Recent Releases, August Edition

I’m actually kind of surprised I was able to come up with a sizable post for August, considering that I’ve been away for most of it!  I did manage to catch up on a lot of great late-summer tunage, though.  Enjoy!

James, Living in Extraordinary Times, released 3 August. I’m annoyed that the only song I ever hear of theirs on the radio is still “Laid” when they have so many great albums, including this new one. They’re all definitely worth checking out.

Capital Cities, Solarize, released 10 August. A mix of older singles and EP tracks and newer material, the duo’s second album is refreshing, poppy fun.

Prince, Anthology 1995-2010, released 17 August. I was rather surprised by this album. Instead of a greatest hits mix, it’s a collection of deep cuts from The Gold Experience to 20Ten. As I hadn’t listened to that era in ages, so I’d forgotten how frikkin AMAZING he truly was as a songwriter. It’s a fantastic listen and highly suggested.

Death Cab for Cutie, Thank You for Today, released 17 August. The new record is well worth the wait. Ben Gibbard and co. have hit their stride here, returning to their meandering melodies and quirky lyrics but keeping it fresh. Also, mad props for sampling/borrowing from Yoko Ono’s “Mind Train” on the first single!

Nothing, Dance on the Blacktop, released 24 August. A great follow-up to their previous record, Tired of Tomorrow. This one feels more melodic and kind of reminds me of a less blistering My Bloody Valentine.

Interpol, Marauder, released 24 August. I love this new album! It feels like a solid return to their original post-punk sound — it does kind of feel like they successfully recaptured the best parts of Turn on the Bright Lights in a way. They’ve regained a powerful sound that seems to have been missing from some of their previous albums.

Alice in Chains, Rainier Fog, released 24 August. Another album that sounds like a great return to form. AiC’s best quality has always been their distinctly swampy grunge sound, and it’s all over the place here.

Mogwai, Kin OST, released 31 August. While this isn’t their first soundtrack (they released Atomic in 2016 for a documentary of the same name), it’s their first for a Hollywood film, and I’m kind of surprised they haven’t been tapped to do more, because they’re naturals at it. It’s heavy, loud, and amazing.

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Coming soon: September tunage!

Inside Abbey Road

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A selfie of me internally squeeing with joy as I stand in Studio Two, where a majority of the Beatles’ songs were recorded.

You all know of course that I am a huge Beatles fan and music history nerd.  I’m not a fan that wishes I’d been in the deafening audiences of their live shows, no…I’m a fan that geeks out about how their sound was created.  So when our London vacation just happened to coincide with a special open house/historical presentation at Abbey Road Studios, I simply could NOT pass it up. [The presentation was by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of Recording the Beatles, a book about how each song was recorded in the facility.]

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The famous Abbey Road crosswalk from the other direction.  Photographer Iain Macmillan would have been standing on a stepladder right about where that car is on the right side to take the picture.

We arrived there about twenty minutes before doors-open to an already longish line, where there were a few hundred of us waiting to get in.  Once past security (which was understandably tight), we were led into the front doors and into the main entryway.  As I walked through I was immediately reminded of this particular set of Beatles interviews done on 20 December 1966 (they were heading in to work on “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and the interviews were staged specifically to combat recent ‘are they breaking up’ rumors).

Before we were let in to Studio Two, however, they let us take a doorway peek into the amazingly HUGE and cavernous Studio One, usually used for orchestras but occasionally used for Beatle work (“All You Need Is Love” and “I Am the Walrus”, and the various songs from The Beatles laid down while other members were in Two or Three working on something else).

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Trivia: A possible 70s renovation would have split this room into two smaller upstairs studios and the ground floor into a parking garage.  Thankfully it was nixed.

We were then led into Studio Two across the hall, another cavernous room but not quite as large.  Upon entering, you can’t help but think just how unique this studio is, considering that most modern studios are infinitely smaller.  These were created in the 30s mainly for pop and orchestral pieces (trivia: they were extensions of the smaller main mansion, built over the back gardens of two different plots).

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The main stairway up to the control room.  There are stories that John and Paul used to slide down the railing after popping up there to listen to a playback with George Martin.  Also of note: that small room to the right with the red wall was once the original control room and is now a practice room.

They let us walk around a bit, checking out the various instruments and equipment they had set up.  Most of these instruments were used by the Beatles and are still used by others to this day, by the way!  Including many pianos:

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A Steinway Vertegrand, recognizable by its bright tone.  Played on “Penny Lane”.  More on this one in a moment…

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The Challen piano, known for its warmer tones.  Played on “The Fool on the Hill”.

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The Steinway grand (which gives a lovely full sound).  Played on numerous tracks.

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And of course the Hammond BT3 organ, also used on numerous tracks.

We also got to go upstairs to the main control room.  It’s a much smaller room of course, and the mixing desks have definitely changed over the years from the pots and shifters to a sea of knobs, buttons and everything else.

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A view from the top of the stairs.  Of note, the opposite far corner is where the Beatles used to hang out most to record, Ringo usually in the corner facing out, Paul and George to the left and John to the right — just like their live setup.

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The main mixing desk.  I can’t even begin to figure out how this thing would work.  They’ve indeed come a long, LONG way from four tracks in the sixties.  No picture taken, but across the room from this desk is a super-tiny room: in the 60s this was the sound effects cupboard, which was temporarily cleaned out on 13 August 1968 so the Beatles could record “Yer Blues.”

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Completely innocuous and unimportant, but I was tickled to have found their Secret Tea Stash hiding under one of the speakers in the control room.  It gave the otherwise highly technical room a bit of warmth and humanity.

The presentation itself lasted about ninety minutes and was a fantastic historical overview of the studio itself; Kehew and Ryan had not only done research on the Beatles recordings but on its origins.  They touched on all sorts of things such as its inaugural first recording of Elgar recording his Pomp and Circumstance marches (and its true first recording, a test run of a song by Paul Robeson!), its numerous renovations to improve the sound of each studio, and more.  Eventually they’d hit upon the Beatles’ tenure there, talking their relentless work ethic, continuous experimentation with sounds, and more.

At one point one of them got up from the stage and wandered over to the pianos and explained what they were, their differences in sound, and what they were used on.  This was really neat, as he proceeded to play certain songs on them, like the jabbing chords of “Penny Lane” and the soft taps of “The Fool on the Hill.”

Then he said, “We’d like to do something fun now.  I’d like to ask four piano players to–”

I shot my hand up.  I knew EXACTLY what he was up to.  I’d never forgive myself if I passed this by.

Let’s take a look at that Steinway Vertegrand again:

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See those green dots?  Yep.  They’re E chords.  One person stood next to me and hit the low octave, and I hit the two chords and held down the sustain pedal.

Three, two, one, THOOOOOMMMMMmmmmmmm.

The famous final chord of “A Day in the Life”.

The first attempt was a bit off, but OH MAN did it sound magical.  Sent shivers down my spine.  And since the face was open and the strings were right in my face, I got the full blast of sound.  I was so lost in it I forgot to lift the sustain and everyone started laughing.

The second attempt sounded even better, as we let it ring for a good twenty seconds.

I can die a happy man now.

Back down on Earth, the presentation continued, talking about the post-Beatles recordings, from Pink Floyd and The Dark Side of the Moon to the movie scores such as the Harry Potter films.  Interestingly, the other bit that gave me shivers was a brief explanation and playback on the use of sound effects, specifically on the opening to Pink Floyd’s “Time”.  They must have used remastered source tapes for that bit, as the simulated heartbeat and the delicate sound of the Shiedmayer celeste (below) almost brought me to tears, it sounded so gorgeous.

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They wrapped up the presentation with a brief overview of what they’re working on nowadays — numerous rock bands still record there (including Paul McCartney, who recorded his upcoming release there), and they’re one of the main go-to facility for movie scores.

I’ve always said the studio’s sound is definitely unique, in that there’s a specific warmth, fullness and resonance to it that you can always pick out.  I would totally record there if I was a professional musician, that’s for sure.  Not just because my favorite band recorded there, but because it truly is a fantastic place for sound.

One added and quite unexpected bonus:  Now that I’ve seen Studio Two with my own eyes, I realized I could now visualize where the Beatles recorded in this room, down to the space between them, and how it would sound in that room.  On the flight home I found myself listening to The Beatles and started visualizing the four of them recording the main takes of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (which, serendipitously, they’d started exactly fifty years to the day I listened to it!) in that big place.  Suffice it to say, I heard it in a whole new way.  And now I’m planning on relistening to the rest of their recordings for the same reason.

All in all, one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Oh, and we got VIP badges out of it!

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Thirty-three (and a third?) Years On: 1985

This past weekend I was falling down the YouTube rabbit hole and stumbled up on one of my favorite Phil Collins songs, “Take Me Home”, from his third solo album No Jacket Required.  One of the wild realizations that occurred to me was that, a little over thirty-three years later, I have visited at least half of the locations in this video, and currently live in one of them.  More to the point, I don’t think the fourteen-year-old me would ever have imagined that ever happening.  Visiting Hollywood, various parts of central and greater London, and living in Greater London was something I’d have wanted to do as a teen but had no idea if it would ever happen.  I just thought of it as a fun pipe dream.

I’ve been thinking about that year lately, actually.  On IHeart80s Radio, they’ve been playing full episodes of American Top 40 (with Casey Kasem hosting), and now and again I find myself listening in, because that was the era I listened to it almost religiously every weekend.  Most of my radio mixtapes from that era came from those shows. That year’s chart-topping sound was an amazing mix of rock, R&B, soul, pop, and everything in between.

It was right at the end of my sucktastic years in junior high and my freshman year in high school, where I hoped my life (social and academic) would be so much better. It would take some time before I finally grew out of the small-town groupthink that I was so desperately trying to fit into and move on to bigger and better things, but for the time being I let myself get more immersed in my radio listening and mixtape-making. I still went to the school dances and hung out with my buddies, but I was there for the tunage, not for the girls. [Okay, that’s a half-truth. I was desperate, but at the same time I knew I was in no good frame of mind to have a girlfriend when I was an overly emotional twit with an overactive and underused imagination. That’s about when I buried myself in my burgeoning writing habit as well.]

I’ll be honest, I was getting sick of all the social drama. So I immersed myself in all the music that I could. If I happened to have money from an allowance (or saved up from my leftover lunch money) I’d head downtown to buy a few cassettes. I’d pick up cheap records at flea markets with my dad. I’d make copies of albums my sisters bought. Anything to buy the new albums that were being played on the radio.

It was definitely a strange time when I didn’t quite know who I was or what I wanted to do, just that I didn’t want to be what I presently was. Listening to the radio was the escape. It was the soundtrack to my writing (my other escape). Music gave me a connection to my classmates in a way that other things like sports and whatever else couldn’t. Even then I was known as the weird kid who knew every song on the charts and a lot of deep cuts on albums. Where the popular kids might not have given me the time of day, they’d ask me about some album or some band and if the album was worth picking up.

In a way, I’m kind of glad that I’ve kept that part of me all these years. I no longer use music purely as a social escape (at least not as much as I did then, of course), but I’m still a Subject Matter Expert for some of my friends. And in this internet day and age, it’s a shared interest that’s brought me all sorts of new friends and acquaintances that I might not have met in a different setting.

And here I am, writing this at home in San Francisco, one of the locations in the “Take Me Home” video I loved so much.

Twenty Years On: June 1998

Summer in New England can be annoying.  It’s not just hot, hovering up in the 80s and 90s (and occasionally higher), but it’s also humid and uncomfortable.  All you want to do is stay inside, especially if the place has AC, and kick around until it’s time to go back outside again.  And your car would be so stupidly hot and unbearable being out in the sun all day that you’d sit there for a good few minutes with all the windows open and the AC on full blast to cool it off.

Granted, in the summer of 1998, this was also the perfect time for me to head down to the basement at night after work for my writing sessions!  [This was well before random bear sightings in my parents’ neighborhood started happening, so I’d have the cellar door open wide until after dark to let the cool breeze in.  This, by the way, is why two bats were able to sneak their way in, thus blessing my writing nook with the name The Belfry thereafter.]

It seems that June 1998 was also a quiet one in terms of releases…a few big names here and there, but the best albums weren’t due for another couple of months.  This is quite normal for the release schedule — the kids are spending more on movies and other outside events rather than on music.  The really good stuff is still a few months away.

So!  Without further ado…

The Smashing Pumpkins, Adore, released 2 June. After two stellar early 90s records and a decent-but-bloated double album — not to mention the firing of their drummer soon after — it seemed this band was heading down a dark and not altogether positive road. This one’s a hard listen for various reasons, but it also contains quite a few fantastic tracks, so it evens out.

The X-Files OST, released 2 June. The cult favorite TV show released its first movie as summer fare. It holds up as a self-contained story, but it also inserts itself into the show’s obsessively detailed mythology as well. This is more of a ‘songs inspired by the movie’ album than a true soundtrack (considering the [movie name]: The Album title was in vogue around this time), but it’s an amazing collection of great tracks from Filter, X, Ween, Foo Fighters, The Cure, Noel Gallagher, and more. Well worth picking up.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Munki, released 9 June. The noise-pop band releases what would end up being their last album until last year’s Damage & Joy. It’s a bit overlong with single filler, but it’s still a great album.

Komeda, What Makes It Go?, released 9 June. The quirky Swedish band’s second album was anchored by a ridiculously catchy single (see above) and though they only remained in cult status, they’d eventually provide an equally catchy track for the Powerpuff Girls cartoon a few years later.

The Egg, Travelator, released 15 June. Predating similar-sounding Hot Chip by just a few years, this semi-electronic band from the UK is one of those bands that never quite achieved huge success, but nonetheless have a strong and loyal following. Their work was mostly released as imports here in the US, but they’re definitely worth checking out.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Dirty Boogie, released 23 June. The ex-Stray Cats frontman helped kickstart (or at least energize) the swing revival movement in the late 90s, and his album was also the biggest seller in that scene. I remember moving a hell of a lot of copies of this album during my HMV days!

Mansun, “Legacy” single, released 29 June. The teaser first single from their upcoming Six album, this well-loved Britpop band took their sound into curious and unexpected directions, even more so than before. Little did we fans know just how weird (but in a good way!) that album would end up being…

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Up Next: July 1998!

Thirty Years On: May 1988

May 1988: A good portion of my closest friends are graduating quite shortly, and will be taking off in various directions for their college careers.  Thus starts the era of me being a moody bastard for about six years.  Meanwhile, after about five years of recording songs off the radio and creating my own proto-mixtapes, I finally decide it’s time for me to create my own mixes straight from my own growing collection.  I call them ‘compilations’ instead of ‘mixtapes’ because it sounds more professional, considering how detailed I get in creating them.  Thirty years later I’m still making them, digitally.

Wire, A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, released ?? May. The second album in their ‘beat combo’ era, the band moves closer to their eventual electronic experimentation, using samples, loops, and treated instruments. I played the hell out of this album for a good couple of years after it came out.

Colin Newman, It Seems, released ?? May. In tandem with the above, Wire co-lead singer Newman dropped an even more electronic and experimental album. While the Wire album is more rock oriented, this one’s for sitting back and listening.

Heavenly Bodies, Celestial, released ?? May. A somewhat obscure album featuring vocalist and 4AD friend Caroline Seaman (who would pop up on a few This Mortal Coil albums) and a few ex-Dead Can Dance members, it’s a proto-darkwave album with a moody groove to it. “Rains On Me” got some serious airplay on a lot of the college stations when it came out.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Nothing Wrong, released ?? May. The noise-punks from Leeds released an excellent album of sludgy, growling alt-rock that might not have been to everyone’s tastes, but those who did like it (like me) absolutely loved it.

Living Colour, Vivid, released 3 May. Loud, abrasive, political, funky, humorous, and absolutely amazing. Lots has already been said about this album, and it’s all true. I got to see these guys at UMass Amherst in 1989 (it was part of MTV’s college campus tour, with the Godfathers opening up), and they put on one hell of a great show.

Depeche Mode, “Little 15” single, released 16 May. The last single from 1987’s Music for the Masses. It’s also one of my favorite tracks from it due to its amazing dynamics, starting off quiet and delicate and ending up Wagnerian and bombastic. It’s one of those songs you need to hear in headphones to get the full power of it.

Fairground Attraction, The First of a Million Kisses, released 16 May. It took me years to finally buy this album, but I remember the above track getting played incessantly on WMDK and the other AOR stations in the area. A fun and irresistibly catchy tune. The rest of the album is great too!

Compilation: Stentorian Music, created 20 May. The first of many compilations was an ongoing experiment of a themed mix; this one featured songs from groups like The Sisters of Mercy, Love and Rockets, The Cure, and The Screaming Blue Messsiahs among others, and designed to be played loud. It was put on a 60 minute tape and it came out reasonably well, considering.  Not bad for a first try.

Compilation: Preternatural Synthetics, created 20 May. Yeah, even then I knew I was getting a bit ridiculous with the titles, but it was just something for fun, after my titling the old radio mixtapes with corny ‘Love & Rock & Roll’ titles. This one was a 90-minute tape featuring all synth and/or electronic-sounding bands, such as Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Depeche Mode, and so on. It’s a perky mix, and rather enjoyable!

The Timelords, “Doctorin’ the Tardis” single, released 23 May. A ridiculous single from the KLF/Justified Ancients of MuMu/JAMMs/etc. gang.  Mixing Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” and the Doctor Who theme, it’s one of those earworms that the college crowd loved.

Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, released 24 May. Another college rock band that went from indie (Pitch-a-Tent) to major (Virgin) in 1988, this record was indeed beloved by a quite a few fans, both old and new.  I particularly loved this single, which also got a lot of play on the AOR stations.

Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” single, released 31 May. Say what you will about his current nutjob shenanigans, his early post-Smiths records were fantastic. This second single from Viva Hate was another ‘borrowed’ single that popped up at the radio station I worked at. I soon fell in love with the gorgeous deep cut “Will Never Marry”, which would end up on quite a few of my future compilations.

The Sugarcubes, Life’s Too Good, released 31 May. This album was an instant hit for the college crowd, with its eclectic mix of often bizarre lyrics, infectious melodies and the balance of its two lead singers: the pixie-like Bjork and its weirdo horn player, Einar. Not to mention its dayglo album cover! Another band I got to see at UMass Amherst around that time.

Next Up: June 1988!

FM

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Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite records that I used to love taking out of the library — aside from The Beatles 1962-1966, which I did not yet own — was the soundtrack to a 1978 movie called FM.

It was an amazing double-album filled with huge rock hits of the last few years: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, and more…and of course Steely Dan’s classic theme song.  Pretty much a perfect cross-section of what would become the classic rock genre in future radio programming.  [It’s still available on CD at this time, by the way, and highly recommended.]

I don’t remember the movie ever playing anywhere close at the time of its release (April 1978), but then again, I was only seven at the time.  The soundtrack was good enough for me.  Still, it would be another few years before I finally saw it when it was shown on one of the local independent TV channels a few years later.  I enjoyed it, even if some of the more mature issues (like Eric Swan’s sexual encounters or Mother’s consistently-baked persona) went right over my head.  The short version of the plot is that Q-Sky, an LA-based rock station with committed fans but not much profit, is being threatened by upper management to play more commercials and less music to make more money.  The stalwart deejays (your classic tropes here: the smooth-talking overnight guy, the ex-hippie still living in the previous decade, the young and spunky morning host, the cute and friendly girl everyone loves, the popular prima donna, and so on) decide to go against upper management to keep the station alive and rockin’ at whatever cost…even if it means going on strike.

[There are definitely shades of WKRP in Cincinnati here, but please note that the show was actually in pre-production talks when this movie came out; they’re not connected to each other in any way.]

It wasn’t until I read Richard Neer’s 2001 book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (also highly recommended) that I renewed my interest in the film.  It took me another number of years to finally find a dvd copy.  Years older and more knowledgeable about the way radio works, I’d discovered that the movie, for all it’s worth, was actually quite accurate in its portrayal of a radio station’s ups and downs during that time.

FM rock radio was in fact becoming the preferred choice for younger listeners by 1978, bypassing AM radio’s previous popularity — thus the riff ‘no static at all’ in the theme song.  It was also the zenith of rock radio to that point, with numerous bands releasing platinum and gold selling albums that are still highly regarded to this day.  At the same time, however, the financial woes of running a popular radio station had started taking its toll on the programming.  It was becoming harder and harder to be a free-form station where the deejay could play anything they wanted, when the business itself needed to make a profit to stay alive.  FM was in fact a spot-on commentary of this, even when it veered into the occasional Hollywood movie silliness.

Running a radio station nowadays is still just as hard as it’s ever been.  The issue is that it’s not built to be a moneymaker; it’s built to be a community service.  It provides free entertainment and information to its listeners; its money is made from its advertising or donations and fundraising events.  Most owners and station managers try to keep the moneymaking part of the business as unobtrusive as they can.

But that’s another post altogether.  I’m just here to talk about one of my favorite movies and soundtracks!

Recent Purchases, March Edition, Part 1

Another month almost near the end! Here’s the best of what was purchased over the first couple of weeks of this month, most of which I’m still listening to quite heavily. I say ‘purchased’ and not released, because these all had a drop date of the 2nd, and I had to keep an eye on my bank account!

The Breeders, All Nerve, released 2 March. A welcome return to the original Last Splash-era Breeders, with classic chunky riffs, noisy production, and the always off-kilter lyrics of Kim Deal. This one’s definitely going to be a summer listen for me.

Moby, Everything Was Fine, and Nothing Hurt, released 2 March. This one’s quite similar to his classic Play album from 1999, mixing twitchy upbeat songs with quiet mood pieces. There’s even a hint of trip-hop in there as well.

Lucy Dacus, Historian, released 2 March. She reminds me of Beth Orton in a way; not just a singer/songwriter but a sound sculptor. This album starts out soft and sedate but it features a lot of unexpected — and sometimes loud — turns, which keeps me coming back to it.

Moaning, Moaning, released 2 March. Apparently taking a page or three from Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, this Sub Pop band comes straight out of 1985 college radio and doesn’t give up with its walls of guitar and reverb. Which of course means this album is tailored just for me!

Lucius, Nudes, released 2 March. The first of a few ‘unplugged’ albums that show up this month, and it amazes me how well Lucius translates to alt-folk in the process. Especially the new track “Woman”, which is simply stunning with its dual-lead harmonies.

Buffalo Tom, Quiet and Peace, released 2 March. The Boston boys are back with another great record of brash alt-rock and excellent songwriting. There’s even a hint of Springsteen influence on this album, but I’m not complaining.

Tracey Thorn, Record, released 2 March. The vocal half of Everything But the Girl releases her first solo album in six years, and it’s a welcome return.

Andrew WK, You’re Not Alone, released 2 March. The professor of All Things Party releases an album that screams EPIC, but also talks honestly about life. Meat Loaf-esque hard rock bombast (but without the ten-minute operettas, thankfully) shares the same space as spoken-word interludes on being the best you can be at whatever you aim for. Noisy and uplifting, just how AWK wants your life to be lived.

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Up Next: The rest of the month!