Straight Six
Catching Up is Still Hard to Do

If it’s OK with you, I’m going to start this week’s column with the biggest surprise of the month.

I don’t have a lot of time for the Killers. I enjoyed Hot Fuss, and I think “Spaceman” (from their third album, Day and Age) is the best song of their catalog. Their obsession with Springsteen grates on me, however, and their faintly ridiculous 2012 album Battle Born fell off my radar quickly.

Which is why I’m so surprised at how much I’m enjoying frontman Brandon Flowers’ second solo bow, The Desired Effect. Flowers has always brought an ‘80s sensibility to his work, but this is the first album on which he gets the balance exactly right. This is an album right out of 1985, its sound only barely updated. It practically glitters with keyboards, the guitars are perfectly placed in the mix (meaning pretty far back), the drums are big and reverbed, the harmonies dripping wet. It’s like he’s finally gone the whole way, and it suits him well.

Here’s the thing he gets the most right: while that ‘80s sound might come off as kitschy in retrospect, it was absolutely serious at the time. The Desired Effect is exactly the same – there isn’t a hint of tongue-in-cheek irony to this thing. It’s not a pastiche, it’s a lovingly crafted album in a particular style. By taking even a bouncy trifle like “I Can Change” seriously, Flowers has captured the essence of the era better than he ever has. The songs here are the meaty anthems he prefers, delivered with all the earnestness he can muster. Somehow, though, they don’t come off as silly this time.

And I think it’s because he’s fully embraced the sound he’s only worn as a costume before. Something is different about this one. You can hear it in the lovely ballad “Between Me and You,” which features Bruce Hornsby on piano. The details here are perfect, from Tony Levin’s Chapman stick to the occasional “yeah” in the background. It’s a pretty song that could have walked right off of the radio in 1985. Most of The Desired Effect is the same way, and despite my resistance, I’m enjoying it more than just about anything Flowers has contributed to. If that was his desired effect, well, it was a smashing success.

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The first thing that drew me to Ace Enders was his ambition.

Enders is the leader and singer of New Jersey band The Early November. In 2006, TEN released The Mechanic, The Mother and the Path, a triple album that was equal parts brave and foolish. Clocking in at more than two hours, the album included a louder disc of modern rock, a softer one of more acoustic pieces, and a radio play that tied the concept together with some wonderful songs interspersed. It was a huge undertaking, its lesser moments easy to forgive in the face of its sprawling reach.

I loved it, and I swore to follow Enders wherever he went from there. And he’s gone a lot of interesting places, from his big and slick solo work to his messy and sparse efforts under the name I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business. When The Early November reunited in 2012 and started issuing new music again, I was excited, but it turns out that his first band is now the least interesting facet of Enders’ output. In short, they’re his rock band, and they do a fine job, but they don’t convey the scope of what the man can do.

Which brings me to Imbue, the just-released fourth Early November album. There is one fantastic winner on here, and it’s called “Better This Way.” It starts out as a slower, more atmospheric song, but the chorus just explodes: “You like it better that way,” Enders sings, before delivering the killer melody in wordless shouts. This one will stay with me, and all by itself it makes me glad I bought Imbue.

But the rest of the record is pretty average, I’m sorry to say. The band is energetic and gives these middling rockers their all, but they’re middling rockers, with few memorable moments. Things pick up at the end – closer “Nothing Lasts Forever” rocks with conviction, and bonus track “Digital Age” is unlike anything else here, whispery and pulsing. I don’t mind the rest – I quite like the piano on “Harmony,” and Enders sings all of these songs with conviction and power – but I don’t love it either, and I know Enders can do better.

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A couple years ago, I saw the Milk Carton Kids opening for Over the Rhine.

As you’d expect, it was just Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, each with an acoustic guitar, and they spun glorious and sad beauty from their simple tools. But what struck me most about the show was how funny the two of them were. The between-song patter was dry and sarcastic and, in its subtle way, uproarious.

I mention this because it’s nice to know that Pattengale and Ryan are not as morose as their music would lead you to believe. In fact, they’re having fun making this gorgeous stuff. For some reason, the image of the two of them live colored my listen to their second album, Monterey, and even though it’s exactly the same as their debut, I enjoyed it more. Monterey is just like the live show – two guitars and two high, beautiful voices, forever intertwined, for its entire running time.

And it’s so, so lovely. Simon and Garfunkel is an obvious touchstone, as is the Everly Brothers, and the Kids are under no illusions that this sound is wholly their own. They even center one song around a particularly Paul Simon line: “Everywhere we go, we are the child of where we came.” But their commitment to it, and their ability to write spare, simple songs that can still fill you up, makes this worth hearing and treasuring.

As they did last time, the Kids use their silky sound to soften the blow of their dark, sad lyrics, in the best folk tradition. There are deaths, there are lonely wanderings down deserted streets, there are glimpses at a happier past that set the melancholy present into sharp relief. The Kids work in some Crosby, Stills and Nash-style political commentary, too: “Freedom rings loudly now, listen up, hear the sound of screaming as the shots ring out, that’s what freedom sounds like now…” One song later, they deftly reframe the political with the personal: “The letter said it all, we’re shipping out, I know they got it wrong without a doubt, the war ain’t over there, it’s here with me, the battle of the bloody century…”

There are no changes and no surprises on Monterey, and while I might wish for some artistic growth, I’m not sure what that would mean for this particular sound they’ve conjured up. I don’t think this needs to be bigger, or more fleshed out. It’s something special just as it is.

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As if on cue, here’s an example of an acoustic duo that has beefed up their sound, for better and for worse.

It’s been five years since we’ve heard from Deb Talan and Steve Tannen, the married couple known as the Weepies. Their fifth album is called Sirens, and it’s pretty clear that they spent most of those five years working on it. The Weepies write adorable little folk-pop ditties, and at the start of their career, they played them primarily on acoustic guitars, letting their pretty voices do most of the work. But they’ve been building up that sound, while being careful not to obliterate the precious fragility of what they do.

Sirens is, sonically, the biggest thing they’ve done, and on it, they tackle a few styles they’ve never tried before. “No Trouble” comes early, and it’s the biggest surprise, a slinky piano-led minor-key tune with a big beat. “Fancy Things” is the kind of electro-jazz lounge music The Bird and the Bee do so well, with flitting electric pianos and some thick processing for Talan’s voice. “Early Morning Riser” goes for a bit of a ska beat, with full horn section. There’s a cover of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Mostly, these experiments work, and it’s at least partially due to the parade of big-name session musicians, including Gerry Leonard, Tony Levin and two of Elvis Costello’s Imposters.

With all that, though, it’s the songs that sound like the Weepies that capture my heart here. The title track is absolutely wonderful, a dark tale of death at sea (and emotional ruin on land) with a sweet, hummable melody. “Wild Boy” had me at “don’t I know it,” and sealed the deal with its lovely wordless backing vocals. “Ever Said Goodbye” is perfectly adorable, Tannen singing gently of regret: “You said with a smile that one day I’d make you cry, I don’t know why I ever said goodbye.”

Having said that, the swirling “Does Not Bear Repeating” may be my favorite thing here, with its chiming synthesizers, double-time beat and circular melody. It’s a great example of building on the band’s sound without changing its DNA. I love the Weepies, and while I love hearing them try new things – and for the most part, Sirens’ steps off the beaten path work well – I love hearing them sound like themselves even more. They do an equal amount of both here, and after a five-year wait, I’m happy with the balance they’ve struck. Sirens is a delight.

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And we may as well complete the musical-duos trifecta by talking about Best Coast.

Bethany Cosentino and Robb Bruno have made their name by embracing the innocent pop of a bygone era and playing it loudly, with no concessions to fidelity. On their third album, California Nights, one of those things has changed: this record is big and polished and shiny. The guitars jump out of the speakers, the drums (by session musician Brady Miller) pop in perfect balance, and the harmonies are fuller and thicker.

In all other respects, though, this is a Best Coast album, and so this feels like a natural progression. Cosentino still writes catchy little ditties that play in the shallow end, lyrically. It’s all about love and heartbreak, as usual. Sample line, from “Heaven Sent”: “I never meant to make you cry, I can’t pretend I never told a thousand lies, it’s not the end, I just want you to know that I think that you are heaven sent…” Another? OK, this one’s from “In My Eyes”: “I wake up alone, I look at the phone, there’s no one there, I look to the sun, know I can’t run from my cares…” It’s all on this level.

But if you’ve listened to Best Coast before, you’re used to this, and there’s no point complaining about it at this stage of the game. Cosentino is a songwriter that is just fine with a line like “I climb into the sky and my eyes they cry,” or with anchoring a song called “Jealousy” around the line “Why don’t you like me?” She’s hearkening back to the teen-pop of the ‘50s and ‘60s (and, let’s face it, the ‘80s). If you’re good with that, California Nights is the loudest and best of her band’s three records. These songs are undeniably catchy, and a tune like “In My Eyes” even achieves a bit of catharsis. The fuller sound does wonders for these tunes.

I generally like my silly pop to be a bit smarter than this, but if I put away the lyric sheet, get in the car, roll down the window and drive with this cranked up, it works for me. I can’t imagine Cosentino is looking for anything else, so I’d say California Nights is a success.

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I saved the best for last, so I hope you’re all still reading.

For 18 years, the Danish band Mew has been known for two things: magnificent soundscape-rock that would blow the socks off anyone who listened to it, and bizarre album titles and artwork that seemed designed to make sure few people did. I’ve been into them since Frengers in 2003, and trying to get people to listen to albums called And the Glass-Handed Kites and (deep breath) No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away, No More Stories The World is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away has been a bit of a struggle.

Mew has never been as impenetrable musically – they’re a little like Sigur Ros, except they write pop songs and sing in English. Their sixth album is called + –, and that’s the least accessible thing about it. On this record, Mew has harnessed their grandiose sound into little chunks of magnificence, and in doing so they’ve crafted their most welcoming work. The sound remains extraordinary, otherworldly, massive and layered – Mew stacks keyboards and guitars and vocals atop one another, basically building enormous yet perfectly sculpted towers. And yet, the songs within these towers are singable, uplifting gems.

The first eight songs on + – are some of the loosest and flat-out prettiest material the band has written. The album starts with the glistening “Satellites,” easing in on an ethereal harp figure while spectral synths build up. Jonas Bjerre’s voice is high and strong, and you’ll rarely hear it without glorious harmonies stacked around it. The guitars crash in around the one-minute mark, and the song takes flight, rising up and up, weighed down by nothing. The chorus is grand, and by the four-minute mark the song is in full glory, big and bold. “My life is my own, and now I’m always home.” It’s masterful.

“Making Friends” sounds like Mew’s version of modern pop, with an electronic beat, some ringing pianos, funky bass and a high, memorable melody. It’s gentle yet insistent, those Mew keyboards coming in for the choruses. Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack joins in on guitar on the darker “My Complications,” which merges Mew’s sweep with the slashing attack of Lissack’s band, a mash-up that works wonderfully. “Water Slides” takes a simpler and slower approach, as does “Interview the Girls,” but both songs carry you along in their current.

It’s the last two songs, though, that really make + – for me. Mew is always top-notch when they stretch out, and “Rows” is their longest song at 10:42. It’s transcendent, easing you in over several slower minutes before reaching full flower. As big as this one is, closing track “Cross the River on Your Own” is even more immense, an ever-expanding straightforward anthem in 7:28. It’s based on a simple sentiment – “You be good to me, and I’ll be good to you” – but this one almost (almost) gets too gigantic for itself. The band does keep control, but by the final guitar solo, there isn’t anywhere to go. Hence, the album ends.

This is the prettiest and most open Mew album, and just for that, it gets a strong recommendation. If you’ve never heard them, but you like bands like Sigur Ros, you should hear + –. It’s full of everything I like about them, but here the band is holding out its hand and drawing you in like they never have before. They want you to hear this one, and I think you should. It’s certainly one of my favorite things they’ve done.

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Well, all right. Next week we get Indigo Girls, Florence and the Machine, and Dawes. Be here. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.