I’m With Them
Three New Records from Some of My Favorite Women

Thursday is International Women’s Day. So what better time to talk about the welcome return of Kim Deal?

If you wanted the absolute definition of cool in the ‘80s, it was Kim Deal. As the bassist and sometimes songwriter for the Pixies, she joined Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth in obliterating the sexist idea of what a female musician could be. But it wasn’t until she emerged as the voice and vision behind The Breeders that Deal truly shone.

She formed the band with her identical twin sister Kelley, and the two of them were a force to be reckoned with. Their debut album, Pod, was written and recorded during a Pixies hiatus (with Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses as a member), but it was their second, Last Splash, that truly made them. Deal’s first album after the Pixies disbanded, Last Splash is a classic, and its single “Cannonball” belongs on any short list of great songs of the ‘90s.

Since then, Kim Deal has remained the only consistent member of the band. We haven’t heard the Last Splash lineup since 1993, and we haven’t heard from the Breeders since 2008. All of which makes the release of All Nerve, the fifth Breeders record, something of an event. It features that classic lineup: Kim and Kelley Deal, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson. For those of you holding your breath for a return to ‘90s glory, this would seem to be it.

And in classic Kim Deal fashion, the album itself does everything it can do to work against the idea that it’s any kind of (forgive me) big deal. The cover is nondescript. The album is a scant 33 minutes long. One of its songs is a cover. There’s almost no sense of urgency to it – it’s a slow burner of a record that takes multiple listens to appreciate and love. But given those multiple listens, it emerges as a worthy next step in Deal’s evolution.

If you spend All Nerve looking for the killer riff, you’ll probably be disappointed. These songs are subtler than that, surging forward on a couple chords and a simple melody, but hiding some interesting arrangements and treatments. Deal’s sarcastic “Good morning!” at the top of “Wait in the Car” sets the tone for that song’s two minutes of jackhammer two-note riffing. “Taking a nap ‘cause strategy’s for punks,” she shouts in that instantly recognizable voice, still strong at 56.

I’m a fan of the songs that aim for moments of beauty. The title track is one, the Deals’ clean guitar parts chiming out around the din. “Spacewoman” is an atmospheric mini-epic, vast for the Breeders at 4:22, with some buzzing synths and subtle electric piano. Wiggs takes the lead on “MetaGoth,” an ominous piece of work with slashing guitars and eerie harmonies. “Dawn: Making an Effort” is the prettiest thing here, Deal’s voice grounding what is a nearly ambient piece of lovely noise.

There’s a lot to appreciate in these 33 minutes, even if I sometimes wish the songs were more complete and immediate. It’s just so good to have Deal back. I hope All Nerve signals her desire to stick around. We need her and more like her.

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Speaking of amazing women, there are three of them in the newly minted folk supergroup I’m With Her. And while their name is always going to remind people of a certain time (and a certain election), the music these three make together is as timeless and beautiful as the music they make separately.

I’m With Her brings together Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, and if you know your folksy singer-songwriters, you either already own their debut album, See You Around, or you’re racing out right now to buy it. So I guess the following words are for everyone else who has somehow avoided all three of these tremendous performers.

So here we go. Watkins is best known as one-third of Nickel Creek, but has made some fantastic solo records, including 2016’s Young in All the Wrong Ways. Jarosz is a stunning songwriter from Texas who, over four superb records, has established herself as one of the most promising voices around. Her fourth, Undercurrent, was particularly excellent. And O’Donovan is a great singer and player from the bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why with a couple swell solo records under her belt, and a frequent collaborator with some of the finest musicians in the world.

You’d expect these three to make magic together, and they do. Best of all, there appears to be no ego involved here – the trio wrote all the original songs together, they take turns on lead vocals, they harmonize like angels, and they give each other plenty of space to shine instrumentally. If you could imagine the perfect combination of Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan, that’s what you’ll hear on this record. It’s another short one – a mere 40 minutes – but there isn’t a second of it I don’t love.

Yes, you can tell that some songs are more in line with one of the songwriters here. Opener “See You Around” is Jarosz without a doubt (and how gorgeous are those harmonies), while “Game to Lose” certainly sounds like Watkins to me, its mandolin and fiddle foundation straight out of her work. But really the best thing about See You Around is how well the trio works together. “I-89” is a simple ditty that they elevate with their intertwining voices. “Waitsfield” gets all three involved in a delightful little instrumental. “Close It Down” is an absolutely beautiful piece of music, each of our three players/singers contributing to the whole, laying back when needed, stepping forward – as Watkins does with her colorful fiddle playing – only when the song calls for it. It’s perfect.

I’m With Her close their debut record by paying tribute to another extraordinary woman, Gillian Welch. Their nearly version of Welch’s “Hundred Miles” is haunting, showcasing how well their voices work together. It’s a great capper to a lovely first record from what I hope is not a one-off collaboration. I want more, and I want it as soon as possible.

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As you read this, news has just broken that WLUP, a well-loved classic rock station that has served Chicago for 40 years, has been sold to Christian broadcaster K-LOVE. It will switch formats next week, replacing a playlist that includes some of the best and most iconic music of the past few decades with one that only includes “positive and encouraging” bland Christian pop. This has naturally caused some outrage here, and a lot of that outrage is leveled at K-LOVE, who already has a station in this market. (I guess they’re going for 100% market saturation.)

And it’s always tough for me when things like this happen, because when I tout the Christian artists I love, what people think I’m talking about is the stuff K-LOVE plays – surface-level, safe, all sounding the same, geared toward soccer moms and worship leaders. I generally can’t stand that stuff. There are certainly musical reasons for that, since all of that stuff sounds the same to me, with the same production value and same chords. But there are more personal reasons too. Generally I want the same thing from music based in faith that I want from all the music I listen to: an authentic perspective. I want to see the world through the eyes of songwriters. The music on K-LOVE is, by and large, part of a system that squeezes all that authenticity out, leaving hollow praise and platitudes.

Taken on a spectrum, most of the Christian music I adore is as far from K-LOVE as possible. But there are other artists who are trying with all they have to redeem the industry from within, working in a similar sound but bringing a true perspective and real heart to it. Audrey Assad is one of those, and I’ve been all but obsessed with her new album, Evergreen, since receiving it in late January. (I pledged money to help make it, and in return got the download more than a month early.)

Assad is a stunning singer, a good piano player and a very fine songwriter. She has the ethereal quality of someone like Enya, but a more heightened melodic sense, writing flowing melodies often over odd time signatures. Evergreen is the 34-year-old’s fifth album, and hidden in its backstory is a crisis of faith, a deconstruction of a lot of what she has held fast to for her whole life. But unlike records from similar places by the likes of Derek Webb and David Bazan, Assad’s is reaffirming, coming through a painful time with the core of her faith intact.

And while some of these songs, like the fairly typical “The Joy of the Lord,” don’t betray any of that backstory, there are some that bleed with genuine pain. “Unfolding” is one of my very favorites, Assad laying down a spare piano backdrop to ask piercing questions: “How do I grieve what I can’t let go, how do I mourn what I cannot know?” The chorus is a prayer of confusion and doubt: “Oh my God, I don’t know what this was, am I the child of your love or just chaos unfolding?” “Irrational Season” follows the same path: “Over the skyline to see the spheres, I lift my eyes to the heavens, nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season…”

This may not seem like anything controversial, but these songs with these sentiments would be banned from K-LOVE. You just wouldn’t hear this level of human uncertainty, this sheer broken honesty. These songs and others like them on Evergreen lay the foundation for the broader ones, like the bright “Deliverer,” or the title track, on which Assad sings, “Out past the fear, doubt becomes wonder.” That’s such a great line, especially for someone like me trying to turn doubt into wonder on a daily basis.

The songs of reconciliation here are the best ones, for my money, and none of them strike me quite as hard as “Drawn to You,” the extraordinary closer. It’s a psalm, as if from the pen of David himself, sung from the depths of despair, and it doesn’t offer anything simple. It does offer possibly the best musical depiction I have heard of that inner ache, that pull toward the divine, toward something bigger than ourselves: “After everything I’ve had, after everything I’ve lost, Lord I know this much is true, I’m still drawn to you.” It’s a ton-of-bricks song for me, and I probably won’t be able to articulate why.

I know most people reading this will probably not be able to tell the difference between Audrey Assad’s work and what you hear on K-LOVE. But to me, the difference is enormous. Evergreen is an intensely personal record, its songs of joy earned through tears, its songs of faith drawn from a real place. Her work is as close to the modern Christian realm as I can stand. But there are songs on here I love like I wrote them, songs that speak to me the way they clearly spoke to her. K-LOVE is pushing a product. Audrey Assad is making art, and I love her for it.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, the kid gets heavy. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.