Four personally significant new records dropped in a three-week stretch near the end of spring 2012, sort of my musical equivalent of a solar eclipse. No small potatoes, these. Ex-Blue Niler Paul Buchanan is my favourite singer from the 1980s. Saint Etienne is my favourite band since 1990. I think Beach House made the best record of 2010. And you might’ve heard I like The Beach Boys. There’s little stylistic common ground among the four, but together they created a sort of dream vortex of previous champions aiming to soundtrack summer 2012. How’d they do?
New records are like the new T.V. season or a new year of school: eventually they’ll be bunched together in a body of work or experience, but in the moment they’re disproportionately important. Evaluation’s not an exact science, especially from such a cramped perspective, but one thing’s certain: a good record from a pet favourite is a sigh of relief and a bad one’s an affront. Sometimes new records make me nervous.
PAUL BUCHANAN – Mid Air
Paul Buchanan once said five albums would make a good career; 28 years after The Blue Nile’s first, he’s made his marker, and Mid Air’s finally cast Buchanan in the role he was born to play – saloon singer. Playing both halves of the Sinatra-Bill Miller combo, Mid Air‘s lo-fi execution sacrifices cinematic TBN flourishes for aching immediacy, removing Buchanan from the pigeonhole of his band’s box and into the realm of anyone who ever ruminated over simple piano chords in a backstreet dive. Unsurprisingly, it’s awfully affecting: haunting and haunted, and the closest spiritual companion to the magnificent pair of ‘80s TBN albums as we’re likely to get. Several of TBN’s best songs eschewed drums (notably, “Easter Parade,” “Regret,” “From A Late Night Train,” “Family Life”), but this record’s hush goes deeper, past the bridge and over the hillside into extreme reflectiveness. That’s not to say Mid Air is close to AWATR or Hats in scale or song. But it restores Buchanan to his rightful place as a real go-to when chips are down. The voice still creaks while it searches for the higher notes, and wraps beautifully around the simplest of phrases (a disastrous “tear stains on your pillow/I was drunk when I danced with the bride/Let it go” denouement; a knowing “life goes by and you learn/how to watch your bridges burn” shrug). It’s anyone’s guess where art and life intersect with Buchanan, but that’s what makes his sketches ring with everyman wisdom and wry regret. Primarily a guitarist in his band’s day, Buchanan’s reliance on piano further eases Mid Air onto terra firma (heck, there’s even a touch of distant trumpet, just like the old days), but it’s a double-edged knife that leads to my only plaint: ex-communicated Niler Paul Joseph Moore might’ve worked magic with these brief songs (only one over 2:57), a few of which seem built for longer, fuller arrangements and suffer for lack of same (Buchanan’s instrumental skills are purely workmanlike; his chordings can be choppily rudimentary). But Mid Air is generous with displays of his innate songwriting genius, even if it’s held to a modest scale. “Mid Air,” “I Remember You,” “Wedding Party,” “My True Country” and “After Dark” aren’t run-of-the-mill voice-and-piano bedsit musings. They are wonderful, they are proof a Paul Buchanan exists.
THE BEACH BOYS – That’s Why God Made The Radio
Nothing that’s come out of the Brian Wilson camp since Carl’s death seemed possible in 1998. Back in 2004, the SMiLE album/tour was the cherry atop an impressive six-year solo run, but he’s still defying best-before dates eight years later. Here, on the eve of his 70th birthday, The Beach Boys have released their first record in 20 years, the first with Brian’s involvement in 27, the first with him at the helm in 35.
There’s no template for how a new record by a rock band with an average age of 68 is supposed to sound, but what I do know is That’s Why God Made The Radio is better than the ones The Beach Boys were making when they were pushing 40, with a significantly greater degree of creative health and spirit. Admittedly such things matter more to long-time fans than new converts or the casually curious. I’m not recommending Radio to newbies. But to the beleaguered diehards, the thrill doesn’t end with the act of purchasing the product: Songs still matter to head Boy Brian, and he’s supplied six really good ones. They begin and end the album – which leaves a prolonged sag in the middle – but judicious iPod planning left me shaking my head in happy wonder. The title track may be more arrangement and performance than song, but it’s spectacular on those first two fronts, a brilliant stroke as lead single, because it both sounds like a post-surf/car Beach Boys song ought to and like nothing else on radio in years (except, maybe, Grizzly Bear’s three-year-old “Two Weeks”): unashamedly sumptuous and wonderfully well-sung. I think it belongs in the canon. Second single, the relatively spartan “Isn’t It Time,” surprisingly steers clear of imitation: although its lyrics are throwback, the ukulele-as-lead instrument and neat octave-doubling harmonies are new wrinkles in the Beach Boy sound. Radio closes with a sequence that’s earned a lot of attention and admiration, a three-song suite that hearkens back to a later California sound, the ‘70s singer-songwriter domain of Newman, King, Dennis Wilson et al, albeit with superb, fully integrated BB harmonies. Maybe it’s what The Beach Boys might’ve sounded like in the late-’70s if it hadn’t all gone tits-up. “From Here To Back Again” features the evidently ageless Al Jardine on lead, a delicate two-part song with a jaunty whistling tag; “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” are Brian showcases of a piece with a couple of tracks from That Lucky Old Sun – unhurried reveries on aging, loss and loneliness which might seem unusual for a Beach Boys record if you recall the forced jollity of their “adult” albums, but not so much with Pet Sounds or “In My Room” considered. While it’s jarring to hear Wilson sing lines like “sometimes I realize my days are getting on,” “sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say” and “summer’s gone, it’s finally sinking in,” the frail beauty of his weathered tone, the deep swells of support from the backing vocals and strings, the hypnotic drag of the sun-speckled music are the surest signs of genius still lurking in his compositional bag. Throughout Radio, the sound is great. Jardine, Wilson and Bruce Johnston fill the middle range admirably. Mike Love doesn’t get a lot of lead here, and when he does it’s on ballads, which minimizes creeping nasality. Brian’s live band plays on most of the tracks, although only Jeffrey Foskett sings, taking the high tenor and falsetto “Brian” parts. He fits. That Radio’s saggy portion shows fallibility hardly matters – the fact I’m thinking critically about a new Beach Boys album 42 years after the release of the song that lends its name to this column (“Add Some Music To Your Day,” geddit?) is one of the great events of this summer.
BEACH HOUSE – Bloom
Beach House’s Bloom is more a refinement than Great Leap Forward, but now they’re on fire. The sharpest songs have a new and thrilling pop bite atop the expected glazy force, and Alex Scally’s single-note guitar style has edged into Disintegration territory, meaning anything they’re considering for a single or T.V. show appearance sounds positively mesmerizing. The new approachabiity is a rare treat, a kind of tangibility most of their dream-pop peers can’t touch. Bloom’s incandescence sounds great, but the songs hold up, too. “Lazuli” dazzles for every one of its 302 seconds, from the frayed, square-wave organ arpeggio intro to the beautifully staggered three-part contrapuntal vocal built into the last two minutes. Phenomenally grand but outfitted with a few inspired stripped-down breaks, swooning but cool, it’s a surefire finalist for my favourite song of the year. “Wishes” and “Myth” are nearly as good, superhero flick-sized walls of sound peaking with what’s becoming Victoria Legrand’s go-to move: the one-line lyric bridge that speaks of some unimaginable sadness (“one in your life, it happens once and rarely twice,” “or let the ashes fly, help me to name it, help me to name it”), either preceding or following searing, effect-heavy guitar passages that suck the air out of your chest. Bloom never hurries to the payoff; tension abounds in delayed choruses and suspended breaks. I suppose you could call Bloom’s songs a little samey – an accusation you might level at Disintegration or a Cocteau Twins record, too – but the bits that poke through the haze, a bristling solo or one of those torrid vocal bridges, dazzle and amaze. I get wistfulness from Bloom, but I bet it soundtracks euphoric love and bruised despair just as well. Simply put, this is an uncommonly great band at a new peak. Is it the best band in the world right now?
SAINT ETIENNE – Words And Music By Saint Etienne
It shouldn’t register as a surprise to anyone in the know that Bob Stanley – in his other professional life, away from co-helming what is, for my money, the best damn pop band of the past 22 years – will publish a book on pop history next year. As Saint Etienne’s once prodigious work rate slowed in the middle of the last decade, Stanley returned to rock writing, regularly contributing pieces to Mojo, The Guardian and Pitchfork among others, showing the same archivist zeal that’s always tugged at the skirt of Et’s modern dance pop. What might be surprising, however, is how the newest Etienne LP – their first in seven years – functions as a totally serviceable introduction to the band for those who might only have a remix or two on their iPhone. Words And Music By Saint Etienne – a concept album about the age-defying emotional connection forged between artist and fan – is sometimes so damn good it gives me goosebumps. Of a piece with any Etienne record since 1994’s Tiger Bay, Words And Music is chock-a-block with floor-filling uptempos in all sorts of intriguing shades, no doubt aided by cannily chosen production hands (Tim Powell, Richard X, Nick Coler, Rob Davis and honorary Et Ian Catt), but the vision remains Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell’s. Referential songs about record collecting, DJs, gig-going and the centrist vibe regarding music as the most emotionally rewarding of all art forms might be gratingly cute in other hands, but Etienne set the emotional tone brilliantly with a mostly spoken-word opener “Over The Border,” which is one of the most intelligent things they’ve ever done, because it frames the following 40 minutes as a record about loving music for people who love music. Etienne’s played this card before (“Join Our Club,” “Clark Co. Record Fair”), but even without that knowledge, Words And Music is still a gas. Shades of chugging Italo, bright house, Philly disco and Baelaeric stompers abound, but the biggest surprise for vet fans might be “When I Was 17”’s indie guitar bounce. It wears extremely well. As they did on 2005’s Tales From Turnpike House, Etienne apply some thickening agents to Cracknell’s increasingly feathery singing – a great idea then and now. Longtime pal Debsey Wykes pops in to harmonize on the terrific “Haunted Jukebox,” and Brit disco chanteuse Tina Charles guests on three numbers, including “Answer Song,” which is one of the best songs they’ve ever done, a pop-soul tune Bacharach might’ve written had he started a few decades later, with a whomping string hook riding over a churning electro groove, and a gamine sexual/sensuality that explodes in the sky-punching chorus. Taking a cue from Smokey Robinson, the song’s title employs a time-tested pop music trope to deliver its more universal message of romantic longing, which is ultimately what both music in general, and Words And Music in particular, are about: as one-hit wonder Stardust put it in 1998, “music sounds better with you.”
All in all, that’s a heckuva good batch of records. Summer’s sounding better already.