Talib Kweli Makes the Album I Always Knew He Could

I have always had an uneasy relationship with Talib Kweli’s music. I have always very much wanted to like his stuff and when I’ve heard him on other people’s albums (like Danger Doom’s The Mouse and the Mask), I’ve enjoyed it but I don’t remember getting a lot out of his solo records. I don’t remember hating 2007’s Eardrum, but it’s telling that I don’t remember anything about that album.

But maybe 2011 will be the Year of the Pleasant Surprise. The other night, I found myself rather enjoying the new P.J. Harvey album, Let England Shake, on my first time through it.  I’ve never liked P.J. Harvey before (I have in fact actively disliked her before), but Let England Shake is sounding pretty good so far. So then I decided to roll some Amazon Mp3 dice on Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows, hoping it would be the album I always believed Kweli to be capable of making. If I can continue the dice metaphor, buying Gutter Rainbows is the equivalent of rolling a hard eight. Not only is it Talib Kweli’s best album by a damn sight, it’s easily the most exciting album of 2011 so far (don’t get me wrong – the new Decemberists album is good, but you don’t exactly nod your head to it while you’re on the freeway. Ditto Daniel Martin Moore’s soft and lovely In the Cool of the Day).

The first great thing about Gutter Rainbows is the general lack of skits (okay, album opener “After the Rain” is a skit, but it’s the only one and it if you start the album on track two, you won’t even know it’s there) and the second great thing about it is pretty much everything else. The beats are heavy and riddled with tinges of gospel, funk, pop and soul. I’ve always given Kweli points for being a relatively humble MC (on “Gutter Rainbows,” he even disses other MCs for their “braggadocio,” a word that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard in a hip-hop song before), but I’m glad to see a bit of a swagger to his delivery on Gutter Rainbows. He sounds fresh, energetic, and completely up to the task from start to finish.

Kweli is aided by a few quality guest appearances on Gutter Rainbows, but Jean Grae’s turn on “Uh Oh” steals the show. I’m hoping that her cameo on this album portends a new release from her sometime this year, although I haven’t heard anything to that effect. If we need to take up donations to produce a new Jean Grae album, I’ll start passing around the hat this very minute. There aren’t enough awesome women in hip-hop and we need to keep Grae around as long as possible. Though she owns “Uh Oh”, Talib gets off a pretty good couplet too: “Picturing yourself like a gangsta is the only way that you’re shooting/ And my intelligent design is the product of evolution.”

Lyrically, Kweli has never been better than he is on Gutter Rainbows. “Cold Rain” is clever and topical (“the end is upon us with a hash-tag and trending topic”) and songs like “Ain’t Waiting” and “How You Love Me” tackle the difficulties of relationships, but he cuts the shit right down to the marrow on “Self Savior”, which has the best line of the entire album: “every poor person is a nigger now.” That kind of concern for those less fortunate than he is (many are people with whom Kweli grew up) balanced with the smart humor and cultural references for which Kweli is both loved by his fans and loathed by his detractors. I’m quick to despise a reference if it seems too easy, but I don’t hear a lot of rappers saying that their lives are “like a novel by Paulo Coelho” (“Mr. International”) or name-checking Kurt Vonnegut (“I’m On One”). Kweli’s pop culture references (is Paulo Coelho “pop culture”? Let’s just assume he is) fit his songs just fine, and I’m always gonna give an MC props for being unafraid to sound like he has read a goddamn book or two in his life.

Longtime Bollocks! readers are probably tired of my constant complaining that a lot of music today seems to value style over substance (let’s face it, kids: a lot of your big money artists are downright scared of substance at this point. Check your 2011 Grammy Nominees. The Arcade Fire is the exception that proves the rule. And they won’t win), and I’m happy to report that Talib Kweli seems to intuitively understand my concern. On “Self Savior” he talks about the need to balance style and substance, finally announcing, “My style married my substance/ and now they’re livin’ in harmony.” And the line rings true – Gutter Rainbows balances the two almost perfectly. It’s musically chill enough to serve as a summer barbecue soundtrack, but Kweli’s social conscience still gets plenty of air time (“Self Savior”, remember, contains my favorite line).

Gutter Rainbows, despite its numerous producers (something like thirteen for the fourteen tracks that make up the regular edition – I got the Amazon bonus version that has the deliciously old-school “GMB”), is the most consistently satisfying album of Kweli’s career and, following Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so closely (Kanye’s best album just dropped in November, Gutter Rainbows came almost exactly two months later), it gives me the fleeting hope that there’s move toward more musicality in hip-hop. Like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Gutter Rainbows isn’t afraid to mix a little pop melody into the flow. I may be committing hip-hop heresy by saying so, but I think Talib Kweli probably bests Kanye West by just a little bit. 2011 has started off a little slow and quiet for my liking (I’m hoping the new Drive-By Truckers album will be the first good rock record of the year because, sadly, the new Social Distortion album isn’t) and Kweli is the first artist I’ve heard this year to really pump up the volume with a sense of humor and an awareness of what’s going on around him.




The Black Keys Will Be Your Everlasting Light

For the most part, Black Keys albums tend to exist at a consistent level of quality akin to that of your favorite pair of jeans. Their albums are comfortable, they have holes in some spots, and they’re unsurprising in a usually positive way. 2008’s Attack and Release, produced by Danger Mouse, was a bit of a game-changer for Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney because it added much needed texture to their stubborn guitar-and-drums aesthetic. And, if Attack and Release was the best Black Keys album since Rubber Factory (and it was), then it might have to take a back seat to Brothers, which is the catchiest, most compelling Black Keys album yet. Although Rubber Factory will always be my favorite of their albums, there’s no denying all the good stuff going for the Black Keys on Brothers. They’ve maintained their willingness to play in the studio (although one must hope they stop touring as a two-piece. It’s really okay to be a full band, guys. No one will love you less for being able to do on stage what you did in the studio, and you’d really only need two more guys to do it) and they’ve added an R&B/boogie sensibility that fits nicely with their profound understanding of the blues (I think it comes from being arguably the two coolest motherfuckers in Ohio. That would give me the blues).

After a solo album that was just like a Black Keys record with worse drumming (okay, Keep It Hid was pretty good, I know. But there wasn’t much about it that sounded different from the Black Keys), Dan Auerbach has brought some more inspired work to Brothers, leading the album off with a Curtis Mayfield-ish falsetto on “Everlasting Light” (if I compare you favorably to Mr. Mayfield, you’re doing something right) – a song I can’t stop listening to –  and using his guitar more sparingly over the whole album. There is no doubt at all that Auerbach is one of the most underrated guitarists in the country right now (if you’ve caught them live or seen their live DVD, you’ve noticed that Auerbach’s playing is positively Hendrixian when he gets going), but pretty much every Black Keys album features his chunky riffage and face-melting solos. On Brothers, keyboards take the lead at times, and Auerbach’s guitar is able to add some nice texture without having the pressure of being the only melodic instrument in the band, which also gives Auerbach’s guitar a lot more punch when he whips it into the foreground, as he does on “Unknown Brother” and a couple other tunes. So, just like with Attack & Release, there’s all the stuff you loved about early Black Keys albums and some new ideas that are compelling enough to warrant repeated listens.

But apart from all the musical minutia, Brothers is a lot of fun. You get the sense that Auerbach and Carney really know what they want to do as a band (remember how listless they sounded on Magic Potion? Of course you don’t! Because no one listens to that album anymore) and they’re able to proceed with confidence. You can’t attribute all of that to their collaboration with Danger Mouse, but Brothers proceeds so logically from Attack & Release that it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t some kind of epiphany moment for the Carney and Auerbach while working with my favorite (and probably America’s finest, this side of Madlib) producer. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Black Keys have ventured (possibly forever) beyond the garage-blues trappings of their early years (and let’s not undervalue those early albums. Thickfreakness isn’t just a good guitar album, it’s a reason to play guitar as loud as you possibly can) and are currently occupying a territory where their ability to synthesize their influences (which are clearly old blues and soul records – perhaps even my esteemed Curtis Mayfield) is bordering on the uncanny.

Not that they’ve gone brazenly electronic here or anything – like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Black Keys will always have a deliciously old school sound for which they should be praised. Brothers isn’t so much a calculated attempt to lure a wider audience as it is a thoroughly considered and well-executed album by a band that is really coming into its own, perhaps a little later than some people thought they would. With Attack & Release, I still had worries of a relapse into the malaise of Magic Potion. But now, with Brothers, the Black Keys are heading straight into the lights of Awesometown with a legitimate shot at running the place.

Holy shit. Stop the presses. I just had the best idea ever: an album-length collaboration between Sharon Jones & the Black Keys, produced by Danger Mouse. That album would probably result in instant world peace (assuming EMI didn’t find a way to kill it, regardless of what label releases it). I know I mentioned that earlier this week, but I think I should just keep talking about it until it happens.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Brothers. If previous Black Keys albums (except for Magic Potion, which we can all safely forget at this point) are broken in, comfortable, predictable pairs of jeans, Brothers is a brand new pair that is a lot more comfy the first time you wear them than maybe you thought was possible. It has a real sense of play to it that indicates good things in the future from Ohio’s least likely rock heroes. Especially if they do that album with Sharon Jones.

The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

Sharon Jones, Leadbelly, and Why Most Soul Music Sucks Now

Let’s be clear at the outset here: I do not think Sharon Jones is any part of the reason why most Soul sucks now. To the contrary, if today’s shitty teenage Soulsters took a page from Jones’s playbook, I’d be as happy with Soul music as I would be if Otis Redding was still alive. (For the record, that’s pretty fucking happy)

The fact that I know going in what every Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings record is going to sound like has, so far, never diminished my enjoyment of those records. The obvious reason is probably that Sharon Jones has the best set of Old School Soul Pipes this side of Bettye LaVette (if you don’t know who Bettye LaVette is, stop reading this right now. Get up from your desk. Exit your cubicle. Head for your nearest music store. Realize, after a moment, that those don’t really exist any more. Get back to your cubicle. Sit down. Open a new tab in your browser – you can keep this tab open, but you can’t continue reading yet – and download, legally or less-than-legally, Bettye LaVette’s music. You are now a better person and therefore good enough to continue reading this little spiel about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and the second most obvious reason is that the Dap-Kings, though I have no idea what a Dap-King is, play some straight up funky soul music to underscore Jones’s crooning, strutting, and squawking.

Another reason I always love Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is that they sound the way R&B and Soul sounded when it was good. I’m sorry if you think the shit that passes for Soul now is even remotely soulful. Perhaps you should go back and listen to Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and then maybe you’ll recognize that R. Kelly, Mariah Carey, Joss Stone, and everyone of their ilk should be jailed for crimes against truth and beauty (thank you for that phrase, Mystery Science Theater 3000′s Kevin Murphy. I give credit where it’s due and Mr. Murphy wrote the plain truth in A Year at the Movies when he asserted, “Kevin Costner is a cultural criminal and ought to be locked up for crimes against truth and beauty”). I’m not one of those old, half-dead assholes who thinks that all old music is great and all new music is bad (it wouldn’t make much sense to have a music blog on the internets if I was so in love with the past) – plenty of old stuff that old people revere is patently awful. Like Kiss. Fuck Kiss. And fuck Elvis Presley while we’re at it. If he’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it only proves that monarchies are bullshit (Leadbelly was the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and I’m not saying that out of some unfounded belief that Elvis was a racist [I have no idea if he was or not]. I’m saying it because there are literal tons of rock songs that simply would not exist were it not for Leadbelly’s blues. I’d argue that the musicians who influenced Elvis owed a tremendous debt to Mr. Ledbetter as well. If you’ve never listened to Leadbelly, get some of his stuff from the internet when you’re done getting Bettye LaVette’s stuff). Where was I? Oh yeah – I don’t think that the only good music was made years before I was born, but in the case of Soul/R&B music, something is often missing: soul.

Sharon Jones sweats soul and then pours that Soul-Sweat into every single note she sings, which is not nearly as disgusting as it sounds. Take her new album, I Learned the Hard Way. Whether she’s admonishing her dude (“I Learned the Hard Way” and, well, most of the tracks), defending him to her moms (“Mama Don’t Like My Man”), or praising a god I don’t believe in (“Call On God” – it’s available on the “bonus version” of I Learned the Hard Way that you can get from E-Music. This version is worth getting because “Call On God” is really fucking gorgeous), Jones’s voice is strong, clear, and – thank goodness – never auto-tuned. Too much of the so-called Soul music I hear today is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay overproduced, from the instruments to the vocals to the trite label-supplied lyrics. Even Alicia Keys, whose music I like (I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that), would benefit tremendously from taking all the fucking computers and bullshit out of the studio and recording something with a real piano and her voice and nothing else. I don’t know if the modern Soul nitwits think all that hyper-produced nonsense and uber-vibrato singing sounds modern or what, but it ends up all sounding the same (i.e., like shit).

Some folks might be tempted to argue that Sharon Jones is simply repackaging the past in a gimmicky, perhaps even cynical attempt to sell us our own record collections all over again. To these folks, I offer this simple, elegant counterargument: shut the fuck up. Okay, seriously though: we already know that all Western music is somehow derivative of the music that came before it. The Beatles took from the blues and those guys took from slaves in the fields who blah blah blah and so on until you get back to Fuckrock the Elder, whose wailing entertainments knocked ’em dead at the Neanderthal sock-hops even though discerning cave people recognized his stuff as highly derivative of Glugnuts the Hideous’s early experiments in atonal rape-grunting. So, at the end of the day, you have to listen to the music itself and decide (for yourself only) if it’s the real thing or not. This can be hard with old-school music like Sharon Jones performs. But here’s a tip: if the music waters down the style of which it is derivative, it’s probably crap. Take, as an example, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Setzer has apparently made it his life’s mission to water down old, soulful swing music so that your parents can reminisce about music they never danced to at parties they never attended*. One of the unintentional results of this is that Louis Prima’s surviving family members are legally allowed to kill Brian Setzer (the government has been trying to keep this a secret for years because there’s nothing bureaucrats love more than a banal, watered down distillation of something that was once vibrant and beautiful). If you stack Sharon Jones and her Dap-Kings up against, say, Otis Redding, I think you’ll find the two fit fairly well together.

But you can find all this out for yourself by listening to I Learned the Hard Way, which you should do once you get through your Bettye LaVette and Leadbelly homework. Your work is cut out for you. Get to it!

*How do I know your parents aren’t cool? I just know. Accept it. It’s not your fault.

I Can’t Review the New Hold Steady Album

Why, you’re wondering, can’t I review Heaven is Whenever, the new album by the Hold Steady? After all, they are my favorite band. It would seem to be a natural fit: they put out an album and I tell you all about how wonderful it is.

But that’s exactly the problem. I’m not going to pretend that Bollocks! is ever (or has ever been) even remotely objective, but at this point me reviewing a Hold Steady album is like an alcoholic reviewing beer. Except the Hold Steady won’t fuck up my liver.

So there’s no point in me telling you that Heaven is Whenever, despite the departure of Franz Nicolay, is probably the best Hold Steady album yet (someone on the interwub claimed that Separation Sunday was the Hold Steady’s “peak” but that’s probably the drugs talking. The best Hold Steady album seems to always be the latest one, which is really an achievement. Almost Killed Me is a great record, and they’ve only gotten better since then. I keep waiting for the Hold Steady record that’s going to disappoint me and they keep not making it). Of course I think that. At this point, it’s in my blood to think that.

If you’ve read Bollocks! much at all over the last two years, you probably expect me to say that Craig Finn’s lyrics are sharper than ever (standout lines include, “You can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth”; “Heaven is whenever/ we can get together/ lock the door to your room/ and listen to your records”; and the simple, probably true, “In the end/ I bet no one learns a lesson”) and that Tad Kubler is still the most underrated guitar player in the world (opener “Sweet Part of the City” even features slide guitar and it sounds sweeter than honey dripping from the vulvas of angels*) .

So maybe you should find another reviewer to give you the nitpicky stuff. Someone will try to accuse the Hold Steady of making the same album over and over (which they haven’t) and someone else will say Craig Finn can’t sing (he’s gotten a lot better since Almost Killed Me and Heaven is Whenever is his strongest vocal performance yet). Pitchfork thinks “these new songs just don’t hit as hard,” so you can go there and try to figure out what about Heaven is Whenever warrants a score of 6.2. (Parenthetical rant:  I’ve got serious beef with scoring systems in general. If someone can’t tell how you feel about a record by what you wrote, you did a shitty job of writing. Almost every website rates things with numbers, stars, or grades like “A-“, which is bad. But Pitchfork’s numbered rating system is by far the most pretentious, goofiest bullshit ever. What the fuck are they judging, figure skating? Did the Hold Steady not land their Salchows and Lutzes to your liking? I suggest a new motto for you, Pitchfork: “No One Skates a Clean Program. Except Radiohead”) Perhaps Pitchfork didn’t notice the additional (and quite welcome) harmony vocals on nearly every track or the fact that Heaven is Whenever is heavy on chord-based riffs but not as heavy on Kubler’s guitar pyrotechnics (though those do make some appearances as well) .

You know who you should read? Probably that Robert Christgau guy. He’s a real intellectual about this shit and he’ll probably give you some good copy on Heaven is Whenever. He’ll probably tell you all about what’s wrong with it, from start to finish. But I won’t. Because I love it. Would I sit here and tell you all the bad stuff (which is far outweighed by the skull-crackingly awesome stuff) about my fiancee? No. Because I love her and I’m going to marry her and if things don’t work out, I just might marry Heaven is Whenever.

On the bright side, Heaven is Whenever has done some brilliant housekeeping for me here at the imaginary Bollocks! office. I no longer feel compelled to compile a list of my favorite albums of 2010 this December. Heaven is Whenever is my favorite album of the year – I listened to it six times the day it started streaming on NPR’s website and at least twice a day since then. That was before the fucking album even came out! Now that it’s out, there’s not gonna be a lot of time for me to listen to other albums in my car. I might as well roll out a little red carpet that leads to my CD player and forget that my other albums even exist.

So does this make me a Hold Steady fanboy? Possibly. Hell, probably. But I’m not gonna run to your blog and tell you to kill yourself if you don’t like Heaven is Whenever (this happened to me once when I had the temerity to not like an album. I won’t say which album, but the band’s name rhymes with Shmortugal. The Pan). Whether or not you like this album is immaterial to the fact that to my refined, devilishly handsome ears, this album kicks several buckets of ass.

So what is it, you might be inclined to ask, that makes me like the Hold Steady so damn much? Glad you asked. They consistently scratch an itch that I have for fun (listen to “Rock Problems” and “Our Whole Lives” and tell me those aren’t fun songs), literate rock ‘n’ roll music. Craig Finn’s musings on death and religion are not that far from my own – I believe, as he has mentioned before, that we are our only saviors. In a godless universe, we have two powerful things to help us out: each other and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not Nietzsche, but it’s not the worst ethos in the world either. But more than that, the Hold Steady has taken the music I grew up hating (I call it Alcoholic Stepdad Music, which should let you know everything you need to about where I’m coming from), music I thought was for dead-end buffoons in dead-end towns, and they’ve spit it back to me as something uplifting, positive, and goddamn entertaining. “Beautiful” is not a word that a lot of people would use to describe the Hold Steady’s music, but it’s beautiful to me.

So no pretense here. In an era of completely bullshit objectivity, I came here to praise Heaven is Whenever. There is nothing I don’t like about this album and if that ruins whatever credibility you were lending me, I can live with that (what the hell were you doing lending credibility to a blog anyway?). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only listened to Heaven is Whenever once today and that’s not nearly enough.

*If you’re unsure as to exactly how sweet that is, why not ask your reverend when you’re at church next Sunday?

How to Be a Guitar Hero (featuring Ted Leo and the Pharmacists)

If I were to teach a class on How to Be a Guitar Hero, there would be a substantial unit on Ted Leo (in among units on Jimi Hendrix, Tad Kubler, Django Reinhardt, Elmore James, Peter Buck, and a weekend seminar called Fuck Joe Satriani*). Leo is a guy who can rip into a blazing, badass guitar solo on a moment’s notice but, tellingly, he doesn’t always need to. He’s also a blissfully funky rhythm guitarist and his tone is perfectly suited to his punkish rock – really, I would call his music punk-pop if it didn’t conjure up images of Blink-182, Sum-41 and other truly shitty bands with numbers in their names. (Try to name a good band with a number in their name. The closest I can come is the 101ers, the pub rock band Joe Strummer was in before he joined the Clash. And they were kinda mediocre. On the other hand, you can have an X in your name and be pretty good – see X and the XX for proof.)

Over his last few albums, Leo has managed to craft really catchy pop melodies with a musical and lyrical edge that gives him a lot more punk cred in any one song than Green Day can get in one redundant, trite “concept” album. If you play Green Day’s “Holiday” next to Ted Leo’s “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb” and still prefer the former as your “Fuck Baby Bush” anthem, I suggest you might need to recalibrate your inner sense of what is and what is clearly not awesome. Or maybe you’re thirteen and there’s still hope you’ll grow out of your current silliness.

Ted Leo’s 2007 effort, Living with the Living was a lovely endeavor (one of my favorite records of that year), if a bit lengthy. This year, Leo and the Pharmacists (Marty Key on bass, James Canty on guitar, and a very beardy Chris Wilson on drums)  are back with The Brutalist Bricks, an album that wanders a little less than its predecessor and packs a mighty, tightly focused wallop. As the name and sparse album art suggest, The Brutalist Bricks is a buzzing, bashing, brief but intense mixture of bouncing pop (“Bottled in Cork”) and driving punk (“Where Was My Brain?” and “The Stick”, among others). Ted Leo’s guitar is nothing short of searing on most of these tracks, even when he’s just strumming chords. When he turns loose a solo, he’s like a samurai – a flash of blade here, there, and over there, and then your limbs fall off. That analogy didn’t work quite how I thought, and yet I maintain that it is not entirely inappropriate.

I’m happy to report, having caught Leo and the Pharmacists at the Troubadour on Saturday night, that these songs are even better live. Interspersed with some great cuts from Shake the Sheets and Living with the Living, Leo showcased eight of the thirteen tracks that make up The Brutalist Bricks and gave the overly-requesty (at one point, Leo shouted, “Shut the fuck up, we’ll play what we want!” He then paused for a minute, smiled, and said, “You know, I say that with all the love in the world.” He informed the crowd that he was so combative because he was in a good mood, and I took him at his word. He’s a guy who seems to really relish his work) audience a blazing, incredibly energetic show that also featured a chills-inducing solo rendering of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” to start the encore.

As a guitar player, Ted Leo makes it look pretty easy and – more importantly – he makes it sound awesome. Again, this is not just confined to his solos, but even his rhythm playing. If you look at something like “One Polaroid a Day,” the rhythm part is beautiful, and it suits the song. Part of being a true guitar hero, in my mind (the only mind that matters here at Bollocks!, for better or worse), is being able to serve the songs. And seeing Leo perform on Saturday night made me want to come home, plug in my electric guitar, and write really kickass songs. Of course, it was after midnight when I got home and, out of deference to my neighbors, I opted not to get started on that project just yet. But Ted Leo is a guy who knows how to rip shit up within the confines of a good song – that is, the songs are never about his uncanny abilities as a player. Contrast that with, say, Joe Satriani. Satriani’s albums are only about his uncanny ability to play a shitload of notes. There’s not an ounce of meaning in that stuff. Leo does more in the extremely brief “The Stick” by simply crunching out chords (the song also illustrates the debt Mr. Leo owes to Black Flag. In some ways, actually, I’d like to think we all owe a debt to Black Flag).

Of course, Leo is lyrically sharp on The Brutalist Bricks – I would expect nothing less. Never one to back away from a controversial statement, Leo opens “Woke Up Near Chelsea” by shouting, “Well we’ve all got a job to do/ and we all hate God.”  However, the best lyrical effort on the album has to be “Mourning in America” for its ability to both recall (and castigate) Ronald Reagan and (I’m speculating here, because the song is not dedicated to any one person, though it is apparently about a “white face in a white crowd”) call out folks like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, with lines like, “Whoever told you that we needed you to be this?” My other favorite lines on The Brutalist Bricks come from “The Stick”: “You think the government, it wants you on your knees/ but I’ll tell you something and here it is/ they want you driving to the supermarket, buying milk and cheese/And generating taxes to fuel their corn subsidies.” There should be a listening booth set up to play that song at every Tea Party protest ever. Along with placards that explain to them how Medicare is also socialism.

I was thinking on Saturday night (and early Sunday morning) that, although I never got to see the Clash or any other great punk bands live, the spirit and energy of that kind of music was very much a part of Ted Leo’s show at the Troubadour, a show that stands right near the first time I saw the Hold Steady among my favorite concerts ever. And that spirit drives The Brutalist Bricks, which is why I can’t stop listening to it.

*Before the shred kids come here with threats of my homicide and requests of my suicide, I will confess that I used to listen to Joe Satriani all the time (when I was a kid, I listened to awful music). When I was first learning the guitar, I wanted to be Joe Satriani. But the more I got into writing actual songs, the more soulless his music seemed to me. Joe Satriani’s albums do not consist of songs, they consist of exercises. The Ramones did more with an E chord than Satriani has done in his entire career. So fuck him.

Pretty Fly for a Dead Guy

Whenever a dead guy releases a “new” album, I think people have a moral duty to heap upon it every ounce of skepticism they can muster. Honestly, for me, posthumous releases are met with immediate scorn and derision and they have to work their way past that before I can enjoy them. Why? Because, even if a posthumous release contains “Never before heard” material, you may not be hearing the songs exactly how the artist wanted to present them. Maybe their surviving family and friends have a fair idea what the artist was going for, but you can’t be 100% sure. Now, only getting 85ish percent of an artist’s vision isn’t going to keep me from checking out a posthumous release, but it’s a strike against them. The biggest concern I have with the postmortem album is  that, by purchasing an album after the artist is dead, I am basically tossing money into the yacht fund for unscrupulous family members, former bandmates, or both.

On the other hand, who doesn’t want more music from their favorite dead artist? I mean, I’ll be honest with you, if you release tapes of Joe Strummer singing folk songs in his living room, I’ll snap them up like they cure impotence. Which they probably will.

Which brings us, more or less, to the “new” Jimi Hendrix album, Valleys of Neptune, which has been meticulously packaged by his little sister Janie, with help from John McDermott (who wrote extensive liner notes) and Eddie Kramer. To her credit, Janie Hendrix has done an admirable job over the years removing hackneyed posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums from the marketplace. On the day Valleys of Neptune dropped, her Experience Hendrix company reissued the four studio albums Hendrix authorized during his brief life. So Valleys comes from a reasonably solid place of credibility and, while it contains songs you’ve heard before, they are versions that have never been released and are, mostly, taken from sessions that Hendrix was using to retool and improve some of his older songs (although the version of “Red House” that appears on Valleys of Neptune is, to my ears, vastly inferior to the version that appears on Are You Experienced?).

In fact, Valleys of Neptune does a really excellent job of shining light on Jimi Hendrix as a creative studio musician. Towards the end of his life, Hendrix booked studio time in many of the cities in which he was playing and used that time both to develop new songs and tweak old ones more to his liking. This, of course, means there may be reels and reels of stuff yet to come from Experience Hendrix and that, of course, may have diminishing returns.

But the key question with any album by any artist, living or dead, is “Is it a compelling listen?” Well, if you never liked Jimi Hendrix before, Valleys of Neptune won’t win you over. And if you did like Jimi Hendrix before, like I did, Valleys of Neptune will prove a fairly enjoyable listen (although I get antsy by the time “Red House” rolls around) and, if nothing else, it will make you want to hit John Mayer in the face with a shovel (as if any thinking person needs another reason to want to hit John Mayer in the face with a shovel). Why? Because Valleys of Neptune will remind you just how amazing a guitar player Jimi Hendrix was – it even casts a shadow on my enjoyment of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music (only a little) because it illustrates the large debt Vaughan owed to Hendrix. And if you connect the dots, you see that Mayer is a watered down imitator of Stevie Ray, who was something of a Hendrix impersonator (though a fairly superb one. And, before SRV fans send the hate mail, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the debt that both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan owe to slide guitarist Elmore James). This is not to cast derision on Stevie Ray Vaughan, but to cast it on John Mayer. In light of Jimi Hendrix’s recorded output, one should see Mayer on the level of a bad Elvis impersonator – he is to music what Kirsten Dunst is to acting (and if you think Kirsten Dunst is a great actress, I want whatever drugs you’re taking).

Among the Hendrix songs I’ve never heard before, my two favorites on Valleys of Neptune are the title track and the scorching “Hear My Train A-Comin'”, which is a stunning, visceral blues number on a par with the version of “Red House” that doesn’t appear on this album.

I have, really, only two complaints about Valleys of Neptune, neither one of which could be addressed by Janie Hendrix, unless she has a time machine that I don’t know about. The first is, as I believe I’ve mentioned, the inferior version of “Red House” and the second is that Hendrix recorded Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” as an instrumental track. It is evident that Jimi Hendrix was probably the best guitar player ever (your Satrianis and Vais and whatnot are not even in the same league, shredders. Henrdrix had soul. “Here My Train A-Comin'” blows every Joe Satriani track ever straight out of the water. Period.), but I have long lobbied to have him remembered as a really great singer. Listen to “Little Wing,” which is – again, obviously – a stellar guitar track, but his vocal performance on that song is really beautiful. No one is going to say that Hendrix doesn’t hit “Sunshine of Your Love” out of the park musically, but I would have loved to hear a recording of him singing the song as well.

In the end, you may be helping Janie Hendrix send her kids to college by purchasing Valleys of Neptune, but it remains a posthumous release that actually manages a lot of dignity and lacks any whiff of cynical exploitation. The woman seems genuinely concerned about preserving her brother’s legacy as a musician, and I’m saying that as a guy who derided the existence of this album from the first moment I heard about it.