Return of the Long Album

>Among the recent records coming and going through my stereo, three from the past month have captured my heart and taken root. That's an intentional choice of word " root" because these three albums are like trees—weird, winding, towering trees, as peculiar as they are permanent.

The records in question: Have One On Me, the triple-LP release from Nevada City singer and harp aficionado Joanna Newsom; Tomorrow, In A Year, the electro-opera by experimental Swedish duo The Knife; and The Golem, a two-disc silent film score by the Pixies' Black Francis. Combined, they clock in at five hours, and they sometimes feel longer. Yet I keep making time for them.

They aren't the first lengthy, demanding albums in recorded history. As a complete trio, though, their dissimilarities melt away to make a statement about the concept of the modern album.

The music industry can't stop talking about revolutions here and downloads there; viral ad campaigns here and free album giveaways there. But when we talk about the changing shape of music distribution, that chatter guts artists' intentions—or sets established artists like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead on a pedestal as unrealistic examples. So it's kind of beautiful for three albums to show up within a three-week span and assert a new world order of visual, assertive, and perhaps even indulgent long-play releases.



Black Francis' The Golem is the most accessible of this trio, though possibly because of my bias; as a teen, I had a sweet-tooth for movie soundtracks (British Invasion love-letter Rushmore in particular).

The Golem scores the silent German film of the same name, and the disc's box set comes with a DVD that syncs the film to Francis' 34 songs. The DVD may seem ideal, but I quickly grew fond of the CD's soundtrack-like sequence, dotted with recurring instrumental segues, scene-specific numbers, and utterly poppy gems that are among the best of Francis' career.

Recent Black Francis records have hinged on odd themes; his 2007 full-length Bluefinger revolved around the life of Dutch artist Herman Brood. But this release goes further. The oddity of the source film and the constraints of directly scoring it put Francis in truly fresh territory, with many of the songs revealing a new side of Francis.

Take early album highlight "Miriam and Florian." Its build to an indulgently bluesy guitar solo is almost Aerosmithian, but even that's not the most surprising part; consider the song's tasteful subcurrent of violin and clarinet, its headbanging rhythm guitar break near the song's close, and, of course, the particularly sweet on-screen love story described by Francis' time-tested growl-whimper: "She thinks of them, especially when / a lighter force, takes its course."

I miss some of the synced film moments on CD, but unlike, say, a Dark Side/Wizard of Oz mash-up, the music-to-film connection is more about setting a tone than having sounds match the action (though the frequently synced lyrics work to great effect, like when "Bad News" relates to the film's on-screen soothsayer). As such, the songs hold up without visuals, mostly because the songs prove more visual than most of Francis' poppy output for the past few decades—rendering full scenes with heartfelt storytelling and chaining the proceedings together with frequent, refrain-fueled reminders.




Before Tomorrow, In A Year reaches its seventh song, "Variations of Birds," its sonic palette has laid itself bare, almost as if The Knife had written hundreds of pages of lore for the project. Electronic clicks and rustles are the only percussion. Synthesizers wash over the tracks as if hijacked violently from the entirety of '70s sci-fi cinema—and these noises are punctuated by grating explosions that sound like electromagnetic reactions of Lost. Above all this, in stark contrast, rings the commanding voice of mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin Momme.

It's a mess.

I remind myself that the music comes from a 2009 opera production, and I do what I can to imagine elaborate stages full of color and light, using all matter of electronic media to tell the story of Charles Darwin. With all this ruckus, The Knife attempts to convey his sense of wonderment, I suppose. I'll stick it out, I say.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.

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