Serve the People

Handsome Furs

Sound Kapital

2011 Sub Pop

by Chorpenning

Until very recently, I was in a bit of a rut with my video games. It started with me playing Red Dead Redemption, a game which has garnered much critical ballyhoo and even a little bit of hullabaloo. Well, the truth is it’s an all right game, I suppose. But it chose some inopportune moments to get buggy on me and the end was artificially padded to the point that I almost decided not to finish it (seriously – and there’s a spoiler in here, if you give shit – toward the end of the game, while you’re busy waiting for the sudden and inevitable betrayal to come, you have to shoot some crows to protect your corn. And if you don’t shoot enough of them in a short enough amount of time, you fail the “mission” and have to redo it. This is not some optional side quest, mind you – you have to do it to get to the end of the fucking game!). But I did finish it, I quite enjoyed the actual end of the game, and then thought I’d go for something more lighthearted and fun; so I picked up Dead to Rights: Retribution (I call this time my “dead” phase of video gaming)… and put it down barely an hour in when I realized that it is probably the worst video game I’ve played in the last three years. Poor design, wonky combat, having to walk around the same two or three levels over and over again. It’s a game that tends to show naked contempt for you as a player of video games. Take heart – I got it for free. So but anyway, after Dead to Rights: Retardation, I started to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with me. Like maybe I just suddenly didn’t like video games as much as I used to.

And then I played Gears of War 2. Holy shit. Yes, the plot is brick stupid, but the combat is deliciously visceral, easy to manage, and you get to chainsaw your way out of a giant fucking worm. I don’t think I’m a third of the way through the game and it has already very kindly assured me that yes, goddammit, I loves me some video games. Turns out I only like the good ones. Gears of War 2, whatever else it is, is a helluva lot of fun. And it’s fun almost immediately.

Which brings me to why I’m even talking about video games in a Bollocks! post in the first place: the new Handsome Furs album, Sound Kapital, was the perfect album to come along for me right when I was remembering how much fun video games can be when they’re not made with a seething disdain for the people who play them. Like Gears of War 2, Sound Kapital is immediately entertaining. Unlike my current video game of choice, however, Sound Kapital mixes a heavy dose of substance with its entertainment.

If there’s one theme I’ve found consistently in the two Handsome Furs albums that I own – I also highly recommend 2009’s Face Control – it’s that of people working way harder than Americans (and, presumably, Canadians) have to in order to hear or play music. Face Control was influenced by Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry’s trip around Eastern Europe, learning about underground clubs and radio stations like Serbia’s B92, a radio station that audaciously smuggled the truth out of that country when Slobodan Milošević was busy waging genocide there. Supporting that album apparently led the Handsome Furs to Burma in 2010, where public rock shows are strictly forbidden by the military fucks who run that country.

You can read Alexei Perry’s wildly entertaining version of events here but I’ll just summarize everything this way: last year, the Handsome Furs took one helluva risk to bring music to people who were taking one helluva risk by putting on a show and the best part is that Perry and Boeckner donated their proceeds to help their Burmese opening band (Side Effect, name-checked in the Sound Kapital highlight “Serve the People”) fund the recording of an album. For those of you keeping score at home, this is not only one hundred percent virtuous rock star behavior, it’s fucking awesome human behavior.

An adventure like that would have an impact on anybody, and the influence of the Furs’ visit to Burma (I will not call it fucking Myanmar, that’s what the assholes wanna call it) can be felt all over Sound Kapital. So once more, we have awesome songs about people risking their necks to hear music (the international garage anthem “Cheap Music” and the aforementioned “Serve the People”) and once more, the political themes of the record stem from the personal struggles of the people who inspired the music.

And what awesome, infectious, ragged-ass pop music it is! Where Face Control had a few unnecessary bits, Sound Kapital is fit and trim at nine tracks, at least five of which can be classified as “Fucking Awesome.” In case you’re wondering, the remaining four are still “pretty fucking great,” and are growing on me rapidly. In short, Sound Kapital is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of 2011. It’s a stunning example of the marriage of style and substance that Talib Kweli was talking about earlier this year.

Part of what I have loved about that last two Handsome Furs records is also what I have loved about Wolf Parade pretty much since “This Heart’s On Fire” and that’s the fact that Dan Boeckner doesn’t seem capable of writing a song that isn’t at least a little bit anthemic. It’s in his fucking blood. When he sings, “Nostalgia never really meant that much to me” on “Memories of the Future,” I feel like I’m hearing a mantra. Of course, this could be due in part to the fact that I’ve recently been bombarded with forwarded emails and Facebook statuses from friends that romanticize the past to an almost willfully ignorant degree (seriously, you know who’s nostalgic for the 50s and 60s? Privileged white men. I’ve never met a black dude who thinks shit was better back in the Eisenhower administration). But the phrase is couched in such hypnotically head-nodding music that the whole package sometimes comes across as a message from the future to stop living in the past (Boeckner even sings, “I have seen the future/ I will never be repatriated” on the appropriately titled “Repatriated”).

I should also point out that it takes a special talent for someone to use synthesizers as much as the Handsome Furs do without pissing me off (Wolf Parade was also capable of this. If Expo 86 was their swan song, it was one helluva way to go out). Synths appear on, I think, every Handsome Furs song and I find myself loving it. I never believed synthesizers were inherently evil, mind you, but I know that they’re very infrequently used for good. Sound Kapital is a case where they’re used for awesome, especially on “Repatriated” and my current favorite track “Bury Me Standing.”

In my post about Face Control, I mentioned that people like the staff of B92 were exactly the sort of people who ought to be celebrated in rock songs. The same is true of bands like Side Effect and all the people who helped the Handsome Furs put on their show in Yangon. That the Furs choose to celebrate people like this in songs that so frequently make my dopamine reward pathway light up like Times Square is a reason to celebrate them as one of the most promising bands working right now.

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Ani DiFranco

I was gonna have moonbeam write about Ani DiFranco for our Summer of Badass Women, but then I decided that I would just do it myself because there is no way DiFranco would appear in our Summer of Badass Women if I myself did not think she was a complete badass.

Since first hearing of DiFranco in college (I know, probably everyone first heard of her in college), I’m sad to report that I’ve heard a lot of negative shit about her. The label she’s frequently saddled with (one that has also been unfairly hurled at Kathleen Hanna and pretty much any other prominent woman who has had the audacity to point out that patriarchy is bullshit) is “man-hater.” Of course, DiFranco isn’t a man-hater and I bet I’m not the only man who thinks so – her partner and sometime producer, Mike Napolitano (with whom DiFranco has a daughter), would probably not use the word “man-hater” to describe her.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, there are lot of men who deserve to be hated. Like Pol Pot. I mean, fuck that guy, right?

So if Ani DiFranco shouldn’t be classified according to the defensive accusations of guys who probably just needed more hugs when they were little, how should we think of her? In other words, what makes her such a badass?

For starters, she is a nearly psychotic (in a good way) acoustic guitar player. There are  three guitarists from whom I would like to take lessons: I’d like Tad Kubler to teach me how to solo like a fucking barbarian, I’d like Mike Doughty to teach me how to play rhythm with that chugging, thumping style he’s got, and I’d like Ani DiFranco to teach me how to thrash the living shit out of an acoustic guitar and produce the joyful noises she’s put to record in the last twenty-odd years. Rather than plaintively plucking and softly strumming out her songs, DiFranco frequently beats her strings like a drum, or pulls and snaps them like a lion ripping a gazelle’s tendons in its jaws (“Swan Dive” and “Evolve” are pretty great examples of this).

Secondly, Ani DiFranco is – no joke – so independent that Pitchfork doesn’t even review her records. I should like to point out, however, that Bollocks! totally fucking does. DiFranco (Ani, to many of her fans. This is the same thing that annoys me about some of Dave Matthews’ fans simply call him “Dave,” but you can’t stop these people from doing these things and it’s really not worth the time it takes to get worked up over it anymore) started her own record label in 1989 (Righteous Records, which became Righteous Babe Records in 1994) and has released every one of her albums – not to mention albums by lots of other independent artists – on that label. And while a lot of people praise DiFranco’s business model for its financial benefits, she stressed in an open letter to Ms. magazine that being a mega-successful business person was never her aim when she started her own label. And furthermore: “We have the ability and the opportunity to recognize women not just for the financial successes of their work but for the work itself. We have the facility to judge each other by entirely different criteria than those imposed upon us by the superstructure of society. We have a view that reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.”

So I applaud DiFranco for not putting too much emphasis on making her first million but, having said that, I am always – always – happy when artists I love can make a living making music. But it’s far more important to me that DiFranco found a way to distribute her music to her fans without having to attach herself to some fuck-awful major label; you know, like EMI. The major label system is a dinosaur… or, better yet, it’s some kind of ancient, simple creature swimming in the primordial soup and scoffing as its neighbors grow, change, and head for the land, sea, and sky. I don’t have a name for the creature in that analogy because it didn’t fucking survive.

Where was I?

Oh yeah: There’s no point in being a folk singer if the folks never get to  hear your stuff and DiFranco made her own way to bring the music to the people. Righteous Babe records represents the epitome of the DIY ethic that is a hallmark of the punk movement. It’s telling, then, that DiFranco associates “folk” with a certain spirit, much the same way that I think of “punk.” In the book Rock Troubadours (goofy name, I know), she’s quoted thusly regarding folk: “It’s an attitude, it’s an awareness of one’s heritage, and it’s a community. It’s subcorporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority.” And when she’s not giving voice to those different communities through her songs, DiFranco supports innumerable progressive causes and has devoted herself and her label to the unenviable task of revitalizing her home town, Buffalo, New York.

Which is cool, you know, but what about the music? DiFranco’s detractors (and she has many) would have you believe that she’s some kind of one-dimensional harpy, shrieking unfounded accusations directly at every penis within a thousand miles of wherever her music is being played. Which is obviously bullshit. DiFranco’s feminism isn’t all the shouting kind (Bikini Kill’s was, and dog bless ’em for it); no, she’s more likely to hit you with a vivid story of a woman trying to carve her own path in a nation that is predominantly run by rich, white men. “Letter to a John” is a brilliant example of this – it’s a beautiful song wherein the narrator is a stripper who imagines taking the money she gets from giving dudes lap dances and getting the hell out of town. “I don’t think that I’m better than you/ but I don’t think that I’m worse,” she tells her current customer, summing up basically the entire ethos of feminism (and humanism and democracy, at least in theory) in two lines.

But to portray Ani DiFranco as some shrill, humorless activist is to do a hack-shit job of describing her large and varied catalogue of tunes. There are beautiful pop melodies in her songs (“Both Hands” and “As Is” come to mind) and some of them are wonderfully earnest (and only slightly cheesy) love songs like “Way Tight” from 2008’s Red Letter Year, which is – sadly – DiFranco’s most recent studio album (although fans itching for a dose of new Ani music can whet their appetites by checking out the new Twilight Singers album, where they’ll hear DiFranco on “Blackbird and the Fox”). My favorite DiFranco love song is still “Falling Is Like This,” largely because it captures the reckless feeling of falling in love (“one minute there was road beneath us/ and the next just sky”) while challenging the ways in which we typically describe a sensation that transcends our feeble words.

The cheap sum-up ending of this profile would be to say that Ani DiFranco is like the Woody Guthrie of the Riot Grrrl generation, but it’s more accurate to say that she has made it possible for women her daughter’s age to become the Ani DiFranco of their generation. She’s made herself an icon for independence, not just in music performance and distribution, but in actual thought and deed. And, like all true badasses, Ani DiFranco never intended to be an icon (I suspect she might not appreciate the suggestion that she is an icon, but I also very strongly suspect she doesn’t even know Bollocks! exists); she simply applied a relentless work ethic to a passion for her art, which his something we can all do, even if we’re not indie folk stars.

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Nina Simone

When it comes to Bollocks!, I am a bit of a whore. I didn’t start out that way, but it was easier not to be a whore when only 6-8 people (on average) read my blog. Somewhere in the last three years, more people, some of them total strangers, some of them on completely different continents (my mind = blown), started reading the blog. We get well over a hundred hits a day now, which is chump change I’m sure to your Perez Hiltons and Whoever The Fuck Elses, but I’m pretty proud of my readership. So now Bollocks! posts to my Facebook and I tweet every post on my Twitter and I even link to it from my fucking Gmail g-chat status thinger. Yesterday, my g-chat status thinger read, “I’m tired of telling people politely. Fucking listen to Curtis Mayfield.”

I bring this up not because I want to talk to you about what a massive whore I am (I’m comfortable with my current level of whorishness, which I rank as several steps below that of, say, Dane Cook) but because I suspect I will only have to change the name on my status for today’s post. Because goddamn it, people should fucking listen to Nina Simone.

Nina Simone was Eunice Kathleen Waymon right up until the moment she started playing piano and singing in bars, the first of those being the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. To hide what was supposed to be a sideline gig from her exceedingly God-fearing ma, Eunice made up the name Nina Simone, taking “Nina” from the Spanish niña (“little girl”) and “Simone” from a French actress named Simone Signoret. The gig at the Midtown Bar & Grill, originally intended to supplement private lessons, helped Simone capture the eye of the record industry. Which was just as well since the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philly opted not to accept Simone – apparently, she believed until her dying day that she was denied because of her race (two days before her death in 2003, the Curtis Institute gave her an honorary degree, which might well have been a subtle way of saying, “Hey, sorry about the whole racism thing. City of Brotherly Love, huh?”).

She spent some time jumping from label to label in the sixties, a decade that would prove transformative for her career. Though Simone had tried to stay away from politics in her music, the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Alabama (four kids were killed) inspired Simone to write “Mississippi Goddam,” a song which would go on to be (predictably) banned in a lot of Southern states, despite the fact that it sounds like “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” Nina Simone spent the sixties (and indeed, the bulk of the rest of her career) doing what Curtis Mayfield spent the 1970s doing: chronicling, through jaw-droppingly awesome music, the experience of African-Americans in a country that forced them to live here and then decided it didn’t want them. On the Philips Records release Nina Simone In Concert, she introduces “Mississippi Goddam” by saying, “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi God Damn… and I mean every word of it.”

So Simone qualifies as a badass woman on biography alone (did I mention she had an affair with a dude named Errol Barrow? No? So I guess I didn’t mention that he was the fucking prime minister of Barbados. Must’ve slipped my mind), but this here is a music blog and Nina Simone most definitely did not want for musical badassery. It’s not all that surprising that she was a great pianist (she began playing at age 3 and had a widely-reported knack for learning instruments by ear); she honed her chops playing in her ma’s church (possibly the place where Ma Waymon learned to refer to singing in bars as “working in the fires of hell”). But that voice. Inspired by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone sang in a voice so singular and haunting that even her renditions of well-known songs by the likes of Cole Porter became her own when sung in that striking alto-tenor vocal range. And Nina Simone could do things with vibrato that would make Mariah Carey quit the music business tomorrow, if she had any goddamn sense.

If you’re gonna own only one Nina Simone album, it should be a live one. Not only do the live recordings capture the versatility of her voice (so jazzy and so fucking angry on “Mississippi Goddam” – which might very well be performed as “Arizona Goddam” today), but her ability to work the audience with humor and grace in between such intense performances was unmatched. She jokes and laughs and pouts and struts and that’s when she’s not blowing the roof of the joint in song.

I haven’t heard a bad Nina Simone song, but I do have a few favorites. Just last week, I mentioned her superb rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and I also get goosebumps every time I hear her version of “Lilac Wine.” In my mind, there are only two recordings of “Lilac Wine” in existence: one appears on Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind and the other appears on Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Speaking of “Wild is the Wind,” I think it’s a perfect example of a song that Nina Simone didn’t write but she might as well have. Anyone who covers that song (Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding did a good job of that on last year’s Chamber Music Society) is covering Nina Simone’s version (I know what you’re thinking: “Chorpenning,” you’re thinking, “I know that the song was written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, but wasn’t Nina Simone the first person to record it?” No, grasshopper; Johnny Mathis recorded “Wild is the Wind” for a film of the same name in 1957, a full nine years before Nina Simone totally fucking perfected it). If you can’t tell from the early bits of this post, I am also quite enamored of “Mississippi Goddam” (by the way, the “goddamn” misspelling is Nina Simone’s, not mine). But, as I said, if Nina Simone is singing it, it’s probably viscerally beautiful in a way that simultaneously elevates and devastates your soul. Unless some hack-fuck DJ is remixing it with bullshit drum beats and samples and shit; if you think you can improve Nina Simone songs by laptop-fucking them, I think I am legally allowed to hit you in the nuts with a shovel (for purposes of this hypothetical exercise and so as not to be accused of sexism: ladies, your ovaries will be referred to as your “inside nuts”).

Great Fucking Albums #26: Curtis

Since embarking on this open-ended mission to compile a list of Great Fucking Albums, I’ve realized that, if I weren’t such a lazy bugger, I could easily introduce a related feature called Great Fucking People, in which every post would tell you about some legitimate musical hero. That feature would undoubtedly include the late, great Curtis Mayfield (I realized this morning that if I could resurrect only two dead musicians, they would be Joe Strummer and Curtis Mayfield). But, since I’ve yet to invent the Great Fucking People feature, you’ll have to settle for reading about Mayfield’s 1970 solo debut, Curtis, which is absolutely a Great Fucking Album.

After a successful decade with the Impressions (they charted 26 singles in nine years), Curtis Mayfield decided to stop touring with the group in order to focus on running Curtom Records, a label he had started in 1968 with Eddie Thomas. According to the liner notes for Rhino’s 30th anniversary reissue of Curtis, Curtom Records was “essentially the first successful label established by a black recording artist,” and that was due in large part to Mayfield’s decision to focus more on running the label than on being a full-time Impression (he didn’t officially leave the group, allowing himself a kind of failsafe should Curtom go belly up).

In September of 1970, while law-and-order president Richard “Dick” Nixon was polishing up his enemies list, Curtis Mayfield released Curtis, a forty-minute, eight song, blast of funk, soul, and fury that opened with arguably the must substantive R&B track recorded up to that point: “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go.” Over a pulsing bass line, we hear a woman urging us to read the Good Book before Mayfield begins the sermon: “Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers! Don’t Worry/ If there’s Hell below/ we’re all/ gonna go.” And then a scream gives way to wah-wah guitars and funky horns before Mayfield settles in for nearly eight minutes to warn literally everyone of the consequences of intolerance. But “Don’t Worry” isn’t just a song about the need for racial harmony – it’s a forceful expression of Mayfield’s serious (and entirely reasonable) doubt that Richard Milhous Nixon was really going to do anything to help black people escape from the ghetto (there’s a reason nobody refers to Nixon as “our first black president”).

What makes Curtis, which often explicitly deals with the realities of African-American life in the two years following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., such an astounding work of musical art – an unqualified masterpiece or, as we like to say here at Bollocks!, a Great Fucking Album – is the unrestrained beauty of the music itself. Though he mostly sang in a falsetto, Mayfield’s voice was strong when it needed to be and vulnerable when that’s what the song required (“The Makings of You,” later a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, is a fine example of this). The guitar and bass parts are exactly fifty percent “funky” and fifty percent “fresh” (aspiring bass players, take note: Curtis will tell you how to do it right). The string and horn arrangements (by Riley Hampton and Gary Slabo) are nothing short of lush and the rhythms are complex and downright propulsive; side two of the original vinyl release opened with “Move On Up,” another long-burning funk number that you might remember as Cutty’s jogging music from The Wire. If you can listen to “Move On Up” without at least nodding your head, it is entirely likely that the funky part of your soul was removed at birth and you should definitely have that looked at.

About eight months before Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, Curtis did for funk/soul/R&B music what the Clash would do for punk by the end of the ’70s – that is, the album injected a social conscious into a popular style of music. Of course there were tracks like James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but Curtis was a start-to-finish successful marriage of style and substance that is very rarely achieved in music, largely because it’s really fucking difficult. Some musicians get the social/political passion part down and forget to turn that into great songs and – I think more frequently – some musicians just want to sing pretty notes, play some bigass stadiums, and cash their checks (here, because I think it’s appropriate for some reason, is a short list of songs I would like to hear on the next season of American Idol: “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”; Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya”; any Minor Threat song; and “White Riot” by the Clash).

Because Mayfield was so adept at covering topics like race relations (he calls for minority unity on “We the People Who are Darker than Blue”), feminism (he salutes the beauty of black women when imagining his daughter growing up to be “Miss Black America”), and the power of active youth (“Wild and Free”) in songs that are – still, forty fucking years later – best described as “fresh as hell,” it should come as no surprise that Curtis was a smash hit by pretty much every metric you can imagine. It spent five weeks at number one on the R&B charts (it spent 43 weeks on that chart), spent 49 weeks on the pop charts, reaching number 19 on the Billboard Pop Album charts. Even more impressive to me is the fact that the single “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” went to number three on the R&B charts and number 29 on the pop charts. That a song with such a blunt and bleak outlook would make the pop charts at all is pretty fucking awesome.

Part of the goal of having a list of Great Fucking Albums is to passionately argue against the notion that all of the great music was made decades ago, but it’s also to expose Bollocks! readers to music from all genres and decades that perhaps you’ve not had the opportunity to hear. Lists of the fifty or hundred or five hundred Best Whatevers of Whenever, to me, attempt to quantify and rank something that is far too subjective and complicated to simply slap a number on. I don’t know where Curtis ranks on anybody’s list of the best albums ever recorded and I don’t care; it’s enough that it’s a stunning, soulful debut from a man who was not only an undisputed master of funk but also a keenly socially aware individual who cared very deeply about giving a voice to those who had none. If you want to know about soul, if you want to know about passion and compassion, if you want to feel the funk and the fire, you want to fucking listen to Curtis and you want to listen to it over and over again.

Crazy Heart Probably Should Have Just Been About Steve Earle

Back when Tower Records was still a thing that existed, I was employed by them in their Harvard Square store and I worked with a dude named Tom who was of the opinion that a really great thing about Steve Earle is that he puts out about an album per year. So if you don’t like whatever the new Steve Earle album is, you don’t have a long wait before the next one comes out. Mind you, Tom wasn’t accusing Steve Earle of preferring quantity over quality; he was praising the man’s work ethic.

The Pitchforkers have repeatedly asserted (and not entirely without reason) that Earle’s recent work has been “uneven for some time now,” and I can see why they might think that, but I look at it more as Earle recording exactly what he wants to when he wants to and not thinking about it much at all. In 2007, he wanted to work with the Dust Brothers on Washington Square Serenade, so he did. He wanted to make a tribute album to Townes Van Zandt, so he did. And this year, he wanted T-Bone Burnett (who produced Elvis Costello’s awesome King of America record back in the 1980s, among other great folkish recordings) to produce I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And so that happened too.

Obviously, Earle’s seemingly lax process (assuming I’ve pegged it right) can yield some clunkers – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive has one or two – but it also lends Earle’s music a sense of immediacy, warmth and intimacy that I very much enjoy. Perhaps that has led me to forgive Earle the occasional misstep, but perhaps the good folks over at Pitchfork simply want to like Steve Earle more than they actually do like him (I’ve had this problem with some bands myself and it has led me to make really terrible attempts to justify to myself the repeated listening of stuff that is just not for me. Subjectivity’s a bitch, ain’t it?).

Earle released The Revolution Starts…Now! not too long before I started working at Tower, and we listened to it fairly frequently in the store (we were forced to skip the track “F the CC” when the boss was in because of its delightfully liberal use of one of my very favorite words). Though I never owned the album, I found a fairly consistent quality to it and I find the same quality in I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Where the album fails, it seems like Earle is sacrificing lyricism for plain ol’ (but – let’s face it – boring ol’) earnestness, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty all right way to fail. Earnestness can’t make song good, but it can leave me disliking a song and still very much respecting the singer. Whatever else you want to say about Steve Earle, he means – sometimes to a fault – every single note he sings and plays. The trade-off is that Earle’s good songs absolutely transcend his bad ones, to the point that you can very easily forget about the bad stuff.

But I don’t want to (and hell, I don’t need to) try to excuse I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive as a mediocre album doomed by the good intentions of its creator. It’s a pretty good album with a few flaws here and there, none of which are unendurable. In fact, the first three tracks on the album are excellent. Opener “Waitin’ On the Sky” is a rollicking country rocker that convinced me (admittedly, this wasn’t that hard to do) that Crazy Heart really should have just been about Steve Earle and – like fellow grizzled musical survivor Neil Young – Earle displays a facility for ripping songs straight from the headlines on “Gulf of Mexico” which is about exactly what you think it’s about (in case you’re lost and/or watch more American Idol than actual news, I’m referring here to that time in the all-too recent past when BP spilled a bunch of oil in the Gulf and then John “Boner” Boehner suggested that it was only right and proper for the American people to pay for the cleanup. This led Boehner to adopt a new official slogan: “John Boehner: Yep, I’m an Asshole”). Rather than ranting for five minutes against the unadulterated greed of a company that sacrificed safety (and, ultimately, a large chunk of the environment) for profits, Earle tells the store of several generations of men as they make their livings in the Gulf, culminating in the youngest man witnessing “the guts of hell” spilling into the water. It’s one of the most inspired songs on the album, along with the beautiful closer “This City” which is about New Orleans (hey, did you know that New Orleans is right near the Gulf of Mexico? You know, where that fucking oil spill was?) and its recovery from Hurricane Katrina. “This City” features a muted horn part that is best described as “exquisite” and taken together, the two songs show Earle’s creative instincts at their best.

There are three songs on I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive that I can live without: “God is God,” “Meet Me in the Alleyway,” and “Heaven or Hell,” which is a duet with Allison Moorer (to whom Steve Earle is married). “God is God” is one of those songs where Earle tells you, very plainly indeed, what he believes. It’s nice stuff – Earle isn’t a fundamentalist asshole or anything like that – but the song is a little dull, which is my exact criticism of “Heaven or Hell.” “Meet Me in the Alleyway” is actually my least favorite song on the album, largely because it is such a shameless ripoff of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits that I feel a little embarrassed listening to it. I don’t quite skip the song every time I listen to I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive though; in fact, I haven’t skipped it once. It’s as if I need to hear the worst thing about a Steve Earle album right next to all the good stuff, just so I can marvel at the fact that time after time, Steve Earle’s best music enables me to forgive and literally forget his worst.

Spiders and Webs

A lot of major labels and the RIAA would have you believe that the internet is literally destroying music. The theory is that, because people can download songs now, music itself will go away. As if, suddenly, when no one can get rich making music (or selling it, which is what record labels do. They sign and sell talent, they do not possess it themselves), no one will make it at all. Of course, the fallacy of this logic is that instruments will still exist and people will still play them, just like they did before there was a music “industry.” To be clear, I think plenty of musicians deserve to make a living playing music – but I think people will find ways to do that even when the major labels have died off like the dinosaurs they are. Smaller labels seem to do okay with the internet – I bought the new Daniel Martin Moore album from Sub Pop earlier this year and I don’t recall the confirmation email saying, “Thank you for helping to destroy music, you sadistic fuck.” Maybe it was in the fine print.

Why are we even talking about this?

Well, there’s this local Los Angeles band that I like called the Alternates. They started, from what his aunt tells me, when Spencer Livingston started writing and recording music in his living room under that name. The band’s current incarnation features Livingston on vocals and guitar; Tristan Esmundo on electric guitar; Kevin Solis on bass; Jake Craven on piano, organ, and trombone; and Erwin Solis and Matt Walker both on drums (that is, the Alternates have two drummers. It’s pretty impressive live, but you can’t always hear it on their recorded stuff). The Alternates have played all over Los Angeles and have built up a pretty loyal following. That following paid dividends last year when they used Kickstarter to fund the recording of their new Spiders and Webs EP, which is coming out via Luxury Wafers (there’s no official release date. According to their website, the album is due out “in the coming months”). The band is kicking off a tour at the House of Blues on Wednesday night and they’ll be hopping up and down the West Coast through early July. They’re a great live band and they tend to play very affordable shows, so you might wanna check ’em out if they blow through your town.

One of the perks of internet fandom, though, is that I have obtained a free promo copy of Spiders and Webs, presumably because I joined the Alternates’ mailing list a while ago. In any case, I have the EP right now. It was sent out to some lucky folks (I think I got the email Sunday night) with the intention of helping the recipients “do your job as a music editor/critic/booker with ease and stealth.” So the band has placed in my hands the power to either shower them in advance praise for their official debut or to pan the thing as hard as Charles Shaar Murray originally panned the Clash (“They are the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, preferably with the motor running, which would undoubtedly be more of a loss to their friends and families than to either rock or roll.” According to the lore, it’s this line that prompted the band to write “Garageland.” Murray was eventually won over by the Clash, but that sentence still stands as one of their most notorious reviews).

But it’s probably obvious by now how I feel about the Alternates and it probably won’t surprise anyone to read that I think Spiders and Webs is a pretty great EP that gets better every time I listen to it. Livingston’s voice recalls the better singers of 1990s alternative rock radio (I’ve heard him compared to a young Eddie Vedder, although I hear a lot more of a young Jay Farrar in his voice on Spiders and Webs – if you don’t know who Jay Farrar is, you need to go scoop up No Depression and Still Feel Gone by Uncle Tupelo and the first Son Volt record), and many of the tracks are laden with harmonies worthy of the Band. Long time Bollocks! readers will be aware that I don’t hand out compliments like that lightly.

When I first heard some of the Alternates’ living room recordings, I could immediately pick out that they were splitting the difference between Neil Young-ish classic rock, alternative rock, indie, and alt.country. Over the years, they’ve synthesized that sound into something entirely their own, which is why Spiders and Webs can remind me of Tom Petty and early Son Volt (opener and lead single “The Modern Way” would have been at home on Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open and Son Volt’s Trace, right next to “Tear Stained Eye”) and then head off in jammier directions on longer songs like “Metamorphosis” and “Nature of the Mind” (“jammier” in a Built to Spill or Modest Mouse’s “Whale Song” kind of way) before returning to the raucous brevity of the title track. The Alternates spread their wings pretty far on Spiders and Webs, but every song is rooted in Livingston’s strong melodies and their adorning harmonies.

Lyrically, the songs tend to be about people who are unwilling or unable to face the truth; “The Modern Way” opines that “We must’ve been sleeping/ but everyone’s waking up” and “Everyone here has their heads underground” on “Slow and Steady.” While Livingston’s lyrics (he has the sole writing credit on the EP) tend toward notions of alienation, it’s never in an overwrought, emo manner (like, you know, My Chemical Romance). The narrators of these songs, like a lot of people in the world right now, are seeking stability in a world that’s changing under their feet (I should note that this is just my interpretation of the lyrics – Livingston seems deliberately opaque in his writing, which is something I enjoy). Lazier, ageist writers might say something about how thoughtful Livingston is given his relative youth, but I can’t stand that kind of patronizing shit. Let it suffice to say that Spencer Livingston is a good lyricist who continues to get better and he’s part of a band that does the same.

Having spent some time around the Los Angeles music scene in the last five years, I haven’t found much to like as much as I like the Alternates. For one thing, I have yet to encounter another band that matches their work ethic – they’ve spent years refining a sound and playing wherever they could to get their name out there. They don’t have, to my knowledge, some inside hook-up in the music industry. They asked their fans to fund the recording of Spiders and Webs and were rewarded with a resounding – and much deserved – “yes” from those fans. But more than that, the Alternates are that rarest of L.A. bands that has put more work into their sound than their look and the reward is in the music itself.

Note: As soon as Spiders and Webs becomes available for purchase, I’ll post a note about it here and/or on Twitter so that you can check it out for yourself. Until then, feel free to envy my good luck. 

The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/  hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t, so he died/ she said, ‘You’re pretty good with words/ but words won’t save your life’/ and they didn’t, so he died.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.