It’s time to check the New Music Seismograph! What albums are shaking the ground beneath my feet?

Those who have followed my blog over the past decade or so know that I’m averse to “rating” art with a point system. (I mean, really… how much can you learn about a record if I tell you “I give it a 72”?)

Seismograph_PinatuboBut hey, just to shake things up, I’m going to make an exception. What good is a blog if it doesn’t surprise readers from time to time? Introducing the Overst-richter Scale

Keep in mind, though, that stars, thumbs, and point values (in this case, a scale of 1-100) will never communicate what any of us think of a work of art. Numbers can only vaguely represent a sort of Richter Scale measurement of how enthusiastic I am about what I experienced.

What’s more — these are early impressions. My opinions on these recordings (I’m still amazed whenever my opinion seems to matter to somebody!) is still in flux. Six months from now, I may feel differently.

Your mileage may vary.

Score approximations:

  • 100 = “Glory! Hallelujah! A profound and transformative experience. A contender for my Lifetime Top Ten List.”
  • 90 = “Fantastic! Scrumtrulescent! Probably on my short list for Album of the Year. Give it to me on CD and vinyl.”
  • 80 = “One for my home library of favorites. Probably in my Top 10 this year.”
  • 70 = “Remarkable. Worth a second listen. Likely to land in my Top 25 of the year.”
  • 60 = “Hmm. Interesting. Maybe I’ll try again sometime.”
  • 50 = “Meh. Mixed Feelings. “
  • 40 = “Cons outweigh the pros. Not likely to give it another thought.”
  • 30 = “It’s either boring or off-putting or both.”
  • 20 = “Ugh. Seriously? Who approved this? Ugh!
  • 10 = “This music is injurious. Listeners may need medical attention for their ears… or their souls.”
  • 0 = “THE END IS NEAR.”


Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Thom Yorke’s new album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes arrived all of a sudden last weekend — available for the generous price of $6.00 via BitTorrent. (I was away on a “homework retreat” when the Yorke record arrived, so I’m late with the announcement.)

Why $6.00? Seems like a rather random price. Maybe Yorke decided to play it safe — generous, but not too generous. After all, One of the most beloved bands in the history of music gave away their new album earlier this month, gently tucking it into people’s pockets to surprise them, only to have people condemn them for the gesture. So… it’s back to the old fashioned method of surprising people with a price tag.

Anyway, distribution methods are a different subject than music itself. Let’s talk about the music.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a surprisingly mellow affair, even though it delivers much of what we might expect from Yorke: Yes, it’s dreamy. Yes, it’s strange. It’s layered, haunting, abrasive, itchy and scratchy. Yes, it sounds like a record made in a computer by a musician longing for handmade instruments. It’s full of lyrics about existential crises, disconnection, desperation.

It leads Yorke fans in their usual conundrum of finding words to describe these digital atmospherics. One fan review on Metacritic says “Imagine yourself inside a black gyroscope made by grass and looking for a hole to breathe. … Put your headphones and forget the paradigms.” The Drowned in Sound review says “Yorke has always been better on the retreat, and here he retreats beautifully, sinking into a textured netherworld of undulating pulses and ghostly ambience, his voice soft and cherubic or machine distorted into a fine drizzle.” 

Okay then.

Those looking for the hooks and pop anthems of early Radiohead should know better than to expect such things from Yorke’s solo efforts. This is not a record designed for hits. Those who turn up the volume and explore the spacious, surprising, exquisitely detailed music will probably enjoy the tour, and those who listen repeatedly will go on discovering new nuances. The Eraser was abrasive and aggressive, as if Yorke wanted to leave behind the rock band and show us what music sounds like when it’s just him… but, you know, it sounded like a more minimalistic, more electronic version of Radiohead. And his most recent band, Atoms for Peace, moved the other way, bringing back big drums and big bass sounds, turning up the energy to frenetic, exhilarating levels. By contrast, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is the kind of music Yorke would play if he was a massage therapist: drippy, melancholy, the sound of synthesizers sighing and then sleeping and then twitching as the bad dreams begin.

Alas, I haven’t been able to track down a document with the official lyrics. Points go to U2 there: Bono and the boys supplied a handsome PDF full of notes, lyrics, and credits with their no-cost Songs of Innocence album. Lyrics are tremendously important to me in my experience of an album, and Yorke’s voice is so subtle an instrument that I often cannot decipher what he’s saying. He leans on lines like “Why have you forsaken me?” and “All my life is sin, sin, sin,” making me particularly eager to find out what’s going on here.

I find much to admire about PopMatters’ thorough tour of the record.

Let’s call this a [72] on the Overst-richter Scale.

passerbyLuluc – Passerby

For me, it’s the second or third — or tenth — listen to an album that sometimes wins me over. On Sunday, driving in the Sunday morning sunshine with Anne, listening to Luluc’s Passerby, I suddenly fell madly in love with this record.

This seems to be quiet music. Turn it up. Turn it up loud. This is an album that should be played at high volume so you can hear all of the wonderful textures and details. A beautiful, cohesive, poetic record that fans of Over the Rhine’s Drunkard’s Prayer and The Innocence Mission’s Birds of My Neighborhood should really appreciate.

That Sunday experience made me look around to see what the reviews have been like. I agree with Timothy Monger’s praise at AllMusic:

These are quiet, timeless songs that show a healthy restraint yet exude a true sentimentality that is so often lacking in modern indie folk music. There are many rich layers expressing fondness, regret, wonder, and gentle heartache as viewed by two travelers watching life unfold halfway across the world from their adopted American cityscape. From the thoughtful reflections of the title cut to the sad tenderness of “Tangled Heart,” the themes are relatable and void of trendiness. Luluc‘s attention to detail and careful songcraft are apparent yet the music slides comfortably by, revealing its true depth with repeated listens. The six years between their debut and Passerby were obviously well spent, and if it takes Randell and Hassett another six to write more material of this caliber, then we should be grateful for their patience.

Here’s the exquisite opening track:

I’d say more, but my friend Jo Vance wrote this excellent one-paragraph review for Image Update. So, with her permission, I’m reposting it:

Made up of native Australians Zoe Randell and Steve Hassett, the folk duo Luluc has created a triumph in their new album Passerby. Luluc’s music demands a rare attention, so be forewarned: Passerby will stop you. Let yourself be stopped. A curious tenderness glimmers under the melodies of these songs, and their sadness is their tenacious strength. “(And) for all I long, / for far more I rejoice,” sings Randell in the opening track, “Small Window.” Though this is an album about longing and “this passerby life,” it doesn’t despair. The album’s searching melodies pair with lyrics of quiet sincerity, which never once become cloying or cynical. A superlative track with its thrumming guitar and clear-cold melody, “Winter Is Passing” wonders at separation, and what is to come, letting the song hang in the question: “And when I return again / how will you be?” Wandering and return figure strongly in this record, making appearances in songs that look back at past places and relationships out of a desire to sew meaning together, to understand. The song “Senja” asks, and asks again, in a haunting refrain: “Where does this longing come from? / Or is it just how it runs?” The meaning comes in the slightest shifts, the wrinkles between here and there. The ending song, “Star,” pauses midway and changes tempo–just wait for it–as these last words are sung, every passerby’s manifesto: “I search but I’m not lost / I cry but it’s not wrong / And I can see so much / much more than before.” The song opens wide in this moment, into a gentle, echoing harmony. We are blessed by the clarity, and the strong, sure voices that reveal it. 

Let’s give this one an [84].

Lucinda Williams — Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

A double-album without an ounce of fat on it.

Every track is solid, Wiliams’ vocals are darker and stranger and more evocative than ever, and her lyrics are a cohesive collection of straightforward meditations on compassion, empathy, hardship, regret, and love. Not her most poetic writing, but it may well be her finest hour as a performer with a band.

This one also gets an [84].

Leonard Cohen — Popular Problems

No disrespect to the 80-year-old master lyricist, but it’s been a while since Cohen released an album in which the music didn’t sound like an afterthought. By my lights, this is easily his most interesting collection of songs since Ten New Songs. And thank God he invited a producer who cares about instrumentation along for the ride. What’s more, he seems to be taking more and more inspiration from Tom Waits and Bob Dylan for his vocal performance — he really growls and snarls and rasps his way through this one. I like it. I like it a lot. Especially this:


My Brightest Diamond — This is My Hand , and her earlier EP None More Than You

Expect a more thorough review sometime later this year. But for now, I’ll say this: I’ve been waiting for the My Brightest Diamond records that move me from admirer to Big Time Fan. These two releases have done it.

This is My Hand — [88]

None More Than You — [78]

sinead o'connor i'm not bossySinead O’Connor — I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss

This record feels like a forceful effort from O’Connor to regain the stature of Ferocious Rock Star that she once had.

And she’s much more successful than I would ever have expected. It’s been a long time since “Fire on Babylon,” that blast of rage and hellfire that opened up Universal Mother (which remains my favorite O’Connor album). But here she is, with a loud, guitar-heavy record that delivers some truly sensational rockers.

“Take Me to Church” is a gutsy anthem, but “Harbour” is the big event. It starts strong and then at the 2:36, watch out: That’s the howling fury that scorched the earth when The Lion and the Cobra was first released? She’s back.

She can still bring the crazy: In the first half of the record she seems strangely compelled to strut her way up the steps into some kind of late-80s-Madonna, brazen-sex-goddess kind of spotlight. There’s a song about how frightened she is when the eyes of a man she’s having sex with suddenly turn black. (I am not making that up.) And what would an O’Connor album be without some laughably egomaniacal announcements?

Is it overproduced? Yes. And she may be trying to conceal the fact that her voice isn’t quite what it used to be, because some of these performances are excessively multi-tracked. But the pros far outweigh the cons here.

This is a hugely surprising record, and one that I admit I enjoy just about as much as the far more widely discussed record I’m going to take on next…

First impression score: [77].