Give Me the Places, I’ll Give You the Names

I’m not sure what I read about Erika M. Anderson that made me want to listen to her debut album (debut solo album, I guess. She was in two bands before going solo – the awesomely named Amps for Christ and Gowns – before embarking on her journey as EMA), Past Life Martyred Saints, but it might have been favorable comparisons to Patti Smith and Kim Gordon (two of the most ferocious women in the history of rock). And I think I saw a hastily cobbled together video for “California,” that I liked. Also, I just spent a bafflingly badass weekend in Portland laying the foundation for an August move out of the Golden State so a song that opens with the words, “Fuck California/ you made me boring” tickles my funny bone more than a little bit (honestly though, California, we had some great times and I met some totally amazing people – and the best dog in the world – here. So no hard feelings, okay? Okay).

There is not one new thing on Past Life Martyred Saints. But its nine tracks show deadly amounts of skill with a lot of old things. The album even opens with a tribute to Anderson’s Viking ancestors, which are apparently real. On her blog, EMA claims to be a “direct descendant of Erik Blood-Axe, the ruthless Viking warrior.” I know that doesn’t seem like it could be true, but it’s too awesome to not be true. So I’m going to make it today’s Official Bollocks! Fact: Erika M. Anderson is the direct descendant of a ruthless Viking warrior named Erik Bl00d-Axe. His music, released under the name EBA, mostly consisted of the blood-curdling screams of his enemies and the lamentations of their women.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Nothing new on Past Life Martyred Saints but plenty to like. Anderson welds lo-fi and hi-fi together (again on the opener, “Grey Ship”) and borrows from country, blues, folk, and gospel, mixes them all together, and somehow ends up with a gorgeous grunge record. Which is weird, but gets better every single time I listen to it.

On the absolutely sublime “California,” Anderson makes use of the classic blues lyric (used by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and lots of other black guys who spin in their graves every time someone speaks favorably of a George Thorogood song) “I’m just twenty-two and I don’t mind dyin’.” But where those old blues men often used the line as a form of braggadocio, Anderson’s delivery of it is dripping with pathos and her use of it to convey existential despair is a far wiser choice than writing something that sounds like a bad Live Journal post from your kid sister (does anyone use Live Journal anymore? Remember that Los Campesinos! song with the line about a “final, fatal Live Journal entry”? I wish I liked other Los Campesinos! albums as much as I liked their first one). Like Shannon McArdle’s Summer of the Whore, Past Life Martyred Saints appears to be Anderson’s post break-up (of a band and possibly also a relationship) record and it’s every bit as vulnerable and pained as the former Mendoza Line singer’s solo debut.

The first time through the album, I was impressed by Anderson’s voice but I felt like the songs shared basically one texture, albeit a good one. As I alluded to earlier, Past Life Martyred Saints sounds like it traveled to the future from sometime in the mid-1990s (two recurring themes for me in the musical year that is 2011: being pleasantly surprised by albums for which I didn’t have high hopes and albums that sound like the ’90s) with its fuzzy guitars, slow, sad songs, and the occasional whispered vocal. Subsequent listens revealed a little more variety – especially on headphones – although that lovely 1990s sheen (I guess “sheen” is kind of ironic here; is “anti-sheen” a thing? Let’s say it is) is still there, which is just all right with me. The layers of melody start to distinguish themselves and what you end up with is a fairly pretty album with a lot of dark, desperate subject matter (the way Anderson sings, “I’m gasping” on “Milkman” sounded like she was singing, “I’m desperate” the first time I heard it; whether that’s my fault or hers, I don’t think the misunderstanding detracts from the meaning of the song or the album as a whole).

The more I can decipher the lyrics on Past Life Martyred Saints, the more I feel like I’m listening to the sort of album one might conceive of in the throes of a miserable adolescence (and I’m not sure there’s another kind) but not properly execute until later in life. That is, if Erika Anderson had recorded this album at sixteen, it would be a sloppy mess. Hell, it’s barely not a mess now, but I happen to love music that is very nearly a mess. I think it’s Anderson’s musical maturity that balances out the more high-schoolish lines like, “I wish that every time he touched me, he left a mark,” which appears on the slow-building but beautiful “Marked.”

If I was impressed by Anderson’s voice the first time through the record, I’m fairly well blown away by it now. She doesn’t have a super-magnificent range or anything, but she is able to use her voice to create and release tension with incredible skill and she’s just as capable of warbling a country gospel melody (“Coda”) as she is singing a 1990s alternative radio hit (the aforementioned “Milkman”). She can whisper or scream with equal effect and she layers harmonies on top of each other the way a skilled chef might assemble a particularly unhealthy lasagna (and of course, unhealthy lasagna is the best lasagna).

The overall effect of Past Life Martyred Saints is still a little slight and some of the songs get a little repetitive, but each repetition adds a layer of distorted guitars and/or lovely harmonies (your love of the interplay of those two elements should pretty much determine your enjoyment of EMA) so I find myself enjoying a lot of distinct bits within each song (the end of the possibly subtle love song “Breakfast” is stunning; it reminds me a bit of Blur’s “Tender,” but with a darker vibe) every time I go through the album. At nine songs, I’ve been able to listen to Past Life Martyred Saints about twenty times in the last week and the returns have yet to diminish.

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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.

The Winter of Mixed Drinks (In Which I Clarify My Feelings for Chris Martin and Bono)

A couple of years ago, Frightened Rabbit released one of the best break-up albums I have ever heard, The Midnight Organ Fight (yes, the title means what you think it means). It was also an enjoyable as hell rock record, full of the sort of emotional honesty that Coldplay’s Chris Martin probably has wet dreams about writing (I’m sorry, kids, but if your eyes get all watery over “Fix You,” then you might consider seeking professional help. Or you’re married to Chris Martin). So they set the bar incredibly high for a follow-up album. I don’t know how you follow up great albums, honestly. I know people do it successfully but, if you know you’ve made something good (and hopefully, your fans will let you know), the attempt to top it becomes increasingly daunting. David Bowie made Hunky Dory and followed it with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (we use the full name for such albums around here). Neutral Milk Hotel made In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and then stopped making music – perhaps they knew they couldn’t top it. The Hold Steady still gets better with every album (and they have another chance in May, although I don’t know how you beat Stay Positive). The National followed the awesome Alligator with the superb – by which I mean, “The best album of 2007, if you’re into that sort of thing” – Boxer (my hopes for this year’s High Violet are sent soaring by this little performance here). But the Clash followed London Calling with Sandinista!. So even if you’re awesome, you can stumble after hitting a home run. Look at most of what the Rolling Stones did after Exile on Main Street (and assume, in your looking, that they died sometime before 1980, because their output in my lifetime could most charitably be described as “dogshit.”)

Frightened Rabbit, I’m pleased to announce,  have not stumbled. The Winter of Mixed Drinks is a logical sonic step from The Midnight Organ Fight (they’ve added two members and beefed up their sound considerably) and, thematically, there’s still a very fine line between fucking and fighting for Scott Hutchinson. But, if the The Midnight Organ Fight was the ass-bruising break-up, the healing begins on The Winter of Mixed Drinks. And, thankfully, that healing doesn’t begin in the namby-pamby, I’ve-found-God-and-I-forgive-you sort of way. There’s blood and scabs (Hutchinson, perhaps more than most songwriters, is not afraid to get physical in his lyrics. Frightened Rabbit’s last two albums have been littered with references to collapsed lungs, scabs, blood, and failing organs. Good times!) and wrestling and death and premature old age (“Skip the Youth” finds Hutchinson trying to take a pass on youth because “it’s aging me too much.” I can understand how he feels, though I enjoy being young. 30 is, if you’ve done anything right in your life, like being 20 again but you’re smarter).  No, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is “Fuck you, I’ve found something better” and you could almost divide the album into sides of “Fuck You” and “I’ve Found Something Better”. “Nothing Like You” might bridge the two sides nicely; it begins with “This is a story and you’re not in it” and goes on to celebrate that the new girl is nothing like the old one. I’ve gotta say at this point that I’m very happy none of Frightened Rabbits songs really apply to my life over the past six years.

Musically, you might accuse Frightened Rabbit of suffering from “wanna-be U2” syndrome (early symptoms: wearing sunglasses in doors at night and having a guitarist with a single non-name like the Edge. I should like to point out here, in case I  haven’t alienated the U2 fans enough yet, that the Edge’s guitar playing is about as edgy as a snot bubble) or attempting to go all stadium-rock on your ass, but I will dismiss your objections with my usual flawless logic (thank you, George Carlin, for that phrase. No, fuck that. Thank you, George Carlin, for everything). First off, if you’ve listened to the first two Frightened Rabbit albums (Sing the Greys is pretty good – they’re kind of finding their feet on it, but it’s got some great tunes), you know that Scott Hutchinson has always had a tendency to reach for the rafters. Second, he has a voice for it, a voice that is better than Bono’s has been in years (am I committing Pop Blasphemy by saying that? Who cares? Also, I know he’s done a lot for Africa and that’s cool, but fuck Bono. And fuck Chris Martin, “The Scientist” and “Everything’s Not Lost” notwithstanding). And C), there’s nothing wrong with the biggish rock sound Frightened Rabbit is going for on their last two records because they hit their marks pretty squarely. And Scott Hutchinson is able to keep it pretty real lyrically (“I’m verbal when I’m loaded,” he sings on “Foot Shooter”) so I don’t get the feeling of generic emotions I get from Coldplay and Snow Patrol and all those bands that are, so far, much bigger than Frightened Rabbit. The Winter of Mixed Drinks has lilting melodies, well-crafted harmonies, and Hutchinson’s visceral writing to elevate it; there’s nothing wrong with making a big, sensitive rock record if it’s as good as either The Midnight Organ Fight or The Winter of Mixed Drinks. So maybe the next time you hear some chimey, emotional nonsense from Coldplay or U2, you might be better off suggesting that those two bands really want to be Frightened Rabbit. Because secretly, they do. Or they should.

Back to the healing theme for a second. I like the suggestion, implicit in the album and explicit on the song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, that physical exertion is good for getting over heartbreak. I’ve definitely been there before and I know lots of other people who have as well. Really, for any kind of emotional/spiritual/existential exhaustion or frustration, there’s nothing like a good bout of physical exercise (be it swimming, playing in a band, boxing, running, fighting or fucking) to trick your brain into giving you drugs (endorphins, kids. That’s science. Google that shit if you don’t believe me).

Part of what makes Frightened Rabbit so appealing is that Scott Hutchinson’s romantic failings are so human and so are his coping mechanisms. The Winter of Mixed Drinks suggests, to me anyway, that their appeal will last as long as Frightened Rabbit avoids falling into tired cliches like “lights will guide you home” and “you can make me perfect again.”

Romance is Boring

Well, let’s see if the soft spot in my heart for Los Campesinos! (the Welsh band with the Spanish name) has grown any since they dominated my 2008 with not one but two totally awesome albums.

Nope.

The soft spot is about the same size that it used to be, which is still reasonably large-ish. The new Los Campesinos! record, Romance is Boring (I disagree with the assertion, but that’s a great title nonetheless), is probably my first big Expectations Test of 2010 (it will be followed shortly by second albums from both She & Him and Titus Andronicus). Their first album, Hold On Now, Youngster, made me pretty giddy, with its acerbic lyrics and bouncy, twee-pop music (I personally wouldn’t call it that, but a friend of mine used it to deride the band not long ago and I’m stealing his words because I confess I’ve never known what people meant by “twee”. My friend went on to compare Los Campesinos! to the Go! Team [on exclamation points alone, he’s got a point] in a way that suggests he has about as much regard for both bands as he would have for a grilled shit sandwich with a side order of deep-fried herpes). Of course, it caught me in the early part of 2008, when I was feeling like I didn’t have much besides a Hold Steady album (Stay Positive, which turned out to be the best album of that year) to look forward to.

So what, exactly, is the trouble here? Romance is Boring isn’t bad. It’s certainly not boring. It’s got the clever lyrics (so far, my favorite is “we need more post-coital/ and less post-rock”, a sentiment with which I heartily concur, “post-rock” being right up there with “twee” on the list of Bullshit Styles that I Think Pitchfork Made Up), the music is actually better (more guitars, fewer chimey bits) than in the past. And yet…

And yet…

Well, I’m kinda stunned that I don’t like this album more than I do. And don’t get me wrong (or do), I do like it. It’s just… hmm… Here: have you ever had a friend talk up a favorite dessert or something – say, tiramisu – and they take you to this place where they think the world’s best ever, you’d-kill-your-mom-for-a-slice, perfect tiramisu is made and you try the tiramisu and it’s got all the essential elements (for you non-culinary types, any good tiramisu has, in my estimation, two essential elements: coffee and rum), but it just doesn’t quite deliver for you the transcendent, orgasmo-religious (how’s that for a made-up word, Pitchfork? I can do this shit too) experience that it clearly does for your friend? Well, replace your friend with “me”, yourself with “also me” and the tiramisu with Romance is Boring. I think I’ve reached a point where I no longer believe my own rhapsodizing about how fucking awesome Los Campesinos! are. This probably won’t create a problem for other listeners of their music, but it’s kinda bumming me out.

To prove that I was still inexplicably ga-ga over Los Campesinos!, I revisited their debut. Hold On Now, Youngster is still awesome, but I’m now skeptical that I would list it among my favorite albums of 2008. It’s still good, but it doesn’t grab me the way it used to. Fearing the onset of some kind of complete desensitization to great music, I decided to test myself on another band, Titus Andronicus. I was pretty awestruck by their debut, The Airing of Grievances. In anticipation of their second album, The Monitor (which is coming out next month and which can’t come out soon enough for me), I listened to Grievances again. Funny thing: I probably love The Airing of Grievances more now than I ever have. It’s a great album, still one of the more cathartic records I’ve ever heard (when you feel like beating the shit out of the whole world, put on “Joset of Nazareth’s Blues” and “Titus Andronicus” and you’ll feel better in no time. Or at least you’ll have an invigorating soundtrack for that steep climb up the book depository stairs).

So what’s changed between me and Los Campesinos!? Was I so eager for Romance is Boring that I ruined it with my own admittedly high expectations? No. I think it is exactly as good as I expected it to be. Los Campesinos! are doing what they do best, and they’re doing it pretty well. I think I’m just less excited by what they do best than I used to be. Now, bear in mind that I’ve only had this album for a couple of weeks and I could be orgasming over it by year’s end, but I don’t feel that way now. I felt sort of obligated to listen to Romance is Boring and that’s never a good sign. Having fulfilled the obligation, I don’t regret anything, but I do feel like I was just going through the motions a little (yes, I realize I’m dangerously close to a “faking it” analogy). 2010 is a weird year so far – there’s stuff I’ve been sure I would hate that has blown my mind and stuff I’ve expected to blow my mind that has been… well, so far, merely adequate. That I haven’t been utterly disappointed by anything yet is actually a rare and encouraging sign.

At the end of the day, I think the problem I have with Romance is Boring is that I expected it to blow my mind and it didn’t. It was merely good, possibly even great (maybe. Nah, probably not), but entirely unsurprising. I’m not gonna sell the album back or anything and I’ll probably keep listening to it, but I feel like I might end up feeling like I’m in love with an image of this album that exists only in my mind. In which case, I guess I will have proven that my romance with Los Campesinos! has become boring, at which point I will wait until they are dying of cancer to cheat on them. (Too soon?)

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.

The Songs of Rocktober 10 to 1

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Oh fuck yes, boys and girls. Today is the day of the bestest ‘Fest. Let us not delay, then, in getting to the ten most kickass songs of this most kickass month of Rocktober.

10. Dead Kennedys – “California Uber Alles” – If there’s only one person the Dead Kennedys didn’t like in the 1980s, that person was probably California governor Jerry Brown (or maybe Twinkie defense asshole Dan White). If there’s two people they didn’t like, they were Jerry Brown and everybody. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is probably one of the best American punk albums ever, and “California Uber Alles” is especially awesome for imagining a new-age fascist America headed up by Jerry Brown and patrolled by the Suede-Denim Secret Police. Better lock up your uncool niece.

9. Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows” – The Queens of the Stone Age fooled the radio into playing songs from Songs for the Deaf and the world was all the better for it. Still one of the heaviest songs (of the not-sucky variety; I’ll allow that Metallica might have a heavier sound, but I don’t find the sound of heavy turds pleasant) to creep onto the FM dial, “No One Knows” features some of Dave Grohl’s best drumming, recorded just as he lost his battle with lameness and slipped forever out of the Land of Awesome. It also features typical (meaning “badass”) QOTSA guitars and Josh Homme talk about how we get these rules to follow and pills to swallow and all that good stuff.

8. Elvis Costello – “Radio, Radio” – To prove he was not fucking around when he sang “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me” on “Radio, Radio,” Elvis Costello stopped the Attractions mid-performance on Saturday Night Live (I think they were doing “Less Than Zero”) and counted them into this song, thus guaranteeing that Lorne Michaels would pitch a fit and ban Elvis from the show. This did not stop Michaels from later saying that Costello’s performance was this iconic event for SNL. That’s because Lorne Michaels is a giant douche. “Radio, Radio,” however, is a prescient song, written in the late 70s about how shitty radio was in general, with some allusions to crazy right-wing talk radio thrown in for good measure. There was a time, apparently, when Elvis Costello knew fucking everything.

7. The Clash – “White Riot” – You gotta love Joe Strummer watching black people riot in the U.K. in 1977 and thinking, “Why don’t white people do that? What’s wrong with us?” “White Riot” is Strummer’s attempt to get the Caucasians in the mood to bust shit up. It ultimately failed, of course, but his efforts did result in two of the finest minutes in punk history.  And who doesn’t want a riot of their own?

6. The Hold Steady – “Constructive Summer” – While I’m spreading the Strummer love here, I might as well point out that “Constructive Summer,” by the Hold Steady, is as passionate and fitting a tribute to the man as you could want. Over positively (see what I did there?) pounding drums, Franz Nicolay’s persistent rock piano, and Tad Kubler’s cranked guitar, Craig Finn orders us to “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer.” Why should we do that, Craig? “I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher.” You know, Craig Finn, you might be on to something there.

5. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy” – Raw Power is one of the all-time greatest rock albums ever recorded and “Search and Destroy” is the track that gets that particular party started with a bang (or whatever sound napalm makes). Back in 1973, there were no Sex Pistols and no Clash, but the punk spirit was living large in the person of Iggy Pop (a.k.a. Iggy Stooge at that time) and his band of miscreants. Iggy was (and still is) actually a pretty good singer and he employs full-on vocal pyrotechnics, singing “Somebody save my soul/ baby, penetrate my mind.” That’s a dude asking you to mindfuck him and when Iggy asks, you answer.

4. The Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” – I will argue with you or anybody that “Blitzkrieg Bop” is the best Side 1, Song 1 of all time. This was the song that launched The Ramones and, well, the Ramones. They were a band that didn’t have time to write multiple verses, but they did have time to get everyone pulsating to the backbeat. This would be a good lead-off track for your Rocktoberfest play list, what with the tight drum beat and Joey Ramone shouting “Hey/ Ho/ Let’s go” (or, ” ‘ey/ ‘o,” as he sings it). So let’s go, dammit.

3. Jim Carroll Band – “People Who Died” – Jim Carroll just died a few weeks ago, so if you’re ‘Festing to this song, pour one out for the man. Catholic Boy was a magnificent album and its best moment came with “People Who Died” which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of Jim Carroll’s friends who have shuffled loose this mortal coil. That could be morbid business, but the song is upbeat and insistent. Carroll’s buds employed myriad methods for exiting the land of the living, so you’ll never get bored: one guy overdoses on Drano (how much Drano constitutes an overdose? I’m guessing very little), one guy gets leukemia at age 14 (and looks like 65 when he dies), and someone jumps in front of  a train. Apparently, this song became a big hit after John Lennon was shot because it helped people deal with that numbing fact. That might sound kinda fucked up, but there’s catharsis in the irreverent humor of the song. I listened to it about a hundred times on the day Jim Carroll died. He was apparently just sitting at his desk writing. If I’m ever in a band again, I’m gonna rework this tune to include Jim Carroll, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and all the other awesome dead musicians. Who’s with me?

2. The Pixies – “Debaser” – Inspired by Luis Bunuel’s fucked up 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, (the bit in “Debaser” about slicing up eyeballs? They slice up a cow’s eye in this movie. I want you to know) “Debaser” is the best Pixies song. Period. (You don’t really think “Where is My Mind?” is their best song, do you? Why? Because it was in Fight Club?). Frank Black tears into the verse, exclaiming, “Got me a movie, I want you to know.” And certainly no Frenchman could declare “I am un” anything as assertively as Black declares “I am un/ chien!/ andalusia!” (Of course, the French dude would know to say “Je suis un” whatever, but I’ll let Black Francis slide on this one.) This is another breaking shit, bouncing around the room kind of song and I will never, ever (ever!) get tired of it. In fact, I’m gonna listen to it again right now.

1. The Clash – “Death or Glory” – If aliens landed here on Earth and pointed their lasers at my face, demanding to know, in four minutes or less, what rock ‘n’ roll was (we’re talking quintessence here – Platonic ideal shit), I’d play them “Death or Glory” by the Clash. This song has it all: an awesome guitar part, melodic bass lines, Topper Headon’s brilliantly textured drums, and some of Joe Strummer’s finest lyrics. The second verse is particularly instructive: “Every gimmick-hungry yob/ digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll/ grabs the mic to tell us/ he’ll die before he’s sold/ but I believe in this/ and it’s been tested by research/ he who fucks nuns/ will later join the church.” Nothing rocks like this song rocks. Nothing.

That’s it. Get out there and rock, revelers. Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer! And another toast to St. Jim Carroll and one to St. Joey Ramone. While you’re at it, raise a toast to Jello Biafra and Karen O. and every other awesome musician who is gracing your Rocktoberfest play list. And remember the wisdom of Mr. James Murphy: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.”

To sum up: These songs kick ass. These songs kick slightly more ass. These songs kick still more ass. These songs songs kick more ass than that. These songs kick ass and Henry Rollins is awesome. These songs kick ass but are just a minor threat. These songs kick ass and have pianos filled with flames. These songs, much like the Flaming Lips, kick ass. And Tom Waits is awesome.

The Sing-Along Songs Will Be Our Scriptures

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That image comes courtesy of a Google image search for “unprecedented awesomeness.” Can you guess what I’m talking about? Friends, Romans, people who only read this blog when I bash Axl Rose, I’m talking about the best band there is right now, period. I’m talking about The Hold Motherfucking Steady. When it comes to critical awesomeness, I can only be talking about The Hold Steady live.

Let me tell you how my last couple weeks has been. My band played a show. Pretty good, right? Yeah, then the drummer announced (literally at the next rehearsal) that he was moving to New York. On July 5th. July 5th is also the anniversary of my sister’s death and I found out on that day that the folks she lived with, who told me they’d find a place for her ashes, hadn’t done so yet. This is kinda important to me because 1) my sister wanted a physical place for her remains so that my niece would have a place to connect with her mom’s memory and 2) I was left in charge of all that shit (my sister’s last and perhaps finest prank on me) and I had to sign a form saying I wouldn’t abandon my sister’s remains at the funeral home (I will probably never do anything more fucking surreal than that again in my life unless Tom Waits shows up at my door randomly with a basket of home-made tacos). I’ve been staying with my boss’s dogs while my boss is out of town for a couple weeks, which means I get to occasionally visit my home, my fiance, and my dog. Oh yeah – my dog has had two fucking seizures in the last couple weeks, one of which was during the opening band’s set at last night’s Hold Steady show. The drummer who moved to NYC was supposed to go to the show with me, so I tried to hold a contest to give his ticket away in the spirit of Hold Steady-related charity. We all know how that went.

Point is, I really needed this show last night. And The Hold Steady did not disappoint me, oh no. No, they surpassed even the ass-breaking awesomeness of the first time I saw them at Lola’s Room in Portland.

The opening band was Mariachi El Bronx, which is the punkish band The Bronx doing their stuff Mariachi style. They were entertaining enough but gimmicky as fuck. Might want to hear those songs in their original forms, but I don’t care that you can dress up like a Mariachi band and rearrange all that stuff. Just. Don’t. Care.

As previously reported, I found out (via text message from my fiance) after Mariachi El Bronx left the stage that my dog had had another seizure. I also observed that a few of the 7 Obnoxious Assholes who show up at every concert were flocking near my position. As the show went on, I discovered whole groups of Set List Generators and one fat fucking alcoholic who spilled his beer on me – he was orbited by a couple smaller alcoholics who exhibited whirling dervish tendencies. You’d better read the Cracked article if you don’t know what I’m talking about here.

None of which, in the grand scheme of things, changes this simple fact: America’s best rock band, right now today, is The Hold Steady. I can see you about to suggest an alternative, but…just…don’t. There isn’t one.

They took the stage at 10:15 sharp, with Craig Finn walking up to the mic, giving a quick greeting and then launching right into “Hornets! Hornets!” from Separation Sunday. Wait. What? There are a ton of pretty obvious choices for opening song at a Hold Steady show (my money was on “Constructive Summer”), but Finn and company threw a delicious curveball with “Hornets,” starting a set that was dominated by Separation Sunday and Stay Positive.

You can, after every concert you go to, talk about all the shit that you wanted to hear that you didn’t hear. And I could devote some time to talking about how The Hold Steady didn’t even touch Almost Killed Me (not even their formerly customary closer “Killer Parties”) or how they didn’t play “Ask Her for Adderall,” which is one of their best songs. But the truth is, I don’t care. The SLGs in front of me kept calling for “Knuckles,” a song which I really love, but at the end of the day, you have to trust the bands you love to do the heavy lifting. That’s why they’re on the stage and you’re drunk in the audience. Sure, there was stuff I wanted to hear, but there wasn’t a weak spot in that show last night, so who cares if my preconceived notions weren’t met? Fuck preconceived notions! Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the neck tattoo may be the new tramp stamp.

What The Hold Steady delivered last night, for nearly two hours, was pretty much the Platonic ideal of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Joe Strummer is dead, but the humanist spirit and generosity of his being and his music lives on in bands like The Hold Steady. They created a set that, by its very nature, lifted people into the air and forced shouts of joy from their throats. You think I’m making this shit up? Go see The Hold Steady live – and the only way to do it is to get down front and close with a bunch of strangers. One cannot have a personal space bubble at a Hold Steady show. Perhaps their finest pairing of last was playing the title track from Stay Positive (which is designed to make their fans jump up and down and shout at the top of our lungs) followed by “Constructive Summer”, at which point I was, in whatever spiritual sense there is, in ecstasy.  When the entire audience not only sang, “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer,” but actually raised a toast to St. Joe, I realized something completely awesome: almost everyone there last night knew every word of every song. They were all sing-along songs and they will damn sure be our scriptures. At least they’ll be mine. Let’s face it: “Constructive Summer” is a helluva lot more compelling than, say, Leviticus.

Though I have not wavered in my belief that Tad Kubler is the best guitar player on Earth (I will fight you if you think John Mayer is better than Tad Kubler. I will fucking fight you), he made yet another compelling case last night, scorching through the solo on “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” and actually improving the solo from “Joke About Jamaica” by using a wah-wah pedal instead of a talk-box. Kubler flew around the stage and made it look much – much – easier than it was. The guy gave me chills.

Los Angeles audiences are not, in my (not so humble) opinion,  as awesome as Portland audiences. The L.A. kids started out okay but showed early signs of fading, not bouncing nearly as much as they should have for songs like “Constructive Summer” and “Banging Camp” (there were a few, myself included, who held up our end of the deal). And, when it came to the encore, a lot of the people just expected the band to come back out and didn’t make nearly enough noise to deserve an encore.

However, I’m glad the band is nicer than I am (I really wouldn’t have come back out if I was them) because the encore was instructive: “Stuck Between Stations” followed by “You Gotta Dance (with Who You Came With)”, “Southtown Girls,” and ending with “Slapped Actress,” which was a very effective closer. Last night was my fourth time seeing The Hold Steady live and it was the best time because they were still able to surprise me. They played stuff I didn’t think they’d play and they crafted a set that was designed for maximum cardiovascular benefit – I’m literally sore today, which is the best indicator of how hard The Hold Steady rocked last night.