It turns out that the (temporary) cure for pre-election stress is to see Marillion play. Twice.
It’s been four years since Marillion played Chicago, and nearly two since I drove more than a thousand miles to Montreal to be part of my first Marillion weekend. That’s long enough to nearly forget not only how amazing the band is live, but how extraordinary the vibe at a Marillion show is. I have never, in my entire concert-going life, felt the kind of reciprocal love I feel at this band’s shows.
It’s that love that allows them to create a difficult masterpiece like their new album, Fuck Everyone and Run, and play two of the longest, angriest and most challenging pieces on stage to a warm reception. The first of the two Chicago shows ended with the best rendition of “Three Minute Boy” I’ve ever heard – the first half a comedy routine, the second half a reverent audience singalong – and the second ended with a full reading of “This Strange Engine,” possibly my favorite of their longer songs. Both nights were magical. Thank you to Jeff Elbel, my constant concert buddy, for making the first of those nights possible for me.
Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one – Marillion’s opening act for the Chicago shows was John Wesley, a longtime friend of the band and their fans. I know Wesley mainly from two places: his similar opening stint for Marillion in 2004, and his time with Fish, Marillion’s former singer. But I was again impressed, as Wesley took the stage alone, electric guitar in hand and programmed drum and bass tracks at the ready, and proceeded to play like a one-man King’s X. His set was loud and riff-heavy, often in tricky time signatures. Much of it was taken from his new album, A Way You’ll Never Be, which in turn takes heavily from Steven Wilson’s work with Porcupine Tree, a band Wesley has also played with.
And as riff-monster guitar albums go, A Way You’ll Never Be is pretty great. Wesley plays with a power trio here, just bass and drums, and fills out the rest of the sound himself. The album is front-loaded with its longest songs, including the what-time-signature-is-this-beast-in title track and the slower, more ominous “To Outrun the Light.” The album gets gentler – but only a little – on tracks like “The Silence in Coffee,” and instrumental “Unsafe Space” gives Wesley further chances to show off his soloing prowess. The record does get wearying by the end, since there’s no variation in sound throughout – Wesley was terrific in a half-hour opening slot, but over an hour, I find myself wishing for more than he offers. But if you enjoy songs based around big riffs, give this a shot.
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I’ve had even less time lately to listen to music and form thoughts about it, so I’m going to burn through a few I should have mentioned by now. Just keep in mind that you’re reading thoughts from only a couple listens, and I reserve the right to change my mind as I get to know these records better.
I’m certainly looking forward to knowing Lady Gaga’s Joanne better than I do now. If you think of her primarily as a walking marketing effort, then her fourth album is a weird one – it’s stripped down, more rock oriented, less shocking and more concerned with strong songwriting. Gaga poses in profile on the front cover, wearing subtle makeup and a light pink hat. It’s a far cry from, for instance, appearing as a half-woman half-motorcycle monster, as she did on Born This Way. None of this record announces itself in the way that Gaga usually does. In a lot of ways, it’s the opposite – the antidote, if you will – to her last one, the overcooked ArtPop. Where that one felt like an army of producers propping up an image, this one feels like a singer getting some friends together and making some music.
And if you think of Gaga as a singer and a songwriter, Joanne is a sigh of relief, a balm, a rousing chorus of “At Last.” It’s much more organic, in the vein of a KT Tunstall album, with a bluesy bent. It lasts all of 39 minutes, a modest running time for Gaga. It’s named after a deceased aunt, and the lovely acoustic title track is dedicated to her. There are certainly moments of electronic music – the refrain of the groovy “John Wayne,” for instance – but they’re in service to these songs, not the reason for them. And the songs are stronger than they’ve been in some time, and they suit that belting, all-systems-go voice. Gaga proved her vocal bona fides on her surprisingly good duets album with Tony Bennett, and she makes great use of that instrument here.
Sure, there are Lady Gaga-style shocking moments, like the masturbation ode “Dancin’ in Circles” (which sounds quite a lot like one of her influences, Madonna), but most of the record is straightforward rock-pop. Her contributors here include double-take names like Josh Homme, Kevin Parker and Josh Tillman, and songs like “Million Reasons” sound like they were recorded live. I’m less convinced by the slower tunes – “Angel Down” has its heart in the right place, but gets a little sappy – but more than drawn in by off-center tunes like the country-leaning “Sinner’s Prayer.” I’m glad to see this album doing well, because I’d hate to trap such an interesting musical presence in the “shock me” box. If Gaga can do this – can just make an album of songs that she likes, and put them out on a disc – and succeed, she’ll be around for a while. And that’s a good thing.
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Speaking of career longevity, here’s a new album from Jonatha Brooke.
If you don’t know her name, I won’t be surprised. Dismayed, but not surprised. Brooke is a singer and songwriter from Massachusetts, and I fell in love with her work in 1997, when I heard her excellent second solo album, 10 Cent Wings. That album includes “Because I Told You So,” which is forever enshrined in my very short list of very favorite songs. Brooke’s career is a repeated story of writing fantastic songs that everyone who hears them would like, and then not getting famous off of them. She didn’t get famous as one-half of The Story in the early ‘90s, 10 Cent Wings didn’t make her famous in the late ‘90s, and her unbroken string of terrific albums since then has not done the trick either.
So I don’t have high hopes that her tenth album, Midnight Hallelujah, will do it either. But it’s really, really good. Brooke writes solid pop songs in the vein of Aimee Mann and Suzanne Vega, and her powerful voice sends those songs straight to the heart. Just listen to “Light Years,” on this new album. It’s a hell of a melody – it takes no breaks, spins out a simply glorious tune atop Brooke’s piano, delivering both the hope and sadness of the lyric. There are no frills, no bells, no whistles, just superb songwriting, as always. That’s Brooke’s calling card, and it’s all over Midnight Hallelujah.
The surprise this time is “Mean Looking Jesus,” written with Eric Bazilian of the Hooters. Over a dirty rock riff, Brooke takes aim at those who use Jesus to judge and condemn, and it’s the loudest and angriest I’ve ever heard her. The rest of the record is standard (meaning awesome) Jonatha Brooke, well-written and strong and pretty. It’s really quite wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier that she is still making music. If you don’t know who she is, try this album out. My bet is you’ll want to hear everything she’s done, and I’d highly recommend doing exactly that.
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It’s been 13 years since we lost Elliott Smith.
It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Smith was perhaps the best songwriter of my generation, a shy and withdrawn genius who was slowly coaxed out of his shell, found the light too bright and killed himself. His story is tragic, and his songs – often gentle outpourings of depression and self-loathing – a fitting soundtrack. Smith left behind half a dozen albums of gorgeous, heartbreaking music, and it’s often difficult to listen to now, save for the fact that it is also beautiful.
It’s a testament to those songs that even now, 13 years after his death, people are still singing and playing them, and tribute albums like the just-released Say Yes are still being made. This latest, from American Laundromat Records, brings together luminaries like Tanya Donnelly, Amanda Palmer, J Mascis, Juliana Hatfield, Lou Barlow, Waxahatchee and Mark Kozelek, all fans, and lets them run with Smith’s tunes. As you might expect, the renditions are largely faithful, but just having the chance to revisit these songs is worth it.
My highlights list includes Donnelly’s opening “Between the Bars,” the quite excellent Julien Baker’s late-night lope through “Ballad of Big Nothing,” and Hatfield’s perfectly straight take on the amazing “Needle in the Hay.” Amanda Palmer makes “Pictures of Me” her own, while Jesu and Sun Kil Moon do their thing on “Condor Ave.” I was also impressed with several of the artists I’ve never heard, like Tomo Nakayama, who delivered a strong take on “Miss Misery,” and Adam Franklin, who dug deep to find the XO gem “Oh Well, Okay.” All in all, this is a fine tribute to a songwriter I miss a great deal, still. These songs are his legacy, and these reverential versions do them justice.
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That’ll do for this week. Next week, Tom Chaplin makes his solo bow and Hope Sandoval returns. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.