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More Mid-Year Contenders

Impressive Records from Joy Williams and Everything Everything

6/30/15

This week we said goodbye to Chris Squire.

I can tell you exactly which Yes song I heard first, but it’s a pretty clichéd answer for a child of the ‘80s – it was “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” The spooky video, featuring blank-faced men in suits forcing someone off the roof of a building, is still permanently etched on my memory. My first Yes album was 90125, of course – I was nine when it came out, so I can’t imagine I bought it myself, but I have the original cassette. I know I bought Big Generator in 1987, and Union in 1991, and every Yes album after that.

And I know eventually I drifted backwards through their catalog, finally hearing masterpieces like Close to the Edge and Relayer. It took a long time and a lot of musical study to become comfortable with 30-minute pieces with multiple movements, but once I was in, Yes did it for me like few other bands of their stripe. Even among 1970s progressive rock acts, a bold statement like Tales From Topographic Oceans – a double album with one 20-minute song per side – is rare. In many ways, Yes was the Platonic ideal of progressive music.

They also hold the record for most lineup changes in a single career. You never knew, album to album, which version of Yes you were going to get – in the ‘90s they careened from the Trevor Rabin-led pop lineup to the Anderson-Wakeman-Howe reunion to the Billy Sherwood days, all the way up to an album with no keyboard player and a full orchestra. Vocalist Jon Anderson has come and gone – he’s been gone lately, and the last two Yes albums included new singers.

But the one stalwart, the one musician who has been in every single lineup of Yes since 1969, was bassist Chris Squire. His fat tone and nimble playing provided the bedrock of every song, and even when the flights of fancy flew too close to the sun, Squire was there to ground them. He was seemingly up for anything, comfortable playing epics like “The Gates of Delirium” and pop tunes like “Rhythm of Love.” It is no exaggeration to say that without Chris Squire’s involvement, it would not be right to call it Yes.

Which is why it’s so difficult to imagine a future for this band without him. In May of this year, Squire took a hiatus from the band when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His battle with the disease was relatively short – he died on Saturday, June 27, at age 67. He leaves behind quite a legacy – his first solo album, Fish out of Water, joins all those Yes albums as classics of the genre. Whether Yes moves on from here or not, Squire will be sorely missed.

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In many ways, Venus is Joy Williams’ debut album.

It’s not her first record – she has three prior collections of sanitized gospel-pop on Reunion Records, having started her recording career at age 19. Nor is it her first foray into mainstream music, as you all probably know – her project with John Paul White, the Civil Wars, was ridiculously popular. But Venus is her first post-Civil Wars project, her first as a fully fledged musician and songwriter, her first real grown-up record. In a lot of ways, it’s the first time we are getting the real Joy Williams.

I always thought Williams’ work with the Civil Wars was overrated. I liked the band, but their simple folk music drew a lot more attention than I thought it deserved. I heard their 2012 breakup described as a tragedy, a painful snuffing out of a creative light, and I wondered what those people heard in them that I wasn’t hearing. Venus, on the other hand, is a smart, daring, memorable pop album that leaves both Civil Wars records in the dust. It hurts when it has to, stands up defiantly when it must, and delivers one great, intricately produced song after another until its end.

As much as I liked Williams’ voice atop the spare acoustic musings of the Civil Wars, I like it much more in this context. Venus is a thick and cloudy record, full of synthesizer washes and electronic beats, big strings, layers of harmonies and plenty of ambience. “Before I Sleep,” the big wave of an opener, should let you know what you’re in for – crashing drums, onrushes of keys, and Williams’ high and clear voice steering it home. These songs are patient – it takes a full minute of strings and beats for “Sweet Love of Mine” to kick in – and the album as a whole is confident in its more intricate instrumentation, most of it courtesy of producer Matt Morris.

If you’ve heard the first single, “Woman (Oh Mama),” you know what a departure it is for Williams. It’s bold and bluesy, all handclaps, foot stomps and staccato acoustic guitars, with a choir of low-moan backing vocals. The record doesn’t quite get this brassy again, but it’s a nice statement of intent for a woman stepping out on her own. Much of this record is about recrimination and regret, and the temptation will be to read it as a commentary on the breakup of the Civil Wars, the specifics of which neither Williams nor White have discussed publicly. A song like “Not Good Enough,” for example, plays right into that, as do laments like “One Day I Will”: “I’d love to write a happy song, one day I will, I’d like to feel a little less alone, one day I will…”

There is one song here that is absolutely about the Civil Wars, though, and that’s “What a Good Woman Does.” This is quite a crafty piece of work – it delves into everything but the specifics of the split. It opens with a cheeky reference (“I can’t carry the weight of this war”), and hints at a bigger story, at deeper secrets: “Hear me, haven’t lost my voice without you near me, and I could tell the truth about you leaving, but that’s not what a good woman does…” It’s simultaneously soul-baring and canny, a vague pointed finger that preserves the mystery. It’s a lovely piano ballad thing, and Williams sings it marvelously, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

I have no such conflicts about the final tracks – Venus ends with grace and acceptance. “You Loved Me” is a pretty tale of unconditional love, with a simple yet heartrending chorus: “I tried, and I failed, and you loved me.” “Till Forever” might be the record’s most gorgeous song, delicately played on piano and cloud-like guitars. It’s like a warm embrace: “Lover, find me underneath the covers, we will stay here until we discover all that we have to give to each other…” Closer “Welcome Home” is just as warm, Williams greeting a long-lost loved one over supple strings. “I’ve been waiting here,” she sings, a tremble in her voice, and it’s simple and splendid.

Venus is, in many ways, Williams’ first album. I genuinely hope it is not her last, because this strong collection of confident and lovely little songs points toward an equally strong solo career. This is one of those modest yet powerful records that grabs hold of you and keeps you close. If the Civil Wars had to break up to get Williams to this point, then it was absolutely worth it.

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It seems like lately many of my favorite albums stubbornly refuse to come out in my home country.

Last year’s marvelous Husky album, Ruckers Hill, finally made its way to these shores this month, where of course it died a quick death. Two of this year’s most interesting albums, Aqualung’s 10 Futures and Daniel Johns’ Talk, are only available as imports from the UK and Australia, respectively, with no plans to release them here. And now there’s the third album from awe-inspiring UK art-rockers Everything Everything, only available across the pond. I don’t know that the coming global release date will do anything to fix this. As of right now, some of the year’s best records aren’t making any impact in the U.S., and that’s unfortunate.

It’s especially galling in the case of Everything Everything, who have moved mountains to be more accessible on Get to Heaven, their new record. The quartet has always balanced their powerful, catchy melodies against their more angular and progressive tendencies, but on this album, they’ve amped up both, and wound up with their most explosive and immediate collection. Particularly in the first half, these songs are all about their choruses, and they’re just wonderful. Jonathan Higgs has a strange, off-kilter voice, but a dynamite range, and when he lands these melodies, he really lands them.

This band has never given us a one-two punch like they have here – opener “To the Blade” wafts in on shivering synths and Higgs’ falsetto, but when the guitars kick in, the song turns massive, leading into the most danceable number here, “Distant Past.” Amid some odd samples and Higgs’ surprisingly effective rapping, the chorus burst forth like light through the trees – “Take me to the distant past, I want to go baaaaaaack…” I first heard this song three months ago, and it’s been in my head ever since.

Much of the record follows suit – interesting, bizarre grooves that explode into big, lovely refrains. EvEv retain their penchant for abrasive, almost new-wave guitars and winding songs that don’t go where you’d expect, but the results here are more compact and instantaneous. As the album goes on, the balance shifts more toward the progressive – the instrumentation of “Blast Doors” reminds me of Minus the Bear, but the speak-shouting, high falsetto pre-chorus, and tremendous, smooth chorus mark it as the work of this band alone. Only closer “Warm Healer” stretches out – the nimble, complex riff fuels a six-minute powerhouse, but one that doesn't skimp on the melody.

I’ve been hoping Everything Everything would make an album like Get to Heaven, one that retains all they’ve been good at, yet packages it in a more accessible way. “Distant Past” should be the hit of the summer, and maybe in the UK it will be. Those not inclined to pay import prices will be missing out on a tremendous step forward for a truly unique band, and on a bunch of wonderful melodies that would be bouncing around their heads for months. Get to Heaven is worth the extra cost. It is everything, everything I wanted it to be.

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This weekend, I am headed to the AudioFeed festival for the third year in a row. I’ll have thoughts about it, of course – maybe next week, maybe the week after. I still have a few more albums to get caught up on. Be here in seven for one or the other. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.