The October Project Part Two
The Return of Human Radio and Other Stories

Twenty-five years ago, a teenage boy walked from the grocery store where he made his money to the music store where he spent his money, looking for something new and different. On the recommendation of the clerk he respected, he bought an album he’d never heard of – the self-titled effort by a Memphis band called Human Radio. That this album had never caught on with the masses, the clerk said, was a crime. He was certain, given the boy’s love of quirky pop music, that he would agree.

Twenty-five years later, I’m still listening to that Human Radio album. Not only do I agree, still, that its unjust obscurity is a crime, but I rank it among my favorite records ever. “Hole in My Head” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard about miscommunication. “Another Planet” is the catchiest environmentalism anthem I know. “My First Million,” “I Don’t Wanna Know,” “These Are the Days,” these are amazing songs, and the fact that outside of Memphis only a handful of people have ever heard them is baffling to me. If not for that kind clerk (whose name I completely forget), I would have missed them too, and my musical life would have been all the poorer for it.

It’s doubly depressing since the self-titled album is the only one they released. They recorded a second one, which you can find floating around the interwebs, but were dropped from their label and then broke up before they could release it. (It’s good, especially “While You Were Sleeping.”) Lead singer Ross Rice made a pair of decent solo records, neither of which I would have heard without previously knowing who he was, and outside of their hometown, Human Radio slipped even further into obscurity. I never expected a second Human Radio album. And I certainly never expected one 26 years after the first.

But here we are. Human Radio has reunited and given us Samsara, their first record in more than a quarter-century. And I’m struck, every time I listen to it, by how unlikely it is that this album exists, or that I heard about it at all. It was a confluence of events leading back to that one store clerk in 1991 that led me here, now, enjoying the hell out of a new Human Radio record. Life is very strange.

And Samsara is very good. While I can hear much of the old Human Radio in this album, much of it sounds new – older, more seasoned, less immediately clever. Rice’s lyrics were once full of jokes and irony, disguising serious points. Now they’re much more straightforward – you don’t get more on-the-nose than “We’ve Got to Live Here Together” or “She’s Gonna Be the One.” The original album had a plastic late-‘80s sheen to it, and while this new one sounds fantastic, it also feels more raw, more live. The new Human Radio sound is groove-driven, the band’s two Steves – drummer Ebe and bassist Arnold – locking in on many of these tracks. Their secret weapon remains violinist Peter Hyrka, who adds flourishes and also solos like he’s the lead guitarist.

While Samsara does sport a winning live energy, it’s also a well-made record. Songs segue one into another, orchestral parts add depth. Rice sounds fantastic, and when he hit that first harmonized high note on opener “Super Solar Satellite,” I was 16 again. I’ve always responded to his voice – there’s nothing unique about it, but I associate it with some of my favorite songs, so it will always work for me. The songs on Samsara don’t rise to that level, although I didn’t expect them to. But they’re strong and solid, more so than I thought they would be. And this album explores so many different styles that weren’t present on the first one. “The Water, The River, The Sea” is a beautiful ambient guitar ballad, “Transatlantic Lives” is Todd Rundgren soul, and “Walk in the Garden” (probably my favorite) is basically a great Joe Jackson song.

Samsara is also remarkably optimistic and joyous record, even when it’s sad. You can hear it in “The Big Drums” and the aforementioned “We’ve Got to Live Here Together” and the tremendous closer “We’re All Light” – these guys love playing music together, and are so damn happy to be given the chance to do it. Samsara is an album I never thought I would get to hear, and you can tell it’s an album these five guys never thought they’d have a chance to make. I’m so glad we were both wrong. You can learn more about Human Radio and pick up Samsara here.

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I’ve always liked Regina Spektor, but I’ve never loved her.

I came in with 2006’s Begin to Hope, and have bought everything since. I find her to be a fine songwriter, a lovely singer and a performer with just enough quirk to make me smile. And yet, for some reason, I’ve just never connected in a deep and emotional way with one of her records. Here, of course, is where you can rightly expect a well-placed “…until now,” because her seventh, Remember Us to Life, is breathtakingly good. I’ve heard it a dozen times now, and each time it has made me cry. It is sweet and sad and heartfelt and open and smaller in scale than she has been, and yet bigger than the world.

The two songs I had heard beforehand, opener “Bleeding Heart” and electro-stomper “Small Bill$,” while quite good, don’t set the tone for the album. Most of the rest is lyrical, lovely piano balladry, the kind that Spektor made her name with, but deeper somehow, more powerful. I’ll only mention a couple, but they’re stunning. “The Light” is gorgeous, a treatise on finding hope in darkness. “Tornadoland” is about being soft in a world of hard edges, and it hurts. “The Visit” spins a simple tale of old friends reconnecting and somehow manages to make it feel like the heavens opening. And how the remarkable “New Year,” a perfect portrait of loneliness and the struggle to remain encouraged, ended up as a bonus track I will never know. (The same goes for the fantastic “End of Thought.”)

Through it all, Spektor is in complete command of her songwriting voice. These are the best, most consistent fourteen songs she has given us, and she invested herself in them to a degree that I’ve never heard her do before. Remember Us to Life is a beautiful record, quietly assured, painting with nuance and ending up with a vivid masterpiece. I’ll be listening to this one for a long time, and maybe one day I’ll get through it without tearing up. Not today, though.

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It’s sad, but Green Day has become the Bon Jovi of pop-punk.

Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool are all in their mid-40s now, and while I would never suggest that they’re old (being that age myself), I think they’ve grown too old to innovate. They do what they do – three-chord punk with a dramatic flair – because that’s what they do, that’s what they’re known for. I have no idea what kind of music they really want to make, but they haven’t convinced me that any of it is on Revolution Radio, their just-released 12th album.

Not that this record is bad, per se. The trio took a four-year break after knocking themselves out to produce a trilogy of overcooked and half-baked albums in 2012, and that has done them good. Revolution Radio sounds like the product of a regrouping, and an attempt to return to the American Idiot sound that brought them their biggest hits. And in a lot of ways, that’s the problem with it. American Idiot worked because it took the band to new places, but this album feels stale before it even gets to track four. The rock opera impulses are here in opener “Somewhere Now,” which ties nicely into the three-part “Forever Now,” and the politically charged rock of the title track and “Bang Bang” feel like they’re right from Idiot.

The rest of the record follows suit, taking the band no new places. I like “Outlaws,” with its wider scope, and “Still Breathing” feels like a strong alt-rock single from the ‘90s. But songs like “Youngblood” and “Bouncing Off the Walls” just kind of feel like Green Day. The album even ends with an acoustic ditty, just like “Good Riddance,” called “Ordinary World.” If you think you know how it sounds, you’re exactly right. Revolution Radio gleams in the light – the production is full and rich, the guitars vibrant, the drums pummeling. But if you have their most popular stuff, you already have this.

And that’s why I say they’ve become Bon Jovi. Who looks forward to new Bon Jovi albums anymore? They’re all the same – cut-rate Springsteen and encouraging balladry, the same chords played the same way. That’s Green Day all over. I’m sure they’ll keep making new music, and I’m sure it will all sound like this, and I’m sure people will go see them play and will want to hear songs from American Idiot and Dookie. And I’m sure they’ll play them, happy to serve. Revolution Radio isn’t bad for what it is, but it’s just another Green Day album, existing just because, without much reason to.

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Speaking of the ‘90s, here’s a new album from Phish.

I know that’s not really fair, but I originally heard Phish in the ‘90s, when they first gained popularity outside of Vermont. They’re on their third life, having taken hiatuses in 2000 and in 2004, and I have no doubt they’ll have at least nine. The four musicians in Phish are among the best players you’ll find anywhere, and of course it’s the live show that remains the draw, but they keep on putting out albums. And thankfully, at least lately, they keep on being pretty good.

Big Boat is the band’s 13th, and the second in a row to be produced by Bob Ezrin. Its predecessor, Fuego, was quite good, and proved that Ezrin is a good fit for the band at this stage in their career. On record, Phish has been eschewing its tendency to jam – their songs sometimes hit 30 to 35 minutes in extended versions on stage – and turning in breezy rock and roll. That’s what you get for most of Big Boat, a relaxed piece of work that finds the foursome playing well off of each other, but rarely challenging each other either.

It certainly sounds like they had a great time making it, though. There are some remarkably straightforward numbers here, like “Tide Turns” and “Miss You,” both from the pen of guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio. Pianist Page McConnell sings lead vocals twice, and bassist Mike Gordon once, adding to the loose feel of the album. Tunes like “Breath and Burning” and “No Men in No Man’s Land” glide by on gentle grooves, and the whole thing feels like a pleasant stroll by a stream in late spring.

That is, until the final song, which makes up for a lot with me. “Petrichor” is a tightly composed 13-minute wonder. Initially given an orchestral treatment by Anastasio, here it showcases just how good these four musicians are, navigating this intricate piece while dancing around each other. It’s a worthy successor to “Time Turns Elastic,” and a nice reminder that while they seem content to play pretty simple tunes lately, Phish is truly a monster band, right up there with the best collective of players you can find. I enjoyed most of Big Boat (though admittedly not as much as the band seems to have), but I adore “Petrichor,” and for that alone I’d say the album is worth hearing.

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Next week, more reviews from the likes of Glen Phillips, Mike Doughty, Conor Oberst and more. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.