All posts by Andre Salles

And In the End…
Some Words of Thanks As the Music Fades

This is the last Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column.

I’ve been thinking about how to write this one for a year or so, ever since I made the decision to end TM3AM at the close of 2020. Of course, when I decided to draw the curtain, I had no idea the year we would be in for, and no idea how that year would change my perspective on things.

While 2020 has been a never-ending nightmare of isolation and anxiety, it’s also paradoxically drawn me closer to the most important people in my life, and it’s made me even more certain that I want to spend my precious time differently. I’m not the same person I was 12 months ago, and I’m sure what I have to say now will be different from what I imagined I would have to say, back in another lifetime.

This column has been a part of my life for 20 years. Well, I say that, but it’s actually been more like 23 years. I started chronicling my life as an obsessive fan of new music back when I worked for Face Magazine. I’m not absolutely sure where the name came from. It’s a double reference to Simon and Garfunkel and to midnight sales at record stores, which used to take place on Tuesday mornings. But I have no idea why I thought of those things together and came up with Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. All I can tell you is that it’s the best name I have ever thought up for anything.

If you count the Face Magazine incarnation, TM3AM has been written in six states. It was a constant as I moved around the country, searching for my magnetic north. I started the online version of it in Tennessee in 2000, back when dial-up was still a thing and downloading a song on Napster took like 18 hours. (Not that I ever did that.) I started writing it for me, and emailed it out to a few friends. I know people who are still reading this from that initial email list, and I can’t tell you how wonderful that makes me feel.

I wrote this thing once a week, more or less, while working at a weekly newspaper in Indiana, while working at a factory in Maryland, while writing for a daily paper in Illinois, while maintaining my own website for the town I still live in, while translating particle physics into English at Fermilab, and now while writing about all kinds of different things at my new place of employment. It has outlasted every relationship I’ve had (and I have had a few while writing it), and it has brought so many new people into my life.

It’s that last one that I am most grateful for. I certainly don’t want to list everyone I’ve met as a result of doing this column, for fear of leaving some people out. But the friendships and relationships it has brought me have meant the world to me, and I hope to keep talking about music with all of you. Even if you just count the conversations and concerts with people I have met through this column, TM3AM has been a net positive in my life.

So why am I ending it? Well, for the same reason I started it, really. I love music, and writing about it each week was detracting from that love. I don’t know how to put it any more plainly. Listening to music is one of the greatest joys of my life, and for the past few years that has been overshadowed by the constant need to have something to say about that music, or to defend my tastes. It’s like I have often said: You should keep doing something only until it isn’t fun anymore. And then you should do it for another couple years just to make sure it isn’t fun, before finally giving it up.

But listen, all that is beside the point. When it’s time to let something go, it’s just time. Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. has been a part of my life for 20 years. I can barely fathom that, honestly. I don’t even have words for how different my life is now than it was 20 years ago, but if I want to remember what I was thinking in just about any given week from those 20 years, I can go back and read it. That’s amazing to me. I’m proud of the fact that I kept at it, that I wrote more than 1,000 of these things, that what started as a writing exercise grew into a significant part of my weekly life.

If you’ve been with this column from the start, I don’t even know how to thank you. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for everyone who has discovered TM3AM at any point in its history. Even if you only read one of these, I’m thankful. But here at the end, I wanted to say a special thanks to those who have been reading for 20 years. When I think about that, about people making my words a part of their lives for two decades, I confess I get emotional. I’m beyond thankful for that. Like, there isn’t a word for how thankful I am for that.

One person I will name, who has been with me for all of these 20 years, is Mike Ferrier. He designed the website you are reading now, and the one you may have read before that. He’s been a constant source of encouragement, and deserves my most public thanks for everything he has done for TM3AM.

Music continues to be the best. I started this as a way of chronicling what my life was like. How excited I get, still, at new album announcements from my favorite artists. How delighted I am to discover new songsmiths, and to get in on the ground floor of their careers. How engrossed I can still get in an album, blocking out all other sensory information and getting lost in the music. How my experience of music influences the way I see the world, the way I interact with people, the way I approach most everything. I hope, by collecting 20 years of these moments, that I wove a bigger picture of what it’s like to be someone like me. If I’ve helped you understand the obsessive music fan in your life a little better, I consider that my job done.

Even though this column is ending, my love of music will continue, most likely until they put me in the ground. I hope, if our paths have crossed, that I have spoken to your love of music too, and hopefully sparked it in some way. For all the words I have poured into this, I still feel like that love is beyond description, that my desire to explain and share it was an impossible one. Music is beyond us all. We do what we can, but we are stumbling around in the dark, trying to describe the indescribable.

So this is the last Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column, at least for now. I will still have the login code for this website, and I may pop in here and there when the mood strikes me. I’m still working out new ways to share my love of music with the world, and I’ll make sure to mention those here when they become more concrete. For now, let these 20 years of scribblings stand by themselves. I don’t know what I intended to say in this space, but right now, I feel like there are only two words that matter.

Thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You’ve been lovely, and it’s been my joy and honor to write for you for the past 20 years. Be good to each other. I will miss you.

One last time, with feeling:

See you in line Tuesday morning.

We’ve Been Here Too Long
The 2020 Top 10 List

All right, everyone, the faster we get through this list, the faster 2020 will be over. And if there’s a year I have more desperately wanted to be over, I cannot remember it.

What you’re about to read represents some of the brightest spots of my year. 2020 was marked by fear and isolation, by health scares and unwelcome diagnoses, by rapid change and slow-motion movement. It was also full of reminders that I know the best people, and renewed commitments to remain in touch with those people. There have been bright spots amidst the darkness, and it’s good to remember that.

There’s also been good music, and it’s important to remember that too. The list that follows is a personal one, and if you disagree, that’s fine. One of the reasons I am ending this column is that I’ve grown weary of defending my own personal taste. The things I like will not strike others the same way, and that is sometimes hard for me to remember. There are plenty of records – dozens, in fact – that could make a list like this one, and it’s all down to what moves you.

It’s amazing to me, though, that my last top 10 list ends with me in complete critical agreement with pretty much everyone. This year’s top album was so good, and so right for this moment, that it was undeniable. No iconoclastic choice from me this year. Just a big ol’ stamp with the words “I AGREE” engraved in it. The rest of the list won’t be as obvious, I don’t think, but the top choice has been clear for a long time.

Anyway, your mileage may vary. For me, these were my favorite albums from a long and lonely year.

#10. Vanessa Carlton, Love is An Art.

I chose this one over my “number elevens,” as I listed last week, because I love a good evolution. If you haven’t been keeping up with Vanessa Carlton since “A Thousand Miles,” you’ve missed some quiet yet tremendous artistic growth. This isn’t a knock on “Miles,” which is still a superb pop song, but if you’re looking for that youthful exuberance here, you won’t find it. Love is An Art is an immersive collection of mature songwriting, with often bizarre yet beautiful production by Carlton and Dave Fridmann. It’s the kind of album that makes no sense on first listen, but falls into place the more you get to know it. Love is An Art is (forgive me) a thousand miles from the piano-pop of her past, and charts a strong path for her future.

#9. Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.

Matt’s brother Dan made headlines this year by reuniting Semisonic, but it was the lesser-known Wilson who made the biggest impact on me. When I Was a Writer is a lovely set of songs, performed with a scaled-down band of stringed instruments (including banjo and harp), and it sounds like a mix of bluegrass and chamber music. This setting is perfect for Wilson’s worn voice and songs about finding hope where you can. “Real Life” is one of the year’s finest, but you won’t be able to stop humming “Decent Guy” or “Come to Nothing” either, and with “Mental Patients” Wilson has basically written an anthem for all of us. Here’s hoping this is just the start of this orchestra’s run.

#8. Tim Minchin, Apart Together.

You know this record is good if it made this list mere weeks after its release. Australian Tim Minchin is widely known as a musical comedian and a composer of stage shows like Matilda and Groundhog Day. Apart Together is his first “real” album, and if you’ve been missing the heartfelt specificity of Ben Folds, Minchin’s work here will scratch that itch. This is a gorgeous album of big productions, but it is the detailed and heartfelt lyrics that steal the show. Minchin can still be funny – “Leaving L.A.” is a riotous chronicle of his miserable time in the title city, writing an animated film that went nowhere. But gems like “I Can’t Save You” and “I’ll Take Lonely Tonight” deliver with a wellspring of emotion Minchin has often kept hidden. If this is just the start of Minchin’s “serious” recording career, I look forward to following his work forever.

#7. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher.

Phoebe Bridgers’ extracurricular work in Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center will not prepare you for Punisher, a moody, dark, beautifully produced piece of work that is only “folk music” by the barest of associations. The music here is ethereal and otherworldly, which stands in lovely contrast to Bridgers’ lyrics. They’re full of tiny little details that draw you into her worlds, while she keeps the big moments at the edges, telling stories often by not telling them. The final song, “I Know the End,” is one of the greatest achievements of the year, an apocalyptic breakdown that slowly ratchets up until it explodes in fanfares and screams. This record is every bit as good as you’ve heard it is.

#6. Weiwu, Are You Perfect Yet.

Weiwu is Michael Gungor’s one-man project following the demise of his eponymous band. But don’t worry about that. No amount of familiarity with Gungor’s previous work will give you any idea what Are You Perfect Yet sounds like. This is progressive, electronic, noisy, danceable, meditative and deeply spiritual stuff, exploring Gungor’s fascination with Hinduism and with many different kinds of music. Some of this is clearly indebted to The Age of Adz, but the way this one takes you by the hand and leads you on a journey is pure Michael Gungor. I’ve never quite heard anything like this, an outpouring of imagination and wonder on an impressive scale. Check it out here.

#5. Hum, Inlet.

There were a few surprise album drops this year, but for my money, none were as surprising as the return of Hum. Their previous two, 1995’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut and 1998’s Downward is Heavenward, before I even knew where Champaign, Illinois was. The best word I have for their sound is immersive. The guitars are so thick and heavy that they cease to sound like guitars after a while, and the music floats you along like a turbulent ocean. Inlet is the same, but more so – the songs are longer, the riffs more massive, the sound even more enveloping. After 22 years away, Hum may have made their finest record. Surprise!

#4. Darlingside, Fish Pond Fish.

Darlingside, that Boston band with the incredible harmonies, has been a favorite for some time. But with Fish Pond Fish they complete their transformation into something almost indescribably beautiful. There’s a spectral quality to much of this record, a sense of ancient wisdom and otherworldly grace. The harmonies are still the main draw, and they are unspeakably wonderful from first song to last here. But the songs are stunning too. There’s a sense of warmth and optimism to this record, particularly on the luminous closer “A Light On in the Dark,” that felt like a soothing balm, even in the year’s darkest moments. Everything I wanted the Fleet Foxes album to be, this one was. Hear it here, as soon as you can.

#3. Ella Mine, Dream War.

Ella Mine is, without a doubt, my favorite discovery of 2020. Barely out of college, Mine has crafted a stunningly confident and sweeping debut album, one that plays like a single piece of music. Inspired by her own horrific experience with mind-altering pain medication, Dream War offers some of the most hard-won hope of the year, taking you to the edge of despair and then finding the glimmers of love and inspiration that bring us back from the brink. There’s no way Mine could have known how much an album like this would be needed in 2020, how relatable her journey through darkness would be in this bleak midwinter. But it feels like 2020, like crawling through isolation and pain to reach the other side. I could mention highlights here, like “Water’s Rise” or “Wheel of Love,” but Dream War is best heard as a whole. So block off an hour and hear it. You won’t regret it. Of everyone on this list, Ella Mine is the artist whose next work I am most excited to hear.

#2. Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension.

The Ascension is a difficult album. It is practically dripping with pain, regret, betrayal, depression and inner turmoil, and when it reaches its conclusion after 82 minutes, that conclusion is utterly bleak. It is a lament writ large, for lost faith in God and in institutions, and taking it all in feels like being drowned over and over again. It is also an absolutely phenomenal piece of music, up to the impossibly high standards set by Stevens’ own catalog. Focusing almost entirely on electronic sounds, Stevens creates wind-blown landscapes and wildernesses for his beleaguered pilgrim to walk through, and though you may not want to keep going with him toward this particular destination, the album carries you along masterfully. This is one of the most brilliant cries of desperation I have ever heard, transforming both Stevens and the listener along the way, and its climax, the stunning title track, will hollow you out. I didn’t listen to this album too often this year, but when I did, it left a shadow over my heart. If your 2020 was a wrenching experience, taking you from every safe harbor you have known and making you question everything you hold dear, Sufjan Stevens has made the perfect soundtrack. It hurts. It’s beyond amazing, but it hurts.

And I almost considered it the most fitting album to top the list this year, considering… well, everything. But only briefly. The real story of the year is about living through trauma, about finding hope in hard places, about becoming more fully yourself. And that’s the story of the album that rightfully sits at this list’s peak.

#1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

It’s almost a cliché at this point to note that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is brilliant. Fiona Apple has been a tremendous songwriter and record-maker for some time, but it is here, for the first time, that we get a true sense of the scope of her talent. This is the first one that sounds like pure uncut Fiona. Made at home, it features household objects as percussion, off-kilter yet wonderful harmonies, songs that don’t go anywhere that you expect them to, and an overall feel that threatens to fall apart at any time, but never does. Every element works so well with every other element here, and I cannot imagine these songs any other way.

But it’s the songs that make this the astonishing experience it is. Apple has always been honest, but here she opens a vein, candidly discussing the experiences that have kept her down, kept her quiet, kept her from being her true self. The album’s title comes from a line in a television show, spoken by a character about to free a kidnap victim, and the entire feel of this record is of someone cutting through the chains that have held them down. “Under the Table” is exhilarating in its simplicity, Apple refusing to rein herself in for anyone. The title track is a low crawl to freedom, Apple repeating to herself that she has been stuck where she is for too long.

This is also a record about finding inspiration and hope in unlikely places. “Shameika” is a wonderful song about an offhand moment that Apple has carried with her for most of her life, and it brought her and the real Shameika together again after decades apart. “Relay” is a powerful reckoning with the way evil perpetuates, while “For Her,” one of the rawest and most harrowing songs here, ends with a confrontation over buried trauma, and the retaking of one’s power. It’s a pretty amazing 2:44, containing worlds and multitudes.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters could easily have been an angry album, but it isn’t one. It’s a wise one, a guidebook on forgiveness and perseverance and love. Closer “On I Go” is a mantra, Apple noting that she’s been in a rush to prove herself before, and now she only moves to move. This album is the product of years of healing, and if there has ever been a year in which we needed to hear the sound of healing, it’s this one. It doesn’t flinch from the darkness, but it learns to walk with it toward the light. That is the story of 2020 to me, and no one told it better than Fiona Apple.

And that’s it. This is the 21st of these top 10 lists I have been privileged to write for this column, and will likely be the last. Thanks to everyone for reading. Hope your holidays are merry and bright, as much as they can be. Come back next week as I bring this thing in for a landing.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Not-Quites and Also-Rans
The Honorable Mentions of 2020

Things are well and truly coming to an end now around the Tuesday Morning offices. (Those offices consist of a dining room table, an office chair and a stack of CDs, but go with me here.) There’s a little sadness seeping in as I put a bow on 20 years of this thing. But there’s also a new sense of engagement with music, and I hope that carries forward.

Let me explain. For 20 years now, I have anticipated many new releases with the intent of writing about them. I’ve thought about how to frame my observations even on the first trip through, and while that has always been an enjoyable process for me, lately it’s felt like an obligation. But this week I heard Paul McCartney’s new album, McCartney III, for the first time, knowing I would not be writing about it. And the experience was really different.

For one thing, I like McCartney III, especially for what it is: an old man messing about in his home studio, doing whatever he wants. If I were writing about it, I would frame it in reference to the previous McCartney albums (which it does not approach, in terms of quality) and would likely launch into a spirited defense of Sir Paul’s right to just have a good time. He’s 78 years old, and he sounds it here – his voice is weak, and these songs largely take the easy path. But he did this all on his own, in the middle of a pandemic, at 78. That’s pretty cool.

See, though, I’m doing it. I’m writing about it. And the point is, I listened to McCartney III for the first time this week without worrying about what I would say about it. And I had fun. It was a joyous 45 minutes of total connectedness to a piece of music. And I definitely look forward to more of those in the future.

First, though, we have to talk about the year that was. Though 2020 was a nightmare on a lot of levels, the music that came my way this year stands out as pretty damn extraordinary. My top 10 list is done, and while the top three have been set for a while, I did have some inner debates about the bottom seven. In the end, I chose the ones I liked best, even if they’re not necessarily the most impressive or relevant.

And I also have a dozen honorable mentions, which I will get to in a moment. First, one last time, let’s talk about the rules for these lists. I came up with this set of criteria more than two decades ago, and it has served me well. My top 10 list will always consider only new full-length albums of primarily original material released between January 1 and December 31 of a given year. That means no live albums, no EPs, no covers projects and no compilations of previously released material.

It’s like a song I can sing at this point. Just typing that out one final time made me feel good. I’m going to miss this end-of-the-year ritual.

Anyway, those criteria did not leave out as many albums this year as they have in prior years. If I could nominate an EP, it would probably be Semisonic’s You’re Not Alone, an all-too-brief return propelled by some classic Dan Wilson songwriting. If I could nominate two EPs, I would choose Threesome Vol. 1, by three Jellyfish alum under the name The Lickerish Quartet.

If I could nominate a box set of previously released material, it would be The Book of Iona, a comprehensive look at the studio output of an absolutely brilliant band. If I could nominate two, I would choose Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, the gorgeous, sumptuous all-in-one collection of the Divine Comedy’s vastly underappreciated work. Those with the means and time to dive into these sets should absolutely do so.

And if I could nominate songs by themselves, I would stand up for Michael Penn’s “Revival,” marking his first new tune in 14 years. It turned out to be prophetic, and I’m so glad. Janelle Monae’s single “Turntables” did the same, and hopefully signals something new on the near-term horizon for her. Monae remains one of the best musicians we have. And if I could nominate an album on the strength of one song, it would be Good Luck With Whatever by Dawes, which is mostly pretty good, but in “Didn’t Fix Me” sports one of my very favorite musical moments of 2020.

But we’re not here to talk about albums I couldn’t honor with a slot in the list. Rather, we’re here to discuss the ones that fell just shy. Every one of these enriched my year, and if any one of them turned out to be a favorite of yours, well, I won’t argue. Here are 12 records I also loved in 2020.

The year started off well with Derek Webb’s long-in development Targets. A deceptively brief and simple rock record, there’s a lot happening under the surface of this one, and songs like “Good Grief” really helped to add perspective to these COVID times. (It’s funny how music written without specific hard times in mind can truly help navigate them.) Nada Surf then knocked it out of the park with Never Not Together, on which these long-running pop tunesmiths chose love and forgiveness, over and over. It remains one of the most relentlessly positive records of the year, without ever slipping into corniness.

Supergroup Lo Tom reunited for a second (and reportedly final) outing, and its quick-hit songs bowled me over. David Bazan’s lyrics shine, while Jason Martin’s guitars strike with an intense ferocity. “Start Payin’” was a superb first taste (and the best way to launch a Kickstarter campaign I may have ever seen), and the record never came down from those heights. Everything Everything, on the other hand, put the guitars aside for their fifth record, Re-Animator, and turned out one of their best efforts. The thick synths fit this group’s fractured art-rock style perfectly.

It was an angry year full of angry songs, so it was the perfect time for Midnight Oil to return. Their first effort in 18 years, The Makarrata Project, is a collaboration with the first nations people of Australia, and an impassioned plea for justice. It’s also awesome. But no one did angry-at-the-world quite the way Glenn Kaiser did it this year. The former Resurrection Band frontman took aim at the Trump administration and the politics of religion on the stripped-down Swamp Gas Messiahs, and the result both sings and stings.

Several songwriters took bold steps forward this year, and a few of them are on the list proper. One that almost made it is Chris Stapleton, whose third album, Starting Over, delivers a front-to-back experience. Stapleton’s songs here are streets ahead of his previous efforts (which were also quite good), and his voice and arrangements are raw and emotional. Same goes for Margo Price, who also gave us a third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, that showcased her terrific songwriting. “I’d Die For You” is one of the most graceful and glorious numbers of the year, easy.

The big surprise this year, though, was Taylor Swift, whose two albums – Folklore and Evermore – saw her confidently leaping into the realm of literary songwriter. Collaborating mainly with the National’s Aaron Dessner, Swift told stories and spun images across these two records, and married them to low-key folk to create several small-scale wonders. While it’s true that the best songs from these two long albums could have made one single stunner, it’s Folklore that has the edge with me on the strength of beautiful songs like “Seven” and “Invisible String.” I know she’s eventually going to go back to her pop style, but I hope she hibernates here for a while longer, because what she’s done here is her best work.

And finally, we have three albums that I would consider the number elevens, albums that were all in very close contention for the final list. Start with Elvis Costello, who, even after 31 albums, knows how to deliver. Hey Clockface is a diverse collection of spitting tirades and painterly snapshots, set to unfailingly interesting and melodic music. He’s an absolute master, and here’s further proof.

Then there is Kathleen Edwards, who returned this year after an eight-year hiatus. Total Freedom is not just the name of her record, it is the feeling these songs evoke. Edwards is so good that she can even make her ode to her rescue dog a compelling piece of music, and when she turns her eye toward the folly of love, or – as she does on the extraordinary “Simple Math” – the wonder of lifelong friendship, the results are magnificent. Here’s hoping she never leaves us again.

And then we have Brian Transeau, better known as BT. I’ve been a fan of this electronic music wunderkind since his earliest work in the 1990s, and with The Lost Art of Longing, his 13th record, he delivers another masterpiece. Over 93 minutes, Transeau and his collaborators create one blissful moment after another, like magic tricks. “The Light is Always On” became an anthem for me this year, and the rest of the album is so good that it’s barely even a highlight. There’s no shortage of electronic music available, but if you want a fully human experience, Transeau remains in a league of his own.

And that’s it. I hope you’ll join me next week for the 2020 Top 10 List, and then the following week as we bid this year, and this column, goodbye.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

So This is Christmas
Music for a Socially Distant Holiday

Forgive me for being a downer, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas at all this year.

It’s not just the spring-like weather, either. Every year around this time I pack up my presents head east to Massachusetts for an extended break with family and friends. I treasure that time, and thanks to the wretched pandemic, I won’t be making that trip this year. I’ll be here, using Zoom to connect with loved ones and pretending that it’s enough. But it isn’t.

I know, this is a sad way to open what will be my last Christmas music column, but I can’t help it. I have negative cheer this year. I’m doing my best to get into the spirit. I’m watching Christmas movies. I’m stopping to look at lights displays. And in a complete abandonment of my usual rules, I have been listening to Christmas music since October. The old favorites, from Sufjan Stevens to Harry Connick to Josh Garrels, are getting play around my house, and it’s helping.

It wasn’t the best year for new Christmas music, but I’m certainly playing the jingle bells out of some of 2020’s offerings. The best of this year’s Christmas offerings satisfy the three sides of my fandom. (Yes, you can be a fan of Christmas music. It’s a thing.) Let me explain.

First, and probably most prominently, I want to hear the Christmas canon. I love Christmas songs, and I can only think of a couple (“Domenic the Donkey,” for example) that I would turn away. The familiar sing-along Christmas tunes will always find room at my inn. And this year, like every year, there is no shortage of interpretations of that canon.

Perhaps the most traditional of these is A Ben Rector Christmas, the first holiday album from the nerdy-clever singer-songwriter. Rector’s own music is often as warm and cozy as an evening by the fireplace, and his Christmas album follows suit. It begins with an anomaly, Rector’s own “The Thanksgiving Song,” which is about a different holiday all together. But it’s typical Rector, a piano-led tune about home and family that is more than a little bittersweet this year.

The rest of A Ben Rector Christmas is cozy and comfortable, full of low-key renditions of songs I will never grow tired of. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” Rector’s voice is nothing special, but he sings these songs well, and he even pulls off a moderately swinging take on “This Christmas,” a song that John Legend, to name one, knocked out of the park last year. A Ben Rector Christmas is simple and heartfelt. It doesn’t aim for more than that, but it doesn’t need to.

Also in the traditional mode is one of the most delightful surprises of this holiday season: If the Fates Allow, which is nothing less than a Hadestown Christmas album. Hadestown, if you don’t know, began life as an album by the brilliant Anais Mitchell and went on to become a celebrated Broadway show. It’s an adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from Greek mythology, and it features a trio of singers as the Fates, introducing and commenting on the action.

And now the three singers who played the Fates in the original Broadway show – Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzales-Nacer and Kay Trinidad – have reunited to sing a whole album of Christmas tunes. (If the Fates Allow, get it?) That this thing exists is sort of incredible. It’s wonderful, but that shouldn’t shock you. Blackman, Gonzales-Nacer and Trinidad are great singers, their voices intertwining beautifully, and the arrangements are superb. This take on “Sleigh Ride,” for example, made my inner harmony geek sit up and take notice more than once.

The traditional songs are wonderful – I am not sure I’ve ever heard a more shimmering version of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” – but for me, the highlight here is a song I didn’t know. “Winter Song” is a Sara Bareilles tune, and my feeling on her work should be clear by now. “Winter Song” is absolutely stunning, and this rendition makes me cry each time. Seriously, I am listening and crying right now. It would be embarrassing if there were anyone around.

If the Fates Allow is a fine mix of songs you’ll know and songs you’ll discover, and the three main voices turn even the songs you’ll know into spellbinding experiences. It’s just a great piece of work, and of the traditional Christmas albums I heard this year, it’s easily my favorite.

One thing I love about Sufjan Stevens’s two Christmas box sets, though, is that while he shows reverence to the existing canon, he does his very best to add to it. Stevens is the most prolific contributor of new Christmas songs, but every year there’s at least one artist who tries their hand at penning an album of originals and nudging it out into the holiday marketplace. It’s a brave thing to do, I think, given that the last song to truly enter the canon was Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” back in 1994. And yet someone always tries it.

This year it’s Jamie Cullum, the prodigiously talented English jazz-popper. He’s titled his record The Pianoman at Christmas, and it features ten new songs with a Christmas flavor. And I have to tell you, it’s pretty great. Cullum’s voice is unimpeachable, of course, but these songs are so delightful, and they sport full big band and orchestral arrangements that serve them well.

“Hang Your Lights” is just joyous, like a forgotten Rat Pack tune, winking at you the whole time: “Put yourself at the top of my tree and you can hang your lights on me.” “Turn On the Lights” is a big pop song with urgent strings, while “So Many Santas” is a Cab Calloway-inspired jazz shimmy. The sentimental “How Do You Fly” is lovely, and Cullum’s light touch helps it soar. All told, while none of these ten songs sound poised to replace the likes of “White Christmas,” they’re all excellent, and I’ll certainly be spinning this one for years to come.

The third side is one I don’t mention too often here, but it’s the side that is constantly looking for new expressions of faith. In the Christian tradition, Christmas is preceded by advent, four weeks of longing and waiting and hoping, and this year I think that the meditative nature of advent is more than fitting. There are a lot of Christmas albums, and many of them give my faith-filled side plenty to chew on. But there aren’t a lot of advent albums, not a lot that try to express that particular aching.

Caroline Cobb’s A Seed, A Sunrise is an advent album. It’s one of two she offered through Kickstarter earlier this year, and it’s exactly what I hoped it would be. It’s the kind of album with bible verses referenced for each song, but in the best Sara Groves tradition, Cobb tells these stories with artistry and humanity. “We Wait For You” (and is there a more advent song title than that?) starts things on the perfect note, Cobb tying the start of Jesus’s life with its end, and capturing the longing of those who believe.

Every one of these seven songs does the same. “Comfort, Oh Comfort” is melancholy and gorgeous, with a warm cello and gentle guitar picking, while “Joy (As Far As the Curse is Found)” moves forward on a skipping rhythm, telling the Christmas story in a familiar yet somehow new way. Closer “There Will Be a Day” is probably my favorite, its gentle piano underpinning a song of faith and trust.

I definitely understand that advent music is not for everyone, and that my own complicated relationship with Christianity makes an album like this more appealing for me. But if you are also in the market for something like this, I highly recommend Cobb’s work. You can hear and buy at her website.

So that’s what has been playing here during this non-Christmas-y Christmas. Music, of course, is the thing that gets me through the dark times. I hope that wherever you are and however you are spending this extraordinary holiday season, that you have something that gets you through it. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.

Next week, the honorable mentions of 2020.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Last Reviews Part Two
Final Thoughts on Five New Albums

If all goes to plan, this should be the final set of record reviews published as part of the weekly Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I’m not sure what I’m going to do going forward – I love writing about music so much that I might pop in here every once in a while, but of course I haven’t really thought about it. So I’m thinking of these as the last ones.

And as befits my end-of-TM3AM philosophy, they’re nothing special. Just another five CDs I wanted to talk about. This column was initially intended as a chronicle of the life of a new music fanatic, and its raison d’etre for all these years has been to discuss new music. So here’s my last stab at doing just that.

Smashing Pumpkins, Cyr.

I couldn’t resist one last barely-listened-to-it seat-of-my-pants new album review in this spot, and Cyr is the biggest thing to come out last week. I bought it on Friday, so I’ve barely made it through this beast once. I’m somewhat embarrassed by how many TM3AM reviews were done this way, barely scratching the surface of some pretty involved records. I publicly reversed course on one of those once (Mutemath’s Vitals), but trust me that my appreciation for some of the albums I wrote about too quickly has grown over time.

I don’t know if that will happen with Cyr, though. I have a complex relationship with Billy Corgan, who is still one of the most ambitious and excessive musicians to come out of the ambitious, excessive 1990s. I’m still a big fan of the peak Pumpkins work, which includes Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie, Adore and its attendant b-sides collections. Even the castoffs from this period were pretty great. But with Machina in 2000, something broke, and Corgan has yet to fix it.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t turned out good work since then. I enjoyed albums like Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy, though I cannot for the life of me remember anything about them now. And I like Cyr, the second Pumpkins album since their three-fourths reunion in 2018. But man, there’s just nothing memorable about this. It’s a 20-song, 72-minute monster loaded with enough synths that Corgan sounds like he’s auditioning to soundtrack the next Stranger Things season, but none of those songs really connect.

Some of them are fine. “The Colour of Love” kicks things off in decent fashion. The title track has an appealing synth line. Corgan’s voice works well with this style, and Jimmy Chamberlain is still a powerhouse behind the drum kit (when Corgan remembers to use him). But this album goes on and on and on, with almost nothing rising above the tide of mediocrity. “Wyttch” is memorable, but mainly because it’s bad, Corgan shouting “Samhain” like a deranged Danzig fan. But with “Starrcraft” it’s back to pleasant synths and melodies that just kind of… are, with nonsense lyrics that fail to connect.

I don’t know if this synthpop direction is a permanent one, or just a long experiment released in full here. Either way, Cyr doesn’t pay back dividends for the time you will invest in it. It isn’t bad, but there’s so much of it that just sits there. The idea that Corgan might learn from this and rein things in next time is laughable – he’s working on a 30-plus-song sequel to Mellon Collie and Machina right now, as I understand it – but the best of his post-‘90s work has also been his most focused. This is the opposite of that, and even if his best songs lie in the final quarter of this thing – spoiler: they don’t – you’ll be too bored by the time you get there to appreciate them.

Beki Hemingway, Earth and Asphalt.

I don’t know Beki Hemingway, but I know lots of people who do. She belongs to a special group of artists in my mind: those I discovered at Cornerstone. The annual Cornerstone Festival was one of my favorite sojourns, a week of great music from a largely unheralded pocket of the music world with some of my favorite people. On my first day at my first Cornerstone I saw Beki Hemingway play, and I bought her album Words for Loss for Words right away. I’ve been following her work ever since.

I once said that Beki has two gimmicks: great songs and a great voice. Her latest, which I helped Kickstart, hasn’t changed my thinking on that at all. Earth and Asphalt was recorded in Ireland, where Hemingway and her husband/musical partner Randy Kerkman live now, but it still sounds like it sprouted from American soil.  There’s some country, some folk and some rock and roll here, and Hemingway delivers all of them with conviction, her voice solid and strong.

The whole album is a highlight, but I’m particularly fond of “Lay Your Burdens Down,” with its crunchy riff and big chorus; the anthemic “We’re Not Going Anywhere”; and the layered, lovely waltz “Hurricane.” I’m also a fan of “Cost Me Everything,” a darker yet hopeful ballad that stands with Hemingway’s best writing. But really, Earth and Asphalt is all very good, and more evidence that Beki Hemingway should be a household name, especially in alt-country circles. Check it out here. (Hey, it’s Bandcamp Friday again in a couple days, so maybe check it out then, too.)

Love Coma

Chris Taylor is another songwriter from this spiritual-minded corner of the music universe, but he’s one I missed completely at the time. I first heard of him through his extensive solo career, and then only because my friends Jeff Elbel and Jeffrey Kotthoff worked with him. I’ve caught on more now, and though he’ll never be my favorite Taylor, he’s a prolific and interesting musician.

Also, he had a band in the ‘90s that flew totally under my radar. Love Coma apparently released two albums, one in 1993 and the other in 1996, before disbanding. Even more interesting, Love Coma’s guitar player was Matt Slocum, who you might know better for his work in Sixpence None the Richer. Well, color me intrigued, so when Taylor and Slocum reunited with the rest of the band and made a new Love Coma album this year, I snapped it up.

And it’s pretty good. Taylor and Slocum have a push-pull dynamic – Taylor’s a rough and tumble three-chord rock guy and Slocum more of a spinner of atmospheres – that works well throughout this record. Slocum works his magic over the simple grooves that make up these songs, and Taylor’s cigarettes-and-coffee voice grounds everything. The jangle-pop “Boomerang” is probably my favorite song here, but it all works for me, especially as a whole. Check it out, and try some of Taylor’s solo work while you’re at it.

Lauren Mann, Memory and Desire.

Completing the Cornerstone trifecta, we have Lauren Mann. I discovered this Canadian songwriter at the Gallery Stage of the Cornerstone Festival back in 2010, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Mann writes emotionally resonant, piano-led songs with a touch of Carole King, which is a huge compliment from me. She’s made several increasingly excellent albums, and now, fresh off a divorce and a period of reconstruction, she’s made what might be her very best.

It’s also her most intimate, full of straightforward diary entries about loss and love. “Forgiveness” is superb, a lament and an anthem in one, while “Waves” rides some gorgeous guitar atmospheres to tell a tale of perseverance. “Where do we go from here” might be something of a cliché, but it’s clear she’s singing that line from a deeply felt place. “Galaxies” is a wonder, a song of separation that uses its metaphor perfectly. Through it all her songwriting and singing voices are in fine form, and the production is dreamy and beautiful.

Memory and Desire is largely muted in comparison to Mann’s previous work, but this feels like an important album for her to have made. And there are moments of cathartic hope, like “Sing It Out Loud” and the delightful closer “Circus in the Sky.” In all, I think it’s the most complete piece of work Mann has given us, accomplished and confident and unafraid. I’ve recommended a few purchases here for Bandcamp Friday, but if you’re looking for an artist worthy of your support, Lauren Mann is worth a listen.

BT, The Lost Art of Longing.

Honestly, it’s just luck of the draw that put this new BT album in the final position here, but I’m happy that this will be the final review of this incarnation of TM3AM. I first discovered Brian Transeau’s work while interning at Face Magazine in Portland, where this column got its start, and I reviewed Ima and Movement in Still Life in those pages. I was drawn in by collaborations with Tori Amos and Mike Doughty, but I thought he was a genius then, and I still think so.

BT’s music has soundtracked my journey from that moment to this one. I was three years into the online TM3AM when Emotional Technology knocked me for a loop. A lot of Transeau’s innovations on that record are more commonplace now, but it still sounds like an extraordinarily detailed, beautifully written electro-pop album. These Hopeful Machines gave me songs to sing as I left my newspaper job, and A Song Across Wires was a perfect backdrop for my jump into science communication.

All of which is to say that Transeau was here at the start of this column, and he’s here at the end of it too. The Lost Art of Longing is his 13th, and at 93 minutes, it’s just as ambitious as anything he’s done. It is one of 2020’s most perfect pop albums, song after song here achieving a kind of transcendence that BT seems to traffic in as a matter of course. Longtime vocal partner Christian Burns joins him here, along with a host of new voices, including Nation of One and Iriana Mancini.

At the heart of it all is a kind of uplift, a spirit of hope that elevates this music. A song like “Walk Into the Water,” which extends past 10 minutes, is one beautiful high point after another, all of them designed to fill you with joy. Transeau made his name as a producer of unfathomable complexity, stutter-cutting his way through his first few albums. The Lost Art of Longing smooths a lot of that out – it’s more open, spacious, pure. “The Light is Always On” is a favorite here, the richness of Mangal Suvarnan’s voice bringing this ode to togetherness alive.

Man, every single track here is wonderful, and I’m so glad I get to write about another brilliant BT album before I sign off. It’s nice to know that even after 20 years, Transeau is still using his gift to improve the world. His music has gotten me through a lot these past two decades, and as I wrap up this final column of reviews, it’s good to have him here, enriching my life once again.

And that’s it. My last set of reviews. Next up it’s Christmas music, then honorable mentions, then the top 10 list, and a farewell column. That’s the roadmap to the end of TM3AM. I’m certain to say this again and again over the next month, but thank you all for reading, and for coming along on this journey. Four left. Let’s do this.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Last Reviews Part One
Elvis Costello Leads a Superb Group of New Albums

The countdown continues.

One thing I thought about doing in this space, as my time slowly dwindles, was a holiday gift guide. We’ve seen an extraordinary amount of lavish and beautiful box sets this year, and I have a few favorites. But that seemed like a lot of work, and truth be told, I haven’t had the time to listen to all of them to the level I would like to in order to properly review each of them.

So here’s just a list, and you should hunt each of these down and explore them: Gentle Giant’s Unburied Treasure, Iona’s The Book of Iona, The Divine Comedy’s absolutely perfect Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories, the awesome Sign O’ the Times set from the Prince estate, Zappa’s Halloween ’81, and (though it is not out yet) the exhaustive-looking Closed for Business from Mansun. That list represents a nice chunk of my 2020 income, and I don’t regret a thing.

What did I decide to do in this space? Well, my opportunities to just talk about new music are quickly diminishing, and I think I would like to do that. I’m giving up this column because it takes so much time, and its audience is perishingly small. But I still love talking about music (and I’m working on ways I can keep doing that), especially new music.

What follows, this week and next, are the last regular old reviews of new music to be published in Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. In a weird way, I’m going to miss doing this. I won’t miss the weekly deadline and the need to fill all this space, even when I don’t care about (or have barely listened to) the music I’m discussing, but when I am genuinely excited about new records, I’ll miss being able to do… well, this.

Elvis Costello, Hey Clockface.

Longtime readers know that I hold Elvis Costello in the highest regard as a songwriter. I seriously cannot name a better writer – Costello has peers, but no betters, at this point in his career. He also doesn’t, at this point, need to keep showing us how good he is. He could coast along, never pushing himself, resting on his considerable laurels if he wanted to.

But he doesn’t. He’s transitioned nicely into his grumpy old man phase, but his writing has sharpened and deepened. 2018’s Look Now was a stunning piece of work, casting Costello’s latest batch of hard-luck tales and rebukes in a classic pop format. “Unwanted Number,” all by itself, would put Costello in the upper echelon of current songsmiths. He could have kept going in this style, but with Hey Clockface, he’s stomped all over it. This new thing is darker and more diverse, and in places it feels like nothing he’s done before.

Hey Clockface was recorded in three cities – Helsinki, Paris and New York – and the sessions are mixed together, giving this a mixtape feel. The Helsinki material, all of which was released as singles, is the most daring and abrasive. Drums clang and clatter, guitars slither and effects whiz by as Costello spits out his tirades in his thick, still-strong voice. “No Flag” is one of the strangest pieces Costello has written, its chaos matching the bleak portrait it paints lyrically: “No sign for the dark place that I live, no god for the damn that I don’t give…”

The bulk of the album – nine of the 14 tracks – was recorded in Paris, and while the production is delightfully off-kilter, these songs are classic Costello. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” is an utterly brilliant jazz ballad with horns to die for, the title track is a Dixieland jaunt, and piano numbers “The Whirlwind” and “Byline” are gorgeous. The New York songs, “Newspaper Pane” and the spoken-word “Radio is Everything,” add a touch of menace to the proceedings.

All wrapped together, Hey Clockface is another showcase for the unerring melodies and sophisticated songcraft that Costello seems to deliver more consistently than almost anyone. This is album 31 for Costello, and he makes the argument that so much experience can only help hone your skills. He would never write something like “Mystery Dance” now, and younger Costello could not have dreamed up the songs on this record. Following this man’s career has been one of the great joys of my music-buying life, and I hope he never quits.

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over.

Start with this: the plain white design of the Starting Over cover, with its handwritten title and byline, is my favorite of the year. It is simple, striking and effective, just like the music you will find on Stapleton’s third and best record. A country hitmaker who was clearly saving his best material for himself, Stapleton’s star has been on the rise in alt-country circles, and this is the one that should make him famous.

Lately I feel like there’s a war on for the soul of Nashville, and while bro-country rules the charts, people like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Stapleton are trying to pull things in a more honest and traditional direction. Nothing on Starting Over should surprise you, melodically speaking. It runs the gamut from pretty ballads (“Joy of My Life”) to rockers (“Devil Always Made Me Think Twice”) to bluesier things (the two Guy Clark covers), but it’s all written and performed with an authenticity that can’t be faked. Stapleton isn’t afraid to show emotions, nor to take on wider issues, as he imagines justice for those who shoot up churches and synagogues on “Watch You Burn.”

Adding to the sonic goodness here are two of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell and pianist Benmont Tench. They know how good Stapleton is, how perfectly imperfect his voice is, how genuine songs like his can launch and sustain a decades-long career. I hope they’re right in this case, and that Stapleton sticks around for a while. If you, like me, felt a little underwhelmed by Isbell’s offering this year, you owe it to yourself to try Starting Over.

Sara Bareilles, More Love: Songs from Little Voice Season One.

Honestly, if I saw Sara Bareilles’ birth certificate and it informed me that her middle name really is “underrated,” I wouldn’t be surprised. When I talk to people about her, I find that she’s respected, but her name isn’t one that pops immediately to mind when listing off great modern songwriters. She’s quietly put together a quality catalog that includes sweet records like The Blessed Unrest and last year’s Amidst the Chaos, and also the songs for the hit musical Waitress. I love her voice and her songs, and I’m in for anything she does.

So I guess what she’s been doing lately is working on a television show, one named after her second album? I haven’t seen a frame of Little Voice, but I immediately bought this album of songs from its first season. Frankly, I have trouble believing the show could be good enough to deserve these songs. I can hear how a television show might incorporate them, but these are not cast-offs and also-rans. These are top-notch Sara Bareilles songs, and deserve to be heard in their own right.

My favorites are the slower ones, which is not to slight anthems like “More Love” and “Simple and True.” “Dear Hope” is wonderful, with a jazzy foundation, a minor key melody and some delicate cello lines. “Ghost Light” is a perfect Bareilles song, led by her piano and a soaring chorus. Those falsetto notes, good lord, they get me. And the title track of the show, “Little Voice,” is a winner. This song was written 15 years ago, and Bareilles was persuaded not to include it on her debut, for some reason. Now it’s the basis of a television show, which shows what record execs know. I’m sad we didn’t get to hear this at the time, but so glad we get to hear it now.

More Love is yet another reason why I will buy anything and everything Sara Underrated Bareilles does, from now to eternity. I just watched the trailer for the show, and it looks like something I would enjoy. I hope there is a second season, and it’s full of songs like these, and we get to hear them. I can’t wait.

Meg Myers, Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 the Disco, I’d Like 2 Go Home Now.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Meg Myers, whose two previous albums of electronic-tinged rock have been equal parts exciting and darkly depressing. I found Sorry to be a powerful thing, full of sweeping songs like “Desire” and “Make a Shadow” that drew from the likes of Garbage. I found her second, Take Me To the Disco, to be a little too much the same, but still pretty good. Had she stayed on this track, I probably would have lost interest, though.

Luckily, she seems on the verge of a transformation. Her in-progress third album will apparently detail a spiritual awakening, and will feel different from her first two. Hence these two Eps, released to bridge the gap. They’re made up partially of songs that didn’t make Disco, mixed in with some new ones, but they also chart some well-earned growth. These 10 songs together make a better album than Disco did, even if we are still trafficking in darkness.

Hell, just “Grizzly” by itself outdoes all of Disco, its pounding beat and big guitars supporting one of her most kick-ass choruses. “The Underground” uses a slinkier beat to do the same, delivering a singable anthem, while the painful “I Hope You Cry” closes out the first EP with a piano-led confession. The second EP turns the guitars down somewhat – “True Liars” has a winning Pat Benetar feel, while “End of the World” might be the darkest song she’s written, set to a jaunty clap beat. Final track “Last Laugh” feels like a coda and speaks to Myers’ strength, overcoming everything she details here.

This is a great piece of work in and of itself, and I’d happily consider these 10 songs Meg Myers’ third album. But more is on the way, and I’m excited to hear where she goes. Myers isn’t a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but lovers of well-considered electro-rock should give her a listen. Despite its role as a stopgap in her catalog, this is a good place to start.

Deep Sea Diver, Impossible Weight.

I’ll end this with a shout-out to Jim Worthen of Tooth and Nail Records who told me about Deep Sea Diver. It’s the project of Jessica Dobson, who has played with the Shins, Beck, Spoon and others, and serves as a showcase for her songs. And they’re really nice songs, epic and tuneful and produced exceptionally well.

Impossible Weight is the band’s third album, and it’s one of my favorite little discoveries of the year. It’s similar to Myers in that the songs are guitar-driven and the beats sound electronic (even if they’re not), but Dobson’s voice is bigger, her choruses more cathartic and emphatic. “Lights Out” has a loose trio feel to it, Dobson’s full-throated singing giving way to her awesome guitar solo, and the title track is a wonder, Dobson and Sharon Van Etten sharing vocal duties as the song pulls you under.

Really, the whole thing is great, though I have a special love for the extended jam on “Eyes Are Red (Don’t Be Afraid),” Dobson again cutting loose on the guitar. Chances are good you haven’t heard of this band either, so check out their Bandcamp site and remember to thank Jim Worthen later.

OK, that’s it for this week. Next week, more of the same, for the last time.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

So Long and Thanks for All The…
Fish Says Goodbye With the Massive Weltschmerz

As most of you probably know, my plan is to wind this column down at the end of the year.

Which means I don’t have many of these left. With December bearing down, I’ve started to put some serious thought into how I want to wrap Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. up. (My most powerful instinct is just to stop, now, but I know an endeavor like this deserves some kind of send-off.) I’m sure in my younger days I considered how I might bring this in for a landing someday, but I can’t remember any of those ideas now.

And it’s just as well. I’m not the same person I was when I started writing this thing, and thank God. I go back sometimes and read some of my earliest pieces, and they make me want to curl up into a ball. I was trying too hard to be edgy, to live up to some idea of what I thought music reviewers should be. I hadn’t learned how to just use my natural voice. I learned a lot writing TM3AM every week for 20 years, and that was one of the big lessons.

I guess I am thinking of my final column, which should run on Dec. 29, the way some artists think about their final album. It isn’t often that songwriters know when they’re making their final albums. Often that decision coincides with mortality – David Bowie and Leonard Cohen and Warren Zevon all knew their days were numbered, and designed their final albums to reflect their state of mind. Those are tough and powerful glimpses of the end, full of insights we don’t seem to see any other way.

But sometimes artists decide to ride off into the sunset on their own terms, and I feel like that’s what I’m doing. Lately I feel an affinity with these retirement package albums, and there is no greater one from this year than Weltschmerz, from Scottish singer Fish. I’ve been a fan for a long time – in his wayward youth, Fish was the original frontman for Marillion, one of my very favorite bands – and he’s been talking about making one final album for years. Now it’s here, and I expect it is everything he wanted it to be.

Weltschmerz, in German, means “world pain,” and Fish’s concept here (because he always has one) is to tell stories of people struggling. Sometimes overcoming, sometimes not, but struggling. He’s normally a first-person writer, and we’ve heard a lot through the years about his own relationships and his own failings. But he’s always been a strong storyteller too, something he proved on his recent A Feast of Consequences album with his five-part suite about World War I.

Yes, I know, just the idea of a five-part suite makes some of you break out in hives. Fish belongs to the prog tradition, like his former band, and although he has certainly moved beyond the Genesis mimicry of his earliest days, the songs on Weltschmerz are longer and proggier than what he has given us recently. In some ways it’s a return to his roots – Weltschmerz is an old-fashioned double album, about 85 minutes long, and three of its songs break the 10-minute mark.

And that gets at what I want to talk about here. Weltschmerz is great, truly, but the same thing that makes it great also makes it hard to love. This album is the very definition of pulling out all the stops for one last ride. There are strings, horns, big arrangements. These songs have movements, and they take you on journeys. Fish, as a lyricist, has always been more of a prose writer, but here he writes miniature novels, and the music is often there as a delivery method. The 15-minute “Rose of Damascus,” the story of a refugee fleeing her home country, is incredible. The lyrics are erudite and pointed and poetic, and the crack team of musicians Fish has assembled here makes every moment of it count.

But nearly all of the moments are like this, and as it moves along, the 10-minute saxophone-laden “Little Man What Now” giving way to the exuberant 13-minute “Waverly Steps (End of the Line),” it gets a little wearying. The pieces of this album are all terrific, but sequenced one after another, it’s a lot. My favorite moments on Weltschmerz turned out to be the smaller ones. “Man With a Stick” is a great song, tracing a life through the various sticks one carries as one ages. “C Song” is delightful, a simple anthem (“I won’t let you bring me down”) that uses its 4:41 to the fullest.

My favorite moment here, in fact, is the gentlest, and not just in contrast with the rest. “Garden of Remembrance” is perhaps – perhaps – the finest little song Fish has written. It’s an examination of dementia, of a man struggling with the disease as his wife copes with his fading memories. It’s gorgeous, and the accompanying video is similarly heartrending. There’s a stunning simplicity to this – “He’s lost between the here and now, somewhere that he can’t be found, she’s still here” – that outdoes all of the pomp and circumstance elsewhere on the album.

If there’s a mission statement here, it’s the title track, the final song on the final Fish album. It’s the story of a revolutionary who bears a striking resemblance to Fish himself: “I’m a grey-bearded warrior, a poet of no mean acclaim.” It’s an angry song, but a hopeful one, and Fish ends this album and his solo career bewildered at the state of things, but ready to fight for change. Fish’s sense of social justice is at the heart of Weltschmerz, and I hope he carries on, even if this is his last musical work.

And it likely will be. Every minute of Weltschmerz feels like it knows that this is the finale, the last piece of music Fish will deliver. It’s big and grand and monolithic, and listening to it, I sometimes wish that those instincts had been pared back somewhat. The most emotional moments here are the quieter ones, and it is in those moments that I understand how much I am going to miss this man and his work. For this column, I feel like the lesson I can learn from Weltschmerz is to go easy, to not let the finality of things dictate the form of them. But for someone as ambitious and nearly mythological as Fish, this is the perfect way to go out.

Check out Weltschmerz here.

* * * * *

Of course, there’s something to be said for sticking around, too, and since this is likely my last chance to mention Marillion here, I’m going to. The band is coming up on 40 years, 31 of them with singer and frontman Steve Hogarth, and they’re as good now as they have ever been. Better, I would say. Their last two albums have easily numbered among their best, and last year’s glorious With Friends from the Orchestra revisited several of their finest hours with strings attached.

Now they’ve released a live album from their tour with string and horn players, With Friends at St. David’s, and it is equally glorious. I don’t understand how Hogarth, now 64, has a stronger and fuller voice than he did at half that age, but he does. The new arrangements turn opener “Gaza” into even more of a film score, add moments of unexpected beauty to “Ocean Cloud” and bring even the incredible “This Strange Engine” to new heights. I’ve heard each of these songs more times than I can count, and these settings make them feel new.

If you’re not already a Marillion fan, I’m not sure I would suggest starting with St. David’s. I’ve certainly gone on at length in this column about how wonderful I find the whole catalog, but I don’t think you should live another week without hearing Brave, Afraid of Sunlight, Marbles, Sounds That Can’t Be Made and Fuck Everyone and Run. (And if you want a dose of Fish-led Marillion, Clutching at Straws is my favorite.) Then, once you’re a fan, check this album and its studio counterpart out.

Marillion is working on their 20th album now, and it’s a little bit sad that I won’t get to review it in this space. But they’re one of my favorite examples of persistence and perseverance. 40 years, and no signs of stopping. Amazing.

Next week, the final reviews begin.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Good Morning America
Thoughts on This Weekend's Magic and Loss

Well, that was something.

Last week I begged every American reading this column to go vote. I can’t definitively say it was down to my influence, but man, you did. Turnout in this election was hearteningly high, with more than 146 million people casting ballots at the current count. As Frank Zappa once said, democracy only works if you participate, so I would very much like to thank everyone who participated.

The good news is that 75 million (and counting) people voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, roughly four million more than voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. You can quibble over whether that is good news, I guess. For me, this feels like America stepping back from the brink. We’ve been on the verge of sinking into corrupt authoritarianism under this administration, and I know some think that is hyperbole, but I watched in horror over the past four years as our checks and balances on presidential power were eroded one by one. Waking up to this result has felt like being given a second chance.

Now all we have to do is earn it. As noted above, 71 million people (and counting) voted for more authoritarianism, swayed by fear-mongering about a Biden administration’s erosion of our basic rights and freedoms. I hope that the reactions of the two men to the result of the election points out to everyone watching the vast difference in character between them. Trump’s response is petty, small and selfish, spreading baseless accusations of a fraudulent election simply because he did not like the results. Biden’s has been generous and statesmanlike, extending the hand of healing to his opponents and vowing to set America on a path we can all be proud of.

We’re going to have to live with that 71 million (and counting) for a long time, and there’s no fixing the information silos that keep one half of the country divided from the other. Biden has his work cut out for him. But for the first time in years, I am breathing more easily, and I am less frightened for my more vulnerable friends and acquaintances, knowing they will not be targets in Joe Biden’s America. It’s a step on a longer path, but a step I am so glad we’ve taken.

* * * * *

It wasn’t all good news this weekend. We lost Alex Trebek, the longtime host of Jeopardy!, and yes, the exclamation point is officially part of the proper name. I was ten years old when Trebek began his stint hosting Jeopardy!, and he’s been a constant presence in my life, as he has been for a lot of others. His wry yet stately demeanor was the stuff of legend, and to say that he was an icon of American culture is to understate the case. Others have eulogized Trebek far more eloquently than I could. Suffice it to say that he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Sunday morning at age 80, and the landscape of pop culture will never be the same.

We also lost Bones Hillman, the electrifying bass player for Midnight Oil. Hillman is less well-known, but his impact on my musical life is immense. Hillman, born Wayne Stevens, was legendary in Australia and his native New Zealand. He joined Midnight Oil in 1987, at the height of their popularity, and made his debut with the band on 1990’s awesome Blue Sky Mining. His voice added so much to the backing vocals, and his playing was always energetic and inventive.

Hillman stayed with the band until their breakup in 2002, as frontman Peter Garrett left to pursue politics. Hillman settled into the life of a session musician until the Oils reunited in 2017, and his work can be heard on their new album The Makarrata Project, which I reviewed last week. He co-wrote “Terror Australia,” one of the record’s most striking songs. The Oils have a new album in the can as well, which will be released next year, and these will be Hillman’s final songs with them.

Bones Hillman also died of cancer. He was only 62.

* * * * *

I don’t want to dwell on death and loss, though. There will be plenty of time for that. I want to leave you this week with a piece of music that has been an unending source of calm for me for the last few months. Brad Mehldau, one of my piano-playing heroes, composed a suite in April that encapsulated his feelings about this never-ending year. It’s called Suite: April 2020, and as usual for Mehldau, it’s beautiful. It’s also an uneasy, boxed-in thing, befitting a year with a global pandemic and so much unrest.

The final movement, though, is called “Lullaby,” and I cannot at the moment point to another piece of music that says “everything is going to be all right” as well as this one does. The next few months will be hard. The next few years will be hard. But there is always hope.

There is always hope.

OK, I’m going to enjoy the rest of this unseasonably warm weekend. Be good to each other, and be back here in seven days for some actual music reviews.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Music to Vote By
Glenn Kaiser, Midnight Oil, Michael Penn and Oh God Please Vote

Today is election day, and I cannot hide my anxiety. My mental state is best described as shaky, I’m not sleeping well, I have trouble focusing. The last few weeks have felt like 20 years. I can see 2016 happening all over again, and I worry that this is the last free and fair election I will be able to vote in. The next few months are going to be terrible, and I don’t know how we will survive them.

So I’m writing this in what might be the last weekend of our surprisingly fragile democracy, and I’m urging you, if you haven’t already, to vote. Vote, vote, vote. An overwhelming Biden win, one that cannot be successfully contested in court, is literally the only way out of this mess. Please, please vote. I have to believe that there are more of us who believe in decency and equality and justice. There simply has to be.

Since I’m unable to truly focus on anything else, it should be no surprise that the music I have been listening to lately has been strongly political. Well, I say political, but what I mean is music that is invested in justice. The issues at stake in this election should not be political issues. They are justice issues. Racism and white supremacy are justice issues. How we treat the most vulnerable in our society is a justice issue.

Glenn Kaiser has been all about justice issues for the whole of his career, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that he’s delivered the fiercest political album of this election season. But I was surprised anyway. Part of it is that evangelical support for Trump is so loud and so pervasive that I can sometimes forget that it does not represent all of Christianity. I appreciate the reminder that the Jesus of the gospels would not be standing for this, and that some Christians remember this.

If you don’t know who Glenn Kaiser is, it’s understandable. He’s a seismic figure in the Christian music of the ‘70s, but outside that bubble he’s relatively unknown. For nearly 30 years he and his wife Wendi led the Resurrection Band, one of the first hard rock gospel bands, and pioneered the Cornerstone Festival, where thoughtful, innovative faith-based music found a home. I have, at best, a complicated relationship with the movement Kaiser is a part of, but his music has been an important part of my life, and Cornerstone was a magic place for me.

Resurrection Band broke up in 2000 after 13 good-to-great records, and Glenn has since been making music under his own name. He’s a gruff, bluesy player, at home on both electric and acoustic guitars (and lately on homemade instruments cobbled together from cigar boxes). In addition to his musical bona fides, Kaiser brings 50 years of experience living in Chicago and helping the people Jesus referred to as “the least of these” to his new album, Swamp Gas Messiahs. It is a stunning smackdown of Trumpism and the politics of racism and greed, and exactly the kind of thing I needed right now.

Throughout this thing, Kaiser pulls no punches. It’s largely him and an acoustic guitar, though he does plug in for a few tunes, and the stripped-down nature of it puts the focus on his impassioned voice and striking lyrics. “I Hear Talk” alone, all by itself, takes aim at the moneyed politicians who don’t want to see the broken and disadvantaged “on their front lawns.” “The money buys power and fascist prestige and the marginalized get the boot,” he sings, starting as he means to go on.

As it unspools, Swamp Gas Messiahs takes on the form of an old-time protest record, straight out of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “White/Right” takes powerful aim at the racism oozing from the White House, shining a light on the parts of our history the president wants to erase. “Straw Man,” one of my favorites, expands on that theme, taking it to its ruling-class conclusion: “How dare the peasants disagree, we were born to rule and them to poverty, let justice roll from our holy land, our might makes right as we burn the straw man.” This one sounds like a classic Neil Young tune.

“Fake” takes on the idea of fake news, and the man behind that idea: “Reality shows, bank account grows, a fake won the election.” The album grows more savage as it goes on, with an amazing trilogy near the end. “Market Value” is ferocious, its target the “all lives matter” crowd who deny the racism our country was built on. “You Ain’t” drives the point home: “Just so you’ll understand, they will make it clear, unless you’re just like them, you ain’t welcome here.” “The Principal Principle” is the most pointed anti-Trump song here, its lyrics leaving little doubt about who Kaiser is singing about: “At the sound of the last trump, pride before the fall, the most powerful liar in the world will have nothing to say at all.”

The message of this record is pretty obvious: the money-and-power politics of Trump is in direct conflict with Jesus’s exhortations to help the poor and needy, to walk humbly, seek mercy and love justice, as Kaiser quotes in the final song, “Mud and Spit.” How the mainstream church diverged from those exhortations is beyond me, but it’s so good to hear someone so immersed in that culture hold up such a powerful mirror. Swamp Gas Messiahs is a tough album, but a necessary one. In its righteous anger it holds truth: only by acknowledging our sins can we start to make them right. Check it out here.

Until Kaiser came along I fully expected Midnight Oil to deliver 2020’s most political record. If you haven’t heard the news: After a silence of 18 years, Australia’s most politically engaged band has returned. Frontman Peter Garrett spent much of those 18 years serving in the Australian parliament, fighting for the rights of the indigenous people. Like our natives, the aboriginal Australians were massacred and marginalized by white settlers, and have been shouting for a seat at the table ever since.

Midnight Oil’s music has always been a vehicle for social change, and Garrett and the band have taken up this fight in a new arena. Their first album in nearly 20 years is called The Makarrata Project and it finds the band collaborating with native musicians on a set of urgent, diverse music with a single theme. That theme can be found on the cover, a full reprinting of the Urulu Statement from the Heart, a plea for first nations people to be included in the Australian constitution. “Makarrata” means “coming together after a struggle,” and is the hope expressed in each of these songs.

First off, if you were worried that the members of Midnight Oil, all in their mid-60s, might have lost their edge, don’t even concern yourself. The opening salvo of “First Nation” and “Gadigal Land” will put that to rest. They have just as much fire as they always have, Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie’s guitars crashing against Rob Hirst’s thunderous drums, and Garrett sounds incredible here, his voice remaining as striking as ever. “First Nation” is amazing, built around a pulsing synth bass line and incorporating a rap from Tasman Keith without even a hint of old-guy syndrome. The three-chord horn-driven stomp of “Gadigal Land” picks up that torch and runs with it.

Things get mellower from there, but the band emphasizes their melodic skill on “Change the Date,” with vocals from Dan Sultan and the late Gurrumul Yunupingu. It’s gorgeous, as is “Terror Australia,” sung by Alice Skye. Its tender piano arrangement belies its hardcore lyrics: “Where ignorance and wealth combine to crush the fruit upon the vine, it’s a terror in Australia.” Frank Yamma, one of the most famous indigenous songwriters in Australia, takes the microphone for the strummy “Desert Man, Desert Woman,” sung partially in traditional language.

One of my favorite things about The Makarrata Project is how willing the members of Midnight Oil are to cede the spotlight on their first record in 18 years. Their solidarity with indigenous musicians is more important than anything else here. You get an absolute Midnight Oil classic like “Wind in My Head,” but you also get the full Uluru Statement from the Heart read aloud by their collaborators over guitar soundscapes. This album is a glorious use of the band’s platform to elevate and stand alongside the forgotten people of Australia, and I would expect nothing less from them.

The Makarrata Project, at 34 minutes, is considered by the band to be a mini-album, and they have a full record in the works. If it is as focused, forceful and beautiful as this first taste, I will be even more grateful than I am to have Midnight Oil back with us. The world needs bands like them, pointing out injustice and working to heal. I fear our country will need a lot of healing in the coming weeks, and music will not be enough. But at least we have this.

* * * * *

One final note before I go. Have you ever had the experience of hearing just the right song at just the right time? That happened to me this weekend. I’ve been a Michael Penn fan since his debut album in 1989, and it’s been so long since we’ve heard from him – his last album came out in 2005 – that I’d all but forgotten what a thrilling songwriter he can be. Well, Penn returned this weekend with his first new song in 15 years, and I cannot even explain how perfect it is for this moment, right now.

It’s called “A Revival,” and it’s a beautiful anthem of hard-won hope. Listen to it. Like, right now. This song feels like the missing piece of the 2020 puzzle for me, the song I didn’t know I needed until I heard it. I don’t know if this will do for you what it has done for me, but it has stirred my heart in ways I cannot explain. It’s so good to hear Penn’s voice again, especially on a song that feels so much like this moment.

Vote. I beg you, please. Vote. And then hang on. We’ll get through this. There’s good news coming. Love is real.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I Shall Hunt and Destroy Paul Dailing
1,001 Tuesday Mornings

I have never in my life met anyone like Paul Dailing. This one is for him, and I’ve been waiting years to write it. Let me tell you why.

I’ve known Paul for at least 10 years now. We met as reporters for rival papers, but in my experience that rivalry never really trickled down to the reporters themselves. I was and am good friends with people I met while working for companies bent on destroying one another. Paul’s recollection of the start of our friendship matches up with mine: we were both covering some event on a snowy day at Fermilab, where I would one day go on to work, and I gave him a ride across the grounds.

I didn’t know at that time, of course, how many interests we shared, or that I was in the presence of one of the most restlessly creative individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Sometime before 2010 we started working at the same newspaper, and then I followed him to work for an online news organization that – at least while I was there – didn’t quite live up to its own lofty ambitions. I knew at the time it would be my last journalism job, and in 2012 I made the jump to science communication.

Also in 2012, Paul Dailing launched a project called 1,001 Chicago Afternoons. Based on a 1920s newspaper column by Ben Hecht, 1,001 Chicago Afternoons set out to do what it says in the title: tell 1,001 stories about the city of Chicago. (This is one of our differences: I could never live in a city, let alone love one the way Paul loves Chicago.) Three times a week, Paul would share another beautifully written anecdote, musing or observation about life in the windy city.

Sometimes, these pieces would take my breath away. He’s such a good writer it kills me. Whenever I’d post his stuff on my social media channels, I’d introduce it the same way: “Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Dailing.” I’m not sure how or why I started doing that, but to me it became a way of saying that his work deserves a wider audience. Seriously, just take a browse through his archive. I’ll wait here.

Anyway, given his thrice-weekly pace, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before Paul caught up to my output, and so I figured out, years before he got there, the exact week that he and I would post a column with the same number. That number turned out to be 868, and Paul remembered when he got there, in December of 2017. Not only did he remember, he wrote me into his project, vowing to hunt me down, destroy me and drink my salty tears. (He also said some kinder things.)

At the time I suggested that I would win the long game, that he would stop at 1,001 while I would keep on plugging, and eventually, the tables would be turned. And now we’re here. This is Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column number 1,001. Next week I will post number 1,002 and surpass Paul, and I don’t know if he’s expecting this little tribute in turn, but I thought it was only fair. And I would totally hunt and destroy him now, if not for the global pandemic keeping me in my house.

So my only other option is to say nice things about him. Let’s start by noting that while, as of next week, I may have written more columns than Paul, I have never written better than him.

He was a creative and joyous presence in the newsroom, sneaking jokes in past the editors, but his blog is where his true love of words can be found. It was often funny – here’s a list of Chicago’s recent mayoral candidates set to “Yakko’s World,” from Animaniacs – but it was just as often an angry, bitter cry for justice, both local and global. Mainly, though, it was about people and place, observed with a keen eye and an empathetic heart.

And sometimes, it was about why writers write. That’s one of my favorites, one that practically bursts with the joy and delight of putting one word after another. And here’s a companion piece, about the reasons to keep some stories to ourselves. There’s a ton of insight in both of these pieces, and I’ve come back to them a lot over the years since Paul wrote them.

I definitely admire the way Paul always pushes people to be better. People in power, of course – he’s the guy who wrote and hosted a Chicago Corruption Walking Tour, after all – but not just them. By pushing himself to be a better writer and a better person, which you can see throughout his project, he does the same for others. He’s made me stop and think about what I value, and how I express it, more than a few times. I’m as grateful for that as I am for the times we’ve hung out and watched Doctor Who or argued about superheroes.

I’m sad to say that in the nearly three years I have spent catching up to him, our lives have drifted even farther apart. He has a lovely family now – the birth of his son coincided with the end of his column – and we live just far enough apart that we haven’t seen each other in many years now. I hope we rectify that soon. In his piece from 2017, he described us as “two friends from afar who type too damn much,” and I cannot think of a better way to put it. I’m thankful to him for being kind to me in print three years ago, and for all the kindness in person and online for the past decade-plus.

Oh, and in four days, Paul’s gonna drop this thing. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m excited. And no doubt, when I post about it online, I will introduce it the way I’ve introduced his odd brilliance for years:

Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Dailing.

See you in line Tuesday morning.