As You Mean to Go On
Celebrating One Thousand Columns The Best Way I Know How

I write from first sentence to last. It’s how I’ve always done it. I’m not the type of writer who can figure out the middle bit first, then write around it. I need the first sentence before I can move on to the second. So sometimes it takes me a while to begin these columns. I’ve often stared at a blank Word document for a couple hours, trying to think of a way in, a hook to kick things off.

That is not a problem this week. I know exactly how I want to start this one, because this is my 1,000th Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column. One. Thousandth.

That’s one of these things a week, give or take, for 20 years. There have certainly been times when I didn’t stick to this schedule (and other times when I doubled up the output), but that means that every week, more or less, for 20 years I have sat down at one computer or another and written one of these things. There have been weeks when I am not sure why I’m doing it, weeks when it feels like shouting into the darkness for no reason, but I’ve still done it. Every week, more or less.

I’ll write more about the ups and downs of the last 20 years in my final column, which is coming right up, amazingly. Suffice it to say that I was 26 years old, out of work and living in Tennessee when I began this thing, mainly as a way of keeping the writing muscles limber. I emailed out the first 30 or so to a small list before Mike Ferrier kindly volunteered to design the first tm3am website. The column has lived on his server ever since, and I remain grateful.

But if you’d told me 20 years ago that I would still be doing it every week (more or less) in 2020, I’m not sure I would have believed you. It’s been a good run, a nice outlet for my musical thoughts, and I’m eternally appreciative of the small band of faithful readers I’ve managed to keep. It’s been amazing getting to know some of you, and whether you’ve been following along for two decades or just occasionally dropping in when I cover something that interests you, I’m thankful. More than I can even say.

I’ve been uncertain about how to mark this occasion. A thousand columns seems pretty momentous, right? I should say or do something equally momentous to celebrate? But eventually I realized that I’d rather just do what this column was created to do: share some thoughts about new music. I won’t get many more chances to do that in this space, and it’s honestly something I still love doing. Tuesday Morning 3 AM was intended as a peek at the weekly life of an obsessive fan, and I’m still one of those.

I began this column to talk about what I have been listening to lately, so let’s do that. It seems like the best way to commemorate the thousandth column: by writing something that’s just like the majority of the last nine hundred ninety-nine.

I should probably start with some records that are likely going to make my top 10 list. If you saw the third quarter report a couple weeks ago, you may have noticed a few unfamiliar entries. Probably the most important of those, as far as the list is concerned, is the new Darlingside, called Fish Pond Fish. I can thankfully report that the title is the worst thing about their best record.

Darlingside is a great example of a band I wouldn’t have known about without the people I met through this column. Several faithful readers recommended them to me, back when they only had two lovely little albums, and I’ve been a die-hard fan since. Which means I’ve been listening, mesmerized, as this Boston quartet has transformed from a folk band with superb harmonies to an otherworldly outfit that spins magic onto wax. Fish Pond Fish is so beautiful, so perfectly realized, that I don’t think there are words to adequately describe it. It is everything I have loved about Darlingside, magnified and perfected.

I could certainly point out some specifics, like the absolutely stunning “Ocean Bed,” which marries a sprightly acoustic figure to a busy percussion bed with gorgeous results. Or the incredible two-part “February/Stars” that begins as a strummy folk song and ends as a hushed hymn. Or the perfection that is the final track, the anthemic “A Light On in the Dark.” But it’s the whole that impresses here, the way this band never puts a foot wrong. The four-part harmonies remain the main selling point, and man, are they indescribably wonderful, but every element here works.

I’ve been hesitant to write about the new Fleet Foxes album, mainly because it is merely pleasant without delivering a single knockout. May I say, if you like what Robin Pecknold is doing, Darlingside does it better. Every single moment of Fish Pond Fish feels timeless, like it has existed for thousands of years, and at the same time has emerged fully formed out of thin air. This year hasn’t produced a lot of must-hear records, but this is certainly one of them. Hear it here.

What else? Well, Hum is back, and that’s pretty incredible. After releasing four increasingly brilliant albums in the ‘90s, Hum called it quits, but reunited in 2015. I don’t think anyone expected a new album in 2020, let alone their best album, but here it is. It’s called Inlet, and it was clearly written with no expectations in mind, just pure creativity. Hum’s hallmark is ultra-loud guitars washing over each other, Matt Talbott’s voice all but lost within the din, and that is certainly here. But these riffs are bigger, these songs are longer, and this album overall lives up to the hype and then some. Hear it here.

I owe Dr. Tony Shore for getting me into Everything Everything, and as thanks I will use his favorite word to describe them: they are quirky. They are also fierce, unfailingly melodic and unceasingly experimental. Their new one is called Re-Animator, and it continues all those trends. It is the most keyboard-heavy record they have made, and Jonathan Higgs’ oddly compelling voice works perfectly in this setting. “Big Climb” is going to get the most ink, with its memorable refrain and almost danceable rhythm, but it is the weirder ones like “Planets” and “Lord of the Trapdoor” that I have ended up enjoying most. I have still not fully absorbed it, but I have heard it enough times to know it is one of the best things to come out this year. Hear it here.

The last new entry on the list is Lo Tom, and reviewing this one is bittersweet, since they broke up shortly before releasing it. Lo Tom is, in some circles, a supergroup – it consists of David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, Jason Martin of Starflyer 59 and TW Walsh and Trey Many of several well-regarded projects. Their first album was a quick blast of rock and roll with Bazan’s immediately recognizable voice at the helm, and this second one is too, only it’s better. “Start Payin’” and “I Need Relief” are probably my two favorite rock songs of the year, and just like last time, my main complaint is that this is too short. But for the 26 minutes we have them, they’re on fire. Hear that one here.

Since then, a lot of my listening time has been taken up by the new Tom Petty box set, celebrating his second solo album Wildflowers. I usually try to ignore nostalgia when it comes to my musical musings, but I can’t help it in this case. Wildflowers is the sound of my junior year of college, living with two Garys and a T.J. in a house on a lake. “You Don’t Know How it Feels” was inescapable, just a massive single, and the rest of the album (which I bought on cassette, naturally) got a lot of play around our house.

Revisiting it now is tinged with sadness, of course, since Petty was taken from us three years ago. I had always been a fan, and would list the Heartbreakers among the finest American bands of all time, but Wildflowers was something else. It’s just a lovely, diverse little effort, Rick Rubin finding a way, again, of helping an artist discover what he always should have sounded like. The songs are simple – “You Wreck Me” is three chords – but they all work, really well.

Wildflowers has been remastered and reissued as a box set, with hours of supplemental material. And I’m so pleased to find that this is one of the rare sets that gets it all right. There isn’t a wasted second, from the ten tracks recorded during the same sessions to the disc of revelatory home recordings to the delightful live documents, as Petty and his bandmates bring these songs to blistering, affecting life. I’m going to treasure this set for the rest of my life, and I hope the rest of Petty’s catalog is reissued with this much love and care.

There, that felt good. Go and listen to Darlingside and EvEv and Hum and Lo Tom and meet me back here in seven days for more. I’m grateful to everyone who has kept me going for these last 20 years and one thousand columns, and though I’m bringing it all to a close soon, know that your comments and emails and love has been the best part of all this, and the thing I will miss the most.

I’m not crying, you’re crying. Get outta here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.