A Quick One, Now That He’s Back
The Choir, Noah's Arcade and Some Short Takes

It’s been 25 years since I first heard the Choir’s Circle Slide.

That’s simply unfathomable to me. I’ve recounted this story before, but I bought Circle Slide on a whim, after seeing the gorgeous cover – the sweeping sky, the tire swing, the threatening storm. It just grabbed me. What I found when I listened was exactly the kind of human, doubt-filled spirituality that 16-year-old me had been searching for, wrapped up in some of the most bizarre and beautiful music I’d ever heard. The Choir has been on my short list of favorite bands ever since.

And I have never stopped listening to Circle Slide. It’s been with me for a quarter-century, for my entire adult life, and I’ve never grown tired of it. I’m still hearing new things within it, seeing new twists in the lyrics, feeling new emotions. I’m not sure what it is about this short collection – there are really only seven songs, and it’s over in less than 40 minutes, but there seems to be an entire world contained in there. Even now, 25 years later, that tom roll at the start of the title track, the one that leads into that dark and reverbed web of sound, makes my pulse quicken.

I love this record, and I don’t think I will ever stop loving this record. Which is good, since I’ve just bought it for the fourth time. I originally picked it up on cassette in 1990, then quickly upgraded to a CD, and then bought it again on CD as part of the Never Say Never box set in 2000. And now, here it is in a sparkling remastered anniversary edition, complete with a second disc containing enlightening commentary from the band. Thankfully, it sounds exactly the same, only better – this new edition makes it easier to sink into the glorious, thick, room-filling sound of this album.

I bought this new edition at the Choir’s show in Aurora, Illinois, where they played Circle Slide from beginning to end. That was an incredible experience – it was standing-room-only, the great Mike Roe filled in on bass, and the band brought a quarter-century of experience and love to these tunes. Some of them – “If I Had a Yard,” “Merciful Eyes,” “Laugh Loop” – they had never played live, but the thunderous, spacey title track benefitted from years of concert airings, and the astonishingly loud closer “Restore My Soul” was everything I could have wanted. All these years later, it’s still magic.

The Choir is touring Circle Slide now. If they’re anywhere near you, don’t miss this opportunity. Check tour dates and hear some Choir music here. And if you miss the tour, the band will play the AudioFeed Festival again in July.

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The Choir’s Circle Slide show capped off an incredible two weeks of music for me, which included a trip to Montreal to see Marillion play three times. I also got to see Zappa Plays Zappa take on the One Size Fits All album in Chicago, which was thoroughly remarkable.

But my two-week live music binge started off with a record release party by my friends in Noah’s Arcade. My standard disclaimer applies here: I know these guys, I see them play whenever I can, and I’ve talked with them at length about their music. I would like them as much as I do if none of that were true. Noah’s Arcade is accomplished singer-songwriter-guitarist Noah Gabriel and one of the best rhythm sections you’ll find anywhere: bassist Chad Watson and drummer Justin O’Connell. What started as a songwriter and his backing band has evolved seamlessly into a democratic power trio, and watching them grow into what they are now has been a treat.

You can hear that evolution on their second album, Easy. Coming only a year after their self-titled debut, Easy is a brief collection – nine songs in about 35 minutes. But in a short time, it makes the case for the band’s continued growth. The songs are surprisingly varied – the opening title track is a bit of a whisper, gliding in rather than making a splash, and from there we get the gloriously ‘90s rocker “All the Roses,” the tender and sparse love song “Angeline,” and the tense crawl “Lookin’ Back.” None of these tunes pick up the bluesy torch held high by the first record, preferring to strike out in new directions.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Easy was recorded essentially live, and only after the full band arrangements were worked out on stage. The album has that feel – a song like “Vultures” shows that Watson and O’Connell are equal partners, and all three carry the song at different times. The trio is completely in sync on Easy, and even the simplest of these songs – the bluesy “Better Things,” for instance – work well here because of that interplay. The best example is “For You,” a last-minute addition that enriches the final third of the record. It’s three chords in search of a chorus, but listen to the way Watson carries things with his loping, melodic bass lines. Listen to how the three of them play that solo section like a unit, O’Connell building up and easing back, Gabriel riding the wave perfectly.

That said, here is what’s always been interesting to me about Noah’s Arcade: they’re a rock band that only rarely rocks. Most of Easy is either slow or mid-tempo, the band only cranking it up a couple of times. I like this material, and I can see why the band likes to play it. But for my money, the best song on this record is the last one, “29 & 66,” a mini-epic in 5:06 that starts off in a slower place, but soon erupts in a hail of furious instrumental firepower. After half an hour of restraint, it’s great to hear Noah’s Arcade cut loose in the record’s final minutes, and just like their debut, this album ends just as it really gets going. I could have listened to that jam for another 10 minutes and been good with it.

None of that is to say that the band doesn’t pull off the slower and moodier material well. Easy is a fine step forward and a statement of intent from one of Illinois’ best bands, a short yet varied set that adds a couple new twists to their story. I’m interested to see what they do next. You can listen and buy here.

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Just time and space for a few quick takes of recent records. Naturally, more worthy stuff is coming out than I can get to, particularly considering the depth to which I like to explore new music. I’m finally going to get to that Aqualung record next week. No idea when I will review the Weepies, San Fermin, Best Coast, Mew, Todd Rundgren, etc.

In the absence of long looks, here are a couple glances.

One would think that the first album in 12 years from one of the most important bands of the 1990s would generate a little bit of fanfare. The relatively quiet release of Blur’s The Magic Whip is sort of mystifying, especially considering it’s a bona fide reunion record, the first featuring founding guitarist Graham Coxon since 1999, and the first produced by Stephen Street since 1997. They probably could have made a bigger deal out of this.

But the album, by all accounts, came about quickly and accidentally – it’s the product of a week’s work in Hong Kong after a canceled Japan tour – and that’s been the tone of the release. The Magic Whip just kind of… squeaked out. Thankfully, the record itself is better than it should be. About half of it resorts to loping grooves, like the first single “Go Out,” but the other half is just as grand and pretty as Blur has ever been.

The production is surprisingly dense, given the album’s origins – songs like “There Are Too Many of Us” and closer “Mirrorball” are big and lovely things, and the expansive epic “Thought I Was a Spaceman” feels like the product of weeks of work, instead of days. It’s great to hear Coxon and Damon Albarn together again – the quick stomper “I Broadcast” recalls their glory days, and there’s more than a hint of the Kinks-inspired Blur of old on tracks like opener “Lonesome Street.” For all that, my favorite thing here is “New World Towers,” a slower, statelier piece that captures the beauty Blur could achieve when they were firing on all cylinders.

Hopefully The Magic Whip isn’t just a one-off. Given how good it is, I’d like to hear what they can do when they really work at it.

Michael Angelakos is another guy who is great when he works at it. As the sole member of Passion Pit, he took his one-man show from the humble beginnings of Chunk of Change to the sublime Gossamer in a scant four years. His high voice, his oddly retro-yet-futuristic dance-pop, his way with a soaring melody – Angelakos was going somewhere, and it was fun to be along for the ride.

Which is why the third Passion Pit album, Kindred, is a bit of a letdown. It’s the first one not to really go any new places – it just distills the good stuff from Gossamer into a slighter 37 minutes. None of this album is bad, and it all sounds like Passion Pit, particularly the delightful “Lifted Up,” the very ‘80s “Where the Sky Hangs,” the grand “My Brother Taught Me How to Swim” and the “Five Foot Ten”/”Ten Feet Tall” diptych. The theme of family runs deep through these songs, and they’re all at least pretty good. But it never lifts off, and never goes somewhere Angelakos hasn’t already taken us.

That type of consistency can be good and bad, though, and in the case of Built to Spill – never the world’s most innovative band anyway – it’s a good thing. Ever since the sprawling Perfect From Now On in 1997, Doug Martsch and his fellow Idahoans have walked a fascinating line between Dinosaur Jr. and Crazy Horse, reveling in the sounds of the electric guitar and the full-band freakout.

Album eight, Untethered Moon, comes six years after its predecessor, but it’s pretty much the same – quirky fuzzed-out pop songs right next to eight-minute guitar-heavy jams. If you ever liked them before, you’ll like this. I’d begrudge them this lack of evolution if they weren’t still so damn good at this. I’m not sure why this gets a pass and Passion Pit doesn’t, but when Martsch and company lock into the blistering groove of closer “When I’m Blind,” I just respond.

That said, if you want something new from Built to Spill, this album won’t provide it. If you’re looking for further proof that they’re one of the last remaining great rock and roll bands, though, Untethered Moon should do the trick.

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Next week, reinventions from Mumford and Sons and Aqualung. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.