Broken Bells and the Magic Touch of Danger Mouse

If I had bothered to count down, sometime near the end of last year, the best albums or songs or people or whatever of the first decade of the 21st century (I’m thinking of referring to this as the Last Century of My Life, not out of any sense of morbidity but out of deference to the statistical likelihood that I won’t see the year 2100), I most certainly would have named DJ Danger Mouse as one of the finest artists of the last ten years (I have briefly and quietly asserted that “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem is probably the best song of the last decade). After rising to prominence by doing two things I like – producing a compelling hip-hop record and pissing off Jay-Z – on The Grey Album and producing excellent collaborations with Gemini and MF Doom (another artist who would top my I Love  the Aughties list), Danger Mouse really took off, working with Gorillaz, the Black Keys, and Mr. Cee-Lo Green in the simultaneously under-and-over-rated Gnarls Barkley (their brand of crazy-ass pop is a lot of fun. But “Crazy” was overplayed. That said, “Crazy” is still kinda the jam and their cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” is pretty badass too). So what dazzling new projects does Danger (or Mr. Mouse, if you’re into the whole formality thing) have in store for the second decade of the Last Century of My Life? For starters, a collaboration with James Mercer, a.k.a., the dude from the Shins (a.k.a. the band that did that song that your girlfriend loves on the Garden State soundtrack*. That is, the one that’s not by Frou Frou).

I don’t mean to imply that Broken Bells will succeed or fail entirely on Danger Mouse’s considerable talents. James Mercer is a pretty good songwriter himself (people who listen to the Shins only for “New Slang” are robbing themselves of great songs like “Young Pilgrims,” “Mine is Not a High Horse,” and “Gone for Good,” among many others) and should be considered on equal footing with his fellow Broken Bell. His voice is a little high for some people’s liking, but it’s never really bothered me. My biggest concern is that the second half of the Shins’ last album puts me to sleep almost every time. But I had high hopes for Broken Bells based on what Danger Mouse did for the Black Keys on their Attack & Release album. If a dude can breathe some fresh air into a group, that dude is Danger Mouse and essentially, my feeling that maybe Mercer was stuck in a rut is balanced by the knowledge that Danger Mouse is great at getting people out of ruts.

Though it offers compelling evidence that James Mercer is no longer (if he ever was) stuck in a creative morass, Broken Bells is probably not best described as, “gob-smackingly awesome.” Not to say it’s not good – it is. But it’s a subtly beautiful album and as such, isn’t served by hyperbolic language (as much as I love it. To quote a Mental Floss T-shirt of mine, “Hyperbole is the Best Thing Ever”). Broken Bells didn’t really grab me on the first listen. It took about three trips through it before the album’s charms began to work their magic on me. But – and this is key – I like the album more every time I listen to it (between the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever and the National’s High Violet, albums are really having to fight for my time. Perhaps knowing that they can wrest my ears – occasionally – away from those other two bands is all the praise Broken Bells need. Just in case, though, I’ll praise them more). Though the album is only ten tracks, there’s not a miss among them and a couple (“Your Head’s On Fire” and “Citizen” come to mind) are downright gorgeous. Mercer gets the most out of his voice, both the familiar high end (“The Ghost Inside,” which I think is about a stripper in a dead-end town) and his very nice lower range as well. There are subtle background harmonies and an almost dreamlike instrumentation that gives Broken Bells a nice, balanced feel from start to finish. For some reason, I just thought of a good beer. That’s hardly a bad thing.

In general, I have high expectations for Danger Mouse’s work, but it was hard to calibrate those expectations for Broken Bells because James Mercer wasn’t on my fantasy list of Danger Mouse collaborators (sorry, Mr. Mercer. It’s not personal – I just didn’t see it coming). That said, Broken Bells feels like the most fully integrated band of any of the non-hip-hop things I’ve head Danger Mouse do. With the Black Keys, it felt like Danger Mouse producing a rock band (which is what it was and it was awesome) but if the two guys in Broken Bells were just a couple of anonymous schlubs, their debut would still be quite praiseworthy. The Black Keys needed Danger Mouse’s magic touch and Broken Bells have it without sounding like they need it. Does that make sense? It’s not important. Look: James Mercer and Danger Mouse sound like they’ve started a band that could have some longevity to it, which gives Broken Bells the advantage of not sounding like a one-off or a side project. If there’s three more Broken Bells records and no more Shins records, I could be quite content with that.

In the end, Broken Bells doesn’t feel all that earth-shattering. It hasn’t infiltrated any of my local radio stations (I think NPR has thrown a couple of  its songs on every once in a while), I haven’t heard these songs in ads for teen dramas, and it definitely isn’t going to enjoy the massive success of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” – and I say none of those things with the intention of disparaging Broken Bells. This album almost feels like an overlooked treasure, a secret bit of loveliness for those of us who were lucky enough to catch it. Long after Justin Beiber** has faded into obscurity (and/or rehab), we’ll still have Danger Mouse and James Mercer and the weird, lovely fruits of their labor.

*a.k.a. “New Slang,” or “The Song Your Aspiring Troubadour Friends Are Fucking Up At Open Mic Nights All Over the Country.” Seriously, though, I like this song and I like the Shins, so no hate mail about that. Any aspiring troubadours who wish to send hate mail, however, are more than welcome. Anything that’ll take away from the time you spend writing songs that compare life to a river or your girlfriend’s eyes to deep pools or your broken heart to shattered glass or whatever the fuck it is you like to sing about.

**Okay, I know nothing about this kid other than his name. And the fact that a lot of people, publications, and various media outlets for whom I have zero respect are all spooging in their breakfast about him. I get the sense that he’s another adolescent product marketed as a prodigy – I’m willing to entertain contrary evidence, but I defy you to find any.

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My Favorite Albums of 2009 5-1

I know we’re a few days in already, but I have a couple New Year’s resolutions I’d like to share with you, both of which pertain to language you find in abundance on the internet. The words “douche” (or “douchebag” or “douchetard” or “douchefuck” or et cetera) and “hipster” are used far too much on the internet. This year, I will not use the D-word (or any of its various permutations) on this blog. At all. Ever. It’s done. Don’t worry about me coming up with alternatives, either. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding new ways to hurl invective. As for the word “hipster,” when it comes to music, everyone thinks they know what a hipster is and everyone thinks it’s not them. It’s become a completely meaningless – and therefore useless – word. I don’t use that word a lot myself, but it is hereby banished from Bollocks! in the hopes that I can inspire other people on the internet to stop using it.

So let’s get on with the continuation of my meaningless – and therefore useless (but entertaining, one hopes) – list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. Here’s the score so far:

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man, Happy Man.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!

10. Brother Ali, Us

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast

And now here’s the top 5:

5. Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, Dark Night of the Soul. I know, this album wasn’t technically released this year, but it damn well should have been. It’s still streaming on NPR’s website and the Wikipedia suggests that you can fire up your favorite torrent software and obtain a copy of the album for yourself at an exceedingly reasonable price. Sad thing is, Dark Night of the Soul is well worth the price of admission that EMI is so unwilling to charge. Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Wayne Coyne, Frank Black, and Iggy Pop (to name but a few), the album is pure beauty from start to finish. Danger Mouse has asserted himself as the preeminent collaborator of the last few years (perhaps of the decade, if you’re into that sort of declaration) and he and Mark Linkous (who collaborated on some of Sparklehorse’s underrated Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain) create gorgeous sonic landscapes upon which their friends (including David Lynch!) freely frolic. The highlights are numerous, but “The Man Who Played God” (featuring Suzanne Vega), “Insane Lullaby” (featuring the Shins’ James Mercer, who is partnering with Danger Mouse to release an album as Broken Bells later this year – I’m sure EMI will find some way to fuck it up, if at all possible), and “Star Eyes (I Can Catch It)” are my top 3. If you like music at all, find a way to hear this album, legality be damned!

4. Metric, Fantasies. I think 2009 was a pretty good year for the kind of pop music that I like to listen to. My favorite pop record of the year – no contest – is Fantasies by Metric. Emily Haines has an amazing, versatile voice and Fantasies is infused with loud guitars and pounding drums. This is the album you put on at top volume while flying down a freeway in the summer. And this is one band that understands brevity – the album is but ten tracks, but every single one is a killer. A different one gets stuck in my head on just about a daily basis, although “Sick Muse” and “Front Row” are the most frequent visitors. “Sick Muse” deserves special credit because, as the song builds to the chorus (where Haines sings “I’ll write you/ harmony in C”), it gives  me the feeling of going down a particularly awesome water slide or cannonballing into cool water from some dizzying height. That feeling is exactly the feeling you should get from pop music and it’s why Metric currently tops the list of bands I really need to see live.

3. TIE: Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next and Lucero, 1372 Overton Park. I know this is supposed to be some sort of exercise in perfectly ranking the albums I loved from last year, but there’s no escaping the fact that Modest Mouse and Lucero both made albums that I think are precisely the third best things I heard all year. No One’s First and You’re Next is technically an EP of songs recorded during sessions for Good News for People Who Like Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the songs make it clear that they weren’t omitted for a lack of quality. “Satellite Skin” and “History Sticks to Your Feet” are instant classic Modest Mouse tunes, to say nothing of “Autumn Beds” and “King Rat.” Rather than being a miniature pile of odds ‘n’ sods, No One’s First is a potent reminder of the fact (indisputable!) that Isaac Brock is a brilliant lyricist and that Modest Mouse has become a formidable musical force for awesome.

I know I haven’t reviewed Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park, but that’s because I just got it in the last month and haven’t stopped listening to it long enough to write about it. Yeah, Ben Nichols’s voice is shredded (it has been said of Tom Waits that he sounds like he gargled whiskey and broken glass. In that spirit, you could say Ben Nichols was gargling whiskey and broken glass when he accidentally swallowed), but he still tells a great story, (mostly) carries a tune, and manages to wax anthemic as fuck on album opener “Smoke.” There’s a badass horn section on nearly every song, but rather than coming off as gimmicky, the horns perfectly augment Lucero’s busted-ass country rock and aid the band in making their best album since 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings, if it’s not their best album ever. You can have your Airborne Toxic Events and your Gaslight Anthems, but neither of those bands are fit to clear the (numerous) empty bottles from Ben Nichols’s table.

2. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. If you watch the Grammys, it might be easy to forget that the word “artist” used to apply to a select group of people. On the Grammys, everyone’s an artist (for instance, Maroon 5 were named the best new artists of 2005. I’ll give you a minute if you need to go throw up), but in the really real world, the true musical artist is a dying breed. Or maybe not. Wayne Coyne, the Flamingest Lip, is a true musical artist, a guy who lives his art because it’s who he is. And in 2009, the Flaming Lips returned triumphantly with Embryonic, a spaced-out, bass-heavy, fuzzy hippie nightmare. Not nearly as experimental as Pitchfork would have you believe, Embryonic is nonetheless a powerful rock record featuring the Lips’ usual meditations on life, love, good, evil, ego, and death. And it all ends with the cosmic dance party “Watching the Planets,” the video for which features naked adults being born out of a giant vagina ball. No, really.

MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

1. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. If we learned anything last year, I think we learned that Neko Case is a goddess. Three years after releasing the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Ms. Case topped herself with Middle Cyclone. Such beauty! Such violence: “Their broken necks will line the ditch until you stop it/ stop this madness” (from “This Tornado Loves You”); “The next time you say ‘forever’/ I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say Forever”); people are “filleted” on the stairs (“Polar Nettles”), and, of course, surprised when they’re eaten by man-eaters (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”). I could discuss at length, as other have, the obvious metaphors for romance as a force of nature (sometimes beautiful, sometimes deadly), but beyond all that academic shit, what the music of Middle Cyclone is – above all else – is almost profoundly gorgeous. Of the fourteen songs here, there are probably eight that give me chills every time I hear them. Listening to the album again (for the billionth time – if I ever get sick of this record, you can stick bamboo splinters soaked in lemon juice under my fingernails), the dreamlike “Prison Girls” is the one that really has a hold on me. For a while it was “Magpie to the Morning.” And so on. Neko Case is among the best singers in music right now, bar none, and Middle Cyclone is a stunning achievement. If you haven’t heard this album, there is a hole in your life that can, I suspect, be easily filled. Also, it bears repeating that Middle Cyclone‘s cover is among the most badass things I’ve ever seen.

My 13 Favorite Albums of 2009 13-6

Well, here we are in 2010, the year we make contact. For those of you who don’t know, a new federal law went into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day: if you hear any of your fellow citizens call this year “oh-ten”, it is legal to punch them in the face exactly one time.

Having safely seen 2009 out the door, I think it’s time to start talking shit about it. Everyone loves a list, especially one that doesn’t include Animal Collective or Phoenix, so I compiled a list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. I don’t know if they’re the best albums of the year or not and I don’t care. They’re the ones I like the best and, honestly, I think that’s all anyone can say. Also, my list contains 14 albums (well, technically, 13 albums and an EP) because there was a tie. Anyway, feast yer eyes on this here list (helpfully rendered in a distinctly non-slide-show format):

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass. I’ll just assume everyone knows that Lord Cut-Glass is really former Delgado Alun Woodward. And I know that my review of this record spent a good deal of time bitching about how the Delgados ought to just reunite, come to the U.S. and play shows in the courtyard of my apartment complex. But the fact remains that Lord Cut-Glass is a really beautiful record; Woodward lilts over plucked acoustic guitars and low brass, quietly issuing some of the best melodies of his career. Highlights include “Picasso,” “Even Jesus Couldn’t Love You,” “Holy Fuck,” “A Pulse” and “Big Time Teddy.”

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man. Last year, Doughty put out an album called Golden Delicious that I liked well enough at first. And then it kinda grew off of me with a stunning quickness. Just wasn’t feeling it, I guess. However, because I love Mike Doughty, I’m always willing to listen to his stuff. This year, he put out the superb Sad Man Happy Man, which I nabbed from Amazon’s digital store for five freaking bucks (gargle my balls, I-Tunes). SMHM is driven by Doughty’s chunky guitar strumming and absurd humor, and it’s my favorite album of his since Skittish (which has to be one of the most underrated albums I’ve ever heard). It opens with one of its best moments, “Nectarine (Part Two)” and also includes the coolest prayer ever (“Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”) and “Year of the Dog,” which might be Doughty’s best tune since “Sweet Lord in Heaven.”

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz. 2009 was a great year for some of my favorite female vocalists, not least of whom is Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only did I get to delight in an affordable deluxe edition of It’s Blitz! (Amazon’s mp3 store has not yet let me down in the cheap goodies department), but I got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a kickass set at Coachella (one of the best sets I saw at that festival). The album is filled with awesome turbo-pop (starting with a pair of aces in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”) and a few pretty ballads (“Hysteric” splits the difference between the two types of song and is, in two words, fucking awesome). It’s Blitz! firmly established the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the best bands in America and their live shows will back that claim up for the doubters.

10. Brother Ali, Us. I could make a joke about how Brother Ali is the king of white rap (ha ha, because he’s an albino, ha ha), but, taking Us as exhibit A for the prosecution, it’s more accurate to place Ali near the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of skin pigment. Jay-Z has never, in my estimation, done anything to rival  “Tightrope” or “The Travelers.” To my knowledge, he’s never even tried. With Us, Ali threw down a gauntlet of new rules for the hip-hop community, chief among them: no skits and fewer songs about how badass you are (Us has ’em, but they’re matched pound for pound by songs of real substance and at least one tune wherein Ali shows gratitude for his good fortune, saying, “I’m the luckiest sonofabitch that ever lived”). Us is a truly refreshing album, and it stays fresh with every listen.

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Speaking of refreshing, Camera Obscura released one hell of an orchestral pop album last year. My Maudlin Career, despite its potentially emo-sounding name, starts and ends with a bang (“French Navy” and “Honey in the Sun”, respectively) – in between, Tracyanne Campbell drops lines like “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” and “drinking has never been the same again”, the latter from the stellar, mournful ballad “Other Towns and Cities”. My Maudlin Career is so good that I think almost anyone who likes music will like it. But some people who like music like Wavves, so I could be wrong.

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth. Killingsworth is the album that elevated Scott McCaughey from Person of Interest to Folk Hero in my estimation. It’s basically a dark country rock album, but it’s so fully realized and wittily rendered (“your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation”) that it cannot be denied. Backed by an excellent chorus of women, McCaughey sings of lurking barristers, broken love, and crowded urban apartment life (“Big Beat Up Moon”) with a drunken weariness that is deeply appealing to young curmudgeons like myself. He also takes the time to satirize fundamentalist Christianity on “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, a song that never fails to but a big smile on my face.

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another. I have said many times that, all appearances to the contrary, I like more music than I dislike. A small subsection of music that I like is nasty, noisy stuff that almost no one else I know likes. Titus Andronicus comes to mind here, as does the Future of the Left, whose Travels with Myself and Another beat its way into my skull and won my heart last year with its pounding drums and Andy Falkous’s snarling vocals. Subjects range from girls who get off on hitting people (“Chin Music” will only be appropriate at a very small number of weddings:  “I only hit him ’cause he made me crazy/ I only hit him ’cause he made me mad/ she only hit him ’cause it gets her wet/ yeah, she’s one of a kind/ she’s got chin music”) to the practical concerns of Satanism (“You Need Satan More than He Needs You”). Travels with Myself and Another pretty much kicks ass, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the humorless.

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. I guess #7 and #6 on my list are a study in contrast. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is an understated, mellow, and completely lovely work – his finest to date, if I may be so bold. It blends Bird’s myriad musical talents (no one on earth – no one – can whistle like this motherfucker) into quirky pop (“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”), old school folk (“Effigy,” which is nothing short of stunning), and whatever you’d classify “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” as. Some of the songs have unique movements, but they never seem to wander, even on the seven minute “Souverian.” Bird is a musician’s musician, a guy you can study as well as enjoy, and Noble Beast is the textbook for aspiring musical ninjas.

I know. It’s taken me four days into the new year to even start counting down my favorite albums of the old year and now I’m doing it in two parts. Pitchfork took a week to do their list and they still fucked it up, so maybe it’s better that I’m taking my time. I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse every choice I’ve made so far. Tune in tomorrow or Wednesday for albums 5 through 1, which are bound to include demure rodents, plenty of references to whiskey, a rant about shitty record labels, the best pop album of the year, the word vagina, and plenty of weather.

Dark Night of the Soul: The Album EMI Doesn’t Want You to Hear

cover

I may have mentioned once or twice that I am not fond of EMI’s recent business strategies, which seem to be calculated to irritate the music-buying public. You know, the very people they should be trying with all their might to win back in this age of the digital downloading and whatnot. Certainly, EMI is making a more compelling case that stupidity (as opposed to piracy) is what’s really killing the music industry. And while we’re on that cheery subject, you know what I’ve never heard? I’ve never heard a single musician that I care about or respect say that they’ll stop making music if the kids don’t knock off all the downloading. Billy Corgan can testify to Congress all he wants about needing to get paid, but let’s face it: if I thought downloading Billy Corgan’s shit would make him stop producing music and go get a job at  Arby’s, I’d be pirating that shit on a 24/7 basis.

One of the things I was bitching about (and will continue to bitch about at every opportunity. If I could get a meeting with the assholes in charge at EMI, I’d say all this & more to their doughy fucking faces) was EMI’s refusal to release Dark Night of the Soul, an album-length collaboration between Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous) and Danger Mouse (you know, the guy who is half of Gnarls Barkley; the guy who did the fucking Grey Album; the guy who breathed new life into the Black Keys last year… that guy) meant to accompany a book of visual goodies from none other than David Lynch. I should mention that Dark Night of the Soul features guest performances from such indie luminaries as Wayne Coyne, Julian Casablancas, Jason Lytle, Frank Black, and Iggy Fucking Pop. In other words, this album is full on, mind-blowing indie bait. This thing should’ve sold a billion copies for its list of contributors alone. But it was not to be; Danger Mouse let the good folks at NPR stream the album as an exclusive “First Listen” and the babies at EMI pissed their wrinkle-free khakis, despite the fact that what NPR and Danger Mouse were doing was essentially getting the indie kids (myself included) to respond to the album in a way that can only be described as Pavlovian. As of this writing, Dark Night of the Soul still does not have a release date, and it looks like EMI has no intention of releasing it.

Which is too bad, because it turns out that Dark Night of the Soul is worth every bit of the hype it has received and then some. It’s a moody, funky, grumpy, gorgeous record. I mean, this album is so awesome that it strikes me as statistically impossible that Tom Waits didn’t have some hand in it. Wayne Coyne is the first guest to appear, opening the album with “Revenge”, a song that admittedly sounds like it could be a Flaming Lips tune, but if that’s the worst thing someone can say about your song, what they’re really saying is, “Goddamn, that song is really awesome.”

The album has a freaky, psychedelic, middle-of-the-night feel to it that fans of Sparklehorse will recognize from 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, which also featured some production from Danger Mouse, a guy I can’t stop praising for his ability to hear exactly how a song needs to sound and making it sound that way. So Dark Night of the Soul would have been musically worthwhile even without the high-profile collaborations, but having Iggy Pop shout, “et cetera, I quit,” on your album (as he does on the awesome “Pain” – if this is what Iggy’s new record sounds like, sign me up) is certainly an entertaining bonus.

I could go on and on about each track’s individual loveliness, but that’s hardly the issue anymore. It’s a great album, and I’d tell you to run right out and get it, but you can’t because EMI is dumb. The book is still for sale and it comes with a blank CD. So maybe you should go download the sucker and burn it to disc and then, if you ever meet Mark Linkous and/or Danger Mouse, buy them a round of their favorite beverage as a way of saying thanks. Although it’s not like EMI has put the lid on every opportunity you have to hear Dark Night of the Soul; search any torrent engine and you’ll find it (EMI is probably too busy keeping their music out of independent record stores to sue you anyway. Hell, given all the ways they’re finding to not sell music, they’ll probably be handing out pink slips to their legal department in a matter of days). Or, if you want to hear it completely legally and for free, the damn thing is still available here at the NPR website. That’s right – EMI put the brakes on the only way they have to make money off of Dark Night of the Soul without ever stopping NPR from basically giving it away. So either EMI has been infiltrated by anti-industry moles who are tearing it apart from the inside or it is entirely staffed by people who are so stupid that any just society would prohibit them from breeding.

In any case, Dark Night of the Soul is a pretty great album and, since there are so many ways to hear it without giving EMI a dime, you really can’t afford not to listen to it.

Beck = The New StrongSad

“Imaginary Secretary?”

“Yes, Mr. Chorpenning?”

“Get in here. And bring me a copy of Beck’s record contract, will ya?”

“Right away, Mr. Chorpenning.”

<Imaginary Secretary enters, hears Modern Guilt blasting from my computer speakers.>

“Is this a Joy Division cover band?”

“No, Imaginary Secretary. This is the new Beck record.”

“Beck? Isn’t he the guy who did ‘Sexx Laws’?”

“The same. Lemme see that contract.”

<I look over the contract>

“Hmm….”

“What is it, Mr. Chorpenning?”

“I was looking for some indication that Beck has to keep making albums. He’s not obligated to make an album a year for the next ten million years. And yet…”

“And yet?”

“Listen to this album, Imaginary Secretary. Tell me what you think, just as a first impression.”

“I like the beats -”

“That’s DJ Danger Mouse. Good stuff.”

“Right, but the vocals… it sounds like Beck doesn’t really want to be there.”

Exactly, Imaginary Secretary. This guy is sitting in a studio with a modern beat god, the guy who pulled The Black Keys out of their little rut. And he sounds like he’s at the fucking dentist. What gives?”

“You think he’s burned out?”

“Maybe. Maybe the Scientology isn’t helping – no big surprise there. But this is Beck and Danger Mouse – I should have a hard-on with goosebumps on it for this album.”

“And?”

“Nothin’. It’s like seeing Glenn Beck wrestle Rush Limbaugh naked in kiddie pool full of pudding. I was more thrilled by the new Del the Funky Homosapien album.”

“Sorry to hear that, Mr. Chorpenning.”

“Not your fault, Imaginary Secretary.”

“Is there anything that can be done, sir?”

“Usually, I would prescribe working with Danger Mouse for something like this. But it hasn’t helped Beck one bit. I’m not sure what else there is.”

“Perhaps having Rick Rubin produce mostly acoustic sessions of cover songs?”

“Perhaps, but Beck’s not nearly old enough for that to work.”

“This song is pretty good. What’s it called?”

“‘Profanity Prayers.’ It’s my favorite song on the album too. But one out of ten is not a good score for Beck.”

“This is better than The Information.

“What the hell is The Information?”

“The last Beck album, Mr. Chorpenning.”

“Oh… oh! The one after Guero and that shitty remix album?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yeah, that sucked. Modern Guilt doesn’t suck. It’s… well, it’s kinda too sad to suck.”

“Maybe he’s too distracted by the state of the modern world to be able to make the bouncy, dancey music he used to make.”

“Maybe, Imaginary Secretary. But doesn’t he realize that when the world really shits the bed, we need good, positive art more than ever? Or at least loud, rebellious art. Modern Guilt is neither.”

“He must not realize that, sir.”

“Maybe he needs to listen to The Hold Steady.”

“Do you think it will help?”

“I don’t know, Imaginary Secretary. Maybe he’s a lost cause.”

“Didn’t he do a mildly depressing album earlier in his career?”

“He did two – Mutations and Sea Change. But they were beautiful depressing albums, and they had their moments of levity. But Modern Guilt sounds like Danger Mouse made a real effort on the music and Beck made no effort on the songs. It’s really fucking half-hearted.”

“Perhaps he just needs a break.”

“I think he does, Imaginary Secretary. Maybe go back and listen to Stereopathic Soul Manure, get his bearings again.”

“But if he takes a break, Mr. Chorpenning, isn’t there a possibility that he’ll retreat deeper into Scientology to help him?”

“I see where you’re going with this. His comeback album will be produced by Tom Cruise and have subliminal messages about Thetans and Xenu and all that horseshit… wait a minute!”

“What is it, Mr. Chorpenning?”

“What is Danger Mouse working on right now?”

“I don’t know, sir. I’m sure it’s awesome.”

“You don’t know, Imaginary Secretary? I don’t know either. And do you know why we don’t know?”

“No, sir. I’m afraid I’m at a loss on that.”

<I slap my forehead with a mixture of surprise and disgust>

“It’s so obvious! We don’t know what Danger Mouse is doing right now because the Scientologists have him! He’s a brilliant producer; obviously, he heard Beck’s vocal takes and suggested that maybe reading Dianetics and moping isn’t helping Beck out any, Tom Cruise and his merry band of goons take umbrage, and boom! Danger Mouse is being held hostage by the Scientologists, who have obviously programmed some sort of mopey poison into this Beck record.”

“Why would they do that, sir?”

Because, Imaginary Secretary! The Scientologists, like all fundamentalist douchebags, think that they have the only viable solution to all of life’s mysteries. In other words, they cannot accept that you and I could possibly be happy without following the drunken, drug-fueled ramblings of L. Ron Hubbard. They need us to be miserable so that they can trot in with their insane books of half-assed monkey-science and save the day! If we’re miserable without Scientology, it will convince them that they’re right!” <I clench my fist and shake it at the sky> “Scientologist bastards!”

“You know, Mr. Chorpenning, what you’re saying makes a certain amount of sense.”

“It does. This record is poison, Imaginary Secretary. We must cleanse our ears. Fetch either the new Hold Steady album, the Titus Andronicus record, anything by Pulp, or London Calling. No. Wait. Fetch all of those. And bring Mule Variations while you’re at it. We can’t be too careful on this one.”

“Right away, sir.”

<Imaginary Secretary begins her exit but is stopped by:>

“Oh, Imaginary Secretary?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Fetch also my baseball bat. I’m going to rescue DJ Danger Mouse from the Scientologists.”

“Very good sir.”

Danger Mouse vs. Danger Mouse. The Winner? You

We all know by now that DJ Danger Mouse rocketed to notoriety by remixing Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album. The result was a pretty decent record called The Grey Album and it infuriated Mr. Z that someone would toss fresh beats onto the a cappella version of his album. You might be inclined to ask why Jay-Z would bother releasing an a cappella version of a hip-hop album if he didn’t want you to fuck with it. The bottom line, at any rate, is that The Grey Album will never see the light of day. It has been passed around by industrious bootleggers, but don’t expect it to come to your local FYE.

Danger Mouse has produced works for Gorillaz, collaborated with the likes of MF Doom, The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, and, of course, with Cee-Lo as the duo Gnarls Barkley.

Gnarls Barkley released “Crazy,” the catchiest single… um… ever in advance of St. Elsewhere, their debut. St. Elsewhere never lived up to the promise of “Crazy.” It wasn’t a dreadful album but it felt a little like a joke. It was just compelling enough to make my ears perk up when I heard that Gnarls was releasing a second album. So maybe they mean it after all?

The Odd Couple is a pop pleasure; it’s infinitely more melodic (if occasionally more melodramatic – “Open Book” is a little bit over the top) than its predecessor and it hangs together like a real album. It opens with the vague social concern song “Charity Case”, which is about as serious as the album gets. We can’t all be Billy Bragg, but you can throw Gnarls Barkley on at a party without killing everyone’s buzz. As much love as I have for Mr. Bragg, I cannot make the same claim about him.

Pound for pound, The Odd Couple has funkier beats, more interesting melodies, and more hooks than St. Elsewhere. I made it through St. Elsewhere about twice before I gave up on everything but “Crazy” (which the radio had already made me sick of) and the Violent Femmes cover “Gone Daddy Gone.” But I’ve been able to enjoy The Odd Couple several times now, and actually enjoy it more every time I hear it. It’s a testament to Danger Mouse’s talent that he can so adequately tailor his style to compliment his collaborators. He finds beats here that are the perfect backdrop for Cee-Lo’s high-pitched howling and the result is a light, fun listen unlike 90% of the pop music you can listen to today.

As if to prove that he can (and should) collaborate with anyone, Danger Mouse produced the new Black Keys album Attack & Release. It was originally to be a collaboration between the Keys and Ike Turner, produced by Danger Mouse. Turner, however, died before the sessions could be completed (cocaine is a helluva drug). The Black Keys were left with a handful of songs and a fantastic producer, and so they went to work putting together Attack & Release, arguably their best album to date.

I’ve been a Black Keys fan since Thickfreakness, which I listened to solely because it struck me as a righteously bold move for two white dudes from Ohio to name their album Thickfreakness. But it was a heavy motherfucker of an album, packed with some of the least watered-down blues I’ve heard this side of Hendrix. (The Black Keys have, on occasion, denied being a blues band – and they aren’t really – but the fact is, a lot of their songs are the blues and we really should be grateful. A lot of white guys have really  co-opted and fucked up the blues, but the Black Keys seem to have a genuine grasp of the looseness, loudness, and unbridled woe required to make good blues.) The Black Keys kept trucking along right up through Rubber Factory, where they really tried to expand their sound (let’s face it – there’s only so much you can do with two people in your band). And then came Magic Potion, an album with eleven tracks, just like Attack & Release, only Magic Potion feels like it’s several hours longer. You could hear Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney wading through the sludge of their sound, trying to find more to do with drums and guitar, guitar and drums.

So along comes Danger Mouse with his bag of tricks and provides The Black Keys with a much-needed shot in the arm. Attack & Release owes as much to The Band as it does to The Black Keys’ usual blues influences and it is full of the sort of rich textures you can have when there are more than two people in your band – there are flutes, organs, contra bass clarinets (!), and a lot more harmony vocals on Attack & Release than on any previous Black Keys record, and while all that extra instrumentation can run the risk of giving you a bloated turd of an album, in the capable hands of Danger Mouse, it’s all sliced and diced together into a lean, mean, heavy, and excellent rock record. “All You Ever Wanted,” leads off the set, a pretty blatant signal that this is not the same ol’ Black Keys on Attack & Relase. Of course, the album would suck if it was all tender ballads and organ solos, so the Black Keys toss in some very expected jams like “I Got Mine.” But in the context of the album as a whole, even the songs that sound just like other Black Keys songs have a fresh energy to them. The Black Keys never needed to abandon their bread-and-butter stuff (loud guitars and crashing drums), but they definitely needed to put more meat on the bones. And Danger Mouse provided them with a great opportunity to do it.
Ordinarily, I’d frown a mighty frown on a band putting two versions of the same song on an album – I usually don’t care that you couldn’t settle on which mix was better. Not that interesting. “Remember When (Side A)” and “Remember When (Side B)” are a great exception, however. Forming the centerpiece of Attack & Release, these two versions of “Remember When” are about as different as they can be. Obviously, the lyrics are the same, but Side A is a plaintive, lilting ballad and Side B is a full-on rocker, stuffed with all the stuff I loved about The Black Keys in the first place. Hopefully the Black Keys will continue to collaborate and experiment in the future, or at least hire a few more musicians full-time.
For my money, The Black Keys is the better of this year’s two Danger Mouse albums (so far – he could and hopefully will give us another DangerDoom album before years’ end). It’s a fantastic rock record produced by a man with a gift for hearing the exact sound a band or singer needs and artfully producing it. But you could do worse than picking up both albums and deciding for yourself. Because when DJ Danger Mouse produces, the winner is always you.