I have realized that I buy too much music.
I don’t mean to say that I think you can have too much music. Music is wonderful and infinite, and my appetite for it is bottomless. If it did not enrich me beyond my meager ability to convey, I wouldn’t buy so much of it. But the truth is that I just don’t have the time to absorb and write about all the music I buy. I am looking at my 2016 pile right now, and there are about 50 CDs I simply haven’t listened to. They’re sitting there, taunting me.
Also taunting me are the two dozen or so albums I have heard and haven’t had the time to write about. I’ve been spending a lot of my attention on Beyonce’s Lemonade lately, and I’ll be waxing ecstatic about that next week. But this time, I thought I would try to catch up. And the only way to do that is to write fewer words. This will be my former editor John Russell’s favorite column – short and to the point. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, because all of these albums deserve more consideration. I think you should buy all of these, just to be clear up front. Here’s my truncated pitch for each of them.
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Rufus Wainwright has lately been juggling twin careers as a pop songwriter and an orchestral composer, following up the snazzy Out of the Game with his first opera, Prima Donna. But he’s rarely combined those instincts as well as he does on his strange and wonderful new record, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets.
As the title suggests, this album finds Wainwright composing music to nine of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, perhaps the most famous and well-studied verses in the English language. It takes a lot to get us to hear these sonnets anew, but Wainwright spares nothing to create a fresh experience here. The musical numbers are interspersed with readings by recognizable voices like Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham Carter and William Shatner, and the songs move back and forth between full-on opera and hypnotic pop-rock.
Half of those songs feature full orchestration by Wainwright and vocals by soprano Anna Prohaska, who sings them with strength and beauty. The other half, produced by longtime compadre Marius de Vries, are rhythmic mantras with perfectly Rufus-like circular melodies, often accompanied by big guitars. The poppiest of these, Sonnet 29, features Florence Welch taking a guest turn, but it’s followed in short order by Christopher Nell and Jurgen Holtz singing Sonnet 66 in German for six spellbinding minutes.
Throughout, Wainwright proves that setting Shakespeare sonnets to music is a responsibility he takes seriously. Take All My Loves is a thoughtful and vibrant record, throwing one surprise after another at you until its gloriously sad conclusion. It’s like nothing else he’s done, but feels like an album he was all but destined to make. In a lot of ways, this is a culmination point for him, bringing together all the disparate strands of his career to date and weaving them into song. It’s gorgeous.
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There were two things that got me to buy Sturgill Simpson’s excellent new album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. First, there’s the cover. It’s just a beautiful piece of work, a dark portrait of a boat being tossed by formidable waves. Second, there was Simpson’s terrific performance of his revelatory cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” on The Daily Show. During the post-song interview, Simpson mentioned that this album is intended as a letter to his son about what he’ll have to face as he grows up. I love concepts like that. I was in.
And I’m so glad I took this plunge. Simpson is a country singer – he has that pinched twang down pat – but A Sailor’s Guide is only nominally a country album. It’s sometimes a blues record, sometimes a soul platter, sometimes full-on rock and roll. Simpson enlisted the Dap-Kings horn section to add a meaty swagger to much of these tunes, resulting in a brief yet killer set of diverse material. His voice sits nicely above all of these things, even if you think it might not. Listen to how confidently he sings the bluesy “Keep It Between the Lines,” with its dusky sax solos, and then slides into “Sea Stories,” a traditional country number. It all works.
It’s the concept that keeps this all flowing nicely. It starts with birth (“Hello, my son, welcome to Earth, you may not be my last but you’ll always be my first”), and moves through all the different lessons he wants to impart to his son. The single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” is about exactly that: getting out there and enjoying life. “All Around You” is about God and death: “Long after I’m gone I’ll still be around, because our bond is eternal and so is love, God is inside you, all around and up above, knowing, showing you the way…”
Hearing Simpson’s “In Bloom” is one of the few times I have been glad that Nirvana existed. Included just because it was a song he enjoyed as a kid, this version piles on horns and strings and steel guitars and finds a depth that I never heard in the original. The album ends with the angry “Call to Arms,” in which Simpson urges his son to “turn off the TV, turn off the news,” and while I wish there had been a tenth song, one of hope, this song crashes the album to a close nicely. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a strong piece of work, worthy of its cover, and worth your time.
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I fell in love with the Boxer Rebellion in much the same way – I thought the cover of their third album, The Cold Still, looked intriguing. I pressed play, and in four minutes and two seconds (the length of stunning opening track “No Harm”), I was smitten. The Boxer Rebellion is everything I want the National to be – they’re atmospheric without being dour, they write mantras without sacrificing melody and feeling, they take every opportunity to soar.
After four albums of this, I can see why they needed a change. In fact, after the so-so Promises, I figured I’d be in for something different next time. And if I had to put money on it, I probably could have predicted exactly what they did. Their fifth album, Ocean by Ocean, is electronic – guitar washes have been replaced by synth washes, the drums now go pitter-patter, and everything has a more electric blue feeling to it. And when bands do this, there’s always a good possibility that it will suck.
Ocean by Ocean doesn’t suck. In fact, I’d say the band made this transition with remarkable grace. The secret, I think, is that the songs are like they always were. You can easily hear a tune like “Big Ideas” or “Pull Yourself Together” in the “classic” Boxer Rebellion style. Nathan Nicholson’s voice retains that lovely, plaintive feel. They’ve changed only the one thing, keeping the essence of who they are and what they do. Even the dance-y “Let’s Disappear” sounds like the Boxer Rebellion to me.
If you were worried, don’t be. This record doesn’t even sound transitional – it’s a purposeful step into new sonic territory, with everything you ever loved about the band intact.
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Explosions in the Sky have attempted a similar trick with their new album, The Wilderness. And although they haven’t done it quite as well, they’ve made a pretty lovely little record in the bargain.
For six albums, Explosions worked the same formula, crafting pretty post-rock guitar soundscapes that built and built into molten lava. They’ve been growing up and calming down for a while now, and The Wilderness is the first of their records that never, well, explodes in the sky. This more placid tone is paired with a new reliance on synthesizers and computer drums, so while the sound is still recognizable (particularly on organic numbers like “Tangle Formations”), it feels like a new chapter beginning.
Still, I miss the fire of previous Explosions records, the almost unbearable crescendo into exultation. Most of The Wilderness is calm and pretty and murky, and while the thick synths on “Logic of a Dream” try to make up for the rushing wind of guitars, they end up filling it out differently. This is still a fine record – it’s not forgettable background wallpaper, by any means. But if you loved what this band was, you may have to take some time to love what they are now.
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Happily, the new Hammock album requires no such waiting period.
Since 2005, Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson have been creating some of the most beautiful noise you’ve ever heard. Hammock music is mostly instrumental, driven by Byrd’s gorgeous ambient reverbed guitar sound, and as big as the southern sky. Their ninth album is called Everything and Nothing, it’s 76 minutes long (94 with the bonus tracks), and is one of their most fully realized efforts. It also rocks a little bit more than they have in a while, as you’ll hear as early as the second track, “Clarity,” a Choir-esque rhythmic wonder that sounds like driving through a glass tunnel underwater.
Everything and Nothing is Hammock’s most accessible album in some time, too, thanks mainly to the six songs with lyrics and vocals. Byrd duets on these songs with his wife, Christine, who is quite rightly credited with “angelic vocals.” Songs like “Glassy Blue” are pure shoegaze pop, while “Dissonance” sounds straight out of the Slowdive playbook, swirling rhythm guitars bringing the dream of the early ‘90s back alive. When these songs are playing, Hammock is the best shoegaze band on the planet.
I love the instrumentals even more. A track like the haunting “We Could Have Been Beautiful Again” sums up so much of what I adore about this band – the sound is gentle as a stream and as vast as an ocean, all at once. After an ambient experiment and an album with an orchestra and choir, it’s a joy to hear Hammock sounding like themselves again, especially for such a long album. It closes with a beautiful vocal track, “Unspoken,” and a coda, “Before You Float Away into Nothing,” that will leave you happily drained.
Nothing I can say will replace the experience of hearing Hammock for yourself, so you should. They’ve been the very best at what they do for a long time, and they show no signs of relinquishing the crown.
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Before I go, I wanted to mention a pair of reissues that have planted themselves in my brain lately as well.
There’s no point in trying to explain what Adam Again’s Dig means to me. I heard it pretty late in my exploration of indie Christian music, and I knew Gene Eugene mainly as a producer and studio owner. Dig was the first of his band’s five albums I heard, and it was exactly what I was looking for at exactly the right time. The album contains three of my very favorite songs – “Dig,” “Worldwide” and “River on Fire,” songs that I have carried with me for more than 20 years, singing to myself at my lowest points. Gene Eugene died 16 years ago, and his absence still hurts.
The wonderful Jeffrey Kotthoff at Lo-Fidelity Records has just remastered and reissued Dig on CD and vinyl. You can hear it here, and you will not regret taking 50 minutes out of your day to do so. I’m so grateful for the chance to own this album in such a beautiful new form, and I hope it reaches many new ears. Like yours, for instance.
And finally, you may recall that at the start of the year, I was (to put it mildly) excited about Klayton’s plans to reissue his work as Circle of Dust. You may know Klayton as Celldweller, that brilliant purveyor of electro-rock-metal-pop-dub-futuristic-amalgam craziness. Before he was Celldweller, he was Circle of Dust, making angry industrial metal in a dank corner of the music industry. The first two of those reissues, the self-titled and Brainchild, are now out, and they’re marvelous. The sound is leagues better than it’s ever been, the bonus material is fun, and the new Circle of Dust songs Klayton’s been whipping up are terrific. After the five reissues are out, Klayton has promised a new Circle of Dust album, and the prospect is thrilling. Check Circle of Dust out here.
And that’s it. Next week, we drink Lemonade. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.