Keys to the Kingdom
Exploring the Ebonies and Ivories on Three New Records

I’m a keyboard player.

Sometimes I say piano player, but keyboard player is really what I mean. I grew up learning from Yanni and the dude from Journey. Keith Emerson was a hero of mine, from the time I heard “Touch and Go.” Van Halen never did it for me until “Jump.” I thought keytars were awesome, and wanted one desperately from age 10 to probably age 16. In high school I made several (terrible) albums of solo keyboard music. During the years after college, I made several more.

I say all that to point out that when bands get all keyboard-y – even bands that, from the outside, really shouldn’t – I don’t mind it. It’s a bit of a cliché at this point, so I’m likely to let out a sigh or two for that reason, but for the most part, I’m on board with the synth sounds. If an artist wants to explore new territory, and this is the territory they choose, I’m willing to find out why. Sometimes the reasons are compelling – see the aforementioned Van Halen as a prime example. Sometimes they’re not so much.

I’m afraid I’m still not sure which way I’m leaning with the Decemberists. If you’d asked me two years ago to write out a list of bands most likely to turn to the keyboards, I would never have included them. Somehow not even the prog-rock Jethro Tull-isms of The Hazards of Love seem as full-on a left turn as I’ll Be Your Girl, the venerable Portland band’s eighth album. There’s nary a trace of the serious folksy band they’ve been, even on 2015’s underrated What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.

Instead, the band approaches new wave on single “Severed,” and while the rest of the record doesn’t go quite as Flock of Seagulls as that one, there are synthesizers everywhere. Opener “Once in My Life” is a simple folk tune – almost too simple – except for the thick John Hughes-style keys that envelop the strumming acoustic guitars and Colin Meloy’s pleading voice. A seemingly sparse ditty like “Tripping Along” brings in an army of watery synth sounds on sustained chords. None of this is bad, it’s just very different.

I like the fact that very little of I’ll Be Your Girl sounds like the Decemberists. I’m not sure I like what it does sound like very much, but I applaud Meloy and his merry band for stretching out. “Your Ghost” is perhaps the most successful thing here, a galloping fantasia of surf guitar sounds, harpsichords and eerie la-la-la vocals. It brings the first half to a lively end, and sets you up for the sillier, looser second half.

“Everything is Awful” is something you come up with when you’re drunk and maybe demo it, but here it is in its full glory. “Sucker’s Prayer” and “We All Die Young” remind me of the filler tracks on the White Album, especially “We All Die Young,” with its “Revolution #1” guitar sounds and thudding beat. Meloy has called Girl a reaction to the 2016 election, and aside from a general sense of foreboding on tracks like “Starwatcher,” it’s hard to hear that, except in these sillier tunes. “Everything is Awful” is exactly what it sounds like, a declaration of terribleness set to giddy music: “What’s that crashing sound that follows us around? That’s the sound of all things good breaking…” The protagonist of “Sucker’s Prayer” tries to pray away his troubles, and then tries suicide, unsuccessfully. “We All Die Young” is, of course, about how we’re all going to die.

Still, I found little to love on this album until the final two tracks. “Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes” is the eight-minute epic, a mash-up of two John Lennon-ish tunes with simple backdrops and orchestration, and this is the one that sounds the most like the Decemberists of old. After nine tracks of experimentation, this is a confident piece of old-school drama, and the keys are largely unobtrusive until the proggy ending. And the title track, all two and a half minutes of it, is surprisingly tender and sweet, its lyric a lovely spin on Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” “And when the tempests rage and all the oceans roar at your door, I could be your man but I’ll be that much more…” Like a lot of this record, there isn’t much to this song, but it’s got a good heart, and that counts for a lot.

I’m still not sure what to make of I’ll Be Your Girl. In some ways, it’s a bold reinvention of the Decemberists sound, shaking up their formula once again, and I’m always here for that. But in many ways it’s their worst record, especially when those experiments fall flat and you’re left with some of the band’s least inspired writing. I’ve come around on Decemberists records before, and I hope I come around on this one. For right now, it’s not doing it for me as much as I would like.

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Of course, as much as I like big ‘80s synthesizer sounds, I’ve grown into a much deeper fan of the piano as I’ve aged. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved the instrument, and I’m always learning how to play it better. Bruce Hornsby was among my first piano idols, and I still love the way he voices chords and works his hands independently of one another. That list of piano idols has grown immensely since then, and now includes Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Ben Folds, the still-brilliant-when-she-wants-to-be Tori Amos and countless others.

Recently I wrote a glowing review of the new Bad Plus album, their first with new pianist Orrin Evans, and I’ve been delighted to check out his back catalog. He’s awesome. And now I have a new record from another piano-bass-drums trio that I adore, Manchester’s GoGo Penguin. They’re quite different from the Bad Plus, in that they steer clear of traditional jazz forms as much as possible, but they’re just as exciting.

GoGo Penguin is pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner. The music they create together is atmospheric and purposeful, setting a mood with a few well-placed notes and riding that mood as long as they can. There’s an electronic edge to much of their work, but it’s mostly backdrop – Turner plays electronic drums here and there, and keys are used to fill out the sound, but the focus is truly on the three players.

And they’re great players. Their fourth album, A Humdrum Star, is a bit more reserved and score-like than their third, Man-Made Object, but as before, they find grooves and explore them, with an eye toward beauty and space. Illingworth never solos, and keeps himself to captivating arpeggios, playing to the song. Blacka takes the most improvised bits – he owns “Strid,” an eight-minute prog-jazz monolith, smacking his strings while the rest of the band lays back. But the best moments of this album come when all three are playing in delightful tandem.

I will admit that sometimes, not enough is happening in GoGo Penguin songs to keep my melody-focused brain on task. But then they’ll hit upon something like “Transient State,” which explodes with sheer musicality. The slower, more ambient pieces I can get lost in, and the more intense ones I study. It’s a win-win. A Humdrum Star is another strong release from a band increasingly unlike any other.

But if we’re gonna talk about piano, I’m going to have to mention one of the most prominent names on my list: Brad Mehldau. I first gravitated to Mehldau for his jazz piano takes on Radiohead songs, mainly because I’m always gratified when musicians of Mehldau’s caliber notice the compositional skill needed to write something like “Paranoid Android.” Like the Bad Plus, Mehldau has made a side career out of digging deep into pop songs and finding the hidden complexity and melodicism. Two years ago, he put out a four-CD box set of solo piano performances, and it includes epic takes on Stone Temple Pilots, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Beatles and Sufjan Stevens.

That box set has been a touchstone for me since it landed on my desk. It’s utterly astonishing, from first note to last, and I feel like I could spend years studying it, unfolding it, peeling back its layers. I love Mehldau with a band – his trio recordings are magnificent, and his more layered solo work is great. But my favorites of his works are the ones he performs alone, just the man and 88 keys. His new one, After Bach, is another solo work, and it’s typically excellent stuff.

This one has a fascinating concept. It contains Mehldau’s dexterous readings of six Bach pieces (four preludes and two fugues), each one followed by an original that was inspired by the Bach before it. In some cases you can hear the moments he’s riffing off of, the Bach lines he’s following down the rabbit hole. In all cases you’ll be blown away anew at Mehldau’s ability. He’s not only an extraordinary player, he’s a stunningly emotive one, listening closely to what he has just played and responding to it intuitively. He takes Bach’s cleaner, brighter lines into darker places, muddying them up with colors and shades, tracing their arcs as they descend, then allowing them to burst upward as something else entirely. The five “After Bach” pieces here are all wonderful.

I’m not absolutely sure what the final song, “Prayer for Healing,” is doing on this record, but oddly, it’s my favorite thing here. Over eleven gorgeous minutes, Mehldau restrains himself, playing the sparsest, most delicate chords and lines, and you can hear him feeling every one of them. I hear more of a reaction to the world since November 2016 in this piece than I do in the most politically charged songs of the past year. It imagines the world the way it should be, and Mehldau plays it like he’s spinning that vision into reality. It’s so, so beautiful.

And I will likely spend a lot of this year just studying Mehldau’s work on this record, as if I could figure it out just by listening more closely. I’m happy to stay lost in it, mystified by what I’m hearing. Mehldau is an absolute master, and the more I hear from him, the more I want to hear.

That’s it for this week. Next week, some brave souls volunteer as tribute. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.