The Prequel and the Sequel
Von Strantz Takes Us Through the Looking Glass

Good lord, am I busy lately.

I’m not one to complain about having a lot to do. I’ve been working since I was 15 years old, and I’ve never gone more than a month or so without some kind of work. Six years ago I managed to get hired by one of the best science laboratories in the country, and as befits the job I have, a lot falls on my shoulders. Lately it’s becoming absolutely crazy, though, and while I remain incredibly grateful for the employment, the sheer amount of it is wearing me down.

Why should you care? Well, it’s affecting my ability to listen to, process and write about music, which in turn affects the quality and timeliness of this column. I don’t want it to, and I’m taking steps to ensure that it doesn’t, but in the past few weeks I’ve had a tough time even listening to the new stuff I’ve bought, never mind analyzing it in print. Don’t worry, these musical missives will keep coming, but I might need to punt one every once in a while. And if you make it to the end of this one, you’ll see another thing I’m doing to keep my sanity over the next two weeks.

I tell you that partially so I can tell you this: for the first time since the inception of the festival, I will not be going to AudioFeed this year.

My consolation prize is a work trip to France over the same weekend, so don’t cry for me Argentina. But I’m still sad that I will miss what has become my favorite festival, with some of my favorite people. I’m sad I’m going to miss a Friday night show by Propaganda, one of my favorite rappers. I’m sad I will not be there to hear Derri Daugherty of the Choir play songs off of his long-awaited solo album for the first time. I’m sad I won’t get to see Marah in the Mainsail live again. I’m sad I will miss both Gungor and their offshoot band The Brilliance. I’m sad that I won’t see my friend Matthew Welchel perform as Theatre of Magic for the first time.

And I’m sad that I’m going to miss out on discovering whatever incredible new bands the 2018 festival has in store. While I first attended AudioFeed because of the better-known acts (like the Choir, the 77s and Steve Taylor), I go now because it’s the best place I’ve ever been to find new music I love. Over the past five AudioFeeds I have found innumerable bands and artists, all of them below the radar, and most of them better than anything you’ll hear on the radio. The festival has, pound for pound, the best unsung music anywhere.

Case in point: One of my earliest AudioFeed discoveries was Von Strantz, led by a tremendous singer and songwriter named (at the time) Jess Strantz. They began as a folksy outfit with a down-home acoustic feel, but over time they’ve evolved into a wildly innovative band, awash in synthesizers and vast, quirky arrangements. Their second record, the brief yet devastating Apple of Your Eye, underlined this transformation with remarkable production by John Vanderslice.

Now Von Strantz has returned with their third long-player, Through the Looking Glass, and even though I am reliably informed that it was recorded before Apple, this album cements the band’s growth into a truly amazing modern pop wonder. Jess has a new last name (although she still goes by Von Strantz, as does her bandmate Kelsey), but her songwriting skills remain as sharp as ever. Every song on Looking Glass is a powerhouse, and very few of them sound like anything Von Strantz has given us before. This record exists halfway between Fiona Apple and Chvrches, all dark and delicious melodies with thick keyboards swirling all over it.

Highlights? Sure, there are plenty. The opening title track is pure Fiona, Jess’ rich and powerful voice instantly locking into place over the pizzicato-and-piano arrangement. The keys come in full force on the great 76, which sounds like retro-futuristic marching music. Single “Way Down Here” is a swaying delight, while “No Time to Die” picks up the gospel influences from “Nothing Good in Me” and takes them for a speedy ride. Of all of these, though, “Basement Lyfe” is my favorite, a catchy-as-all-get-out pop song that sounds like it could have stepped off the soundtrack to Stranger Things.

OK, that’s half the record, and I’m supposed to just list highlights. You can see my dilemma, since there is no filler here whatsoever. The second half is just as strong, if a bit more melancholy. A lot of these numbers sound like precursors, emotionally speaking, to the tearing apart on Apple of Your Eye. “Run” examines infidelity over an insistent, awesome piano figure, while “In Your Arms” is an all-kinds-of-awesome pop number about the exact opposite.

I may as well mention them all, right? “Wait for You” and “Where You Are” make wonderful use of Kelsey’s violin, and both songs are powerful pieces of work. And the final track, “Holding On,” steps up into “Sometimes It Hurts” territory, picking at Jess’ former marriage over pianos, plaintive strings and a cornucopia of synth sounds. It’s just a beautiful little song, both bitter and triumphant. Through the Looking Glass is an album about holding on, about waiting for a relationship to get better, and realizing that it won’t. It’s a strange experience, because emotionally it’s a prequel to Apple, but musically it sounds so much more advanced.

I’m sure most of you reading this have never heard Von Strantz, because most of you reading this have never been to AudioFeed. I highly recommend rectifying both of those situations, of course. You can start right now by picking up Through the Looking Glass on iTunes or Apple Music or your streaming service of choice. (It’s the first one that is not available direct from the band, or in a physical format, which makes me sad. But I paid to download it, and I don’t regret it, so that should tell you how good it is.)

It took me weeks to listen to Through the Looking Glass and formulate the above thoughts on it, which means to me that I need a break, and I need to carve out some listening time. If you look on the “new readers” section of my website, you’ll see that I planned originally to take two weeks off a year, once at Christmas and once around the first week of June, for my birthday. I’ve pretty much never done the second one, and I think I’m owed. So I’m taking next week off for my birthday, and probably the week after as well, so I can catch up on my music consumption and come back refreshed enough to keep this thing going.

So come back in two weeks, and if I’m not here, come back in three. Hopefully things will have died down a little by then, and I’ll be back to bringing you this silly music column for as long as I can. This is my 890th column, and I certainly don’t want to stop now.

I will be right back, I promise. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning,