The Future of the Left, Pitchfork, and Fair Fights

Well, first there was this, which I found a little disappointing and a lot unsurprising. But then there was this, which is everything Andy Falkous says it is in the pre-script (“lame, self-serving, and immature”) but is also spot-fucking-on and hilarious.

What we’re talking about today, if you have not been able to guess, is the best album of 2012 so far (and probably the whole year): The Plot Against Common Sense, by one of my favorite current bands, Future of the Left. There’s not much for me to say about the album itself; I was predisposed to love it and, true to form, I love it. I love it more every time I hear it. I love it on a level somewhat approaching my affection for London Calling and if you’ve read this blog at all over the last four years, you know I do not make that statement lightly (an odd aside: a classmate of mine at the School of Social Work once opined that it was “boring” to say that London Calling is your favorite album. At the time, I didn’t know what to say to that because London Calling is genuinely my favorite album. I kinda get where he was coming from – there are like five or six records that people always say are their favorite and that can get tedious. But if saying London Calling is my favorite album is boring, I’m boring. I never claimed to be otherwise).

So rather than repeating myself by counting the ways in which I love The Plot Against Common Sense or the Future of the Left in general, I thought I’d spend some time discussing Ian Cohen’s Pitchfork review, which I found kind of fascinating. I wholeheartedly disagree with Cohen about this album (and most albums) but, hard as this is to admit, I can muster a little empathy for the guy. Like Cohen, I vomit my opinion about music onto the internet, which can sometimes provoke a barrage of mean-spirited and often misspelled comments. It’s the price of doing business (a business for which Cohen is paid and I am not, a fact which somewhat mitigates my sympathy for that particular devil) and it’s fine, but it can get a little exhausting because it only rarely happens that several people provide you feedback because they also loved a record that you love. And by “only rarely,” I mean “never.”

But Cohen, apart from misunderstanding the meanings of several Future of the Left songs (point of needless pride: I had thought since first hearing it that “Polymers are Forever” was about oceanic pollution and, according to Mr. Falkous, I was generally correct in thinking so. Yay me), made a couple of statements in his review that I would have found funny if they weren’t so irritating. First, there is the assertion that Andy Falkous is engaging in “unfair fights” against various targets. Setting aside the fact that it is totally fair (and necessary) to take aim at Trustafarians (“Sorry Dad, I Was Late for the Riots”), I’m curious as to why Ian Cohen thinks Falkous should pick fair fights.

There is a brilliant instructor at Portland State University who, leading a workshop on anti-oppressive practice (that’s “AOP” to those of us in the all-powerful social work/industrial complex), pointed out that many young students, when they start to learn about ways to combat oppression and injustice, approach these issues with a hammer when they should be using tweezers. I wrote this down at the time because I recognize my own tendency to use a hammer when I should be more subtle, but I took the note like so: “When doing AOP, don’t use a hammer when you should use tweezers. When writing punk songs, by all means, use the fucking hammer!” Now, I’m not entirely sure Andy Falkous and his bandmates view themselves as a punk band, but it is my humble opinion that they embody that spirit better than pretty much every other band going right now (if you suggest to me, dear readers, that Blink-182 is a punk band, I will find you. And I will hurt you).

The point here is that Andy Falkous has no business picking fair fights, much less a duty. Hell, “Common People” isn’t fair and it was, according to the corporate-slick writers at Pitchfork, the second-best song of the 1990s (they were wrong about that, by the way: “Common People,” for my money, is far and away the best song of the 1990s). And, just like Future of the Left, I don’t want Pulp to be “fair.” I want them to use a hammer while I’m out there doing my job with the fucking tweezers! Jarvis Cocker, dog bless him, is still being wonderfully unfair and if he ever stops, I’ll probably stop listening to him. But it’s not like Future of the Left was all that fair prior to The Plot Against Common Sense. How fair is the suggestion that we “reimagine God as just a mental illness” (“The Hope That House Built,” from Travels with Myself and Another)? How fair is “Fuck the Countryside Alliance” from Curses? If you want “fair” songs, listen to John Mayer or Jack Johnson or any of those other hack white guys who can write you a thousand songs about how everything is going to be all right. But don’t bring your concept of fairness to my Future of the Left albums; I like them just the way they are.

The second thing Cohen did to piss me off was start a sentence with the following assertion: “It’s a shame Falkous is playing to the cheap seats on The Plot Against Common Sense.” Fuck you, Ian! Not everyone gets the VIP access at Coachella, you classist dickhole. Some of us can only afford the cheap seats (and, more often, many of us can’t even afford that so we listen to our favorite records at home or with friends, wondering what it would be like to have the same access to music that so-called indie luminaries like the good folks at Pitchfork enjoy) and your implication that music needs to be dumbed down for our (apparently) limited comprehension is equal parts smug and ignorant.

I read Cohen’s review before I heard The Plot Against Common Sense (there’s that ease-of-access thing again. I couldn’t quite snag an advanced copy from up here in my “cheap seat”) and my first thought was, “I will probably adore this album.” And here I am, adoring it.

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.

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.

How Bad is the New Whigs Album, Really?

Relax, Whigs fans. I don’t think In the Dark is as bad as certain other internet people do. I don’t think it’s bad at all. It’s no Mission Control, but that albums is exceptional, especially compared to other Whigs albums. The Whigs stand accused, by Pitchfork and the Onion AV Club (whose reviews are becoming suspiciously similar of late), of watering down their sound and overproducing their new album in a callous attempt to reach a wider audience. This is the same sniveling bullshit Pitchfork said about the last My Morning Jacket album (which only proves that some people wouldn’t recognize awesome music if My Morning Jacket stuffed a whole album full of it. Which they usually do). That said, though, In the Dark is not great. It’s an okay album where a great one was expected. I see what they were trying to do here (I’m not going to question their motives. Guess what? Every band wants to make money because every band wants to quit their fucking day jobs. And if you’re going to hate the Whigs for In the Dark, you’d better hate Kings of Leon for their last two albums because their first two were vastly different and far superior) and I’m happy when any band tries to expand their horizons. But, though it doesn’t deserve the critical knicker-twisting it has apparently caused, In the Dark satisfies far less than its predecessor.

Why?

So glad you asked. The Whigs, in this reporter’s opinion, have long been a pretty mediocre rock band (not bad, just not great) that managed, with 2008’s Mission Control, to put together something amazingly greater than the sum of its parts. “Right Hand on My Heart,” one of the standout tracks on that album, is also one of the most lazily written songs I’ve ever heard. Sure, I love it, but the truth is the truth and there’s no point sugarcoating it. It seemed to me that, on Mission Control, the Whigs were more interested in rocking out fully than they were about sweating the details – and they still managed some nice dynamics and textures on that record (“I’ve Got Ideas” and the title track come to mind). Now, with In the Dark, the sound is shinier, thanks in part to producer Ben Allen (last year, he produced the Animal Collective record with the one and half songs I like). The roughshod, shambolic sound of Mission Control has been all cleaned up for the ball (or the shameless wooing of FM radio, I guess?)  and the results are not what most of us had in mind.

Let’s be clear, though: there are good tracks on In the Dark. I would go so far as to say the title track is awesome and I actually really like “I Don’t Even Care About the One I Love.” The problem is, for the first time on any Whigs album I’ve heard, there are actually bad songs. “Kill Me Carolyne” is annoying, “I Am For Real” is cloying, and “Naked” is needlessly long. If you want a scorecard, I’d say In the Dark has three really awesome tunes (“Someone’s Daughter” being the third), four bad ones, and four mediocre ones. If you could bump three more mediocre tunes into the good column, I bet you’d get much better notices for this album. For the sake of contrast, I count seven to eight awesome tracks on Mission Control, and the rest are mediocre at worst. No outright bad songs on that album. So people are probably right to be a little disappointed in In the Dark.

But…

Let’s not be the nattering nabobs of negativity that so frequently dominate the internet (just the other day, Band of Horses posted yet another free video from Infinite Arms to their Facebook page. Lots of positive comments. Except this one guy who was all, “You shouldn’t have so much nature in your videos if you want to make money.” Lord help me, I want to find that guy and punch his cock into oblivion. A band you like just gave you a free taste of an album that is still almost two weeks from release and you want to talk marketing with them? What kind of asshole are you?), just for a second. Okay? What’s positive about In the Dark? What can we love, apart from those three awesome tracks (seriously, “In the Dark” is so good I listen to it two or three times every time I come through the album)? Well, the Whigs did go for a bit of a change in sound – more bass-driven, dancey stuff on this record. If – and this might be a big “if” – if they can weld that stuff to the rougher rock sounds of their past, they might really be onto something musically. But Parker Gispert and company need to get a little more disciplined in the songwriting department (some songs have things called bridges in them, guys. You might want to look that up). And, I’ve never seen the Whigs live, but their live reputation is pretty solid. I’m willing to bet In the Dark sounds all right live (I could be wrong, but I’ll try to see the Whigs live and then get back to you) – if it doesn’t, then there’s a real problem.  Speaking of live performances, more good news: there’s a theory floating around cyberspace that touring with Kings of Leon had a big effect on how the Whigs approached making In the Dark. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to see what the Whigs do after supporting the Hold Steady this summer. Perhaps their next album will be their best yet.

Will In the Dark win the Whigs new fans? I’m kinda skeptical. It might win over those rare musical fans who just seem to like everything. I don’t think this album will lose them fans (I guess I can only speak for myself, but I still like this band), but then my expectations of this band are calibrated a little differently. I never expected much from them and they gave me Mission Control. I wasn’t sure what to expect after that, but it wasn’t In the Dark. Here’s the thing: as I listen to this album right now, it sounds pretty good because I’m only half paying attention to it. I’ll tune in for the great songs and distract myself for the other ones. Your goal should never be to make music for people who don’t want to commit to the music they’re listening to, but let’s not shit ourselves over the fact that the Whigs tried something new and wrote a few bad songs. Even the Beatles wrote bad songs, for Christ’s sake.

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?

Titus Andronicus Forever

Pitchfork is so rarely right these days that the event becomes somewhat analogous to a total solar eclipse. People gather in fields and point in awe, knowing this is something that may never occur again in their lifetime. There are few bands about which Pitchfork is usually correct and they are, in no particular order: The Hold Steady, Jet, LCD Soundsystem, and Titus Andronicus (in case you’re wondering, Pitchfork correctly despises Jet, as most thinking people do).

Titus Andronicus, named for Shakespeare’s most Michael Bay-ish play (Bay doesn’t direct Shakespeare, thank goodness, but Julie Taymor put together a pretty good film version of Titus featuring Anthony Hopkins), is a band of literary punks from New Jersey who won all my affection for their bruising debut, The Airing of Grievances. That album was a lovely slice of existential outrage that came into my life right when I needed it. And now, Titus Andronicus is back with The Monitor, named not for an episode of Seinfeld but for a Civil War ship.

Though The Monitor has been reported as a “loose concept album” or something similar, I suggest you drop that expectation right away. The Monitor contains myriad references to the Civil War (including quotes from Honest Abe Lincoln) but what this album is really about, when you get down to it, is breaking up. Vocalist Patrick Stickles moved to Massachusetts for a girl, they broke up, and the result is The Monitor. But, because Stickles is intelligent (sorry, Blink-182, real punks read books), the album ends up being a perfect reflection of the current American political climate – The Monitor is as much about Stickles’s recent break up as it is about a country breaking up with itself, much like it did during the Civil War (of course, the South doesn’t seem to be inclined to secede from the union these days, although the Texas State Board of Education has been seceding from reason at an alarming rate). Standout track “Four Score and Seven” puts it as succinctly as anyone can: “After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them.” And “Titus Andronicus Forever,” repeats, in bouncing sing-along fashion, “The enemy is everywhere.”

And musically, The Monitor is a big, angry rock record, every bit as satisfying as its predecessor and then some. There are more honky-tonk pianos on this album (especially on “A Pot in Which to Piss”, which also ends with the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn reading some Walt Whitman), some bagpipes (including on the overlong album closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”), and even a ballady duet with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner (I still have some hopes that Wye Oak will end up being a good band. Titus Andronicus’s “To Old Friends and New” is one reason) that celebrates human contradiction with Stickles’s usual humor: “It’s all right, the way you piss and moan” gives way to “It’s all right, the way that you live.” But that’s not what I came to Titus Andronicus for; no, I want Stickles spitting venom and he doesn’t disappoint. On the second half of  “Four Score and Seven,” he howls, “I struggle and stammer until I’m up to my ears/ in miserable quote-unquote art” and then mentions that “humans treat humans like humans treat hogs.” The song ends with a chorus of “It’s still us against them” before ending on “and they’re winning.” The Monitor is nothing if not a battle cry of “Fuck Them,” whoever they are (we all choose our Them, though, don’t we?); it even calls on us to “rally ’round the flag” on album opener “A More Perfect Union”, a song which scores points for a winning Billy Bragg reference (“I never wanted to change the world/ but I’m looking for a New New Jersey”) and paraphrases fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen with the less hopeful, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die.”

The reason The Monitor works as a breakup record is that, in a way that only Titus Andronicus can really do, it seems to sort of celebrate the disintegration of the relationship as a completely expected outcome. Stickles closes “Theme from Cheers”  by asking, “What the fuck was it for anyway?” Of course, Patrick Stickles isn’t pleased that his relationship ended, but he seems to find some affirmation in the destruction. If he can’t have true love, he can have some whiskey and a beer and yell out his anger with equal parts fury and humor (he makes a reference about “pissing into the void” at one point, which puts a smile on my face. If you piss long into an abyss, will the abyss piss into you?).

“The Battle of Hampton Roads,” though about seven minutes too long, is still a fitting closer for The Monitor. The titular boat was involved in the first ever battle between ironclad warships, but the battle was a messy stalemate, which seems to reflect Stickles’s worldview at the end of the album. If you want to live by some sense of values, Stickles warns, “Prepare to be told/ ‘That shit’s gay, dude'” and, if love is a battlefield, that battle is the Battle of Hampton Roads and no one wins. At at the end of the day, Stickles is “as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been” and to his enemy (presumably this recent ex, who might be perversely honored to have partially inspired such an epic album) he says, “I’ve done to you what you’ve done to me.”

Is The Monitor a bit pretentious, and doesn’t it run a dire risk of falling into melodrama? Yes and yes. How does it overcome those two not-insignificant obstacles? From what I can tell, Titus Andronicus does it by keeping their sense of  humor (Stickles claims every one of the rest of his days will be “a fart in the face of your idea of success”) and by rocking out with an impressively shambolic competence. The pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and swelling horns on The Monitor make it a triumphant rock record first and everything else it may or may not be second. Sometimes, you just need a beer and an excuse to yell and curse – for the second album in a row, Titus Andronicus has provided me with my preferred soundtrack for those times.

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.