The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 28, 2013

Joe Hadsall: Steve Gleason leads to musical discovery

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — Last week's column about Steve Gleason, Lou Gehrig's disease and tacky Atlanta shock jocks resulted in the discovery of some great music.

The whole flap started last week when Gleason wrote that column for Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback. Before that controversy ever began, Gleason wrote about a number of things dealing with his career, his life with ALS and other trivia.

When emulating King's MMQB style, he devoted a "nerdness" section to music and mentioned alt-J and Lord Huron.

I gave both a listen -- while Lord Huron was a bit folksy for me, alt-J has turned into one of my favorite discoveries of the year so far.

Here's how Gleason described it in that column: "Alt-J's album 'An Awesome Wave' is a detour from music I typically gravitate toward. They have some hard-to-access elements (non-traditional vocals, odd sequences), but there is enough that is accessible to pull me in for more listening. Now, I can't stop playing it."

Those two things he noticed, the non-traditional vocals and odd sequences, are exactly what made me decide to dive in. After picking up the album, I have listened to it pretty solidly for the past couple of weeks.

It's addicting. It's a unique mix of harmonies, ambient patters and intricate rhythms. Vocalist Joe Newman is probably the most polarizing vocalist I've heard since Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock -- Newman has a nasal, under-enunciated voice that sounds like he got dared to impersonate the hookers from "Full Metal Jacket." But it blends so perfectly with the music.

The album is a solid work that draws listeners in pretty quickly. I got to watch exactly how fast as I was listening while The Lovely Paula Hadsall was in Geek Central with me. I played "Breezeblocks" and saw her get hooked pretty quickly. Her first comment was a "What is that?" spoken in the same tone she uses when she's not sure something on the floor is a hairball from the cat or a dropped piece of food.

But she quickly got into the album's mood, and asked me to burn it for her. Her take on alt-J is a little different than mine: While I listen to melodies first, she pays attention to words. But she'd never heard anything like this band before. Newman's vocals combined with the other harmonies threw her a bit -- she said it was like Cee-Lo Green mixed with Gregorian chants.

"Their lyrics are kind of disturbing sometimes, but I get sucked into the music before I get a chance to think about the words," she said. "Or more to the point understand what they are saying. The melodies are hypnotic. The harmonies completely engulf you."

Alt-J is not for everyone, I'll admit. But most of the music we like isn't for everyone. I got pretty lucky with her -- TLP loves a lot of the same music I do, and she thinks the way I geek out over composition is attractive. I shouldn't have been surprised by her liking alt-J, but it still made me smile to burn that album for her.

Must-listens: "Breezeblocks," "Taro," "Dissolve Me" and "Bloodflood." That isn't the only band I've been listening to lately. Here's a bunch of other albums worthy of varying degrees of geeking out:

Queens of the Stone Age: '...Like Clockwork'

After 2001's "Songs for the Deaf," I didn't pay much attention to Queens of the Stone Age. Its releases afterward didn't match the energy level of songs such as "No One Knows," "Go with the Flow" or "Do It Again."

And to be fair, not much on "...Like Clockwork" matches that energy level, either. But the new album is so cohesive, moody and varied that it partially redefines the band for me.

The album features stunning songwriting, outstanding collaborations and compelling themes. Recorded after a hiatus, singer Josh Homme brought back a number of former band members, such as drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Nick Oliveri. The album also includes contributions from Elton John, Trent Reznor, Jake Shears and Brody Dalle.

The album could be the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie. The low guitar hook of the opening track "Keep Your Eyes Peeled" sounds ripped from the Pink Room of "Twin Peaks;" "Fairweather Friends" would make great driving music on "Lost Highway;" "...Like Clockwork" suits Betty Elms' dejection in "Mulholland Drive;" and "Kalopsia" features dreamy changes that resemble "Wild at Heart's" Elvis and Glinda hallucinations.

Each song also features dynamic little changes that surprise. "Smooth Sailing" is my favorite example of this: It's a bossy, slow fusion of funk and rock that features a combination of speak-singing and falsetto. At the last minute of the song, a bizarre, dissonant guitar solo of sorts redefines the song completely. It's brilliant.

And even when the album is clearly influenced by others, it outshines those influences. "Fairweather Friends" is like a better Tenacious D and "Smooth Sailing" is like a better form of Muse's "Supermassive Black Hole" or "Panic Station."

In a day where albums resemble collections of songs hastily grouped together, "...Like Clockwork" feels like a true album, sealed seamlessly and cohesively, almost like it was a concept album. It's in the running to get my vote for best album of 2013.

In the lyrics to "The Vampyre of Time and Memory," Homme asks, "Does anyone ever get this right?" in terms of crafting a damn good album, Homme did. It's almost unfair to pick out must-listen songs on this, because every one of them starts deceptively simple, yet blossoms into an intricately crafted composition. Nevertheless.

Must-listens: "Smooth Sailing," "My God is the Sun" and "Keep Your Eyes Peeled."

Baroness: 'Yellow and Green'

A double album, Baroness' latest work features a few great songs and a bunch of mediocre ones.

A recommendation from a co-worker who just saw the band at Bonnaroo, Baroness is a band that reminds me of the better parts of Mastodon. Songs such as "Take My Bones Away," "March to the Sea" and "Sea Lungs" showcase the band's prowess when all the cylinders are firing: John Dyer Baizley's vocals are rough and honest without diving into cartoonish metal stylings, and the driving rock from the other band members layers gorgeous harmonies without sounding too clean.

I wish the band's other songs matched the intensity of the good ones. "Cocainium," for instance: Baizley trades his awesome growl for a plain indie-rock whine, and drummer Allen Blickle trades his powerful, deep drums for something heard on early Dire Straits.

It's not that I object to the band's slow songs, of which there are plenty. "Eula" is an outstanding slow song, because it features the same sounds as the band's better songs.

And the multiple personalities aren't reserved to the double album: All the songs I've written about are from the "Yellow" part of "Yellow and Green." The latter is largely forgettable.

It makes me think I caught the band in some sort of transition. I'll keep listening, in the hopes that it goes in its better, harder direction. Must-listens: "Take My Bones Away," "March to the Sea" and "Eula."

Imagine Dragons: 'Night Visions'

If I got lucky with TLP's musical tastes, I really got lucky with my stepsons'. Mitchell is the one who introduced me to Hurt and Five Finger Death Punch.

Now that Duncan is discovering music on his own, he's picking out great acts too, and Imagine Dragons is part of a successful record that includes Macklemore and Fun.

Duncan goes by song, however. He doesn't recommend based on albums. If he did, he might not have pushed Imagine Dragons so much.

"Radioactive," the opening track, is absolutely killer. Great singing, great chorus, great music video that features Lou Diamond Phillips as an underground pit lord, forcing puppets to battle each other.

In fact, that song has Duncan's style all over it. A bass drummer and  percussionist, Duncan would be right at home flailing on a bass drum the way singer Dan Reynolds does in the video.

The album burns through its hits and peters out quickly, however. "It's Time" and "Demons" are obvious hits, but aside from gems such as "Amsterdam," "Bleeding Out" and a Passion Pit-influenced "Selene," the deluxe version of "Night Visions" is absolutely packed with B-sides and filler. Pretty sure that as much as Duncan loves "Radioactive," he'll be all "meh" and stuff over the rest of the album.

Must-listens: "Radioactive," "Demons" and "It's Time."

The National: 'Trouble Will Find Me'

Not since the Cure's "Disintegration" have I found a band that captures such awesome sadness music. Bands such as Barenaked Ladies and Passion Pit have always captivated me with their abilities to mesh hopeful, soaring sounds with depressing dark lyrics, but The National is the outright champion.

Look up the music video for "Exile Villify" to see what I mean -- the one with the sock puppet. Saddest video ever.

"Trouble Will Find Me" features a louder, more energetic version of their songwriting sadness (that sounds like a slam, but trust me, it's a good thing). Matt Berninger's baritone is so deep at points, it's almost a bass. The music is ethereal and beautiful.

Though the album features plenty of softer, slower moments (including the sublime "I Need My Girl"), songs like "Demons" and "Sea of Love" feature a louder, bigger sound, like an extension of everything great about "Terrible Love," "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "England" from the band's previous album, "High Violet."

Must-listens: "I Should Live in Salt," "Demons," "I Need My Girl" and "Sea of Love."