I Just Need 30 Minutes
Short Records Long on Charm

As some of you know, I’ve been having trouble lately keeping up with all the new music I want to hear.

I bought 12 new records this week, and so far, I’ve heard three of them – you’ll find reviews of them below. There’s just so much hitting stores every week, and my taste is ridiculously broad (as has been pointed out to me), so listening to and writing about everything is impossible. This is why, at least of late, I’ve been grateful for short albums.

Brevity used to bother me. I’m paying the same price for an album that lasts 30 minutes as I am for an album that lasts 70. But even putting aside the fact that I’m finding it difficult to schedule 70-minute listening sessions, I’ve come to appreciate the joy of a compact, no-frills statement. How many times have you heard a lengthy album and thought about which songs should have been removed? (I just did this with James Blake’s latest, which I reviewed last week.) There’s something about a half-hour record that adds focus, like the band knows it only has so much time to win you over, and they’d better not waste any of it.

This isn’t to say that I’m not still in love with the longer, more involved statement. The new Marillion album is probably my most anticipated disc this year, and I’ve just learned that it contains five songs and commands more than 70 minutes. That’s some epic songwriting, and I can’t wait to dig into it. But the four I have on tap this week all clock in around half an hour, and the shorter running time actually does them a world of good. Plus, blessedly, I managed to listen to all four and write thoughts about them in only a few days. I say keep the short records coming.

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Weirdly, the longest of my four subjects this week is the latest reunion album by the Monkees.

This is a band that came up during the vinyl era, when albums were routinely 30 to 40 minutes long, and that needle-drop sensibility is all over Good Times, a 36-minute slice of ‘60s-style grooviness. This record celebrates the band’s 50th anniversary, and is the first bit of new Monkees music since their 30th anniversary. Is it necessary? Well, no. But is it fun? Is it a breezy, summery good time? You bet.

The three surviving Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith) are all in their 70s now, and they all know they might not get another chance to record and tour together. If they needed a reminder of their own mortality, they’ve dedicated Good Times to Davy Jones, who died in 2012. (In a nice tribute, they’ve included him in the band lineup, complete with a photo of him from the glory days of the band, and completed an older song that he sang on – Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love.”) I have no idea if Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith consider this the last Monkees album, or even thought about it while they were making it, but it’s definitely a pull-out-all-the-stops record. If it is the last, it’s a good one, like a surprise visit from a friend you thought you’d never see again.

The Monkees worked with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne on this album, and his witty pop fingerprints are all over it. They also enlisted an army of extraordinary songwriters to contribute, and these new songs sit nicely next to old standards from Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond and the great team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The voices have aged, and the harmonies are not quite as dazzling as they used to be, but little else separates this record from their ‘60s output. They still sound like the Monkees.

It’s those new songs that should be the draw here. The crown jewel of this album is “You Bring the Summer,” the first new pop song written by Andy Partridge since the demise of XTC. This tune is a delight, a windows-down highway drive of a ditty that sits nicely with Partridge’s sunniest work. Rivers Cuomo contributes the catchy “She Makes Me Laugh,” while Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie gives us the very Ben Gibbard “Me and Magdalena,” sung beautifully by Nesmith and Dolenz. Schlesinger’s “Our Own World” is a wonderful slice of jubilant pop, naturally, and the harpsichord and upright bass bring it home.

There are some surprises here, most notably “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” co-written by Liam Gallagher and Paul Weller. It’s a fascinating psychedelic mash-up of Oasis and the Jam, and sits quite outside the usual Monkees purview, but they pull it off. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that each Monkee writes an original song, and they’re all quite good. Tork’s “Little Girl” is a tricky waltz, Nesmith’s “I Know What I Know” is a heartfelt piano ballad (on which he sounds his age, to lovely effect), and Dolenz closes things out with the rave-up “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time).”

Good Times isn’t quite the revelation that the entirely self-penned Justus was, back in 1996, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a solid bit of frivolous, fun Monkees goodness, and since it’s been 20 years since we had one of those, I’ll take it. I hope I get the chance to buy a new Monkees album again, but if I never have the pleasure, well, this one is a joy, and I’m glad to have it.

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I love Beth Orton’s voice.

It’s not an expressive voice, the way voices are considered expressive. It’s a haunting, high-moan, ethereal thing, and she always uses it in exactly the same way, never stretching it out or trying for vocal acrobatics. But I love it. It cuts right through me. For more than 20 years, Orton has been making music that suits her unconventional voice best: dirge-y electronic music and dirge-y acoustic folk music, with some magical combination of the two intertwining to form her best work. The music is usually there to set a mood, with her voice doing the emotional work, lending it sorrow and yearning and, sometimes, joy and peace.

This year, her breakthrough album Trailer Park turns 20. Rather than rest on those considerable laurels (I mean, have you heard “Galaxy of Emptiness”?), Orton’s returned with Kidsticks, her first album in four years. It’s a brief excursion, but a fascinating one. Orton worked here with Andrew Hung, one half of ambient electronic group Fuck Buttons, and the result is certainly more synthetic than her last effort, Sugaring Season, but also more diverse and expansive.

The opening trilogy works as a crescendo, the mantra-like “Snow” easing into the supple “Moon” and the ever-building “Petals,” which ends with an eruption of electric guitar. The snap-drum dance groove of “Snow” almost hides the fact that the song never goes anywhere, repeating its two chords like marching orders to its army of vocalists. “Moon” does the same with its delightful bass groove, and like the best of Orton’s songs, she finds different ways in and around that groove with her voice. “I see the light, ain’t it bright, keeps me up all night,” she sings, and you will find it hard to resist.

After that, the utterly danceable “1973” is something of a surprise. Despite its name, it’s pure ‘80s, its goofy synths circling its airy beat. It’s a flash grenade in the middle of this record, and from there it could go anywhere. I like “Wave,” with its sad chorus and Passion Pit-style synths, and Orton makes full use of her voice on the slow, watery “Dawnstar.” As Kidsticks progresses, Hung and Orton find ways to mix the electronic and the organic more completely, with real drums and bass elevating the Kate Bush-like “Falling.” The epic here is “Flesh and Blood,” which rides a contented shimmy for nearly six minutes, effectively closing the album (save for the waste-of-time instrumental title track).

Like a lot of Orton’s albums, Kidsticks glides by on first listen with an ease that can render it forgettable. I’ve heard it four times now, and each time I discover new corners in it, new alleys to wander down. For such a short record, there’s a lot there, and I’m looking forward to discovering more about it. It sometimes feels like Orton might be making these strange, evocative records just for me. If so, I’d like to say I’m grateful for them, and please make more.

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SHEL should be terrible.

They’re a family band comprised of the four young Holbrook sisters, and their band name is an acronym for their four first names: Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza. That’s so gimmicky-cute it makes my fillings hurt, and had I not seen them live a few years ago, and watched them rip through a thoroughly self-assured set of folksy rock topped with a rendition of “The Battle of Evermore,” I probably would have dismissed them. I’m glad I didn’t.

Their second album, Just Crazy Enough, is ten more reasons not to pass them by. A polished effort full of sprightly melodies and full, inventive harmonies, Just Crazy Enough should serve as a strong calling card. All four Holbrooks sing and write songs, and their sound has matured into a Nickel Creek-style folk-pop, and this new album jumps from the smiling shimmy “Rooftop” to the dark and gorgeous “Lost As Anyone,” fueled by Eva’s mandolin and Sarah’s violin, with Hannah’s piano adding just the right accents. They will move you, and then, one song later, with the slinky “Let Me Do,” they’ll have you dancing in your chair.

All of these nine original songs are memorable delights. “Alternate Universe” and “I Know” should be hits, they’re such well-written pop songs, and closer “Stronger Than My Fears” is a pretty confessional anthem of hope, with some truly lovely harmonies. As if all that weren’t enough, the Holbrook sisters throw in a hook – a rustic, acoustic reading of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” that actually manages to be ghostly and creepy. I remain happy that I stuck around for SHEL’s set those many years ago, and Just Crazy Enough is as good as I hoped it would be. Ignore the name, check out the band.

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And finally, Travis, a band I have been ready to write off for some time.

Now, before I get into this Scottish quartet’s eighth album, Everything at Once, I should mention that this week I saw a movie called Sing Street. It’s the new effort from James Carney, who made my heart sing with Once, and it’s absolutely marvelous. The story of a misfit kid who starts a band and learns to write songs to impress a girl, Sing Street had me grinning for hours, and humming the sweet original tunes at its heart.

And on the way home from the theater, I listened to all 33 minutes of Everything at Once, and liked it more than any Travis album since 12 Memories. I’m not sure how much of that was my mood, but the charms of this album haven’t worn off since. This should feel like a throwaway – it’s their shortest album, and it follows one of their most boring, the staid Where You Stand. This is acoustic pop Travis again, and before this little gem of a record, I would have called that sound a played-out dead end.

But amazingly, Travis sounds alive on this album, bouncing back with some catchy songs and some interesting experiments. Fran Healy still sounds like he just woke from a refreshing nap, and middling opener “What Will Come” might not inspire confidence, but winner “Radio Song” takes the acoustic sound to a more muscular place, and with “Paralyzed,” Travis takes a step into new territory with a spiral of strings in tow. (And a sidelong lyrical slap at the Kardashians.)

“Animals,” the first song here to break three minutes, keeps the streak going with a clever 6/8 swing and more strings. The title track goes electronic, but in a reserved, Travis sort of way, Healy’s staccato vocals blending with the pulsing synths. Other band members besides Healy write songs, and write them well. Singer Josephine Oniyama takes a verse on “Idlewild.” There aren’t many moments where the band isn’t trying something new.

I don’t want to overstate this album. It’s a short little burst of pretty good songs (like the Neil Finn-esque “Three Miles High”) that probably won’t convince anyone who isn’t already inclined to like Travis. I’m inclined to like them, and this brief, ingratiating record makes it easier for me than any they’ve done in a long time. It’s just long enough to keep me interested without filler, and its brevity makes me want to press play again as soon as I can. I can’t be certain that my affection for this album isn’t tied up with my absolute love for Sing Street, but I think it’s the band’s best effort in ages.

Next week, longer records, for sure. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.