The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/  hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t, so he died/ she said, ‘You’re pretty good with words/ but words won’t save your life’/ and they didn’t, so he died.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.

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Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

Believe This Hype Too: The 8 Most Underrated Guitarists I Can Think of Right Now

Even if you hate the guitar, you probably know some guitar player names: Hendrix, Slash, Eric Clapton, that asshole from Metallica (no, the other asshole from Metallica. No the other one). But there are some guitarists you might not know and I think you need to know them if you enjoy music. And fun.

1. Tad Kubler hid his guitar playing talents from the world by playing bass for Lifter Puller. When it came time to start the Hold Steady with fellow LP alumnus Craig Finn, Kubler upgraded to six strings and almost instantly (see “Most People Are DJs” from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me for proof) became the best rock guitarist in America (more proof: “You Gotta Dance [With Who You Came With]”) . Clearly a graduate of the Melodic Riffage School founded by Angus Young and Slash, Kubler spends the bulk of any given Hold Steady record kicking ass and taking names. Basically, if I could have just one guitar lesson from one living guitar player, it would be Tad Kubler. Hands down.

2. Ani DiFranco. You probably don’t think of the guitar when you hear Ani DiFranco’s name. You might think “angry feminist folkie,” and that’s your prerogative. However, DiFranco has one of the most unique approaches to the guitar I’ve ever seen, her rhythms all choppy and funky, almost as angry as some of her songs (which aren’t all angry. Listening to Ani DiFranco won’t make your penis fall off, guys). She sounds simultaneously self-taught and accomplished, which is harder to pull off than you might think. When I saw her live, it struck me that she was someone who picked up a guitar and had no preconception of how it was supposed to work – so she made her own way with it and is really one of our finest acoustic players working today.

3. J. Mascis is the Rainman of the electric guitar. Seriously, if you see Dinosaur Jr. live, it looks like he has to be led to the stage and propped up between his two giant stacks of amplifier. But once he starts playing, you will fucking see colors. Mascis’s solos can seem a bit overstuffed at first, but his attack is furious and at his best, he is staggering. Some of his best moments can be heard on Dinosaur Jr’s Beyond, the “comeback” album for the original Dino Jr. lineup. Also check him out playing “Maggot Brain” on Mike Watt’s Ballhog or Tugboat album.

4. Doug Martsch. Built to Spill, like Death Cab for Cutie, is one of those bands that I associated with indie rock long before I ever listened to them. I was almost intimidated by the expectations I had for those two bands (and I wasn’t disappointed until Death Cab released Plans back in 2006; but they’re much better now) but Doug Martsch and Built to Spill put my mind at ease from the first time I heard Keep It Like a Secret. Then, in 2006, I heard You in Reverse and “Conventional Wisdom,” the central riff for which just makes me giddy all over. Martsch is a total package guitar player, busting out melodic solos, excellent rhythm parts, and – as he showed us on his solo outing, Now You Know – he’s no slouch when it comes to acoustic and slide guitar. Martsch has something for everyone, really, and now that you know that, go find some of his stuff.

5. Peter Buck. You don’t get to be a guitar god by having a tight grasp of nuance. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck is one of my very favorite guitarists because he doesn’t put on any airs about it. He’s the epitome of no-frills, but he can still play a lovely solo when the song demands it (the solo for “Flowers of Guatemala” is a perfect example). The lesson Buck teaches, with the patience of a Zen master, is that a good guitarist should be more interested in making great songs with his band than in showboating and noodling like a prick. This lesson is lost on far too many guitarists (and lead vocalists too).

6. Marc Ribot is not a household name. If it helps, he played on a lot of Tom Waits records. He combines the sort of buzzing electricity of the Ramones with the choppy funk of, say, Danny Elfman. Ribot is well versed in basically every style of music you want and his work spans pretty much every section of the record store. In 2005, he released an album of improvised sort-of covers of Albert Ayler (the famed free jazz saxophonist) songs. Let’s see Yngwie Malmsteen tackle that shit.

7. Nels Cline. If you’ve seen Wilco live since A Ghost is Born came out, then you’ve heard Nels Cline take Wilco’s songs and wrap them in a lovely ribbon of his furious riffage. Clearly a disciple of the Tom Verlaine school of guitar playing, Cline is one of the noodliest guitarists that I still enjoy. Why? Because when Cline plays, I imagine the proton beams from Ghostbusters firing out of his pickups. Watching the man play is like peering through your fingers at the Ark of the Covenant – expect some face meltage.

8. Ted Leo. Ted Leo plays the guitar like a motherfucker, but like Peter Buck, he doesn’t have to play a solo one thousand miles per hour to prove his chops. I read an article the other day that chided Ted Leo & the Pharmacists for considering themselves punk, but that article was bullshit. Punk isn’t a genre (not anymore), it’s a spirit, and Ted Leo certainly has it. The Brutalist Bricks is a compelling argument, but it’s only a fraction of the case Leo can make as a guitarist. See his band live and you’ll understand what it means for a guitar player to literally rip into a solo. Leo rips into them and tears them apart from the inside and then, as you’re coming down from that, he might just wow you by strumming out a cover of “Fisherman’s Blues” or something.

So there you have it. Some guitarists that people love too much, some that people love exactly enough, and now some that need more love. So go give it to ’em. We’ll return to regularly scheduled bitching about albums later this week, probably starting with Avi Buffalo.

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.

Ask A Musical Pathologist: Steel Panther and Genre Exceptionalism

steel-panther

Earlier this year, I brought Dr. Rebecca Mellor (no relation) on as part of the Bollocks! team to answer your questions regarding music and your mental health. Dr. Mellor is a well-established and respected musical pathologist and she’s helped me a lot over the last year and a half or so. Recently, we received the comment and accompanying video you can see here (update: I guess Universal Music Group posted the video to You Tube and doesn’t want it embedded here; if you click the video anyway, it’ll take you to You Tube and you can watch it in all its “butt metal” glory) about the band Steel Panther.Will asks us, “How much long term damage to my brain am I doing by listening to Steel Panther?” Well, Will, I ran your question and the video by Dr. Mellor, and she wrote the following response:

“Hello Will. Let me congratulate you on being the first submitter to the Bollocks! ‘Ask a Musical Pathologist’ page. Though I’m very busy with my normal work, I’m always happy to stop by and help my friend Chorpenning with his musical issues (or those of his 10 to 14 – on average – readers). It’s much easier to do this on a volunteer basis than it is to have him call or – much worse –barge into my house at three in the morning.

“In trying to determine how much long-term damage you’re doing to your brain by listening to Steel Panther, we must first determine both your reasons for listening to them and, in the case of the video for ‘Death to All but Metal’, the extent to which you agree with the sentiments expressed in the song.

“There is a certain amount of ironic enjoyment to be had from listening to bands like Steel Panther because, much like the fictional band Spinal Tap, they remind us how flagrantly silly and musically unbearable the 1980s were. Now, there are many high-functioning American adults who listen to the broad genre known as ‘Metal’ music, but Steel Panther quite clearly traffic in what some pejoratively refer to as ‘Hair Metal’ or ‘cock rock’ (my friend Mr. Chorpenning calls it ‘alcoholic stepdad music’ which tells you more about Chorpenning’s sordid past than it does about the music itself). This style is not the same as, say, the darker, more aggressive musical stylings of Mastodon or Disfear or even early Black Sabbath. ‘Hair Metal’ is more melodic (‘radio-friendly’ is a term that comes to mind, though it’s less applicable today than it was in the ‘Hair Metal’ heyday of the Reagan era) and the subject matter tends to be about one of two things: women (particularly their breasts) and/or how awesome metal is. All this is to suggest, Will, that rational human beings would not form strong attachments to the music of a Steel Panther when vastly superior forms of that kind of metal exist (Chorpenning will even grudgingly allow that the first Guns ‘n’ Roses record, Appetite for Destruction, is not only an iconic ‘Hair Metal’ album, but it actually contains some pretty good songs). Let me give you an analogy that might clear things up: some people believe that playing violent video games causes kids to become violent. People blame games like Grand Theft Auto for school shootings, often in a misguided attempt to blame somebody for a situation that is hard to comprehend on its own. In reality, video games can only inspire violent behavior in people who are already of unsound mind and have trouble distinguishing the real world from the video game world that allows them free reign to destabilize society to their heart’s content. Many of the most peaceful, nonviolent people I know play exceedingly violent video games and have no trouble functioning in society. So listening to Steel Panther, for someone who cannot recognize how clearly absurd their music is (that is,  someone of unsound mind – and, as perhaps the only articulate Guns ‘n’ Roses fan to respond to Chorpenning’s review of Chinese Democracy, Will, it is my professional opinion that you can count yourself of very sound mind indeed), could lead to long-term brain damage. But the upshot is, if you’re not brain-damaged to begin with, you can listen to Steel Panther as much as you’d like. After viewing their video for ‘Community Property,’ I was quickly able to ascertain that Steel Panther is not a band that takes itself too seriously. Therefore, we’d be doing them a disservice if we took them too seriously ourselves.

“I do have some concern, however, regarding the sentiments expressed in the video for ‘Death to All But Metal’. Any musical pathologist worth their salt must keep their mind open to the positive possibilities in any musical genre. There is even hope (though little evidence, in my opinion. And not to brag, but I am one of the most highly regarded musical pathologists in the United States, if not in the entire world) in the musical pathologist community that, one day, a ‘good’ emo song will appear and become the exception that proves the rule of that otherwise insipid genre. Steel Panther’s assertion (I’m paraphrasing here, so bear with me) that every non-metal genre is worthless, if treated as some sort of moral imperative, could cause severe damage to your psyche in the long run. Our minds like variety and truly healthy human beings allow their assumptions to be challenged. It’s easy to hate mainstream hip-hop (we in the musical pathology world have long treated President Obama’s off-the-cuff remark that Kanye West is a jackass as an objective medical fact), but mainstream hip-hop is not representative of all that hip-hop has to offer. As I write this, I have the new Brother Ali album playing on my stereo and it is very satisfying indeed. Again, though, this has to do with the state of the listener’s mind when they hear the song. If you’re a generally open-minded music fan, you can listen to ‘Death to All But Metal’ all day long without treating its main thesis as some kind of gospel. However, an already brain-damaged individual could hear this song and think that metal is the only decent genre of music.

“The belief that there is only one right genre of music and that all other genres are inferior and/or completely worthless is a disorder I call Genre Exceptionalism. It amounts to musical tunnel vision and stems directly from the same sort of utterly failed logic and probable insanity that led Adolf Hitler to articulate his theory of the Aryan ‘Master Race’. In effect, if you truly believe that one and only one genre of music is good and all others are bad, you are behaving like a musical Hitler. And no rational person would want that. Now, there are some interesting clues to me within the song ‘Death to All But Metal’; primarily, I’m fascinated by the musical performers that Steel Panther chose to call out by name. They list the Goo Goo Dolls, Blink-182, Papa Roach, Eminem, and Mariah Carey among the musicians who should die or, as I believe the singer points out, ‘can lick a sack.’ While explicitly decreeing death to all but metal, the band only really names some of the worst offenders in modern music. Your mental health will suffer much more from listening to Mariah Carey than it will from Steel Panther, regardless of the content. And, some in the musical pathology field even blame the rise of ‘pop-punk’ bands like Blink-182 for the death of Joe Strummer (I cannot entirely embrace this rather extreme theory, yet I cannot entirely dismiss it either).

“So at the end of the day, Will, Steel Panther is not the worst thing you can do for your musical mental health. It is far worse to close you mind to the wide variety of music available today than it is to listen to a hair metal band that clearly has fun doing what they’re doing and obviously does not take themselves very seriously.”

That’s the word from Dr. Mellor, Will. I think it’s pretty good advice. If anyone else out there has a question for the good doctor, you can email her at askdoctormellor@gmail.com

Dinosaur Jr. Reminds Me of My Sandals (Not a Shoegaze Joke)

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To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, there are a few things you can count on in this life: 1) (spoiler alert!) You’re gonna die, 2) You’re probably gonna pay some taxes and 3) Despite being a pretty boring live act, Dinosaur Jr. will always crank out albums that are wall-to-wall crunchy guitars, pounding drums, and Lou Barlow doing whatever it is he does (which appears to be mostly hoarding his best stuff for his solo albums). That Ben Franklin was a prescient fellow, no?

My first exposure to Dinosaur Jr. was when I worked at Tower Records in Harvard Square. Their first three albums were reissued and I got in trouble for blasting “Freak Scene” on our in-store stereo system because J. Mascis says, “fuck” in that song. But I dug the sound, because Dino Jr. seemed to have no qualms about that fact that their music was just three guys plugging in and playing really fucking loud. Yeah, there were some words in there, but mostly you were waiting for J. Mascis to bust out into a face-melting guitar solo. His solos were (and still are) perhaps most impressive to me not for their virtuosity (although, seriously,  Joe Satriani and his ilk can go fuck themselves – J. Mascis is so good at the guitar you kinda want to kick him in the nuts) but for the fact that they never bore me, nor do they piss me off. I listen to, I dunno, anything by Joe Satriani or Kenny Wayne Shepherd or any of those wanky guitar guys and I get really angry really fast. Because playing a bunch of notes really quickly doesn’t mean you’re making great music. It means you know scales. Mascis expresses more in one bent note than Joe Satriani has in his entire canon of banal noodles and finger-tapping bullshit. (Incidentally, and I know I’ve said this before, The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler is also far better than all those shred nitwits.)

Dinosaur Jr. “came back” in 2007 with the super-impressive Beyond (it was the first album since their first three that featured the original Dino line-up of Mascis, Low Barlow and awesomely-named drummer Murph) – an album that blew critics’ minds because it didn’t suck, like many reunion albums do. In fact, if I can fess up a dirty little secret here, Beyond is still my favorite Dinosaur Jr. album. Over the last couple of years, Dinosaur Jr. has let their pop sensibilities shine and they’ve crafted some of the best melodies of their career while still maintaining the things that make them great (namely, Mr. Mascis’s guitar playing). Farm, their second album since the reunion, compares quite favorably to Beyond, though it’s not quite as good as that record in my none-too-humble estimation.

Farm, as you might guess by the hippie-art cover, is a bit jammier in places (three songs surpass six minutes) and it suffers a little for it, though, overall, it’s still a great album, especially this time of year, when you can blast it out of open car windows. Mascis brings a little more variation to his guitar attacks (although I’m convinced that a Dinosaur Jr. song doesn’t end until he’s played every single note in every position on the neck), Barlow’s bass work dances around the squalling guitars and his vocal turns are, as usual, superb (Barlow’s tunes always get bagged on by other critics, but I liked “Back to Your Heart” on Beyond and I really like Farm‘s “Your Weather”).  And Murph does what a drummer in a band like this has to do – he beats the shit out of his drums. Just destroys ’em. Well done, Murph.

In a lot of ways, Dinosaur Jr. reminds me of my two-year old pair of  sandals. I bought ’em at an outlet store a couple of years ago and, this being L.A., I’ve worn them nearly every day since. I even did a five mile hike into downtown Berkley in the damn things (ill-advised, that was, but I was on a mission to get Evil Urges, I happened to be in the East Bay, and I knew there was an Amoeba over there somewhere. Fortunately, I got a ride back and managed, somehow, to avoid blisters). These sandals are broken in to the point that I hardly feel like I’m wearing shoes when I’ve got ’em on. They’re comfy. I know that they’re not the prettiest pieces of footwear at this point, but they’re awfully comforting. And that’s how I feel about Dinosaur Jr. They’re not gonna change the world or anything, but that was never their mission. All evidence would indicate they are out to rock as hard as they possibly can, and they do that very well. They’re a guitar band that makes me want to play my guitar really loud, and that’s what a great guitar band should do.

I know a lot of critics have claimed Farm outshines its predecessor, but to me, what makes Beyond the better bet is brevity. Farm bogs down in its longer songs (except, for some reason, “Plans”, which features one of J. Mascis’s catchier vocal melodies) and that detracts from the shorter, better joys of songs like “Pieces” and “Over It.” But if you like Dinosaur Jr., you’ll like Farm (if you’re new to Dino, ease in with Beyond, which is a thunderously rad record) because, like my sandals, barring a catastrophe, Dinosaur Jr. will never change in the best possible way a band can never change.