Let England Shake

I have never ever been a PJ Harvey fan. I saw her in concert back in 1995, opening for Live (shortly after Throwing Copper came out, before Ed Kowalczyk crawled really far up his own ass and started making minor-league Christian rock – oh and also trying to fuck his bandmates out of publishing money and, in a move of almost Palinesque delusion, demanding a six figure “lead singer bonus” to perform at some festival) and the only think I remember about her set is that it annoyed the living shit out of me. So I don’t really know, apart from boredom, what motivated me to queue up her new album, Let England Shake, on NPR’s (enjoy it while it lasts, kids) First Listen site. I know it was late at night and I was taking an apprehensive look around the internet to see what new music might be lurking there. Since e-Music bought their one-way ticket to Sucksville, I’ve relied heavily on free streaming sites to give me access to dozens of albums a month. So far, I gotta say I’m fairly pleased with the results.

Let England Shake is a pretty awesome record, which surprises me, given my previous experience with PJ Harvey’s music. I enjoyed it so much on First Listen that I went out and bought the thing yesterday (are you getting this, EMI? You could’ve released Dark Night of the Soul a year earlier, you know, if you understood how to support and distribute quality music. But no, you had to get all pants-shitty over First Listen getting people excited to purchase your wares, you fucking morons) and I’ve been listening to it nearly nonstop ever since. It’s got this deceptively simple, almost Velvet Underground thing going on some songs, complete with jangly electric guitar and Guitar 101 chord progressions. Throughout the album, the instrumentation is pretty sparse, allowing more room for Harvey’s lamentations.

And make no mistake, Let England Shake has lamentations to spare. It’s an anti-war album that does the nifty trick of basically conflating World War I (billed at the time of waging as “The War to End All Wars”) with every war that came after it, especially the two that England is currently involved in, thanks in large part to Tony Blair’s willingness to go anywhere (including, obviously, the gay bar) and do anything for his good buddy George W. Bush. I guess alliances mean never having to tell your friends that they’re war-mongering dickheads. PJ Harvey is, understandably, still pissed off about the Iraq and Afghanistan things on account of because they’re still going on. It must really give her the red ass (it sure gives me the red ass) that the “liberation” of Iraq is apparently still incomplete when the people of Egypt managed to set themselves free after 18 days in a public square. And – gasp! – the Egyptians did it without help from a major Western power.

Partly because of Harvey’s banshee howl (in a good way, not in a Robert Plant way) and partly because of the austere instrumentation, Let England Shake comes at you kinda like a message found in the wasteland of a long-dead civilization. The aliens or Vault dwellers (I assume that, if you read Bollocks!, you have played Fallout or you know someone who routinely plays Fallout) might find this album, listen to it, and say, “So that’s how they undid themselves.” Or they might just quote “Battleship Hill” – “Cruel nature has won again.” And those wasteland-wanderers will sense the tragedy of our destruction in the often gorgeous rock music that underscores the bitterness of PJ Harvey’s lyrics.

Harvey wisely eschews the trite (but certainly true) tactic of simply declaring that war is hell and asking us all to please just knock it the fuck off. She opts instead for the sort of visceral reportage that drives the point straight to your bones; “The Words that Maketh Murder” tells of “soldiers fell like lumps of meat”  with their limbs strewn about the trees, “All and Everyone” describes “A bank of red earth, dripping down death”, and “Written On the Forehead” has refugees swimming through a “10,000 tonnes of sewage” to escape the carnage. “The Words that Maketh Murder” also brilliantly uses a line from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” as an outro: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” The melody of the line is gorgeous and Harvey’s wry delivery answers the question exactly the way you’d expect.

Scanning the liner notes, I’ve discovered that Harvey sampled and borrowed from a lot of sources for Let England Shake and no single song on the album has sent me running for the original quicker than “Written On the Forehead,” which features a sample from “Blood and Fire” by Niney the Observer. I’m not a huge dub/reggae guy, but I’m on a mission to acquire some Niney forthwith. That chorus kills. It’s fitting that Harvey pulled samples (and “inspiration”, as the liner notes say; some of the tracks were inspired by “the writings of L.A. Carlyon” and a couple were apparently inspired by a book of Russian folk lyrics) from a wide variety of sources, given her subject matter. It’s easy to take down the big powers for their warlike behavior (and certainly necessary from time to time), but Let England Shake gives the sense that stopping England and America from making war isn’t going to be enough. War happens among the impoverished nations of Africa, and throughout the entire world. The sane solution isn’t to stop it in a few places, it’s to stop it everywhere. Of course, that’s pie-in-the-sky idealism on my part and PJ Harvey does not seem to indulge in it.  The last thing she’s suggesting in these songs is that peace is possible. Indeed, Let England Shake seems to weep tears of sadness for the heavy cost of war and tears of rage for the fact that peace is so unlikely to be seriously attempted. But if it’s human nature to make war (and, sadly, it certainly seems to be), making beauty out of that grisly subject is also in our nature and in that sense, there’s a sliver of hope to be found in Let England Shake.

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.