On PopArt and From the Heart
And People I Have Only Met Online

I am running out of things to say about Evil Arrows.

Bryan Scary’s ongoing quick-hit pop project remains just as wonderful the fifth time out as it did the first. Scary is a genius songwriter and a dexterous player, and his solo material is insanely intricate, like a Beatlesque Mr. Bungle. In complete contrast, Evil Arrows, Scary’s tremendous rock band, successfully distills all of his best pop instincts into bite-size morsels. Even the serving sizes are smaller – each of the five Evil Arrows EPs hovers around 20 minutes.

The just-released EP 5 is the longest at 23 minutes, and the seven songs it contains are the most languid of the lot. Opener “Dance With Me Louis” is a classic quick-step that runs through half a dozen barrelhouse melodies in 3:35. “Imitation Isle” lays down a drowsy calypso beat on acoustic guitar while “Married to the Family Tree” sounds like a long-lost prime-period Joe Jackson tune. The acoustic is the instrument of choice on most of these songs – the slow-spin “Lordy Boxcar” and the ‘50s surf ballad “False Alarm” are folksier than most Evil Arrows material. Scary’s pounding piano leads the brief “The Sunday Mope,” while closer “Old Palace Road” is a crashing, tumbling Beatles blues.

All of these songs are great, like the previous 24. Really, there isn’t a lot I can add to my previous reviews – if you like pop music of any stripe, you will love Evil Arrows. Check out the new EP here.

Thankfully, though, Scary himself has given me something to talk about. He’s just launched a PledgeMusic drive for a new solo album called Birds. This will be the official follow-up to the absolutely amazing Daffy’s Elixir (http://bryanscary.bandcamp.com), released in 2012. Scary promises a dreamier piece of work, a tight and conceptual piece on which he will play all of the instruments. Any new project from Scary is worth getting excited about, and this one sounds extraordinary. Needless to say, I pledged. You can do the same, right here.

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I don’t actually know Etha.

Whenever I review a musician from my adoptive hometown of Aurora, Illinois, I like to give full disclosure. I know most of them, at least in passing, and some of them are my dear friends. When the second Noah’s Arcade album drops in a couple weeks, I’ll be giving my standard “I know all of these guys, and though I am trying to review the music honestly and fairly, you should know that up front” speech.

But despite several mutual friends and some fun Facebook conversations, I have never formally met Aurora rapper Etha. I’ve liked his work for years, but our paths have never crossed. I’m coming to his new album, From the Heart, just like any other music fan. Here is what I know: Etha is a young artist on the rise, and with From the Heart, he’s crafted the album that should take him to the next level. It’s an honest yet positive document that shows off, in less than 45 minutes, all the sides of Etha’s talent. From the Heart is diverse, polished, and ready for the big stage.

Some of that is down to the beats and production – the beats were provided by four different producers, and the record was laid down and assembled by Sam Beckley at Gremlen Studio in A-Town. The end result is sharp and varied. I don’t know Sam Beckley either, but the man knows what he’s doing – the opening title track is a dramatic powerhouse, with four backing vocalists, a snarling guitar and a growling organ darting in and out behind Etha’s unstoppable rhymes, and it all sounds fantastic.

But a lot of what makes From the Heart work so well is Etha himself. He’s a good writer, no matter what he’s doing. The first single, “Work Out,” is an anthem of hope – Etha takes an unflinching look at his city, his family and his life, and finds it all in need of reassurance, which he offers on the chorus: “I know it’s gonna work out,” he repeats, over a beautiful gospel piano (courtesy of Sampha’s “Indecision”). “Relax your mind, it’s all gonna work out.” This was the first song I heard from this record, and it made me even more of a fan.

If you’re expecting 10 versions of “Work Out,” From the Heart is gonna surprise you. Etha gets romantic on a couple tracks, the skipping “I Got You” and the dirty-sweet sex number “So Good,” then shifts gears completely for the hard-as-hell “King of the City.” This song is Etha’s finest moment at the mic, spitting out rat-a-tat lyrics at a rapid clip, and it leads into “Trust,” in many ways its opposite – where “King” is a torrent of cacophonous bravado, “Trust” finds Etha alone at the mic, offering a poem about openness.

That’s the kind of ride From the Heart is – Etha never stays in one place, and his supple voice changes from song to song, hard one minute and vulnerable the next. My favorite thing here is “Gratitude” – over a great Herb Alpert sample, Etha raps about the difficulties he’s overcome, and concludes that he is “grateful for it all, everything that’s happened in my life, good, bad, big or small.” While all of From the Heart is good, this one is perfect, and it’s nearly matched by the closer, “Feelings,” a cathartic jam with a full-circle coda. “I know it’s getting dark, but before we depart, here goes something from the heart…”

I have no idea what it takes to get to the next stage of a hip-hop career, but I hope this record does the trick. Etha’s got a good thing going on From the Heart, and I hope to meet him someday soon and tell him so. You can listen to “Work Out” and buy the album here.

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I also do not know Shawn McLaughlin, but we’ve been Facebook friends for a while. Facebook has its drawbacks, but it’s been a godsend for a music fan like me – I can keep up with dozens of bands easily and get recommendations from people I’d never otherwise interact with. I’m in a couple music-related Facebook groups with Shawn, and he’s recommended a few things to me. But none more forcefully than an album called PopArt, by a guy named Adrian Bourgeois. Shawn even named it his favorite record of 2014.

For some reason, I didn’t listen until recently, and now I’m kicking myself, because PopArt is great. It’s an expansive double record, sporting 24 songs over 102 minutes, and I wouldn’t remove a single one of them. For lovers of bold, colorful pop music, this thing is a treasure trove. Bourgeois never skimps on the melody, and goes for a classic feel – pianos, harmonies, strings and horns abound. Bourgeois has a high, strong voice and the songs to wrap it around, and though he played a lot of this record himself, he enlisted about 20 other musicians to fill it in, giving it a radiant, joyous, rich sound.

With all that, PopArt is almost too much to take in at once. Every song could be a single. This is the kind of album that finds me waiting for the bad song that I know has to crop up, but it never does. Even on the fourth side, Bourgeois is still pulling out winners like the sweeping “Still Life” and the superbly fun “Parachutes.” The whole thing ends with a sweet lullaby called “Rainy Day Parade,” which floats on an acoustic strum and a lovely sentiment: “Don’t blame the sun on the days it goes away, and I’ll let you ride in my rainy day parade.”

So yeah, PopArt is a masterpiece of melodious wonder, one I expect to be listening to for many years. You can hear it and buy it here. Thanks to Shawn for continuing to push it on me. I should have listened earlier, and I won’t make that mistake again.

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Next week, Steven Wilson’s new concept record Hand. Cannot. Erase. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.