Miracles Out of Nowhere
Respecting the Unexpected

The bloody 2016 struck too close to home this week.

I never really got to know Dan Waitt. By the time I started working at the Beacon-News in Aurora, he had been there for decades already. He was a quiet soul, and a kind one, willing to work extraordinary hours and pull off heroic efforts to get the paper out the door, without asking for an ounce of credit. He also had a wry humor – he didn’t crack jokes, per se, more like subtle commentary with a grin and a twinkle in the eye. Dan was an absolute staple of that newspaper, shouldering more and more of the burden as our co-workers left or were let go due to budget cuts, and doing it with a gentle demeanor that endeared him to everyone. A couple years after I left, Dan was the victim of one of those cuts, but he found another journalism job at a smaller organization and kept on going.

Talking to those who did know him better, I definitely wish I had been one of them. Dan died of lung cancer on Friday at the age of 55. The outpouring of tributes from my Beacon colleagues has been heartening to read. Dan was loved. I loved the guy, and I only knew him a little. I can only imagine how much I would have loved him if I’d really gotten to know him. Rest in peace, Dan. You were taken far too young, far too soon.

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I am obsessive about release dates.

I have an extensive calendar of those dates that I update every few days, as new albums are announced. I like to know exactly what’s coming, and exactly when it will be in my hot little hands. The furthest out my calendar goes right now is June, as I only include albums when a release date is firmly announced. But there are 54 entries on the calendar over the next four months, culled from a variety of sources that I check regularly. When I walk into the record store each week, I have a very good idea of what I’ll be walking out with.

And yet, it’s usually the surprises that make my year. If a great album appears out of thin air, grabbing hold and rewriting my life for a while, that’s just the best. If I don’t have time to anticipate it, I don’t have time to build up expectations for it, which helps. But also, I thrive on discovery. If something lands in my inbox, or is recommended to me, or appears suddenly on a band’s website, there’s a thrill in that which can’t quite be matched by updating a calendar months in advance. (Beyonce knows what I’m talking about.)

Case in point: Two weeks ago, I didn’t know that the new Gungor album even existed yet. And since then, it’s taken over my stereo. I’ve listened to other things, certainly, but I keep coming back to this one. It’s addictive. Gungor, as you may know, is a husband and wife duo (guess their last name!) who, for several albums, wrote liturgical pieces and modern hymns. In 2013, they smashed their own template, releasing I Am Mountain, a glorious mess of an album that leapt from style to style, landing at the top of my list that year.

Last summer, the duo announced One Wild Life, a trilogy of new albums to be released six months apart. The first one, Soul, landed in June of last year, and was, I thought, a pretty significant step back. An album of airy ballads with only a few standouts, Soul failed to make much of an impression, and I basically forgot to count the months until its sequel. Eight of them have gone by, which only made it more surprising when I received an email telling me Spirit, the second of the trilogy, would be available for download in a matter of days.

Even then, I didn’t have particularly high hopes, but Spirit is absolutely wonderful. It’s a more compact record, 43 minutes to Soul’s 57, and it just explodes with life and ideas. The diversity I love is back, buoying a newfound ‘80s pop influence that makes this probably the most fun you can have listening to a Gungor album. Opener “Magic” will make you want to do cartwheels wherever you are – it has that widescreen run-for-the-horizon feeling of the best orchestral indie pop. “Anthem” keeps the ball rolling, with its danceable groove right out of 1985. If you’re not at least tapping your foot by the time Lisa Gungor sings “my heart starts beating like an anthem,” I don’t know how to help you.

Every ounce of life I felt was absent from Soul is here in abundance. “Whale” is one of the weirdest things here (and in Gungor’s catalog), Michael decrying unnecessary division over a blaring synth klaxon. “Kiss the Night” is killer, a glittering pop song with a soaring chorus. Michael Gungor has a reputation for talking directly to his fellow Christians, telling them things they need to hear, and he does that here, urging them to leave their comfortable churches and be part of the world. “Consonance isn’t always peaceful, dissonance isn’t always evil, cross the line, listen to me people, seek and you shall find…”

That’s nothing compared to “Let Bad Religion Die,” a full-on treatise about hatred masquerading as faith. The song specifically references the Crusades, condemning them and all similar modern impulses. It’s a wonderful thing to hear from a Christian songwriter: “If it spreads violence more than peace, God let religion cease.” It’s a stark and sobering piece of work, and I applaud its boldness – this may not seem like a big deal to say outside the church, but inside, where Michael and Lisa Gungor live, it’s huge. That they follow it up with the soulful “Love is All” speaks volumes.

Spirit has a delightfully off-kilter conclusion. After the solid and uplifting “Hurricane” and “We Are Alive,” the Gungors break into a mostly instrumental Middle-Eastern-sounding affair called “Body and Blood.” It’s the longest song on the record, beginning with two minutes of Lisa Gungor’s wordless vocals over a synth dirge and hand percussion. It stays in dirge mode throughout, Michael’s heavily processed voice pushing it along, his lightning-fast guitar accents decorating the edges. It is, again, unlike anything they have ever done, and the choice to end this record with it was a brave one.

Of course, they didn’t need a grand finale, as this will lead into the third One Wild Life album, called Body, which will be out this summer. The chances of me forgetting about Body are slim, given how good Spirit is. It recaptures everything I loved about their hairpin turn three years ago, and has me anticipating the final installment of the trilogy. Spirit is the very definition of a pleasant surprise.

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You never know when a new Jandek album is going to drop.

Someday soon, I will write my epic column about Jandek, a strange and fascinating anti-musician from Texas. I’ve mentioned him here before, and my odd obsession with his output, but here is a quick primer. Since 1978, a man we think is named Sterling Smith and we think lives in Houston has been making some of the most utterly strange music you’ve ever heard. For a quarter-century, he was a complete mystery, issuing these records on his own Corwood label, offering them through mail-order only, giving no interviews and making no public appearances. The albums themselves contain no information whatsoever, except song titles and track lengths.

This would be interesting enough, but the music is its own brand of enigma. It is not so much incompetent as it is defying competency. It is entirely improvised by a man who cannot play guitar or sing in the traditional sense, and yet his apparent lack of skill actually adds to the atmosphere he generates. At times, Jandek makes the loneliest, most heart-drowning music ever. The words are often about isolation and pain, about crying out for love (or at least contact), and the bitter howls of his unrestrained voice, atop the chaotic mess of his playing, truly bring that across. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.

In 2004, Jandek began playing concerts. Now he plays a dozen or so times a year, all around the world, teaming up with local musicians and painting his vision on a larger scale. The music is all still improvised, and he still cannot actually play the instruments he performs on (including acoustic and electric guitar, bass, piano, keyboard and drums), but every live album is different. Lately he’s been releasing studio box sets alongside these live records too – the most recent sports six hours of piano and theremin improvisations. His vast catalog is like no other I have heard, and his commitment to this particular aesthetic is baffling and admirable. It’s been 38 years, so I’m pretty sure at this point that it’s not a joke. This is just how he hears music.

There is a Jandek website now, and you can order Jandek albums online, which is still a weird experience for me. And every once in a while, a new one will just show up at the bottom of the list, without any announcement or fanfare. It’s always a surprise. About two weeks ago, a new one appeared, and it arrived at my house few days ago. It’s his 82nd, and I’m just going to repeat that for effect: he has made 82 albums. This new one documents a 2008 concert in Dublin, one of the few he has played solo.

And maybe I’m just used to Jandek’s thoroughly unconventional style, but I really like this one. The representative from Corwood plays acoustic guitar and sings, and he performs an eight-part suite called “He Said Nothing.” It’s a long (63 minutes!) and winding tale about miscommunication and missed opportunity, and the Rep plays it in a subdued style, for the most part, on a guitar that is in standard tuning. The result is actually pleasantly hypnotic, and I’m left thinking that I know very few musicians able to weave a spell like this. For all his lack of technical prowess, Jandek has harnessed this style he’s created into something thoroughly unique.

This might mean my critical faculties are on the blink. I’ve been following Jandek for ten years now – the first new one I bought was 2006’s The Ruins of Adventure – and I’ve grown accustomed to what he does. As always, every time I hear a new one, I start waiting for the next one. I’m hoping he hits 100 albums someday. I’ll keep checking the Corwood website, and anticipating that little thrill I get every time a new one appears on the list.

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And then there are the surprises I’d have no way of anticipating.

These usually arrive in my life thanks to a well-made recommendation, and I have Mike Messerschmidt, of my favorite record store Kiss the Sky, to thank for turning me on to GoGo Penguin. I never in a million years would have randomly bought an album by a band called GoGo Penguin, but I’m very glad that Mike urged me to, because they’re fantastic.

GoGo Penguin (I will never get tired of typing that) is a British instrumental trio with a jazz lineup: piano, stand-up bass and drums. But like the Bad Plus before them, they play more of a progressive pop version of jazz. And in GoGo Penguin’s case, it’s progressive pop informed by late-period Radiohead more than anything else. Drummer Rob Turner is the most obvious Radiohead fan – his skittering beats resemble Phil Selway’s more often than not, and he guides these often-simple songs into more complex directions.

Pianist Chris Illingworth is less flashy, preferring block chords and never taking anything that could be considered a blistering solo. The contrast with the hyperactive drums works well – it keeps the focus on the songs. A piece like “Weird Cat” isn’t hard to play, from a piano perspective, but Illingworth and bassist Nick Blacka keep things grounded while Turner shoots for the moon. The result is like Aphex Twin-style ambient electronic music played on acoustic instruments.

New album Man Made Object is the trio’s third, and on it, they sound like a refined and confident unit. Every song is terrific, but I am particularly partial to “Smarra,” with its smattering of electric piano, and “Surrender to Mountain,” a stately mini-epic. This record has been fighting with Gungor for control of my stereo since Friday, and I’m thrilled to have it in my life.

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Next week, Anthrax, Nada Surf, Ray Lamontagne, and maybe a few other things. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.