Like the Spanish Inquisition
Three Things I Didn't See Coming

If there’s one thing I love more than music, it’s sharing music with people.

I can’t speak for others who make mix CDs and organize listening parties and things like that, but for me, it’s about joy. Music brings me so much joy that it overflows from me pretty regularly. If there’s a chance that someone I love will get the same amount of joy from a song or an album that I will, then I feel like I need to share it. It would almost be wrong not to. I love hearing from people who tell me they wouldn’t have experienced something wonderful if I hadn’t recommended it. That basically makes my whole life.

Case in point. Last Friday was my birthday, and a group of friends asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate. I suggested going to see Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson movie. I’ve been waiting for this film for more than a year, and the fact that it opened on my birthday allowed me to imagine that it was a present just for me. My friends agreed, despite not knowing much about Wilson, and they came out of the movie hungry to hear more. I am so happy to share some of my favorite music with them, and envious that they get to hear Pet Sounds and SMiLE for the first time.

The movie, by the way, was very good. Paul Dano captured ‘60s Brian perfectly, a tender and wounded genius who hears the music of the universe in his head. And John Cusack stunned me with his spot-on portrayal of ‘80s Brian, under the thrall of the sinister Dr. Eugene Landy (a particularly nasty Paul Giamatti), broken and yearning for rescue. The movie focuses on just these two periods of Wilson’s life, but somehow manages to say all it needs to about the man and why millions of people love him.

But enough about Brian Wilson, let’s talk about me. I’m sure my animated enthusiasm can get annoying for those who know me, so I try to ramp it down, but often I can’t help it. I’m regularly grabbing people and making them listen to songs, and I do that most often when I hear something that surprises me. Musical surprises come in all different shapes, but my favorites involve artists completely redefining themselves. I love playing songs for people without telling them who they’re listening to – the wide-eyed looks I get when I reveal the artist make my heart sing.

Lately, the artist I’ve been pulling people aside to hear is Daniel Johns. It’s especially fun with people my age, who have a particular memory of Silverchair, Johns’ old band. The Australian answer to Seattle grunge, Silverchair started out as a pretty awful three-chord misery machine, their ubiquitous hit “Tomorrow” sitting nicely beside all the Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains clones clogging the airwaves in 1995. Johns was just 16 when his band broke big, so I can forgive him for sounding like an emotionally turbulent teen on Silverchair’s first two albums, since he was one.

But here’s the thing – Johns evolved, first bringing Silverchair with him – the band’s 2007 opus Young Modern was my favorite record of that year – and then striking out on his own. Talk is Johns’ first solo album, and if you have no preconceptions about him, you’ll just think it’s a really good modern pop record. If you know that he’s the guy from Silverchair, the metamorphosis he’s undergone here is striking – it’s a little like if John Legend used to be in Nickelback.

Talk is an electronic pop album, at times brooding and sexy, at others effervescent. It exists in a realm partway between Prince and The Weeknd, with some elements of James Blake and Frank Ocean mixed up in there. Some of it is reminiscent of his collaboration with Paul Mac in the Dissociatives, but Talk plunges into brand new territory for Johns, and it suits him remarkably well. He’s honed his voice into a fine instrument, with a shivery falsetto that glides atop his sparse and echo-y drum sounds and his blipping keys.

The album opens with a statement – “Aerial Love” is as smooth and spare a pop song as you’ll find on here, Johns crooning “Ooh, I’m ready” over a single droning keyboard and click-clack drums. “We Are Golden” slips into dissonance, and perhaps should not have been at track two despite its sensual feel, but “By Your Side” picks up the pace with a tremendous, full pop chorus. “Cool On Fire,” a collaboration with Lorde producer Joel Little, matches waves of warm synthesizer with a catchy melody, and sounds like a hit to me.

The album gets more experimental as it goes along – “Dissolve” takes a new wave direction, while “Sleepwalker” sounds like what I was hoping Chet Faker’s album would deliver. At some points here, Johns’ intricate pop sensibilities come to the fore, but at others, like “Sleepwalker,” he aims for something that is initially off-putting, but rewards repeated listens. Talk is a deceptively sparse piece of work – the whole thing is immaculately produced, with subtle harmonies and almost inaudible layers of sound.

Talk a bit long, and at 15 songs not all of it works – I would have dumped the grating “Going on 16,” for instance. But when Johns finds a groove, as he does on the kinetic “Faithless,” he sells this new direction with all he has. If there’s an overriding quality that has characterized Johns’ career, it’s that he doesn’t care what people think of him. He’s a restless artist doing whatever he wants, and I’m enjoying hanging on for this ride. If you still think of Johns as the kid crooning in his best Eddie Vedder voice, Talk will leave you stunned and amazed.

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Of course, I don’t need a radical reinvention to be surprised and happy. In fact, sometimes the opposite works just fine.

I’ve been a fan of English trio Muse since 2003, when their masterpiece Absolution hit stores. Here was a perfect distillation of everything I wanted from post-OK Computer Radiohead, but didn’t get. Absolution was loud, vast, intricate, dynamic and sweeping, and in Matthew Bellamy, the band had a singer who could handle all the universe-spanning magnificence they could throw at him. Bands who unironically aim for greatness are few and far between, and Muse were one of them.

They still are, but over three subsequent albums, Muse drifted further and further over the top for me. They indulged an experimental side that led them from the dancehalls to the concert halls, and their unwinking earnestness took their ever-more-grandiose music into self-parody territory more than once. I felt like they kept it together even through The Resistance, a synth-heavy smorgasbord that ended with a 13-minute orchestral piece, but on The 2nd Law, they finally slipped into the ridiculous. Between their gigantic Olympic anthem “Survival” and their two-part dubstep suite, the record flew right off the rails with gusto.

So it is nothing but the most pleasant of surprises that Muse’s seventh album, Drones, is their tightest, most focused and most consistent effort since Absolution. This is the album on which they remembered that, at their core, they’re a three-piece rock band. The great majority of this record is built on guitar, bass, drums and vocals, and it rocks harder and tighter than they have in many years. Strikingly, they retain their sense of drama – this is a concept album about military technology as metaphor for our daily sleepwalking lives, after all. But throughout Drones, I was surprised at how often I was hearing a really great band just playing.

Opener “Dead Inside” is the record’s one concession to the dance-pop grooves that have been present in Muse’s work since “Supermassive Black Hole,” and they’re more of an embellishment here as Bellamy’s guitars take center stage. “Psycho” is a pummeling riff rocker, but it’s nothing next to “Reapers,” a six-minute power trio workout that finds all three in top form. (Just listen to that steamroller that assaults the last 90 seconds.) “The Handler” follows suit, growing from a riff that would have seemed at home on a ‘90s Megadeth album. Chris Wolstenholme’s bass playing on this track is epic.

Not all of it works. This is revolution music, but being Muse, it’s painfully straightforward and often silly revolution music. “Defector” opens with these lines: “Free, yeah, I am free from your inciting, you can’t brainwash me, you’ve got a problem.” That’s representative of the whole thing – the main character starts off… well, dead inside, and allows society to control him, but he defects on “Defector” and revolts on “Revolt.” “War is all around, I’m growing tired of fighting,” he sighs on “Aftermath,” as simply and plainly as he can. The songs in the latter half – the revolution songs – don’t hold up as well, particularly the sing-songy “Revolt.”

But this being Muse, they save their biggest wallop for the end. “The Globalist” is a 10-minute powerhouse about eradicating country lines, and it builds magnificently from a Sergio Leone strum to an explosive, full-on jackhammer-beat stunner. This piece never stops moving, never stops impressing, and when it dissolves into the title track, an a cappella coda based on a piece called “Sanctus and Benedictus,” it’s riveting. The haunting choral arrangement, ending (of course) with a grand “amen,” makes for an unsettling ending.

Drones shouldn’t be that much of a surprise – when you fall off the tightrope the way Muse did on The 2nd Law, you either keep pushing forward into incomprehensibility or you retrench and recapture what you did best before you lost your way. Drones does that magnificently, reclaiming Muse’s place as a grand rock band. It’s their most cohesive effort in more than a decade, and one of their best.

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And sometimes, just the very existence of a band or album surprises me so much that I need to share it, just to get other opinions on it.

In the case of FFS, I’ve heard the album three times and I still sort of can’t believe it exists. FFS is a collaboration between long-running American crazy-pop brother act Sparks and less long-running Scottish dance-rock band Franz Ferdinand. If you know both bands, you’re probably tossing this information around in your head now, imagining how it will sound. And you’re probably right. While I’m fairly certain the six members of FFS thought of the band name first and everything else second, the hour-plus album they’ve created is as much fun as you’d hope it would be.

Throughout the band’s self-titled record, you can hear the Mael brothers and the Franz Ferdinanders working to integrate their sounds. When they get it right, as they do on “Police Encounters” and “Save Me From Myself,” the result is a slinky, danceable concoction with just the right amount of sneering from both parties. “Dictator’s Son” is almost the ideal, the Maels trading lead vocals with Alex Kapranos as the song careens from synth-piano theatrical rock to gyrating guitar crunch. Sparks adds a touch of tongue-in-cheek grandeur to Franz, while Franz adds a rawer rock edge to Sparks.

Even when they’re off balance, the team does good work. “Little Guy from the Suburbs” is a Franz Ferdinand-style ballad – a couple chords, some low-key intonation. Likewise the cheeky “Collaborations Don’t Work” is pure Sparks with some Franz-y touches to bring it home. Basically a rock opera in seven minutes, “Collaborations” is the perfect purposely-disjointed snarky statement from these two bands: “Mozart didn’t need a little Haydn to chart, Warhol didn’t need to ask De Kooning about art, Frank Lloyd Wright always ate a la carte…”

Really, if you’re a fan of either of these bands (or, ideally, both), all you need to know is that this exists. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks formed a band called FFS, and created an album that includes a song called “Collaborations Don’t Work.” If that doesn’t make you want to hear it, then nothing I can say is going to do the trick. If it does, then you’re in for a fun hour of somewhat silly, mostly delightful operatic-yet-danceable pop. That FFS exists at all is a surprise. That it’s good is just the icing on the cake.

Next week, some random catching up with Of Monsters and Men, Bill Mallonee and Jamie xx. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.