Blood and Water
One Review, One Not-a-Review

This is not a review of Kevin Trudo’s Water Bears Vol. 1.

Truth be told, I can’t review it with any objectivity. I’ve known Kevin for going on 10 years now, and consider him one of my best friends. We met almost randomly, introduced through mutual friends at an Ani Difranco concert, and I was flabbergasted to hear that he was a fan of this very column. A few nights later I went to see him play with his trio, Meathawk, and came away suitably impressed. We’ve been friends in music and life ever since.

Kevin was the first legitimate musician in my adopted hometown to want to work with me as a musician, and I’ll forever be grateful for that. I sometimes think he likes my piano playing more than I do, which is nice. We did a couple fun covers together – you can find them on YouTube – and when I started working for internet news company Patch, I made him a part of things. He was the star of my Patch site’s welcome video, and I somehow convinced my co-workers that he could write compelling and fun songs each week about the events happening in our coverage area. That feature was called Kevin Sings the News, and it’s still one of my favorite things I got to do as a journalist.

Kevin’s a songwriter. He’s a good one, too – he’s without a doubt the best lyricist I personally know, and one of the best I’m aware of. For the past dozen or so years, he’s been writing a set of songs that he plans to record as a trilogy of albums, and when he finally bit the bullet and started laying down tracks, I was beyond happy to get the call to be part of it. Recording Water Bears Vol. 1 was more fun than I think I’ve ever had making music. Most of the sessions ran from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., and though there were some knock-down drag-out arguments about arrangements, the sense of camaraderie was incredible.

The guy at the center of all this is remarkably generous, playing very little on his own record – he made room for spontaneity, gave most of the plum instrumental moments to his friends, and fostered a sense of freewheeling fun. This is an album entirely about the songs and what worked best for them – an out-of-the-blue backing vocal line from Jay Olaszek that is now an integral part of “Gemini,” one of my favorite Trudo songs, for instance. Or a ripping guitar solo on “Part 1” by Noah Gabriel, or the striking tinwhistle work on “Parable” by Matt McCain. Kevin even let cellist Chris Bauler and me completely reinvent “Gemini” for piano and strings, and included the result as the final track.

Make no mistake, though, Kevin is the star of his album. His voice anchors the whole thing, no matter how diverse it gets, and on songs like “Older” and “Polaroid” and “Memory” and of course “Gemini,” he proves his mettle as a writer and a storyteller. Water Bears Vol. 1 can get a bit filthy – “Parable” is about realizing you hate someone half a second after having sex with them – and a bit sad, but it’s a set of songs Kevin is proud of, and rightly so.

But this isn’t a review of Water Bears Vol. 1, for obvious reasons. Instead, I thought I’d just list off a few things I like about it, and let you know where to buy it. So here goes.

I love “Gemini.” It’s a song any writer could be proud of, and the sweet acoustic version that opens the record is pretty well perfect. The cajon work by Matt McCain is a highlight.

I can’t tell you how much I love the zipper choir that opens “Great Liberation While Hearing During the Liminal State.” (Yes, real zippers, attached to real pants.) And the handclaps, and the bizarre mid-section, with its lumbering gang vocals.

The line that anchors “No More” is one of my favorites: “Nothing that will hurt us or help us will ever do either for long.”

“Older” is basically a Paul Simon song, and that is high praise coming from me. The lyric is like a sharp yet gentle knife.

I love how many different instruments sit side by side on the raucous “Parable,” and how it all sounds like a drunken tale told at a bar, which is the point. The opening lyrics still make me blush a little.

Every once in a while, I get a certain moment of “Cold” stuck in my head. Specifically, the wide-and-deep harmonies on the phrase “accidentally right on target.” Listen for it.

The vocals on “Polaroid” might be my favorite thing on this album. The song itself is a bare-bones valentine, but the arrangement makes it. Jake Mack on guitar and Ron Donavon on banjo, intertwining beautifully.

Justin O’Connell’s drumming on “Mathematics” is beastly. The final third of the album is the loudest, and Justin is the backbone of this song. He’s matched by McCain on drums for the Mellencamp-ish “Fear and Trembling,” played live by another Trudo-led band, Small Shiny Things. These songs are what Kevin sounded like when I first heard him.

There are so many things I like about “Memory,” the de facto finale of the album. There’s the backwards-guitar intro, the prog-rock riff that opens and closes it, Kevin’s unpredictable and crazy solos, and what I think is the best line of the album: “Old men shouldn’t write songs, when all we’ve got left is advice and regret…”

And finally, Chris Bauler’s cello parts on the reprise of “Gemini” are exactly right, subtle and moving. Kevin’s cracked and breaking vocal is perfect – when he sang it in the studio, everyone was deathly silent, and when he finished, we applauded.

See, I can’t even talk about it without bringing up the process of making it. This is not a review of Water Bears Vol. 1. But you should hear it for yourself. It’s just been released by Murmur Entertainment, and you can get it for $10 here. I’m very biased, but I think it’s worth your money. I’m proud to have been part of it, and I’m looking forward to Vol. 2.

* * * * *

This is a review of Lianne La Havas’ Blood, and it’s another that I think deserves your time and attention.

Many of you are probably already aware of La Havas’ work – this is another train I am late for. It was Aqualung who brought me here. I’m practically obsessed with 10 Futures, the great new record from Matt Hales’ alter ego, and La Havas sings on “Eggshells,” one of the album’s best songs. Hales has partnered with the 25-year-old La Havas – they write songs together, he produces, she plays and sings – and that partnership resulted in Is Your Love Big Enough, her fine 2012 debut record.

I completely missed it, of course, but I’m on board for Blood, her excellent sophomore effort, and in many ways the superior of the two. La Havas has a strong and soulful voice, and she finds new contexts for it here, working with producers like Paul Epworth and Jamie Lidell and Di Genius. If you think that spells pop, you’re mistaken. Blood is an album even more steeped in old-school soul music. Just listen to opening track “Unstoppable,” co-written with Epworth. This is straight out of Motown, complete with strings and horns, and La Havas sings the hell out of it.

Blood is a more diverse piece of work than her debut. La Havas’ own nimble guitar work anchors “Green and Gold,” a skipping piece of soul-folk, before she deftly switches gears for the straight ‘50s piano-pop of “What You Don’t Do.” (The latter song bears Hales’ stamp most noticeably – he co-wrote and produced about half of these tunes.) She goes for the heart on “Wonderful,” a sad goodbye to a broken relationship, singing softly over ambient guitars and pianos, and then kicks into high gear on “Midnight,” the record’s most extraordinary bit of horn-driven soul-pop. If there’s a song here that should be a massive hit, it’s this one.

“Grow” is similarly extraordinary, its whiplash drumbeat crashing in over finger-picked guitars and strings as La Havas sings with all she has. The chorus of “Never Get Enough” is another surprise, distorted guitars and vocals ripping through the delicate mood set by the verses. The album is full of these ear-catching and unexpected delights, but even when she plays things straight, as she does on the haunting album closer “Good Goodnight,” La Havas is captivating. Blood is a fantastic, confident album from a real talent, and I hope it signals a long and wonderful career ahead.

Next week, punk and positivity. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.