Notes Falling Slow
Three Collections of Patient Beauty

A month ago I gave Beach House’s fifth album, Depression Cherry, a reservedly positive review.

I think it’s a fine record, in many ways their tribute to old-school shoegaze, all blurred-out and indistinct. While it was still definitely a Beach House album, it represented a strange left turn for them, and the record suffered a bit – the focus was on mood, not melody, and over 45 minutes, it felt like a single hazy song that didn’t quite go anywhere. I wondered then where all the winsome, pretty songs they must have written alongside these went to.

And now I know: they’re on the duo’s sixth record, the lovely Thank Your Lucky Stars, a surprise release mere weeks after its predecessor. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully are adamant that this is not the second half of a double album, nor is it a companion piece – it’s a separate album, with its own feel and identity. And while they’re right – this is certainly its own thing, and bears very little resemblance to Depression Cherry – its existence can’t help but add context to the 86 minutes of music Beach House has given us this fall.

If you, too, thought that Depression Cherry didn’t sound as much like Beach House as you would have liked, you should run out and buy this new album as soon as you can. Where Cherry took its time, its dark and suffocating songs stretching past five and six minutes, Lucky Stars feels light and airy, full of four-minute marvels with delightful tunes. Even though the records are a similar length, Lucky Stars feels smaller, faster, more compact. Its songs feel like prime Beach House, Scally’s guitar and keyboard flourishes adding texture to the band’s usual organ-and-electronic-drums formula. But more than anything else, it’s the pop half of the dream-pop style that sets this album apart. These are lovely little pop songs, with a movement and a sweep missing from Cherry.

In fact, this album feels like the proper successor to Bloom, building on the dreamy sound of that record. The opening trilogy is among this band’s best work, from the blissful, chiming guitars of “Majorette” to the smoky nightclub drawl of “She’s So Lovely” (with its ascending guitar melody ending in an uncertain bit of dissonance, as if the band doesn’t want to reach the summit), to the Cure-esque overtones of the awesome “All Your Yeahs.” There’s a strong sense of nostalgia to songs like the lilting “Common Girl” and the ‘50s-balladry-meets-Cocteau-Twins closer “Somewhere Tonight.” Through all of this, the haunting voice of Victoria Legrand floats like a specter, there and not there, adding new dimensions just by existing. That these songs give Legrand something to sing, as opposed to most of the ones on Cherry, is only for the better.

I know the band would prefer that I don’t think of Cherry and Lucky Stars in relation to one another, but it’s impossible. The fact that Lucky Stars is so traditionally Beach House, such a consistent and winning example of how good their sound can be, means that they know that the songs on Cherry were a departure, and they grouped them accordingly. It also makes me wonder what they think of Cherry – is it an experiment that worked for them? Will they be returning to it? Or is Lucky Stars the way forward? It would be the safer path, certainly. I’d like to see them incorporate some of the moodiness of Cherry with the melodies of its successor – they came close on “Elegy to the Void,” the only song on Stars that breaks six minutes, but it moves and shimmies like nothing on the previous album.

But in case it isn’t obvious, I like Thank Your Lucky Stars a lot more, and if they chose to keep on sounding like this (which is pretty much deciding to sound like themselves), I’ll be happy. Beach House is at their best, I think, when their music bursts with dreamlike wonder, and they’re at that best on Thank Your Lucky Stars. Had this been the only album they released in 2015, I’d have been good with it. Think of Depression Cherry as a bonus. This is where the heart is.

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When she was 20 years old, Vanessa Carlton wrote a perfect pop song.

“A Thousand Miles” has that delirious mixture of youthful exuberance and beyond-her-years sophistication that makes it immortal. It’s so good that it even rises above the cluttered production it was saddled with on Carlton’s 2002 debut album, Be Not Nobody. (There isn’t much her producers could have done to ruin that song, to be fair.) It remains the song for which Carlton is known, a calling card so immense that it has overshadowed everything else she’s done.

And that’s a shame, because the rest of Carlton’s discography is well worth digging into. She’s a decent example of an artist hitting it big her first time out and not allowing that to change her. She’s fought against the kind of pop stardom one might expect after writing a song that takes the world by storm, and she’s rarely tried to write another one like it. It’s been a while, in fact, since Carlton has written anything radio might play. Her last record, 2011’s Rabbits on the Run, was a quiet and gentle affair, and her new one, Liberman, is even more so.

Liberman is so quiet that it will take you a few listens to realize how pretty it is. It floated right by me at first, and I was convinced it was her least interesting record, the one on which her bent toward maturity yielded diminishing returns. Sometime during listen seven, though, the album started to click for me, morphing from static to meditative before my ears. The entire album is low-key and placid, its melodies hiding from view, needing to be teased out. Part of that is the hit-or-miss production – Carlton’s voice and piano are often submerged under layers of keyboards and reverb. But part of it is that Carlton has concentrated on writing simple little numbers about love and loss, and the record is small and slight on purpose.

But those songs are somewhat more dynamic than they first appear, particularly the flowing “Willow” and the sad “Nothing Where Something Used to Be.” Opener “Take it Easy” is a long, breathy sigh that sets the tone, while “Operator” (co-written with her husband, John McCauley, of Deer Tick), pulses along nicely on a churning bass line. “Matter of Time” is a wistful folk song that leads into mini-epic “Unlock the Lock,” with its insistent strings. Things end quietly, because of course they do – “River” glides in on chiming electric guitar and builds to a sweet chorus, while the brief “Ascension” is more like a coda than a real song.

Nothing on Liberman is earth-shattering, or even revelatory. It’s a quiet hymn of a record, one that took me a while to like. What helped more than anything is Liberman’s second disc, which includes stripped-bare versions of seven of its numbers, just Carlton and her piano. These versions helped me find the melodies in these songs, and left me with the feeling that even the muted production on the album proper might be too much. (The piano version of “River” is three times as beautiful as the album version, for instance.) Next time, Carlton should go the whole way and record an album like this. Liberman is good, but its songs are even better, and Carlton should have this much faith in them.

Carlton’s recent work is a thousand miles from the music she’s best known for, but it’s often quite lovely stuff, and should be heard. While I sometimes wish she would find a bit of that old anything-can-happen fire, I’m impressed and elated that she’s managed to do whatever she wants for her entire career. Liberman is absolutely the work of an artist beholden to no one, a quiet celebration of complete freedom. Despite several reasons not to, I’ve grown to like it quite a bit.

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Speaking of quiet hymns, there’s the Innocence Mission.

I first heard the Innocence Mission in the ‘90s thanks to my friend Chris L’Etoile, who is always ten curves ahead of me. Since 1989, married couple Karen and Don Peris have been making fragile, wonderful music. Their earliest efforts were akin to the Sundays, but since 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood, they’ve been playing delicate acoustic folk, the kind you might hear if you came round their house for a backyard singalong around the fire. They’ve been doing this so beautifully for so long that it’s almost easy to forget how good they are.

Their eleventh album, Hello I Feel the Same, keeps the streak going. It’s another short and sweet collection of tiny songs of uncommon beauty. The foundation is Don’s nimbly picked guitar and Karen’s lilting, unearthly voice, with occasional drums, upright bass and organ, but nothing obtrusive. Arrangements are kept at their sparsest, letting the natural grace of the songs shine brightly. Everything here is simple and warm, from the instant connection of the title track to the bittersweet lullaby of “State Park” to the grateful closer “The Color Green.” No bitterness, no regret, only kindness and fondness and simple joy, if tinged with nostalgic sadness.

Yes, it’s another Innocence Mission album, offering the same delights as the other ten. But I don’t mind at all. The music Karen and Don Peris make, particularly lately, is almost too beautiful for words, and I’m happy to just put this album on repeat and sink into it. Hello I Feel the Same is another gorgeous, quiet triumph, and it leaves me wanting nothing.

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I took the title of this week’s column from a Cowboy Junkies song, and while they don’t have anything new to review, they did issue a box set with the same title this week. It includes their albums Open, One Soul Now and At the End of Paths Taken in remastered form, along with a fourth disc of freshly recorded songs written during those sessions. I’ve been really lax in reviewing Cowboy Junkes albums (I didn’t write up any of the Nomad Series, to my shame), so I’ll put in a good word for this set. If you like dark music that takes it slow, you’ll love all of this.

Next week, Celldweller’s epic End of an Empire. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

You Will Not Take My Heart Alive
Joanna Newsom's Dazzling Divers

Nine years ago, Joanna Newsom released a record called Ys, and I proclaimed it the best album of 2006.

I’ve never regretted that decision. Some people thought I was kidding – that my lauding of this thoroughly out-there harp-driven fairy-tale fantasia sung by what sounds like a drunken 10-year-old must be a massive put-on. But I wasn’t joking, and I haven’t been joking since. Joanna Newsom is one of the most fascinating and singular artists to emerge in the last 15 years, and any time she has something to say, I’m happy to listen.

I absolutely get where her detractors are coming from, though. Newsom has a tendency toward the precious, and inhabits a whimsical lyrical universe all her own. She plays the harp, and writes songs with all the complexity of classical arias. And then there is that voice, which many cannot get past. I’ve grown to love it in all its cracked and loopy beauty, but it took me a while. Newsom is content to circle around the note she wants, wavering and breaking, if she’s conveying the right emotion. It’s an acquired taste, and at this point, I have well and truly acquired it.

Still, it’s an obstacle for many, so I can’t be too upset that Newsom’s genius remains a slightly less than universally accepted truth. It’s not easy for some of Newsom’s fans – my friend Mike sent me this bizarre article that paints every man who dislikes Newsom’s voice as a sexist who doesn’t want women to have nice things. While there is a great deal of sexism in music and music criticism, this feels like an overreaction to me. There’s no shame in saying that Newsom makes challenging, fascinating music that is simply not for everyone.

But my God, is it for me. Newsom’s fourth album, Divers, is out this week, and within 90 seconds of pressing play, I was in bliss. I’ve waited five years for these 52 minutes, and I was prepared to be underwhelmed. After the full-orchestra wonder of Ys and the grandeur of 2010’s triple album Have One on Me, Newsom’s just made a collection of 11 songs this time, some alone and some with a variety of collaborators. It may feel slight upon first glance, but Divers is phenomenal, a summation and a refinement of everything I love about Newsom.

Best of all, it’s a statement of confidence and comfort in what she does. There’s no attempt to ease you in, no stab at a pop song or an accessible number that you won’t have to listen to three times to fully comprehend. There’s just enough complexity to Divers, and just enough simplicity to leaven the mix. These songs are grand and wide, and Newsom works in a cornucopia of colors here. Everything sounds like her, but there are surprises in every track, and a sure-footedness that leaves me in awe. Newsom sounds like no one else on earth here, and she grasps her own uniqueness and enjoys it.

If you’ve heard the single, the dense and tricky “Sapokanikan,” you know another piece of good news: while Newsom smoothed out her voice for Have One on Me, seemingly taming it for mass acceptance, she’s returned to her natural sound here, once again enlisting Steve Albini to record it as it happens and leave all the wavery notes in. And man, I missed it. Listen to how she chews on the line “I believed our peril was done” at the start of “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne.” That’s Joanna Newsom. It’s so wonderful to hear her embrace that unusual voice again.

Divers finds Newsom alternating between telling stories and baring her soul. Widescreen opener “Anecdotes” is as impenetrable a narrative as she has ever offered: “We signal Private Poorwill when morning starts to loom, pull up from your dive, till we hear the telltale boom too soon, hotdogging loon, caught there like a shard of mirror in the moon…” The music is utterly stunning, particularly the back half, and Newsom’s string arrangements pristine. “Sapokanikan,” named after one of the few villages on Manhattan Island that predates European settlers, is a dark fable, its lyrics contrasting with Newsom’s sing-song melody. Like “Anecdotes,” this song unfolds in its second half, Newsom harmonizing with herself as the music rises and rises.

But she gets nakedly emotional in the album’s second act. Sparse lament “The Things I Say” spins out on a web of mournful harp notes: “If I have the space of half a day, I’m ashamed of half the things I say, I’m ashamed to have turned out this way and I desire to make amends…” The seven-minute title track is a glorious intertwining of harp and piano, both by Newsom, supporting one of her very best tunes. “I’ll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life, and ever hold my breath till I may be the diver’s wife,” she sings. In the midst of these sweeping pieces, she offers some simpler folk numbers, like the down-home “Same Old Man” and the almost-bluesy “Goose Eggs.”

For my money, though, it’s the home stretch that contains Divers’ best songs. “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” is a beautiful bit of defiance, Newsom’s harp dancing off of her Mellotron flourishes, her voice swooping up and floating back down like a feather. “A Pin-Light Bent” is the only song featuring just harp and vocals, and it’s a dark yet whimsical journey: “My life came and went, short flight, free descent, poor flight attendant…” And the extraordinary closer “Time, As a Symptom” is a slow and stunning crescendo, building (with the help of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) to joyous levels. Newsom takes death head on in this song, sweeping aside the sorrow of the previous numbers in favor of the unbowed and the unbroken: “Love is not a symptom of time, time is just a symptom of love, and of the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life…”

Those 14 minutes, from “You Will Not Take My Heart” to “Time,” are almost unbearably emotional, and among the finest 14 minutes of the year. That’s not to discount the other pleasures of Divers, certainly, but my heart belongs to those final three songs. They send this fine, fine record out on the highest of high notes, and have all but secured it a place among my very favorites of 2015. Joanna Newsom is a singular artist with a singular vision, working on a canvas all her own, creating achingly beautiful and utterly magical work. I know it’s not for everyone, but I feel bad for those who can’t feel what she’s doing here, can’t revel in the fact that such wonder exists. I wasn’t kidding in 2006, and I’m not kidding now. Joanna Newsom is amazing.

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Speaking of women with unique voices, I finally heard Bjork’s Vulnicura.

Yes, I know. Yes, it came out in January. Yes, I bought it then. (Well, actually, in March when the physical CD was released.) No, I didn’t listen to it then. It has been sitting in a pretty large pile of 2015 albums I still haven’t heard. No, there’s no reason for it. I just didn’t get to it until now.

And yes, everything you’ve heard is true. The record is a heartbreaker. Detailing the Icelandic songstress’ recent wrenching breakup, even to the point of setting certain songs weeks before or after said breakup, the record is easily the most emotionally potent thing Bjork has released in many years. It also heralds a return to her Homogenic sound, marrying electronic beats and whirrs to full string arrangements. Many moments here are almost physically beautiful, taking shape in the room and changing the feel of the air.

Some parts of Vulnicura are almost too intimate, particularly “History of Touches,” which details her last night with her lover, and “Black Lake,” which finds her almost on the edge of suicide. So much of it is so painful that when she sings “love will keep us safe from death” on “Notget,” you know she truly means it. After three albums full of abstractions, Vulnicura is almost too real, too straightforward. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I wish I had heard it before now.

Vulnicura is also vying for a spot on my top 10 list now. There isn’t much coming out in the next two months that will likely challenge what we already have. (I would have considered Mutemath’s Vitals a contender, before hearing four middling songs from it.) Chances are I’ve heard my 10 favorites at this point, but my mind remains open. We shall see.

Next week, slow tunes from Beach House, Vanessa Carlton and the Innocence Mission. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.