Three Without a Theme
New Ones From Garbage, Tom Odell and Miles Nielsen

I was an angry young man, and I listened to angry young music.

I’ve talked at length here about my teenage metalhead years, during which bands like Megadeth and Testament gave me an outlet for my adolescent rage. But when that phase was over (and I say “over” like I’m not still into all that great stuff), I was a twenty-something in the 1990s, the decade where the angry, the sad and the depressing became mainstream. It was the decade when the word “alternative” ceased to have any meaning at all – bands like Alice in Chains became superstars, riding the wave of Nirvana’s out-of-nowhere blockbuster Nevermind.

And I sank right into that music. I couldn’t get enough darkness, even in my sunny pop music. Which is exactly why Garbage worked for me when they appeared in 1995. I was only happy when it rained, and the songs on Garbage’s first album married grey sentiments like that with jaunty, memorable electro-pop. The band was originally a studio creation convened by Butch Vig, who had produced Nevermind, but audiences responded so strongly that they decided to become a real touring band.

Twenty-one years later, they’re still together and still kicking. Their sixth album, Strange Little Birds, is the darkest one they have made, and I think 22-year-old me would have loved it. For the first time, the music is routinely as gloomy as Shirley Manson’s lyrics, which means they’ve jettisoned the tension that used to define them. In its place is just… bleakness, and I’m finding as I get older that bleakness isn’t at (or near) the top of my list of favorite qualities. I’m a happier person, and I’m actually kind of sad that Manson isn’t.

Throughout Strange Little Birds (and in fact throughout the Garbage catalog), Manson is insecure, lonely, angry and very often hopeless. Album opener “Sometimes” circles around these words: “Sometimes I feel so jealous, sometimes I feel so insecure, sometimes I feel like I vanished in thin air, sometimes I feel I’m not there.” “Empty” is another in a long line of Garbage songs about obsession: “I’m so empty, you’re all I think about.” “Empty” is the first single for a reason – it’s one of the very few that marries its desperate lyrics with upbeat, propulsive music.

The rest of this record mostly crawls forward on its stomach, getting down in the muck. You can imagine what songs called “Night Drive Loneliness” and “Even Though Our Love is Doomed” sound like. The production is amazing, as always – when Garbage decides to set an oppressive mood, they really set one. The pulsing synths on “Magnetized,” for instance, give Manson a dark cloud to sink back into: “You bring your light, I’ll bring my pain, you bring your joy, I’ll bring my shame.” The sound is impeccable, the band still refining the rock-pop-electronic formula they invented.

I just wish there were more joy here. I’m not sure why I would expect any – nothing this band has ever done would lead me to that idea. But while Garbage has shaded darker, I’ve been seeking out more light. I hope making records like Strange Little Birds is cathartic for the band, particularly Manson. When she reaches for glimmers of hope, as she does on the epic “So We Can Stay Alive,” it’s even cathartic for me. But I find that I need music like this less these days. Strange Little Birds is a beautiful-sounding, bleak little thing, and while 20 years ago I would have nodded along in solidarity with its lonely, bitter sentiments, now they make me want to give Manson a hug and tell her that it gets better.

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Tom Odell is 25 years old, so I can forgive a little more melodramatic depression from him. He was a mere 22 when he gave us Long Way Down, his remarkable debut album. The highlight of that record for me was “Can’t Pretend,” as dramatic a song as has ever been written about love withering on the vine. It was a marvelous calling card – Odell has a big, bold voice, and his piano-driven songs give him ample opportunity to use that voice to its fullest.

In some ways, I like his second album, Wrong Crowd, better. It’s a more mature album, its songs of love and loss more subtle and full. There’s nothing here that captures me the way “Can’t Pretend” did, but there are plenty of riches, and the production is less kid-with-a-piano and more journeyman tunesmith. It’s a progression that usually takes more than a couple years, and to hear Odell pulling it off so quickly is gratifying. He’s definitely one to watch.

Wrong Crowd does jettison the fun, though, in search of more meaningful pop music. Gone is the ivory-pounding likes of “Hold Me,” and in their place is a mellower, prettier, more considered brand of Tom Odell. Second song “Magnetized” is as rowdy as this gets, and it’s more of a slow build to a big chorus. “It’s not right, I’m magnetized to someone who don’t feel it,” he sings over pianos, drum rolls and handclaps, and it’s the album’s best hands-to-the-sky moment. As an army of Tom Odells sings “she keeps me hanging on,” you might think Wrong Crowd will turn out to be more fun than it eventually does.

But there’s nothing wrong with the direction Odell does take. “Constellations” is gorgeous, a song about a magical moment in time: “It’s the same old constellations of stars up in the sky, but yeah, I’ve got a feeling they’re gonna look different tonight.” This one is just Odell, his piano and some lush strings, and while I might wish it were even sparser, it works. “Sparrow” is a highlight, a circular, constantly growing lullaby, and “Still Getting Used to Being On My Own” sways with a newfound soulful influence. “Silhouette” sounds like an attempt to make a British mid-tempo dance-pop song, with a computer beat and strings.

Throughout it all, Odell’s voice remains vast and strong, lending this whole album cohesion and character. Wrong Crowd isn’t quite the out-of-the-park follow-up I was hoping for, but it is a step in some confident new directions for this young songwriter. He’s still using lines like “I never believed from the day that I met you that a loser like me could ever get you,” but if he keeps growing at the rate he has been, I’m excited to see the kind of songs he writes in his 40s. In the meantime, Wrong Crowd is a fine pop record, a worthy successor to a great debut, and one I’ll no doubt be coming back to for years.

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Finally this week, we have Miles Nielsen.

I said I would mention more about him this week, after seeing him and his band the Rusted Hearts deliver a tremendous set at the Two Brothers Summer Festival here. I may be underselling how great they were – they were easily the highlight of the day’s lineup, playing complex Americana-tinged rock songs arranged for six very tight musicians. Miles, as you may have figured out, is the son of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, but he doesn’t trade on that, and gets no mileage from it. His work couldn’t be farther from the lick-driven rock of his dad’s band.

Many of the songs Nielsen played last week were taken from his third album, Heavy Metal. It’s also his best album, and you can hear how much he and the band put into it. These ten songs are strong, lived-in, smartly arranged and memorable. There’s a strong Tom Petty influence here, particularly on songs like “Simple Times,” but Nielsen throws some curve balls, like the Beatlesque bridge of “Honeybee” (complete with clarinets) or the Allman Brothers guitars of “Strangers.”

Nielsen’s been on a steady trajectory toward something as good as Heavy Metal for years, and I’m quite glad that he and his band took the time and spent the money on this. The saxophones on “Sarah,” for instance, might seem like an extravagance, but they’re integral to the song. This album sounds like a million bucks, and happily the songs deserve everything the band has lavished on them. Atop it all is Nielsen’s voice, high and distinctive, surrounded by lush harmonies. Heavy Metal is great, a triumph for a songwriter and a band I’m excited to keep watching. You can get it here, and you should.

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That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll hopefully think of a theme. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.