Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

Advertisements

The Pains of Being Precious (Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire)

I think it might be time to do an installment of Great Fucking Albums on Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. It seems like I’m hearing that album everywhere lately. I guess a lot of kids who were raised on it (and other great 1990s guitar albums) are in bands now. I consider this a blessing and a curse because it reminds me that Billy Corgan is no longer worth taking seriously as a musician and possibly also as a person.

The latest band to remind me of the halcyon days when Billy Corgan’s ego and pretension were forgivable is The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who just released their second album, Belong. I listened to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut and, thanks to low expectations, I found that I actually kind of enjoyed it. Why is it that My Bloody Valentine sucks so badly, yet they’ve actually inspired some pretty good music? How does that happen?

Anyway, Belong is a whole lot louder and a whole lot 1990s-er than its predecessor. The title track opens the album and is the most Siamese Dream-esque of the lot, but the remaining nine tracks definitely exist firmly in that time period. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Flood, who produced some of the good Pumpkins records (Butch Vig produced Siamese Dream. As a producer, it was Vig’s only big hit of the 1990s. Rock historians refer to it as his “Lost Decade”), co-produced Belong.

From where I sit, the formula that worked well enough on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – fuzzy guitars and whispery vocals – remains fully intact on Belong. Kip “Yes, Kip” Berman’s vocals are a little higher in the mix, but he still kinda sounds like he doesn’t want to wake up his mom. I know that’s the style, and it’s kind of a cute trick. At first. “Belong” is a really fun way to start an album, but the Pains of Being Pure at Heart pretty much only have the one dynamic and that makes Belong start to feel really static after the first few tracks. It’s not a bad album (I got it the same day I got the new Strokes album, which is a bad album), but it doesn’t hold my attention for long periods of time either.

Since I live in Los Angeles, I get to spend a perverse amount of time stuck in traffic and that (silver lining) gives me time to listen to albums and allow them to really wash over me. While I generally enjoy Belong, it doesn’t have the same effect on me that Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out did the first time I listened to it in my car. When I heard “Words and Guitar” for the first time, I was driving down the 101 grinning like an idiot. Because that song fucking rocks. I haven’t gotten that feeling from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and it may be because they’re just a bit too precious for me. There’s a word they use on the internet for this sort of thing, but I don’t want to use it here because 1) the word is as aesthetically pleasing to me as a sack of dead kittens covered in shit and 2) I suspect that this word is used as a pejorative against nice people and nice things by people who hate niceness. I’ve been accused of my share of cynicism, but I’m not going to support people who are openly hostile to niceness. It’s unseemly.

That said, though, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart get a little too cute for my liking, especially on “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” with its cringe-inducing repetition of the line “she was a miss in your mistake.” That’s the kind of line you’re supposed to write and then cross it out, saying to yourself, “No. I’m a grown-up. Grown-ups don’t write like that.” In their review of the first Pains of Being Pure at Heart (I refuse to abbreviate the name, though I will submit a helpful list of Rejected Pains of Being Pure at Heart Name Puns if you’d like) record, Pitchfork tried to suggest that the band was actually a lot darker than they appear at first. That argument reminds me of the bit from Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves and Lollipops where he’s talking about getting in people’s faces about Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required – “He’s totally punk rock, he’s got on sneakers with a suit!” The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are not that dark and that really doesn’t matter that much anyway.

Their first album was pretty catchy and pretty pretty and I enjoyed it a fair amount. Belong is not drastically different, except that the production is a little cleaner. In that sense, Belong is a better album than The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but that’s like comparing brands of chunky peanut butter. At a certain end of the spectrum, it’s all just chunky peanut butter, you should buy the one that’s on sale and go the fuck home (Official Bollocks! Fact:  all of the peanut butter in the world – in the world! – is made in only two locations. There’s a Chunky Peanut Butter Factory in Minot, North Dakota, and a Creamy Peanut Butter Factory in Argentina and all the different peanut butter companies pay a nominal fee to these factories to stick the peanut butter in jars with their label on them. This is done to give you, the consumer, the illusion of choice). About half way through Belong, I feel like I’ve been listening to the same song over and over, although “Too Tough” sticks out enough from the others for me to count it as a highlight.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart get a lot of positive press and this may be the most negative review of Belong that you’ll read. Don’t get me wrong; I like the album fine, but I don’t see anything very amazing or anthemic about it (side note: WordPress’s text editor doesn’t seem to think “anthemic” is a word, which makes me sad for the good people at WordPress. Have they never heard anything anthemic before? You know, like “Death or Glory” or “White Riot”?). I think you could create a Random Internet Chorus Generator that would, five times out of twenty, cough up a Pains of Being Pure at Heart song for you. That’s not a slight against the band (really, it’s not), I’m just pointing out that they make simple, pretty music. Belong will probably be the soundtrack to many people’s summer this year and I’m all for that, but my musical diet requires something with a bit more substance in order to sustain me (in this analogy, I guess Tom Waits is the musical equivalent of roughage).

Is There a Correlation Between Music’s Popularity and Its Shittiness?

So a couple of weeks ago, I was discussing my Grammys post-mortem with my pal Max and he asked me a question, inspired by my assertion that, statistically speaking, a Grammy-nominated band will be a shitty band. That question was, “Do you think music’s popularity and its shittiness are somehow correlated? And if so, why?”

I gave Max a short answer (“Not as much as people think”) but he and I agreed that an in-depth discussion of this topic might make a good Bollocks! post. So that’s what this is.

The first thing you have to get out of the way in any discussion like this is the (obvious to me) fact that this is all dependent upon taste. One man’s dookie is another man’s donut and all that. If you like a lot of really popular music, you would probably say that there’s a correlation between its popularity and its greatness. And that’s fine.

But Bollocks! is all about my opinion; for whatever reason, that’s what people come here to read. As I’ve said a billion times (and I’ll say it a billion more), we can love completely different music and still be friends. I promise. But the fact is, I don’t like very much popular music so it might be tempting for me to say that there is a correlation between how popular something is and how awful it is.

But I don’t think that’s the case. There’s plenty of insanely popular music that I like: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, the Beatles, Cee Lo Green’s Ladykiller, and I could go on all day. I bring this up to provide you, humble Bollocks! readers, with evidence that I never dislike popular music (what the fuck is a Kesha, anyway? I won’t put the fucking dollar sign in her name, either. But what the fuck is she? Who is creating demand for a white trash pop diva?) simply because it is popular.

For purposes of our discussion, I’m gonna divide popular music into two categories: good popular music and bad popular music. Again, this is all based on my subjective experience of music (there is no objective experience of art, no matter what any pretentious asshole tries to tell you. It pleases you or it doesn’t and the reasons why you hate something might be the same reasons other people love it. My wife, for instance, does not like the Screaming Females because they are, true to their name, Screaming Females. On the other hand, this is precisely one of the reasons I love them). I think that good popular music becomes popular because it is just undeniably, universally appealing. This is why a lot of good popular music happens to be in the pop style – that particular genre is almost always on a mission to be catchy. Punk music, on the other hand, is typically designed to polarize and won’t appeal to a broad enough swath of the population to become truly popular if its any good. For “punk” music to be popular, it has to water down its message and attitude and stay vague about its politics. This is why Green Day’s American Idiot (not a punk album in my opinion) is more popular than Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets and it’s also why I tend to despise the popular shit that some people consider “punk” today.

Last summer, I talked about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and his suggestion that stuff has to be “translated” for mass consumption before it can become really popular. At the time, I said that the translation idea was a killer for good music – my exact words were “By the time the raw, beautiful music you love is fit for consumption by everyone, it fucking sucks. Always.” I stand by that assertion, but I have to admit that not everyone likes the purest, rawest forms of music. For instance, you might like John Mayer where I like Chris Whitley or Son House. You can sort of see a tenuous connection between the blues of Son House and the white frat-blues of John Mayer, and Mayer definitely moves more units annually than the late Mr. House. Likewise, the Clash is undoubtedly an influence on Green Day, but fans of Green Day are not automatically fans of the Clash (and vice versa; I love the Clash and I think my feelings on Green Day are pretty clear).

So why does so much shitty music become popular? Well, to be popular, you have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (duh). That’s extremely difficult to do without compromising your sound quite a bit (“compromising” might be a bit strong of a word, but we use strong words here). If you want to rock like the Screaming Females rock, you have to accept a smaller (though certainly no less devoted) audience than if you want to rock like Nickelback rocks (which is, in my opinion, not at all). Nickelback fits a definition of “rock” that appeals to a whole lot of people, some of whom most assuredly think about music a whole lot less than I do. That’s not a criticism of those people (in an odd way, it’s a complement), it’s just a fact. A lot of Nickelback fans probably want some drums and electric guitar, but they also want a couple sensitive ballads thrown in there for good measure (I, on the other hand, want “Buried in the Nude”) . Some of those folks might even take the commercial success of Nickelback as an endorsement of that band’s talents; “if other people are buying it, it must be good.” And I don’t think the fact that Nickelback sells lots of albums makes them bad; I think the fact that they suck at playing music makes them bad.

Because pop tends to be built around catchier melodies and major chords, it’s easier for someone like Cee Lo Green to become massively popular behind something like “Fuck You” than it is for someone like the Future of the Left to earn an appearance on everyone’s I-Pod with “You Need Satan More than He Needs You.” Snobs like me enjoy Cee Lo because he represents the cream of the pop crop, while I think some people will eat up “Fuck You” because it’s the best song on the radio, which in my opinion is like being the cleanest corn kernel in a chicken turd. So I think how you find music influences how you feel about the most popular stuff. If you don’t wanna work that hard to find music (again, that’s your right), you will choose what’s good and bad from what you hear on the radio – so you’re already choosing from stuff that is kind of popular. I use every resource I can think of to find music and I dismiss a lot of the homogeneous stuff that shows up on the radio because it all sounds the same to me. I’m not saying this stuff because I think I’m better than other music listeners; if anything, I’m admitting to you what an obsessive fucking nerd I am.

There’s a lot more to discuss on this topic, so we’ll call this Part I and continue our discussion tomorrow. Let’s leave it here for now: music that is popular is not automatically shitty. Since it was a Grammy post that started this whole discussion, I want to talk tomorrow about why it is I think the Grammys specifically reward shitty music (it’s to do with how albums and artists get nominated) and hopefully wrap things up by dispelling the myth that only so-called “non-corporate” music is good.

Oh Shit. Time to Review a Radiohead Album

I’ve gotta be honest with you, folks. I seriously contemplated getting drunk to review Radiohead’s brand-spanking-new The King of Limbs. But then I remembered that it’s eight in the morning, I’m fighting what I think is a pretty nasty sinus infection, and I’m not in college anymore. So I guess a cup of coffee and a fistful of Sudafed will have to do the trick. Somewhere, Lester Bangs is nodding in agreement.

There’s an inherent difficulty in reviewing Radiohead records for me, largely because I don’t believe the band eats sunlight and shits rainbows. I like Radiohead well enough, don’t get me wrong, but I by no means like every one of their albums (I happen to think that Amnesiac can go fuck itself, for instance). However, this is a band with some pretty scary fans (and some pretty lovely ones – I know plenty of rational people who like Radiohead), some of whom will deify the band first and justify their sins later (I can’t wait to see a fan’s defense of “Feral”, but we’ll discuss that song in a minute). So let’s just all bear in mind that this post is about what I think of The King of Limbs and only about what I think of it. Do with that information what you will.

The King of Limbs was released basically last Friday, after being announced like a week before that. I’m all in favor of this kind of release model because, as a fan of music, I hate knowing an album’s release date and finding that it’s still months away. Waiting is very un-American, you see, so Radiohead’s nearly instant gratification of their fans earns them bonus points right out of the gate. The album is bass-and-drum heavy (“Bloom” opens with some Phil Selway beats that will not be all that alien to people own the last Portishead record) but seems to be largely free of the excessive laptop love that plagued Thom Yorke’s solo album. It’s also largely free of the suck that plagued Yorke’s Coachella set last year (he played with his other band, Atoms for Peace. My hope is that The King of Limbs means Atoms for Peace is over once and for all. They were embarrassingly bad).

Like every Radiohead album that is not The Bends or OK Computer (which are both deserving of pretty much every ounce of adoration you can heap upon them), The King of Limbs is going to take some time to grow on me. I like its relative brevity (eight tracks, not quite forty minutes), which has allowed me to work my way through it about eight times in the last two days. In general, I think The King of Limbs is a little more musically exciting than 2008’s In Rainbows, although that album had its good bits too (“Reckoner” being probably the best). On the first few listens, I like most of the songs on The King of Limbs and I can really only point to one that I think definitely sucks.

That would be the inexcusable “Feral.” I paid nine dollars for The King of Limbs, which is about a dollar and twelve cents per song. If I could get my buck-twelve back for “Feral,” I’d be very happy indeed. It’s the sort of studio masturbation that only Radiohead’s most devout followers will find a way to excuse; for the band’s detractors (and, this being the internet, they have many. If any given Radiohead album comes into the world with fans ready to crown it the Greatest Thing Ever Made, it also comes into the world facing a built-in backlash simply because Radiohead made it. To be clear, again, I am on neither one of these teams), “Feral” is a song they can point to and justifiably ask, “What’s all the fuss about?”

That said, there are plenty of things to like about The King of Limbs. As I listen to it right now, I really enjoy the back half of the album. Granted, “Feral” sets the bar pretty low, but I like the layered vocal tracks on “Give Up the Ghost” and the haunting piano ballad “Codex” is pretty lovely too. I get the feeling that, since the success of songs like “Creep,” “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” Radiohead has wrestled with their talent for writing catchy songs. I read somewhere that Thom Yorke refers to “High and Dry” as his Rod Steward phase, which is funny but also kind of sad. Sure, “High and Dry” is simple, but it’s a beautiful song in its own right. I think, between In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, Radiohead has kind of worked up the courage to craft twisted – yet melodic – pop songs again. Certainly “Separator”, which closes the new record, is a subtle but lovely pop tune (same goes for “Little By Little”) and its chorus is one of the best melodies on the album.

Honestly, I think it would be great if Radiohead continues to release albums eight songs at a time, pretty much whenever they have them done. I think they, like R.E.M. and a Nine Inch Nails, have a tendency to fuss over things a bit too much in the studio (this is an opinion, Radiohead zealots. I don’t much enjoy really fussed-over music), and that’s a habit that can be especially deadly to guys who have a lot of musical know-how. Perfectionism dehumanizes art, so you shouldn’t want your favorite band to be perfect. Radiohead is far from perfect, of course, but I think releasing shorter albums more frequently might help them loosen up and be a little more playful (as opposed to fastidious) in the studio.

The King of Limbs, if you ignore “Feral” (which I certainly intend to do for as long as I shall live), has lots of layers and textures to sort out, but it doesn’t feel overstuffed. There’s apt to be a lot of talk about “accessibility” surrounding this album because it’s a Radiohead album and critics like to think they’re smarter than you for “getting” Radiohead, but there’s no big secret to understanding The King of Limbs.  To me, it feels deceptively stripped down, with each instrument occupying a distinct space. Of course, none of that means anything if the songs aren’t good and, though it may be the Sudafed talking, I think The King of Limbs has some pretty good songs on it. It doesn’t send me around the bend with giddiness (Radiohead’s music is too serious to make me giddy – they don’t sound like they have a lot of fun playing it, so it makes me feel weird if I have too much fun listening to it), but it’s proving to be an excellent soundtrack to a day of sinus medication and naps. If that’s a little too backhanded of a compliment for you, let me just close by saying I think The King of Limbs is “good.”

Now where the hell is my Sudafed?

Great Fucking Albums #20: Funeral

Hey y’all. Bollocks! is three years old today. If you’ve read this blog at all over the last few years, I most humbly thank you. If you’ve read this blog and introduced it to other people, I probably owe you a beer. If you’ve been turned on to some great music by reading Bollocks!, well, that’s just what we do here. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the third anniversary of my blog by doing a very special edition of Great Fucking Albums. Today, we’re talking about Funeral, the Arcade Fire’s astonishing debut record.

Last year, I pointed out that the Arcade Fire has a real shot at being remembered as the band that chronicled what it was like to be alive at the dawn of the 21st century better than most, if not all, of their contemporaries. They understand their particular moment in time in a way that a lot bands don’t – hell, a lot of bands don’t seem all that interested in understanding their particular moment in time. Sure, the Arcade Fire is a bit polarizing (if you ever feel like your faith in humanity is soaring a bit too high, go to Fark, click on the music tab, and read any given headline and any given comments section. I guarantee you will see the phrase “hipster douchebag” in conjunction with any and all stories about the Arcade Fire. Fark is a fun place to see various news items aggregated, but it’s also a place where trolls and assholes come to feed their egos. It gets ugly fast on Fark and reading their comments always makes me sad and uncomfortable), but that’s actually a point in their favor. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone – whether they’re a band, an author, or just some nobody like me – that wants everyone to like them.

In my review of The Suburbs, I admitted some concern over how internet music sites tend to behave towards the Arcade Fire because I didn’t want people to read the super gushy shit that’s written about the band and be turned off of the music.On the other hand, it’s hard not to gush about a band as musically wonderful as the Arcade Fire; this is a feature called Great Fucking Albums, after all, so some gush is gonna get on ya.

I think the problem is that the Arcade Fire seemed a bit like they were stealing fire from the gods when they released Funeral back in 2004 (the year my wife and I started dating). It was uncommonly gorgeous, instrumentally diverse, and emotionally resonant without being the least bit trite. Listen to your radio; it’s much harder than you think to make emotional music that doesn’t descend into the hollow melodrama of capital “E” Emo. Funeral felt – and it still feels – true. I still get chills listening to “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”, which I’m doing as I type this sentence. Win Butler sings about a spirit being drowned out by the radio in a way that reignites that spirit without sounding like he’s trying too hard to write a 21st century anthem (ironically, though, the album has its share of anthems). It’s a high wire act that the Arcade Fire walk throughout Funeral, and over the intervening years, it has inspired more than a few inferior bands to attempt the same trick, with predictably disastrous results.

So exactly what is so great about these ten tracks? Essentially, they make up a brief and lovely indie rock record, but the melodies are at once indelible and haunting and the album is stuffed with various instruments while still sounding playful. Check out the freaky, almost disco-ish outro to the forlorn ballad “Crown of Love” or the chimey opening of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” Every one of the instruments (including decidedly non-rock instruments like the xylophone and recorder) employed to make Funeral is tucked securely into its place and used to serve the songs. The result is an album has a kitchen-sink approach that is keeps excess at bay with strong musical discipline.

But I said earlier that the Arcade Fire was adept at capturing the moment in which their music exists. How does Funeral capture 2004? It’s an album riddled with death (obviously), uncertainty and war (“Haiti”), dark winter imagery, and yet it also has a sense of youthful energy (“Wake Up” and “Rebellion”) that suggests a possible antidote to the darker themes. For an album that came out when George W. Bush was wiping his ass with the constitution and the best thing the Democrats could offer as an alternative was John “Zzzzzzz” Kerry, Funeral certainly reflected my mood at the time. And because it doesn’t contain overt references to things happening in 2004, the album doesn’t feel outdated a few years later.

For me, Funeral also perfectly captures the feeling of my first winter in Boston. I would trudge to the train station and listen to Win Butler sing about snow burying his neighborhood and realize that it was certainly trying to bury mine. But I don’t think I’d love Funeral as much as I do if it was only the soundtrack to bitter, cold winters and times of serious political upheaval. I first encountered Funeral when I started working for Tower Records in Harvard Square – it’s one of the few albums that I think all of the employees actually liked (I can’t verify this consensus, but I’m pretty sure it was there. I think we all had a similar affection for Let It Be by the Replacements) and we listened to it incessantly in January of 2005 while the eighth worst winter in Boston history raged on outside.

As I sit in sunny (yet crappy) Van Nuys, California, on a February day that is supposed to hit 76 degrees and listen to Funeral seven years after it came out, the album still resonates with me. Now, maybe because I’m firmly in my thirties, it feels like an album that balances the inevitability of death with the tirelessness of youth, and songs like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” seem to warn me against losing my youthful spirit as I go kicking and screaming towards middle age. When I worked at Tower, I often thought that we needed some new timeless records. The Beatles were great and all, but I refused to accept the notion that all the really great, enduring music was recorded twenty years before I was born. I still do, and I offer Funeral as evidence that timeless music is still being made today.  And I know that the internet is always telling you pretentious shit about some new band and how essential they are. I try to avoid the word “essential” myself, but if an album made in the last ten years has been essential, Funeral is it.

Something I Learned Today

Whenever music critics have super-gushy orgasms about an album, my patented Bollocks! Skepticism Meter pegs over into the red and my eyebrow involuntarily arches until I can release enough vitriol to restore it to its normal position. The reviews that I saw come in at the end of 2010 for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy actually broke the Bollocks! Skepticism Meter. Pitchfork gave it a 10.0, presumably out of a possible 10.0 but then why would they need the decimal point? (Will I ever stop bitching about Pitchfork’s numbering system? Yes. On the day they stop fucking using it.) I’ve since been able to repair it, using an amount of duct tape that is best described as “epic” and a car battery. To put it delicately, pretty much everyone emptied their balls on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which probably didn’t do anything really healthy for Kanye West’s already titanic ego.

I have enjoyed a few of West’s songs in the past, even a couple on the mostly awful 808s and Heartbreak (from what I call West’s Auto-Tune period), but I’ve never found an album of his that I could sit through from start to finish. And I swore I wouldn’t touch My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (which, judging from the album art, has a lot to do with fucking white angels with ugly faces) unless a legitimate copy landed in my lap through absolutely no effort of my own. Well, my friend Zac gifted me the record over Amazon (with a note that said, if memory serves, “Fuck you.” Zac is a very dear friend) and now I’m listening to it and getting ready to render my objective verdict.

Which is, uh, this: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Sister is actually a pretty good album.

Let me say that again, in case your jaw hit the floor so hard that you blacked out: My Beautiful Dark Knight Comic Collection, the new album by Kanye West, is actually pretty good. It’s an imaginative, sometimes brilliant, often beautiful album that is one of only a couple of compelling hip-hop records to drop last year. I know. I’m as surprised as you are.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, though, before we continue our discussion of the merits of Mr. West’s music: Kanye West is not now, nor will he ever be, the voice of his generation. We don’t really have those anymore, I don’t think, and if we did, I’d like to think that anyone who declares themselves the Voice is automatically disqualified from the contest. What My Big Fat Twisted Rap Album does prove, however, is that Kanye West is – by a wide margin – the most talented mainstream hip-hop artist working today (Jay-Z guests on a couple of tracks on My Beautiful Dark Tittie Twister and you can almost taste the inferiority). There’s a musicality to this album that West’s would-be peers simply can’t match and it goes a long way toward justifying West’s sort of uncomfortable public obsession with Michael Jackson (another wacko – more so even than Kanye – who crafted the occasional brilliant record. Thriller is fucking awesome and I will not apologize to anyone for liking it). Songs like “Gorgeous” and “Runaway” would be obnoxious messes on a lot of other rap albums, but they are two of the best moments on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy RPG.

There’s still plenty of ammo for West’s biggest detractors here, and since I usually am one, allow me to point out that “So Appalled” goes on for way too long (and the rhyme of “this shit is” with “fuckin’ ridiculous” – pronounced “ridickle-iss” – is itself appalling), the Auto-Tune “Iron Man” parody on “Hell of a Life” is overreaching by a considerable distance, the Chris Rock outro on “Blame Game” is not funny for even half as long as it lasts, and the album, as the title suggests, is basically Kanye West crawling up his own ass for an hour or so and digging for gold. Also, though it does so about as masterfully as one can, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy traffics heavily in the evil twin duo of hip-hop tropes: rhymes about how good one is at rhyming and misogyny. If these two things disappeared from hip-hop forever as of midnight tonight, the genre would not suffer one bit. Just sayin’.

If West is willing to deify himself at the drop of a hat (and he is), he at least does us the favor of lambasting himself from time to time. “Runaway” raises a toast to assholes, a group to which West admits belonging, while warning the object of his desire to run away as fast as she can. On “Blame Game”, he paints a self-portrait of a fickle, egotistical, insecure dude, which strikes me as pretty accurate.

One of my biggest beefs with Kanye West has been the fact that his often cartoonish public persona has never been, to my mind, backed up by worthwhile music. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy displays a deft hand in both hip-hop and pop music and even its excesses, like the aforementioned “Hell of a Life”, are at least noteworthy for their uncommon ambition. I’m not sure, as I write this, whether or not I like “Lost in the World” but I am sure it’s the only hip-hop song I’ve ever heard to effectively steal from Imogen Heap.

Perhaps what I like the most about My Beautiful Dark Chocolate Candy Bar is what it has taught me about music and, corny as it is, myself. I often say that I keep an open mind about music and am willing to entertain the possibility that someone I generally don’t like will make an album I generally do like. But I’m not often given chances to prove it, and I’m actually quite glad that I genuinely like Kanye’s new album. As easy as it would be to bang out a thousand words on why I was justified in despising someone in the first place, it’s really a lot more fun for me to be surprised by an album. I don’t like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (I have to occasionally type the name correctly just to prove to myself that I can remember it) as much as I like High Violet, but I also like it a lot more than “It doesn’t suck as much as I thought it would.” It is really and truly a good record and I have a hard and fast rule at Bollocks! that says we must give credit where credit is due. So while this might be the only time I ever get to type the next two sentences, I am happy to do it:

Well done, Kanye West. Well done.

Dear Internet: I Won’t Let You Ruin the Arcade Fire for Me

Dear Internet (especially internet music sites),

I am just writing to let you know that I won’t be paying attention to anything you say about The Suburbs, the new Arcade Fire album. The reason I’m avoiding your thoughts on the Arcade Fire, Internet, is because I know how you get about them. Already this year, I’ve seen you use “post-Arcade Fire” as a genre. I literally cringed.

It’s not that I don’t like The Suburbs, Internet. It’s actually that I love it. A lot. And I want to keep loving it without your incessant nagging about how it’s, like, so obviously inspired by a certain New Jersey musician who is so frequently mentioned in Internet music reviews these days that I refuse to even write his fucking name (if anyone reading this guessed “Ted Leo”, you’re wrong. But I love you for thinking that way). And it’s not that I disagree with the general consensus that the Arcade Fire might be an actually Important band – their music always seems to capture the zeitgeist without being trite, and that’s no mean feat. But Internet, you’re starting to get about the Arcade Fire the way you got about Radiohead, which is I’m sure how your Dad got about that certain unspecified New Jerseyite.

Comedian Greg Behrendt once opined (okay, it was last weekend at Largo) that a music review had to have the words “fucking” and “awesome” in it to really sell him on an album. If I may interpret his statement to mean that reviews are far too often overly academic and not nearly enough  fun, I would suggest that this is your number one problem with bands like Radiohead and the Arcade Fire, Internet. Though you want to sound intelligent about the bands that you love, you mostly end up sounding really boring and more impressed with your thoughts on the Arcade Fire than you are with their music. Anyone who has ever read Bollocks! knows that I never try to sound intelligent about the music I love.

So but why should people listen to The Suburbs and can I phrase my answer in the form of something unpretentious and even more unboring? Here’s the thing: The Suburbs is musically gorgeous and sometimes musically raucous at the same time and, substance-wise, it’s spot fucking on. I can expand on that, striving always for your entertainment and edification.

Win Butler has always been a pretty forthright dude, lyrically speaking (polysyllabic words don’t make music reviews boring/pretentious, but using the word polysyllabic probably does. I’m willing to take that risk). But I’ll tell ya what: on “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” (from way back on Funeral), when he sang, “There’s a spirit/ that I used to know /and it’s been drowned out/ by the radio,” I kinda got what he was talking about. There’s a spirit at work in the Arcade Fire’s music that is most definitely not present in a lot of other bands. Like, just for instance, the Killers. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Killers’ music (there is, but that’s for another time), but I also don’t know anyone who has heard “Mr. Brightside” and thought, “Wow. That absolutely perfectly resonates with one of my own emotional experiences.”

On The Suburbs, Win Butler is not just dealing with the modern alienation that comes from growing up in neighborhoods that are identical as far as the eye can see (I avoided this little problem by spending my formative years in a single-wide trailer with a drunk and a psycho). That’s part of it, sure, but the more I listen to this album, the more I think Win Butler is tired of drawing battle lines. See, Internet, this is where you might use a word like “mature” in your review and honestly, that’s kind of lazy. “Mature” doesn’t cut it. That’s like saying Black Flag’s Damaged is “intense.” If you listen to the music, you need more words to describe what’s happening. On “City With No Children”, Butler talks about millionaires, saying “I used to think I was not like them/ but I’m beginning to have my doubts.” Later, he talks about how “the music divides us all into tribes” (on “Suburban War”); at a time when America seems so fucked up by factionalism, these sentiments carry a lot of weight. The Suburbs dares to imply that maybe this constant need to have enemies and always be fighting them is one of the more pointless human endeavors. We have more awesome shit than ever (I have the internet in my fucking pocket now. Literally) and, the positive benefits notwithstanding, we’re less patient than we’ve ever been, both in waiting for more awesome shit and in how we deal with one another.

This is kind of exciting shit, isn’t it, Internet? At least, it cuts a little deeper than “Are we human or are we dancer?” (and by the way – where are the dancer’s unions and political-correctness people to jump up the Killers’ collective butt for suggesting that dancing is somehow not human?) The thing is, Internet, you get all tingly and chatty about the Arcade Fire because they have a real chance to go down in history as a band that accurately chronicled what it was like to be alive at the start of the 21st century. “We Used to Wait” is practically wearing the zeitgeist for a hat and that’s one of the reasons I love it, but that doesn’t mean “Post-Arcade Fire” is a legitimate genre (in fact, Internet, we need to have a serious discussion about your obsession with genre. But we can do that later).

I guess my fear, Internet, is not how I will feel about the Arcade Fire because of what you say about them. I’m afraid that people who have never heard the Arcade Fire will see the giant cyberspace hard-on you have for this band and be frightened away from the music. And as much fun as I have writing about music, the writing about it is extremely secondary to actually listening to it. I write this shit because I love music and maybe, if I’m the luckiest nerd in the world (which I might be), I can turn some people on to great music. So I close, Internet, with a few phrases I suggest you use to discuss The Suburbs:

The Suburbs is fucking awesome!”

“You know that guy from New Jersey with whom a lot of Baby Boomers are obsessed? And it kinda creeps you out a bit? Yeah, the Arcade Fire doesn’t really sound much like him.”

“Holy shit, The Suburbs is a good album.”

“Five out of six doctors think listening to the Arcade Fire will make you a better lover.”

The Suburbs is a pretty good album to listen to while you’re fucking.”

Sincerely,

Chorpenning and the imaginary Bollocks! editorial board.