Trip Shakespeare was a band I just kinda missed.
I certainly was aware and paying attention to music when Across the Universe came out in 1990. That was the band’s third album, but their first to receive major-label national distribution, so it’s the first one I could reasonably have been expected to hear as a high school student in New England. But I have no memory of it or its follow-ups at all. I was already turning my attention to Seattle, and aside from a certain purple-frocked genius, I think I missed Minneapolis completely.
No, I should be ashamed of this, but the first I became aware of the Wilson brothers – Matt and Dan – was when I heard “Closing Time,” the worldwide smash hit from Dan’s band Semisonic. I frankly loved Semisonic. That is not the part about which I feel ashamed, by the way – Dan Wilson is a legend in my house, and even his most overplayed material still makes me smile. It’s the fact that it took one of the Wilsons hitting it big to turn me on to their first project together.
I got over it, though. Trip Shakespeare was a strange, beautiful band, and Matt Wilson was often the equal of his younger brother as a songwriter. Lulu is a forgotten gem of the era, an album that any fan of ornate, well-written guitar-pop should hear. It was also the band’s last. Since the breakup, Dan’s star has ascended while Matt still toils in obscurity. Even here – I’ve written a ton about Dan Wilson, songwriter to the stars, and virtually nothing about his brother.
That ends now, because Matt Wilson has just released my favorite album of 2020 so far.
His new project is called Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, and while it doesn’t quite live up to that lofty promise, the lineup is unique. Wilson has enlisted Quillan Roe of the Roe Family Singers to play banjo, Phala Tracy to play harp and Jacques Wait to play bass. The result is somewhere between bluegrass and baroque, and these arrangements not only complement Wilson’s new songs, they elevate them.
Not that these songs needed elevating. Wilson’s first album with his orchestra is called When I Was a Writer, and the title song, about his more fertile songwriting period in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is typically self-effacing. These 10 tracks prove he’s still a writer, and a great one. Just “Decent Guy,” all by itself, makes the case: it’s an unfailingly melodic ride through dark alleys of self-loathing, narrated by someone who wants to be seen as decent but knows it’s out of his reach. This is just a great, great song, one worthy of writers like Aimee Mann.
The album never gets worse. The piano-led “Come to Nothing” has been stuck in my head for days, the orchestra’s harmonies sweet and organic. The album does have drums and percussion, but they’re light (and I have no idea who played them). The focus is on the sparse acoustic interplay of Wilson’s guitar with the banjo and harp. That interplay is never better here than on “Real Life,” the album’s highlight. This song is masterful, and it would have been fine even without the incredible bridge that culminates in Wilson’s flawless falsetto, but it’s there anyway, taking things to new heights.
Wilson’s voice is certainly not what it was – it’s older and more weathered, creakier and more strained. But even that works beautifully with these folksier arrangements. There’s an authenticity to When I Was a Writer that instantly makes this my favorite of Wilson’s many projects. I’ve only had this record for a week or so, and these songs are already like old friends. I initially questioned Wilson’s decision to end things with “Mental Patients,” but now I think it’s the perfect closer – this is a record about Wilson’s inner turmoil, and here at the end he extends that gaze outward, concluding that we’re all mental patients, living in a world of blues.
I predict this will be the sleeper album of 2020, and it’ll be the one most everyone sleeps on. I found it almost entirely by accident, thanks to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. I’ve thought more than once about how this lovely little gem of a thing nearly passed me by. Don’t let that happen to you. Even if you’ve never heard of Trip Shakespeare and your favorite Wilson is a volleyball, try this album out. It’s a wonder.
You can hear and buy Matt Wilson and his Orchestra here: https://www.minneapolismatt.com.
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Aside from this clear standout, it’s been a weird, random year for music. We’re still waiting for the end of the month for some of the bigger guns to come out, like Pearl Jam and Sufjan Stevens. But in the meantime, here are a couple good examples of what we’ve had to deal with.
I can’t say I was overly excited for Citizens of Boomtown, the first Boomtown Rats album in 36 years. Bob Geldof has never been my favorite singer or songwriter, and much of the classic Boomtown material is pretty basic stuff. I respect Geldof greatly – he was one of the few musicians in the ‘80s who used his platform to do some real good in the world. I think it’s completely possible to hold the man in high regard and still not much like his band.
And I definitely didn’t like Citizens of Boomtown very much. I’m not even sure what convinced 68-year-old Geldof to put this thing together, but it wasn’t a surplus of great songs. Most of these, like “Trash Glam Baby” and “She Said No,” sound like any band you could hear in any bar in any city in the world. And those are in the good half. When Geldof and the Rats embrace awkward rap on “K.I.S.S.” and house music on “Get a Grip,” it’s cringe-worthy. A song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ye Ye” really lives down to that title.
Is there a bright spot? Absolutely. “Passing Through,” at track five, is the record’s one sober, lovely moment. Buoyed by a circular piano figure, the song – about being visited by ghosts of the past – builds to a sweet and hopeful chorus: “We will not break, we will not bend, we’ll take these rented souls and render them immune to loss or pain, we’ll pretend it’s all the same…” This song by itself doesn’t justify the rest of Citizens of Boomtown, but it is worth hearing. You can take or leave the rest.
Faring better is the Flaming Lips, a band that I guess I will follow down any rabbit hole they choose to dive. I’ve rolled with their Beatles cover albums, their 24-hour song and their collaboration with Miley Cyrus. Most recently the band issued King’s Mouth, a collection of music written for a bizarre art exhibit by frontman Wayne Coyne, and it was one of their best sets in years. Had I gotten off the train at Miley’s dead petz, I would never have heard it. So I’m on board.
Which means I picked up Deap Lips, a full-length collaboration with badass guitar-drums duo Deap Vally. In truth this isn’t the full Flaming Lips, just Coyne and Stephen Drozd working with guitarist Lindsey Troy and drummer Julie Edwards. In a lot of ways, this is like a new band, combining elements of both and coming up with something new. Deap Lips is written and arranged like a single song, with the raucous vocals and guitars of Troy and Edwards and the synth-y ambience of Coyne and Drozd in equal measure.
How is it as a piece of music? Weird in all the best ways. From the start, as the relatively straightforward “Home Thru Hell” segues into the Tron-like instrumental “One Thousand Sisters With Aluminum Foil Calculators,” this thing wants to take you on a journey. The folksy “Hope Hell High” is like Neko Case surrounded by cloudy keyboards, the shouty “Motherfuckers Got to Go” is a hilarious interlude, and the centerpiece of the album, the seven-minute “Love is Mind Control,” really works. It all feels like a single thought, though maybe one that suffers from a bit of attention deficit disorder.
This album is without a doubt the strangest thing Deap Vally has contributed to, but it’s par for the course for the Flaming Lips, a band that has always and forever only done what they want. They’ll work with anyone, they’ll try anything, and most of the time, it’ll stick. This isn’t a masterpiece by any means, and it won’t make my best-of-2020 list (at least, I hope it won’t), but it’s another fascinating piece of work, and I’m thankful for it.
Next week, who knows? I started working from home today, and I expect we’ll be under a stay-at-home order before long. Scary times. We’ll see what seven days brings.
See you in line Tuesday morning.