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First Watch: Manchester Orchestra 'The Alien'

Ask any artist and they'll likely to tell you it's easier to write when life is dark than when it is going well. Such was the fortunate dilemma — that of happiness — of Manchester Orchestra songwriters Andy Hull and Robert McDowell.

So to make A Black Mile To The Surface, the band's fifth album, the Atlanta-based pair had to do some reinventing. Fortunately, they'd recently learned some new ways to approach songwriting, while scoring music to the 2016 Sundance hit Swiss Army Man. To make the music for the film they opted out of instruments, using just voices and the film's images to spark the tunes.

Channeling that flow, Manchester Orchestra are now back, instruments in hand, with material sparked as much by a random photograph as a musical direction.

Songwriter, singer and guitarist Andy Hull told me in an email that "The Alien" is "a narrative about a small slice of time in a man's life as he faces a lofty decision with a dire consequence. It is ultimately about family and the effects, big and small, that family has on everybody. We knew it was important for the video to have a narrative that added an otherworldly element without taking away from the original story. [Director] Mike Dempsey and The Daniels [creative directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan] have created a beautiful and intense representation of life and the unexpected movements that occur for all of us."

Those unexpected movements come in the form of reversed and slow-motion tableaus of people in crisis and danger, swimming in mystery. Director Mike Dempsey was trying to evoke "feelings through gravity," he told me. "I have always enjoyed photographing people in motion, falling down stairs or holding onto a tree branch or crashing into a wall with a bike. The band — a group of wildly talented musicians and storytellers who were an absolute blast to work with — hand-selected a few references from my website and we developed concepts around them. While planning for 'The Alien' music video specifically, we chose to do a piece that could use physical movement to express an internal feeling, in this case it was a daughter spreading her mothers ashes — but her experience of the event is like getting swept off her feet by a tornado."

A Black Mile To The Surface is out July 28 from Loma Vista Recordings.

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In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.
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