Spoiler Alert: It’s All Been Worth It

I’ve actually always been pretty dubious about the “concept” album. It’s not that I mind that a band is stringing together a series of songs around a common theme (or even attempting to tell some kind of specific story with a bunch of songs); it’s that I object to being told there is some underlying concept to an album, especially before I listen to it. You see, I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent bloke and when I’m listening to an album and a story starts to emerge from the songs, I like to pat myself on the back for getting it. It’s like a little reward for listening to an album enough times to feel like I know it on a deeper level.

Being informed of a concept album’s conceptitude doesn’t ruin it for me – in some cases, being told an album is a concept album doesn’t even always convince me that it is one. After deciding that Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was a Great Fucking Album, I read on the ol’ interwub that it was a concept album. In my GFA write-up, I mentioned that the alleged concept didn’t hold much water for me (that “concept” can basically be summed up like so: “A young person is tired of his parents’ bullshit so he goes out into the world in search of adventure and finds more bullshit. Perhaps he understands his parents better and perhaps he just does a lot of drugs and records a trippy instrumental track at the end of a seminal hardcore/punk/awesome album”). There are common themes running through Zen Arcade for sure and the album is a richer experience for it. But knowing – or believing, I guess – that it’s a concept album neither adds to nor subtracts from my enjoyment of it (and if you haven’t heard Zen Arcade, it better be in your headphones by the time you get done reading this or… well, I probably won’t do anything to you. But it’s a great goddamn album).

Which brings us now to David Comes to Life, the new album by Canadian hardcore/etc. outfit (how many of those do you reckon there are?) Fucked Up (to answer my own question: based on the one Fucked Up album I’ve listened to, they really only need the one hardcore band). I’ve heard it described as a concept album and, less helpfully, as a “rock opera.” If telling me an album is a concept album causes me some trepidation, telling me it’s a “rock opera” makes me wanted to handle it with long robotic arms from behind some kind of soundproof glass. Because the phrase “rock opera” implies an almost certainly wanton degree of pretension. And, though I enjoy it, David Comes to Life is a pretty pretentious record.

It attempts to tell the story of a dude named David who falls in love with a girl, the girl dies, and then he kinda goes nuts (Pitchfork’s review of David Comes to Life states that David and his girl “conspire to build a bomb together” but that’s nowhere in the lyrics that are in front of me). He ends up fighting his narrator, a handy stand-in for God (who later seems to feel ashamed for what he’s put David through), and the whole thing ends (spoiler alert) by David experiencing something akin to a resurrection “with love in his heart,” according to the extensive liner notes. Clearly a concept album, nothing particularly operatic about it that I can see.

But what I can hear is the kind of awesome, cathartic, melodic hardcore music that makes Zen Arcade such essential listening combined with the Last Call, Bar Band, Really Really Really Big Decision Blues guitar riffage of the Hold Steady’s also essential concept album, Separation Sunday. So if you’re tempted to try to sell a friend on David Comes to Life by calling it a concept album or “rock opera,” maybe you should consider describe it as a totally kickass rock record instead. Because who doesn’t like those?

Of course, the throat shredding vocals of singer/lyricist Pink Eyes (I know the name seems funny; they name people using the metric system in Canada) will not endear this album to everyone, but as a fan of 1980s hardcore, I have no problem with a guy shouting his nuts off, as long as the song is awesome. And there are plenty of awesome songs on David Comes to Life that don’t require a lit professor’s understanding of the album’s plot. In fact, the first three real songs (I don’t count opener “Let Her Rest” because it’s an instrumental overture-type thing that I find myself skipping to get to the uptempo stuff) are blissfully aggressive, surprisingly melodic anthems. And if the story really is gonna have a moral, it’s sounded on “Under My Nose” when Pink Eyes howls, “It’s all been worth it.” It takes this David dude the whole fucking album to figure out that all the pain and bullshit you put up with in life is worth it if you have true love. Does that sound trite? Not on David Comes to Life.

I know I’ve been alluding to Finnegans Wake with some frequency lately, but that really just means that book accomplished its considerable aim, which was (at least in part) to create a modern myth for the continued rise and fall of humankind. The more I listen to David Comes to Life, the more I see an analogy between the album and James Joyce’s masterpiece. Both are a bit daunting, at least at first, both have shifting identities and narrative voices (both female characters in David Comes to Life have the same initials and there’s a sort of Fight Club-y dichotomy between David and Octavio, the narrator. In fact, their relationship reminds me of that of Joyce’s Shem and Shaun) that shed new perspectives on the same events, and both operate in a cyclical manner – Finnegans Wake ends in the middle of the same sentence that opens it and David Comes to Life ends with the “Lights Up,” wherein David is reborn and eager to “do it all again.”

But – and here’s where the Pitchfork review pretty much nailed it (hey, I give credit where it’s due) – those are thoughts you can have or not have upon your own nth trip through David Comes to Life. The first one or two times, you can just crank this fucker up and let the sonic ferocity get all up in you like Boston’s humidity in the summer. Like the best music of their forebears (Minor Threat, Black Flag, the aforementioned Hüsker Dü), Fucked Up’s best moments on David Comes to Life are immediately, viscerally pleasurable, especially for people in need of instant violent catharsis.

I have no way to end this post, so I’m going to sign off by saying that Instant Violent Catharsis is the name of my Fucked Up cover band.

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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.

News and Notes

I know what you’re thinking: “Did I pop into an ESPN blog by mistake? Where’s Bollocks!?” Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. I chose the image above because I’m mostly punting today as far as a decent post is concerned because I’m in the middle of a couple of computer upgrades and I’m still waiting for some albums to review to begin this year.

So yeah, today’s post kinda sucks. You don’t really have to finish reading it if you don’t want to, but if you do decide to keep reading, you’ll learn about some cool stuff that I’m gonna try to do around here this year.

First off, I wanna share a stat with you. Bollocks!, according to the good people at WordPress (who should know), was viewed 19,000 times in 2010. If you divide that by the total days in 2010, you get about 52 views a day, which is about fifty more than I had per day when I started doing Bollocks! in February of 2008. I think that’s totally badass and I want to thank every single person who took the time to stop by this blog in the last year to read what I think about bands some of you have never heard of, even if you ended up telling me to go fuck myself. I don’t post a lot of snazzy videos or juicy gossip and yet a bunch of people still come here to read lengthy posts – full of words! – about music. I think that’s really fucking cool and also really kinda humbling.

I’m mostly a playwright and when I started Bollocks!, I did it as a way to get my writing brain going before I dove into whatever script I was working on at the time. I still do that, but having people stop by Bollocks! has given me the sense that this can be a creative endeavor every bit as rewarding as playwriting. And it’s filled me with the desire to make sure the loyal readers are getting something worth reading.

So I’m going to try to update the blog Monday through Friday, which is gonna be tough here at the beginning of the year because a lot of music I want to review is not out yet. But that’s why I have features like Great Fucking Albums and the brand spanking new Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard. Those are two features that can run for as long as I can think of music to talk about and I like having the positivity of Great Fucking Albums to balance out the admittedly sad0-masochistic pleasure I get from talking about the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I’m also gonna talk about some albums that I recently acquired from last year (and one from 2009, actually – that being Idle Warship’s Party Robot mixtape), including The Big To-Do by Drive-by Truckers.

Also, there is the slight possibility of a Bollocks! podcast creeping into the light this year. It’d probably be a weekly thing, done on the weekends, mostly to augment the stuff I’ve talked about all weeks. So this is your chance to provide some feedback and tell me if that’s something you might actually listen to. I think it would have to be hosted at another site and linked here, although I’m just speculating on that part. I have no idea how to do a podcast, but I don’t think anyone else who does one knows either. It might be fun and I might post a “test-cast” at some point to see how people react to it. It’s apparently deadly cheap to get a podcast site like Libsyn and they do a damn good job with Walking the Room. The podcast would be absolutely free (Bollocks! will always be free for readers/listeners because honestly, no one should ever have to pay for this shit) and might eventually include interviews at some point, if I can find people who are foolish enough to talk to me.

So tomorrow, we’ll get back into really talking about music instead of talking about talking about music. In the meantime, I’m going to listen to a shitload of music and I recommend that you do the same.

Forgiveness Rock Record is Really Fucking Good

As a band, Broken Social Scene is like that really brilliant student in your class who occasionally, mid-book report, takes you on an agonizing detour from the salient facts into a windy labyrinth of shit that he or she thinks is really fascinating but which is, in fact, boring as all hell. That was for all you teachers out there. To stay with the metaphor, though, the best Broken Social Scene songs are amazing and the worst will leave you scratching your head and saying, “What the fuck am I listening to?” and not in that interesting, Captain Beefheart kind of way.

But seriously, Broken Social Scene (BSS, for you overly acronym-happy people out there) is fucking amazing when they’re on and when they’re not on, well, they range from interesting to infuriatingly long-winded. I don’t want to make a distinction between accessible/not-accessible because I think it makes bands sound like aloof elitists, which – granted – some bands are (*cough* Interpol *cough*). Broken Social Scene is plenty “accessible” – they’re a fucking rock band and to prove it, they’ve released an album helpfully entitled Forgiveness Rock Record. It’s not a Forgiveness Post-Rock Record or a Forgiveness Shoegaze Record (thank dog for that), but a nicely layered, mostly expertly performed rock record.

Does it rock? Hell yes, it rocks! Right out of the gate. Unlike Broken Social Scene’s previous two albums, where it took some sorting to get the wheat and chaff into distinct piles (I know You Forgot It In People was pretty awesome, but it’s okay to love it and also admit that it has a tendency to meander), Forgiveness Rock Record cuts right to the chase with lovingly layered instrumental parts propping up some truly excellent melodies. It’s as though, after two records, Broken Social Scene has decided that it’s okay for your song to have an actual chorus. Although it should surprise no one that a band that features Metric’s Emily Haines  is good at crafting pop songs. Forgiveness Rock Record, a longish fourteen tracks, makes its length forgivable by boasting the likes of “World Sick,” “Texico Bitches” (my current favorite. It’s really too bad “BP” doesn’t fit the rhyme scheme) and “All to All” – and that’s just the first half of the album.

At this point, I have to wonder if I’m aided in my love of this Broken Social Scene record by being blissfully ignorant of the solo/side projects of most of Broken Social Scene’s members. I know Feist’s stuff (it’s okay) and Emily Haines’s stuff both with Metric and Soft Skeleton (she, by the way, has to have one of the best voices in music. Listen to Fantasies and argue otherwise. I’ll call you names, a little trick known as the Christopher Hitchens Standard Debate Tactic), but I don’t really know what Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning’s albums sounded like. Wait, I did listen to the Brendan Canning album; it bored me to tears. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I benefit from not knowing (or much caring) what makes Broken Social Scene an indie rock supergroup. Besides, they weren’t an indie rock supergroup when they started – they were a bunch of friends who liked playing music and made an album together. Luckily for us, that album was You Forgot It In People but unfortunately, it was followed with the musical identity-crisis that was Broken Social Scene, an album that saw the band kinda lose their sense of humor and their sense of play, two elements that I think are essential to good Broken Social Scene music. The musicians in this band are so talented that they can throw out a lot of musical ideas, different rhythms, textures, and dynamics, and still – on their good stuff – come up with something that sounds relatively loose. I hate using the term “collective” to describe a band, but Broken Social Scene’s best moments make that tag sound less ridiculous.

Forgiveness Rock Record never really missteps, although the instrumental “Meet Me in the Basement” is too long (I know it’s not quite four minutes long, but it needs to be not quite two minutes long). Still, “Meet Me in the Basement” is tolerable because it represents, to me, a band that is playing in every sense of the word. When you play like that, sometimes you stumble onto pure musical bliss (“Art House Director” is just wall-t0-wall fun. If I were making you a mix CD for this summer, I’d put “Art House Director” on it. But I’m not gonna do that. Unless you ask me real nice) and sometimes you don’t quite get around to anything, but Broken Social Scene seems to have lost any reason they had to not swing for the fences every time out. Good thing, too – I realize this might be indie blasphemy but, start to finish, Forgiveness Rock Record is Broken Social Scene’s best album. It’s so good that I just want to pretend it’s the one that came after You Forgot It In People.

I realize it sounds like I hated Broken Social Scene, but I assure you I don’t hate that album. To hate something requires an excitement of energy that Broken Social Scene just couldn’t inspire. I literally don’t remember a goddamn thing about that album and, as I listen to Emily Haines knock “Sentimental X’s” out of the fucking park while I write this, I don’t miss anything about Broken Social Scene’s second record.

At the end of the day, Forgiveness Rock Record does what I suspect a lot of bands wish their music could do: it has a broad scope without ever sounding like it’s trying to have a broad scope. It’s arty, indie, poppy, topical, and, just in time for your summer mix CDs and makeout parties, a helluva lot of fun. If “indie” were ever to become a legitimate genre tag for an actual style of music (and who honestly gives a fuck if that happens?), that style might best be exemplified by bands like Yo La Tengo and Broken Social Scene, bands that can meld different styles of rock and pop into something that transcends classfication beyond the words “good music.” But they can have that debate over at Pitchfork; what’s really important here is that Forgiveness Rock Record is really fucking good. So if your friend who can’t read Bollocks! at work (where do they work, a coal mine? China? God help ’em if they work in a Chinese coal mine) asks you to sum up my review of the new Broken Social Scene album in seven words or less, just say, “Forgiveness Rock Record is really fucking good.”

Is High Violet the Best Album Since Heaven Is Whenever? Yes. Yes It Is.

I’ve made little secret of the fact that my favorite album of 2010 is the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever. Come December, I had thought to do a year-end list of my favorite non-Hold Steady albums of 2010. But it appears the National have gone and fucked that up for everyone. Spoiler alert: the best non-Hold Steady album of 2010 is High Violet by the National. So I guess this year, more than most years, it’s especially pointless to bother with all that year-end best-of stuff. Which is actually kind of nice. I’m having a busy year that might (hopefully) end up getting busier. So I’ll take the time-savers where I can get them.

How good is High Violet? I hate to bust out movie-poster words like “stunning,” “edge-of-your-seat thrill ride”, and “based on the novel by the author of The Horse Whisperer” but if the shoe fits, you must acquit. Or something. Okay, those last two really aren’t appropriate to what the National have achieved with their follow-up to 2007’s also awesome Boxer, but if I had to give you a single-word assessment of High Violet, I’m pretty sure I’d stick with “stunning.” If I had to give you three words? “Really fucking stunning.” Seriously, if you’re short on time and can’t read this whole review, just take the next sentence as a summary. High Violet is so good that I must officially elevate it to the level of Exactly as Good as Heaven Is Whenever. If a Time Cop came to my house and said that I could only take two albums from 2010 with me into the future, I’d not hesitate at all to choose High Violet and Heaven Is Whenever. I’ve gone on long enough about the latter record, but the former is pretty much eleven straight tracks of goosebump-inducing greatness.

If you’ve read Bollocks! from back in or near the very beginning (my very first post, back in 2008, was about how the National and Band of Horses had both made the best album of 2007. At this point, with a few years’ reflection, I’d give the title solely to the National), you probably know that I’d surrender various non-essential parts of my anatomy to be able to sing like Matt Berninger and that hasn’t changed. Since I don’t hear people running around in the street singing the man’s praises, I’m going to continue to suggest that Berninger is the most underrated vocalist working right now. That mournful baritone, which can occasionally rise to a scream (listen to “Abel” and “Mr. November” from Alligator for excellent examples of this), is rich, distinctive, and perfectly suited to the bummed out, self-deprecating songs that tend to end up on National records. And, as a lyricist, the dude who correctly observed, “We’re half awake/ in a fake empire” is still sharp as ever. There are myriad lyrical highlights on High Violet, my current favorite being, “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld/ I want to sit in and die.” I like the sunny imagery of a Lemonworld (whatever that is) contrasted with Berninger’s gloomy Gus narrator who wants to die in the middle of all that cutesy, citrusy splendor. If you dig the metaphor, that kind of conflict permeates High Violet (and many of the National’s best songs on their other albums), but the melodies are cranked to eleven so it’s hard to feel as bad as Berninger’s narrators do. “Sorrow,” for instance, is a poppy paean to being bummed: “I don’t wanna get over you,” sung over snapping drums and ooo-ing background vocals.

And of course, Berninger’s lyrics are embedded in the sumptuous arrangements of his bandmates: the brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and the brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. From the haunting, chill-inducing opener “Terrible Love” right on through the clunkily-named (but still beautiful) “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, the Dessners and Devendorfs lay down the most solid of foundations for Berninger’s observations about love, drugs (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” he sings on “Afraid of Anyone”), and general working-guy angst/paranoia in 21st century America (“I still owe money/ to the money I owe”). It’s been widely reported that the band argued a lot while recording and mixing this album but the end result is… hell, let’s just say it: High Violet is gorgeous, lyrically and melodically, and it’s the best National album yet, which is saying something.

Previous National albums have required time to grow on me but High Violet, from the opening strains of “Terrible Love”, made me sit the fuck still and listen. It has grabbed hold of me and it will not let go – not that I want it to. I figured to love this album, but the extent is a little unnerving. I almost can’t stop listening to it long enough to tell you how great  it is. As I’ve been drafting this post, I’ve found myself frequently pausing just to listen to the music; the way the horns swell and sink again on “Runaway,” (one of Berninger’s best-ever vocal performances. When he sings, “We got another thing coming undone,” it just about breaks me in half) the subtle harmonies on “Afraid of Anyone,” and the second time through, I caught that “Conversation 16”  sees Berninger supposing he’s a zombie (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains/ because I’m evil”). And don’t even get me started on the end of “England.” Holy shit.

Wait just a goddamn minute. “Afraid of Anyone” is… is it? It is. It’s about being a fucking parent! Sonofabitch. “With my kid on my shoulders I try/ not to hurt anybody I like.” It’s totally about that protective paranoia that recent father Matt Berninger is feeling in public with his kid. If you’ve read Bollocks! or talked to me about music for more than two minutes, you know that there’s one thing I know is true: if you write a song about your kid(s), that song will suck and, most likely, your band will start to suck. It’s like invoking an ancient curse upon your own face by the rock gods (if you really wanna hold up “Tears in Heaven” as the exception that proves the rule you can do that. But I sentence you to listen to everything Clapton did after that without vomiting. You can’t do it. So shut up). Tom Waits did one on Orphans called “Take Care of All of My Children,” but that was a cover of an old gospel tune. He didn’t write it about his kids. But Berninger seems to be talking about his child on “Afraid of Anyone.” And he wrote the song. So hear me, ye skeptics, and know I speak the truth: High Violet is so awesome, so skull-numbingly brilliant, that not only could Matt Berninger put a song on there about his kid without ruining the album, but that song itself is also awesome.

The National has just blown my fucking mind.

I Didn’t Fight the Law and We Both Won

I recently rejoined E-Music, after having canceled my subscription out of frustration with their utter lack of selection. When I canceled, probably two years ago now, they were trumpeting their selection of Rolling Stones albums but telling me I couldn’t get Band of Horses because Sub-Pop was a subsidiary of some major label. I have always supported E-Music’s desire to forefront “independent” artists but I figured since they were pushing a band that has, in my lifetime, become the biggest rock whores since Kiss (if I’ve alienated any Kiss fans by making that statement, um, good. Fuck Kiss. Also, I’m not impugning the Rolling Stones’ work prior to 1980, but I defy you to name one – or even half of one – good album they’ve made since then. And if you say A Bigger Bang, I will find you. And I will hurt you*), they might also decide to carry a band that doesn’t get much mainstream attention. However, E-Music has recently expanded their selection (they even have Sub-Pop now, but Band of Horses is no longer with the label) and wooed me back and I’m happy to report that I am ecstatic with their service thus far.

One big reason I’m re-smitten with E-Music is that I frequently log on to find a new release that I didn’t know was coming (it happens, kids. I’m just a guy in a tiny apartment, trying to figure out what to listen to). One day, not too long ago, I found a new release by former Delgados vocalist Emma Pollock. I nearly jumped out of my chair with giddy excitement. I literally couldn’t hit the “Download Album” button fast enough. I nearly sent a gooey, gushy thank-you email to E-Music, just for having The Law of Large Numbers on their front page when I woke up that Sunday morning. Because I love Emma Pollock and the Delgados that much.

See, there are two groups of people I am honor-bound to support: former Firefly cast members (even if they’re on  shows as fuck-terrible as V and Terminator: The Not Enough Summer Glau Chronicles) and former Delgados. I have said, time and time again that the Delgados were one of the most underrated bands of all time and I have made it a prime directive of the Bollocks! organization** to alert the world to the necessity of a Delgados reunion (and U.S. tour). Supporting Firefly refugees has been a mixed bag; I enjoy Castle and Chuck, but I believe I’ve made my feelings clear about the alien show and the robots-from-the-future show. Supporting former Delgados has been better – I like the debut solo albums from Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward (Watch the Fireworks and Lord Cut-Glass, respectively), both of which featured Pollock’s husband (and fellow former Delgado) Paul Savage on drums. But both of those albums caused me to think, “Imagine how awesome that would be with the other Delgados  on it!”

While nothing will ever entirely put to bed my very public (and possibly disturbing) desire to see a Delgados reunion (and U.S. tour, dammit!), Emma Pollock’s latest, The Law of Large Numbers, has finally quieted me down a bit on the topic (though you might not know it from the first few paragraphs of this post). I am, in fact, now forced to eat my words, uttered in my review of Woodward’s Lord Cut-Glass, that “I hope Emma Pollock abandons work on her new album” (I uttered those words hoping to foment a Delgados reunion. I honestly hope Pollock continues making music, in whatever capacity, forever and ever. Amen) I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that The Law of Large Numbers is the best album involving a Delgado since their 2002 masterpiece, Hate. Pollock has really stepped out on her own with this album, fearlessly blending musical styles and sonic approaches into ten tracks (the album is bookended by instrumentals, both called “Hug the Piano”) that are spirited, fun, and fucking beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong – Delgados fans won’t be alienated by The Law of Large Numbers; there are even a couple of tracks that sound like logical steps from Universal Audio. But any fan of the Delgados, who follows my policy of supporting them in their post-band (and pre-reunion) efforts will be encouraged by the versatility and confidence that Emma Pollock displays on this album.

Though the album feels like it was largely written on piano (and there are great piano tracks here, like “House on the Hill”), it’s Pollock’s voice that will command all of your attention. She is mournful (“House on the Hill”), mocking (“Nine Lives”), coy (“Confessions”) and flirtatious (“The Loop”, which is built almost entirely around Pollock’s voice and is a three and a half minute argument for Why You Need This Album). Many of the tracks feature harmonies (some of which, I believe, are Pollock harmonizing with herself) that augment the complex, indelible melodies without overpowering them. There is a sense of balance on The Law of Large Numbers that was not as evident to me on Watch the Fireworks.

The Law of Large Numbers, like Hate, is an album that seems to never stop rewarding repeated listens. Call it the Law of Never-Diminishing Returns. Every time I listen to The Law of Large Numbers, I find something else to like about it. As I write this, I’m listening to the album and am struck by the little background elements (vocal parts, hand claps, chimes and bells, distorted guitars, et cetera) that add a perfect texture to these songs; when Pollock needs to drives something home, the background elements drop out and you’re left with her voice and maybe a piano. The Law of Large Numbers is a clean, shiny, pop/rock album that manages to never feel overproduced, despite its abundance of musical ideas.

So even if the Delgados never get back together (they’ll get back together), Emma Pollock has given us a lot to be grateful for with The Law of Large Numbers. Now if we can just get her to play some shows in the United States (her website is listing some shows ’round the U.K., but none over here). I’ve got an idea. Listen to The Law of Large Numbers and if (if? when) you love it as much as I do, help me start a grassroots movement to fund an Emma Pollock tour of the U.S. We can take donations, try to find sponsors, whatever it takes. Fuck those illiterate teabaggers, let’s start a movement that will actually do something positive for our country. I bet we can even spell our signs correctly.

*Although it is said that a comedian is someone who knows a good joke when he steals one, I’m going to give credit for that line to Lewis Black, because he said it first and because I’m pretty sure that, despite my apparent advantages of youth, energy, and speed, he could still kick my ass.

** We’re totally not an organization.

Best Albums of My Life #6: Separation Sunday

Anyone who has read more than one post on this blog is certain of two things. 1) I love the Clash and 2) I love the Hold Steady. So it should surprise no one at all that a Hold Steady album would make it onto my list of the 29 Best Albums Released in My Life (a list which was supposed to be completed by the time I turned 30, but better late than never, right?).

Separation Sunday was the very first Hold Steady album I heard. And for those of you who think it was love at first sound, it wasn’t. I thought this Craig Finn fellow might be shouting about something worth hearing, but I wasn’t that interested in finding out. My favorite song upon first listen was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (still one of my favorites) and I didn’t really think much of the other ones. I got that the album was trying to tell me a story, but it took me a few months of owning the album (I got it for free – one of the perks of working for the now-defunct Tower Records) to really sit down and try to listen to that story.

Once I did, though, I was duly impressed. Not only was the story of Hallelujah’s disappearance and “resurrection” a compelling listen, but Tad Kubler’s guitars and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards had wormed their way into my brain, creating a boiling soup of classic rock and literature, two things I would not have thought to combine on a regular basis (largely because some of the most offensive Led Zeppelin songs are the ones where you can tell Robert Plant had been getting high and reading Tolkien).

That was 2005 in Boston and now, five freaking years later, I still love this album. I listen to at least one Hold Steady album a week and lately, I’ve been coming back to Separation Sunday a lot. Not just for the mind-blowingly badass guitar work on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Banging Camp” (I ask you: what kind of world are we living in where people think John Mayer is a great guitar player but only a fistful of lucky souls know and recognize Tad Kubler’s mad skills? Kubler is like  a dragon who breathes awesome riffs instead of fire) or the lyrical awesomeness of “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (“I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dudes blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ and I heard things ain’t never been the same since”), but because of the feeling that I get from Separation Sunday. Like the feelings I have toward a lot of albums, I get a very specific feeling from this album.

When I was a supervisor at Tower, I opened the store on Saturday mornings (a good shift – I was off by 6pm and able to go to shows or out drinking with my friends, most of whom worked at the same store), which meant getting to work by 9am. So I was on the train by 8:30. So every Saturday morning, I’d walk through my little Boston suburb and I loved the way the town felt that early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was like the whole city was sleeping off a hangover and I was tiptoeing through the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I’d march from my awesome basement apartment with my headphones on, listening to Separation Sunday more often than not, and sip coffee while I waited for the train. I’d get to work to be greeted by Baby Boomers with too much disposable income waiting to purchase tickets for whatever shitty show was going on sale that day (part of the joy of being a supervisor at Tower, you see, was running the Ticketmaster – or Ticketbastard, as I called it – counter). And when I look back at my time at Tower Records in Harvard Square (best retail job I ever had – among the top five jobs of any kind that I’ve ever had), the whole thing is soundtracked by Separation Sunday.

The album itself tells the story of a girl named Hallelujah (“the kids, they call her ‘Holly'”) who gets strung out on the Twin Cities drug and party scene and disappears for a while, only to crash into an Easter mass some months later (“Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”). She has a junkie boyfriend who cheats on her with her little hoodrat friend (Hallelujah is a hoodrat too, but you don’t find that out until the end of the album), and she finds some junkie revivalists camped on the banks of the Mississippi River who will give you a full-immersion baptism after a hit of nitrous to give you that “high as hell and born again” feeling. Along the way, she has visions of St. Theresa, sings a song to St. Barbara, and gets involved with a sweat-pants clad drug-dealer named Charlemagne (who, like Hallelujah, is a recurring character in many Hold Steady songs). The combination of the story and the hard-charging rock music that propels it serves to solidify Craig Finn’s underlying musical thesis: that you’re as good a savior as you’re likely to get and that, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is historically the least disappointing religion you can join. Though Separation Sunday depicts a druggie scene in all its puking glory, the album never becomes a morality play about the dangers of drug use. For Finn, drugs are just another self-made obstacle on Holly’s way to her self-made resurrection. Being high isn’t the problem, it’s why you get high that’s the problem (“I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story/ because when we left, we were defeated and depressed/ and when we arrived, we were rippin’ high”).

Finn’s voice is not great – most people know this. But, like Bob Dylan’s voice (yes, I did just make that comparison), Craig Finn’s voice strikes me as uniquely suited to telling the stories he has to tell. The ongoing story of people fucking themselves up and redeeming themselves is not a story to be told in the clean, polished, octave-scaling timber of a Josh Groban; it’s a story meant to be told by a guy who has lived through something. Finn sounds like he’s lived through a war – hell, like he’s sung through a war – and come out the other side. But his voice (and myriad references to early punk, early hardcore, the Bible, and John Berryman) might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people and that’s just fine by me. I can’t say for certain that I’d like the Hold Steady as much if I thought they were for everyone.