I keep up with a lot of bands. Or at least, I try to.
When I say a lot of bands, I mean a lot. Literally hundreds. And while the internet has made it easier in some ways to stay on top of what my favorite musicians are doing, it has also made music a lot less centralized. I check a number of websites that tell me what I can expect to find in stores each week, but at this point about half of my music purchases are made online, direct from the artists themselves. And often those artists don’t have any kind of marketing budget or infrastructure, so it’s up to me to remember to check their sites and social media on the regular to find out what they’re up to.
Here’s a case in point: on Friday, the great Scottish singer Fish is going to release a new record called A Parley with Angels. It features three songs from his upcoming double album (the last one he plans to record before he retires) and four live tracks from December of last year. It’s not exactly an indispensable piece of his collection, but I want it. And the only way I know about it at all is through Fish’s Facebook page. He has no marketing, particularly outside of Europe, and is dependent on his fans to find him. This is becoming the way of things, and it’s forced me to dedicate much more time and effort to keeping abreast of announcements.
All of this feeds into my fear of missing out, which is a very real thing. I’m a collector as much as I am a fan, and I hate it when releases get by me. Even one-off live records or four-song EPs. My collection isn’t complete unless I have all of that stuff, and trying to feed my completism by checking literally hundreds of websites is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. I’m going to miss stuff.
Most of the time, though, I catch up eventually. For example, up until two weeks ago, I had no idea that The Boxer Rebellion, one of my favorite discoveries of the past ten years, had released a sixth album. I don’t know how this slipped past me, given how much I like this band. I first heard them in 2011, when their third effort, a stunning piece of work called The Cold Still, caught my attention. The Cold Still was everything I have always wanted The National to be – slow and atmospheric, yet yearning and full of life. While I enjoyed the two follow-ups, the more scattered Promises and the somewhat synth-y Ocean by Ocean, they didn’t quite measure up to me. The Cold Still remained my favorite.
And it probably still is, but the new one, Ghost Alive, is the closest they have come since to matching it. I have since discovered that it came out in March, but only across the pond, and physical copies seem to have dried up from all but one source: the band themselves. So of course I bought from them. And I’m so glad I did. Ghost Alive could be seen as a retreat in some ways: it dispenses with the synthesizers that the band never seemed all that committed to, and even walks back from the grandiose soundscapes of Promises. It is their quietest, most organic record, and in stripping back they have recaptured their essence.
Of course it starts with a curveball. “What the Fuck” is an angry lyric sung with sadness over a strumming acoustic figure, and it’s a hard thing to figure out. When Nathan Nicholson sings “who do you think you are to talk to me, to look the way you do,” I am not sure who he is addressing, or if he is being ironic. The song is pretty, and the out-of-nowhere rage at its core is surprising. I’d like to know more about this one. The band never steps off the path again for the rest of Ghost Alive, which only makes “What the Fuck” stand out even more.
But from there it’s one lovely tune after another, and I want to give this album a warm hug. “Rain” is a gentle song of encouragement through hard times. “Love Yourself” is similar, a sweet ode to what Whitney Houston called the greatest love of all. These songs feature big strings and horns, but somehow even these accoutrements are subtler, taking the place of the electric guitars that used to lie at the heart of the band’s sound. “Don’t Look Back” is almost a pop song, with an insistent tom-tom drum beat – it is closest to “No Harm,” the grand opener of The Cold Still. But once that has faded, the rest of the album is almost delicate.
I’m a massive fan of “Lost Cause,” on which Nicholson embraces his own broken state while moving toward wholeness: “I am not a lost cause, even if I’m not yours.” “River” is wonderful, its rolling acoustic guitars feeling like rushing water. “Under Control” is beautiful, all pianos and drums, and closer “Goodnight” is as delicate as you’d hope.
But the gem of this album is “Here I Am.” Like many songs here, it’s about offering encouragement and hope, but this one is special somehow. When Nicholson reaches for that falsetto over the subtle guitars and single-tom drum beat, something magical happens. I can’t explain it, but at least for right now, “Here I Am” is my favorite Boxer Rebellion song, and I can’t stop playing it. And each time I do, I think about the fact that I may never have heard it. I’m beyond glad that Ghost Alive didn’t pass me by.
A band I like just as much as The Boxer Rebellion, if not more, is Husky. I owe Rob Hale for turning me on to this Australian quartet. They have three albums, and each one has been magnificent, drawing from a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous melodies. They’re a band I don’t mind paying import prices for – their third, last year’s Punchbuzz, was only released in their home country, but it was absolutely worth the extra shipping cost and the two-week wait to get it here.
The fact that Husky only seems to operate in Australia these days makes me feel a tiny bit better about totally missing the follow-up EP, which also came out last year. It’s called Bedroom Recordings, and it evenly splits its four songs between acoustic readings of Punchbuzz tunes and fascinating covers. It only exists digitally, but it’s so lovely that I don’t mind paying for zeroes and ones in this case.
These tunes were recorded by Husky Gawenda and Gideon Preiss, half of the band, and if the title leads you to expect laptop electronics with acoustic guitars, that’s what you get. The two recastings are “Late Night Store” and “Splinters in the Fire,” two of the singles from Punchbuzz, and in these settings they’re even prettier. I’ve heard “Late Night Store” probably 60 times now, and I still feel a million miles from tired of it. I’m glad to have this chance to hear it again for the first time.
The covers are the heart of this, for me. Gawenda strips both Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers” and Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” down to their organic essences – guitars and pianos. In doing so, he finds the sweetness and sadness in both songs. “Let It Happen” has undergone the greatest metamorphosis here – Kevin Parker (a fellow Australian) built his version around an insistent electronic beat and waves of synthesizers, and Gawenda has removed all of that, yet still kept every melodic element of the original arrangement. It’s pretty fantastic.
I probably could have remained ignorant of these four tracks and not really felt their absence, but I’m overjoyed that I did find them, and that they’ve become part of my picture of this band. The fact that both of these records turned out to be so enjoyable only fuels my FOMO. And so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, trying to keep track of all of the music I want to hear, and chasing down the ones that get by me. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.)
Next week, I swear, a couple things from Lo-Fidelity Records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.