what kind of singer he is – he’s not vocally acrobatic, but every word he utters demands your attention like few other singers can.
Buchanan songs unfailingly aim for a particular kind of wonder, one that bides its time while it seeps its way in. He favors long buildups instead of immediate choruses, complete four-minute thoughts instead of highlight moments. You have to take in Blue Nile albums whole, and you have to wait for them to reveal themselves. Perhaps that’s why each one took so long to come out – the (unfortunately small) audience needed the extra time to truly absorb these works.
I can’t claim to have been a longtime Blue Nile fan. My first album-length exposure to them was 2004’s High, a masterful yet modest collection of soulful balladry. I thought perhaps this was a departure from their ‘80s work, but no. Every Blue Nile album is modest and soulful, Buchanan’s voice deservedly taking the spotlight atop lush synths. They somehow built an entire career by striving for unadulterated beauty, with no compromises.
It’s been eight years since we’ve heard from Buchanan, and in that time, the band evaporated. You can hear its loss in every lonely, lovely note of Buchanan’s first solo album, Mid Air. Somehow, he’s made his music even more modest, even more melancholy. Mid Air is down to piano, some hints of orchestration, and that still-striking voice, and in this glorious setting, Buchanan stops time. Everything around this album freezes while it’s playing, as if the air itself is listening intently. It’s that lovely.
It would be fair to describe these songs as sketches, in a way. Only one of this album’s 14 tracks breaks the three-minute mark, and all are stripped down, almost to the point of not existing at all. Buchanan keeps his amazing voice to a whisper throughout, singing haiku-like lyrics about love and loss. It sounds very much like the product of a series of sleepless nights, as if Buchanan, blurry-eyed and contemplative, found himself at the living room piano at 3 a.m.
None of this sounds impressive, I know. But when he quietly slips into “I Remember You,” for example, it’s unspeakably moving. “I know exactly where you’ll be, you’ll be exactly where I am, we go arm in arm, I remember you…” I can’t breathe, it’s so beautiful. When he sings the opening lines of “Buy a Motor Car” (“Buy a motor car and drive somewhere you believe, far away from me, I’m not sure if I’m alive…”), my heart stops. While it’s playing, it’s the saddest 2:37 I can imagine. That is, until he gets to these lines in “Wedding Party”: “Are you trying to tell me what I already know, letting go…”
In the best possible way, Mid Air sounds like eavesdropping, like listening to someone’s innermost thoughts without their knowledge. It’s naked and exposed, and it’s often surprisingly warm and whole and thankful. Buchanan packs oceans of emotion into the final lines of “Two Children”: “Ask me if I am grateful, watch as I fall down to my knees.” The album consists of little glimpses, tiny epiphanies measured in seconds, and it may be the closest Buchanan has come to that ideal beauty he’s been searching for.
It’s hard to explain the appeal of this album, or of Buchanan’s life in music. You just have to hear it, fall in love with it, be transformed by it. From nearly nothing, Paul Buchanan has spun one of the most moving albums of the year. I hope I won’t have to wait another eight years for the next one, but I’m sure I will. And I’m also sure that, like Mid Air, it will be worth every day.
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The members of Soundgarden have never struck me as particularly cheeky. So I couldn’t help but grin when I saw that the first song (and first single) on their reunion album, King Animal, is entitled “Been Away Too Long.”
It’s certainly been a while – Soundgarden’s last album hit stores 16 years ago. During their ‘90s heyday, they were arguably the best, and certainly the most musically adept band to ride the grunge wave out of Seattle. While their contemporaries were almost embarrassed by their fame, and preferred to whine over sludgy guitar chords, Soundgarden exhibited an almost Zeppelin-like swagger. They rode in on big riffs, tricky time signatures, and the rock god voice of Chris Cornell. Their masterpiece, 1994’s Superunknown, is a relentless 70-minute slab of intelligent, twisty, almost cocky rock and roll. (If you haven’t heard it in a while, try it. It holds up remarkably well.)
The decade and a half since the split-up hasn’t been particularly kind to Cornell. A stint with the ill-advised not-so-supergroup Audioslave, a ridiculous Michael Jackson cover, and a much-derided collaboration with Timbaland (which I quite liked) did a lot to undo his reputation as a phenomenally gifted singer. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd all but disappeared, and drummer Matt Cameron has been a permanent member of Pearl Jam since 1998. Believe me when I tell you that no one was expecting a Soundgarden reunion, and even when one was announced, no one had high hopes for it.
But lo and behold, King Animal is actually pretty good. I’d love to say the band picked up where they left off in ’96, but they haven’t. This album is a little more tentative than I’d like, and the band is clearly older and less adventurous. Cornell’s high, throaty wail has aged, and the band is content to simply ride a groove like “Non-State Actor” instead of shaking it up like they once would have. But in all, these 13 tracks are far better than I was expecting.
The best material here is the moodiest, and comes after the rollicking opening salvo. Track five, “Blood on the Valley Floor,” does what Soundgarden does best – a crawling riff right out of the Zep handbook, some interesting time signature shifts, a soaring melody, and out in 3:48. “Bones of Birds” is reminiscent of Cornell’s best solo work, its folded and spindled 7/8 riff leading into a swell minor-key chorus. “Black Saturday” presses the acoustic guitar into service, but it’s joined by exotic percussion and a full horn section for one of the band’s signature head-spinning sections.
With all that going on, the simple ditty “Halfway There” might have sounded slight, if not for that catchy chorus. It’s the closest thing to a hit you’ll find here, amidst workouts like “Worse Dreams.” King Animal ends with “Rowing,” built around a twisting bass figure from Shepherd and a simple, relentless drum beat from Cameron. It’s a song about persevering – “Don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing” – and it strikes just the right note at the end of this record. I hope Soundgarden perseveres, because as good as King Animal is, they should be back to full strength in a couple of albums. And I definitely want to hear that.
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But the prize for most unexpected reunion album goes to Dead Can Dance.
Like Soundgarden, it’s been 16 years since Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard have recorded together. They were one of the original 4AD Records bands in the ‘80s, and sat somewhat uncomfortably among their gothic counterparts. Dead Can Dance has always been an all-encompassing world music outfit, mixing Eastern melodies and instruments with Western production. They were unique in the ‘80s, and they’re unique now.
Dead Can Dance is a band I have heard of more than I have heard. I never explored their catalog to the extent I should have. But their reunion album, Anastasis, has convinced me to look deeper. The title is a Greek word for resurrection, and the album lives up to it – here are eight long songs that exemplify this band’s fascinating mix of styles and influences. Perry and Gerrard are not afraid to return after 16 years with an album that is difficult, demanding, and unlike anything else you’ll hear.
If the pair felt like they had to prove anything, they did it with the first track, the sweeping “Children of the Sun.” Over thick synths and swirling strings, Perry unveils his Morrissey-imitating-David-Bowie voice, and reveals its power bit by bit as the song swells. By the end, the orchestration has built up an almost palpable force. It’s a gauntlet-throwing opener, and the album doesn’t reach those particular heights again. But that’s all right, because it follows other paths.
Half of these songs are Perry’s, and those contain intelligible lyrics and steady beats. They’re all good – “Amnesia” starts off with a hint of reggae, and ends up with huge string and horn lines fighting for space. “Opium” could almost be a single, with its supple rhythm and choral keyboard sounds. And closer “All in Good Time” is lovely, Perry’s reverbed voice drifting above an ambient backdrop.
But the other half belong to Gerrard, and they’re the heart of the album for me. Gerrard sings in glossolalia, uttering syllables that have no meaning, but convey emotion. She lets that voice loose on the Middle Eastern-flavored “Anabasis,” and it seems to have no boundaries. It floats disembodied above the sinewy sonic backdrop, synths melding with traditional instruments for a mind-altering experience. “Agape” is similar, Gerrard showing why she’s been an in-demand film composer since Dead Can Dance’s last record.
Nothing here is as remarkable as the eight-minute movie without pictures “Return of the She-King.” A simple percussion figure (including sleigh bells) supports some lovely strings while Gerrard layers her voice atop itself, turning herself into a spectral choir. I almost wish for real horns at the five-minute mark, but it might not carry the same effect. Perry enters shortly thereafter, wordlessly joining Gerrard’s gorgeous vocal, and the two ride the majestic wave out.
Dead Can Dance have been away for 16 years, and even after all that time, there’s still no other band like them. Anastasis fits right in with what I’ve heard of their older material, like no time has passed. Their return is one of the most welcome surprises of the year, and I hope their collaboration continues. They clearly fill a niche that no one else can touch.
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Next week, a couple of albums I helped to make. After that, this year’s crop of Christmas music, and then we’re in the year-end festivities. Another one in the books. Hard to believe. 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.