Fuck Violence. Listen to the Mynabirds

Laura Burhenn is sick and fucking tired of war. And gay-bashing assholes. And a lot of other things of which I am also sick and fucking tired. Lots of folks are probably sick and fucking tired of war (unless they work for the companies that profit from it), but what Burhenn did with her exhaustion and outrage is instructive:

She made one of the best albums of 2012 with it.

I know it’s only September and I know I’ve already made much of a certain Future of the Left record, but the beauty of refusing to rank things by number is that I can say that The Plot Against Common Sense and the Mynabirds’ Generals are on fairly even footing for me (along with Ugly by the Screaming Females).

Here’s the thing: Burhenn and her Mynabirds could have settled for a capable rehash of the old-timey, gospel-tinged loveliness of their debut. It probably would have been a consistent, listenable, slightly forgettable affair, but no more or less than your average She & Him album. Instead, Laura Burhenn, in a voice that is approaching Neko Case levels of beauty, decided to take a long, hard look at her country in 2012 and ask it just what the fuck it thinks it’s doing.

“Karma Debt” sets the tone by pondering what sort of colossal positive effort could possibly offset the damage done by our two (two and a half? I’ve lost count) wars over the last decade. The refrain contains one of the album’s themes in the kind of direct language I love: “I’d give it all for a legacy of love.” See, Burhenn doesn’t wanna kill the dumb motherfuckers (men, mostly) who perpetuate violence around the world; she’s pleading, sometimes demanding, that they see the folly of all this macho-asshole stuff and just knock it off.

But the genius of Generals is that it isn’t just the finest anti-war album of the current century (you didn’t really think it was American Idiot, did you?); it is also a righteous, impassioned cry against all violence. “Mightier Than the Sword” is an achingly beautiful (on a par with Andrew Bird’s “Hole in the Sky”) letter to a gay man who is considering suicide. The first time I heard it, in my car, I thought it was about a soldier returning from war. But then I put my headphones on at home and listened to the words (“Love who you love/ no matter what”) and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Now I cry every time I hear “Mightier Than the Sword.” For fuck’s sake, folks: it’s bad enough that we have a government that, no matter who’s in the White House, seems hell-bent on killing brown people around the world. But we also have people in this country who will commit horrible acts of violence against a man or woman simply because they love someone of the same sex. We’ve got assholes shooting up movie theaters and racists shooting up temples and people who think the solution to both problems is more people with guns. When is it gonna be enough? As Burhenn sings (on “Disarm”), “We won’t surrender a thing by disarming.”

When the prophet Joe Strummer sang, “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power,” he was probably talking more about rioting for justice than about singing for peace. But I’m gonna make the educated guess that he would approve of what Laura Burhenn has done with her anger. Listen to this record, kids. And keep the violence in yer video games where it belongs.

Love who you love

No matter what

No matter how hard it may come

And I promise

You’ll be loved, my love

No matter what

You’re mightier than

Their sword-sharp tongues

 

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In the Cool of the Day

Last year, Daniel Martin Moore and his friend Ben Sollee were concerned about mountaintop removal mining (“MTR mining” to its friends and enemies alike) so they made a beautiful album called Dear Companion and tried to raise some money to fight for their right to party have unspoiled beauty and unfucked-up ecology in their home state of Kentucky. You might not think an album with that kind of agenda could be understated, but Dear Companion was certainly that and it made me a big fan of both of the dudes responsible for it (I was already a big fan of the album’s third collaborator, Yim Yames, who is better known as Jim James of My Morning Jacket). Somehow though (oh yeah: it’s because there’s no justice in the world), Sollee and Moore did not become instant indie darlings for their daring attempt to do good through song. Though it should be said that their cause seems to be gaining some traction now that a tree-hugger sits in the Oval Orifice (little known fact: tree-hugging is a gateway drug to not wanting to blow up mountaintops and deposit mining waste in water supplies. Come to think of it, reason might also lead a person to the same conclusion).

Anyway.

While cruising the internet for free streaming albums the other night (Bollocks! proudly operates on a budget very close to zero dollars), I came across a new album by Daniel Martin Moore on the Sub Pop blog. It’s called In the Cool of the Day and it’s apparently a gospel record. My first inclination was to let my good friend Jesus review the album, but he was busy buying tickets for Burning Man and trying with every ounce of his remaining concentration to orchestrate a U.S. tour featuring Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, the Future of the Left, and the Screaming Females. This last thing was a specific prayer of mine that Jesus is still trying to answer. I know better than to bother Jesus H. when he’s working, so I guess it falls to me to review In the Cool of the Day.

The idea here is that Daniel Martin Moore wanted to do a gospel album, which makes sense after the depressing subject matter that dominated Dear Companion. But, rather than diligently recreate his gospel favorites, he decided to just play ’em how he remembers ’em. I’m too lazy to do the Googling, but someone must have thought of this before, right? It’s a fucking brilliant idea (can you say “fuck” when you’re talking about a gospel album? Apparently I can), recording spiritual music exactly how you feel it in the moment (I know that, ideally, that’s how all music should be played. It is certainly not how all music is recorded though).  Moore penned a few new tracks to round out the record, once again enlisting the help of Jim James and once again turning in an album of irrefutable beauty.

Have I said this before? If so, just ignore it. But if I’m repeating myself, it’s because it’s worth saying: you don’t have to believe in someone’s religion to dig the music. Like Mavis Staples before him, Daniel Martin Moore has recorded an eleven-song statement of his faith that is more about articulating that faith than it is about winning converts to it. By limiting takes and playing the songs from memory, Moore is striving to provide us with a snapshot of his spirituality right now. Judging by In the Cool of the Day, his faith could move mountains (judging by Dear Companion, I suppose he wouldn’t want it to) and whether I believe in it or not, the spirit that moves Daniel Martin Moore enhances the spirit of his music.

Of course, all that spiritual hoodoo-voodoo wouldn’t mean shit if the album wasn’t musically gorgeous. It is, though, and it’s deceptively simple, driven largely by acoustic instruments: piano, banjo, acoustic guitar, and upright bass. The latter is particularly effective on “In the Garden,” where it drives the song right along the border of gospel and jazz.  In fact, In the Cool of the Day plays more like an acoustic jazz/folk record that contains gospel songs than it does a  standard gospel album, which is another point in its favor.

“In the Garden” is one of the livelier moments on In the Cool of the Day, but the slower, softer songs don’t drag on long enough to bore me. The two longest tracks on the album still fall just short of three and a half minutes; I guess Moore doesn’t remember any really jammy gospel tunes, which is just fine with me. This kind of music works best with strong, sweet melodies and short songs, and In the Cool of the Day pretty much nails those criteria from start to finish. It’s really a great record for January, or at least I imagine it is. There’s been a lot of 80 degree weather here in Los Angeles this week, so it’s kind of like January doesn’t exist. What I really mean is that In the Cool of the Day would be great for putting on while sitting in front of a roaring fire, preferably next to someone you love, while it’s really cold outside. Shit. I really miss Oregon.

Given how unfairly ignored Dear Companion was, it seems safe to predict that In the Cool of the Day will be among the most underrated albums of 2011. But the year is young yet and if you’re reading Bollocks! today, you could put off getting back to work a little longer by heading over to the Sub Pop site and streaming the album while it’s still available there. As I write this, it looks like the stream is up and running. Of course, an album like this is not going to be suited to everyone’s taste, but for those of you who like a quiet, soothing record once in a while (and have the good sense to loathe Kenny G), Daniel Martin Moore has put together something wonderful for you.

Great Fucking Albums #15: Travels with Myself and Another

One of the great advantages to changing my “29 Best Albums Released in My Lifetime” list to a “Great Fucking Albums” list is that I can pretty much put anything I want on the new list. Some critics get touchy about putting newish releases on lists of the best albums of all time or whatever (except NME; they ranked the first Arctic Monkeys album just behind Sgt. Pepper’s on their list of best British rock records – and Sgt. Peppers was numero uno. And I know that strikes many of you as a crock of shit – I tend to agree with you, but I’ve gotta respect them for understanding that great things are great right away. Too many people think that something has to be forty fucking years old before you can think it’s great and that’s ageism, pure and simple), but since I’m simply listing albums I think are (ahem) Great Fucking Albums, I can include whatever I want and disrespect history if I damn well want to. Not that I want to – it’s just that everyone already knows that the Beatles made great albums. It’s just like knowing that Shakespeare wrote great plays (newsflash: he also wrote bad ones). But the real reason I wanted to start keeping track of Great Fucking Albums instead of ranking them is that I’ve come to realize that some albums are beyond the very concept of rank. The Future of the Left’s Travels with Myself and Another is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When I imagine telling this album to politely stand in line behind some other albums on a list of maybe the best rock albums of the last decade, I imagine that Travels with Myself and Another would have none of that. It would kill every album in front of it with a brick and then fuck the remains. I’d like to think the Stooges’ Raw Power would do the same thing. I can’t assign any kind of number, letter grade, or rank to Travels with Myself and Another, but I can tell you that it’s a fucking vital record, the way Grinderman is vital, which is to say “throbbing”. This album has dirty, dirty sex with the part of your brain that loves music.

Well, the part of my brain that loves music anyway. The Future of the Left is definitely one of those bands that I love and tell my friends about knowing full well that most of them will find this band highly obnoxious. I think the Screaming Females probably fall into this category and, like the Future of the Left, they make music that nibbles on your aural naughty bits. I like enough music that my tastes are going to overlap with a lot of people’s a lot of the time, but there’s some stuff that a maximum of two of my friends will love the way I do. Which is totally okay, because you don’t have to like everything someone else likes in order to like (or even love) the other person. It matters a lot less than you think. Anyway, I like shambolic music that cuts right down to the bone and Travels with Myself and Another is probably just a little more raw than some folks can take.

Underlying the Future of the Left’s jagged edges is a pop astuteness that is employed around some blissfully aggressive lyrics (gorgeous harmonies waft in and out of a song called “Throwing Bricks at Trains,” for instance. That song starts with the line, “Slight/ Bowel movements/ preceded/ the bloodless coup”) and the combination (along with lyrics that are simultaneously visceral and hilarious) shows that the Future of the Left is a band that can rock your fucking face off and still have a sense of humor. Evidence? How about “You Need Satan More than He Needs You”, a song driven by a pounding synthesizer riff that features lines like, “The night might hide my shame/ but shame won’t dry my balls”? Vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Andy Falkous (who, along with drummer Jack Egglestone, was in a band called mclusky, spelled with a small “m”. I’ve never  listened to mclusky, but I plan to investigate and get back to you later) has said that if you don’t like “You Need Satan More than He Needs You,” you don’t like the Future of the Left. I’m not gonna argue with Falco on this one.

Many people have mistakenly assumed that “punk” means “simple” and maybe also “effortless” and Travels with Myself and Another may help those fools continue to deceive themselves, but the fact is that this album is musically quite complex, with syncopated beats, catchy melodies, and incredibly well-placed harmonies. If you pay attention, what you’re hearing on Travels with Myself and Another is not a band that’s not trying – you’re hearing a band that is very good at what they do and they’re actually having fucking fun doing it. These twelve songs get in, kick the shit out of your earholes for two to four minutes at a time, and get out. “Ruthless efficiency” is the phrase that comes to my mind. Falkous uses a lot of alternate guitar tunings to keep the old guitar/bass/drum formula interesting and the Future of the Left uses synthesizers in ways that actually make me rethink about half of the negative things I’ve said about synthesizers in the past. But all the technical musical stuff is completely unpretentious, which is one of the highest musical compliments I can pay a band that knows what they’re doing.

I most frequently listen to Travels with Myself and Another when I’m stuck in Los Angeles traffic, which is usually when I want to lash out violently at probably harmless strangers. Nothing gets me back to my usual (relative) calm faster than this album, which is a testament to its greatness. Like a gloriously violent video game, Travels purges my fury, makes me laugh and makes me feel like a regular human being again. I can listen to it when I’m in a good mood too, obviously, but it’s amazing how effectively this record can cure a shitty day. Pitchfork suggested that Travels could be the soundtrack to “whatever poor decision you make this year” but, as usual, they got it half-assed – Travels with Myself and Another would make a fine soundtrack to every awesome decision you make this year too.

 

 

 

 


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 4: Sucking in the Seventies

In the movie Almost Famous, you learn two things about the 1970s: 1) That film is a parody of almost every stadium band in America during that decade and 2) Lester Bangs loved “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges. With good reason. The Stooges were one of the bright spots of the 1970s in America, but we need to start our discussion of this decade off with someone who was almost undoubtedly The Man (in a good way), Mr. Curtis Mayfield. After writing some hits for the Impressions in the 1960s, Mayfield set out on his own in 1970. By the time he was done, he had injected a social consciousness into soul music and had crafted songs that were at once funky, sexy, and full of fire. You might know his work on the Superfly soundtrack, the theme of which is probably Mayfield’s best-known work. But for my money, it doesn’t get any better than “Don’t Worry (If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”). Riding a funky rhythm and Mayfield’s soulful falsetto (hey, Sensitive White Guy singers: Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto is why you assholes should never ever sing in a falsetto), the song chronicles the hypocrisies and prejudices he saw all around him back in the day. That shit hasn’t gone away and that song is as relevant as it’s ever been.

Lester Bangs, a hero of mine (who is unfairly labeled an “asshole critic” by the Rock Snob’s Dictionary, by the way. Bangs wasn’t really a critic at all, he was a music geek. He loved music and didn’t give a shit about making friends with the people who made it or really even the people who wrote about it. Bangs wrote with a passion and directness – sometimes drug-fueled – that hadn’t been seen before him and hasn’t really been seen since him, Chuck Klosterman notwithstanding), loved The Stooges because they played big, loud, stupid, fun rock ‘n’ roll. And, in so doing, they kinda invented punk in 1973 when they released the David Bowie-produced Raw Power (Iggy Pop oversaw a reissue/remaster of this album a few years ago that restored some of the low end. As much as I love Bowie, Iggy’s mix is better), which led off with the ferocious “Search and Destroy” and also featured songs like “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” and “Death Trip.” Iggy Pop (James Osterberg to his folks) was ingenious at completely losing his shit on stage, making Stooges shows good places to get covered in blood, peanut butter, raw meat, and myriad other bodily fluids. Oh, and after the Stooges broke up, Iggy released Lust for Life in 1976 (also produced – better this time – by Bowie), giving him claim to two essential American records in three years.

If you use Raw Power and Lust for Life as the bread for an awesome punk sandwich, the filler is gonna be horse meat. Or rather, it will be Horses, the 1975 debut album from Patti Smith, which opens with a very ballsy cover of Them’s “Gloria”, a song that had been covered to death by everyone at that point (including music’s angriest hobbit, Van Morrison). Smith, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (“Knock, knock! Shit happens”), wrote the following opening line for her cover: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine.” And from there on, Horses is unrelenting, epic, and awesome. Smith could go toe to toe with Johnny Rotten in a snark constest, and probably come out on top. Along with the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith inspired R.E.M., who pulled off the not-inconsiderable feat of being really awesome in the 80s (Michael Stipe claims that hearing Horses made him decide to start a band).

To quote Magnolia, “So Now Then”: The Ramones. Formed in New York in 1974. Basically galvanized punk music on both sides of the Atlantic. According to End of the Century (a must-see for fans), also basically kidnapped by otherwise upstanding citizen Phil Spector (who also held DeeDee Ramone at gunpoint in the studio). That’s the history. The music, after all these years, still holds up. If you wanna know why I hate Green Day so goddamn much, listen to the first three Ramones albums. In fact, that should tell you why I hate today’s emo/pop-punk crowd too – no sense of humor, and no fun (Green Day has become especially humorless since deciding, without consulting me, that they are America’s late answer to the Who). And shitty music, of course. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” however, remains one of the all-time greatest opening tracks in music history. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until you believe me: it is impossible to be unhappy while listening to the Ramones.

I hope it was impossible to be unhappy opening for the Ramones. The Talking Heads played their first gig under that name opening for the Ramones in June of 1975 at the famed (and now sadly defunct)  CBGB’s in New York. Combining elements of funk, world music, pop, and rock with David Byrne’s oddball lyrics and dramatic singing voice, the Talking Heads were smart at pop and arty without seeming pretentious or (worse) annoying. Though not super successful upon it’s release in 1980, Remain in Light is often (quite rightly) acknowledged as a pop masterpiece. The band officially broke up in 1991 and, I’m just drawing a conclusion from the Wikipedia page here, it was probably due in large part to how weird David Byrne is.

This will seem counterintuitive at first, but kids today don’t know shit about Television. Of course, they know plenty about that flat screened boxy thing (TVs get bigger, Americans get bigger. Is this a coincidence? I report, you decide) that bombards them with talking sponges and Billy Ray Cyrus’s offspring (honestly, I could care less about Miley Cyrus. What offends me about her is that she is living proof that someone, somewhere, fucked that bemulleted jackass. For readers who are too young to remember, Billy Ray Cyrus had a one-hit wonder in the 1990s called “Achy Breaky Heart” and it was so bad that it makes Toby Keith seem listenable). They know lots about that. But do they know that, way back in 1977, the band Television released Marquee Moon, one of the most underrated American albums ever? (I know the album is adored by critics, but I’m talking about civilians here. They need to know about this album.) Sadly, the answer is “not really.” Well, I’ll tell you. In the middle of what was known as Year Zero for punk music (The Ramones had lit the fire in 1976 with their debut album and the Sex Pistols and Clash were carrying the torch on the other side of the pond. Helpfully, the Clash decided to make punk mean something), Television released an album whose title track was nearly 11 minutes long, but they weren’t a jam band. They had the punk snarl, thanks to Tom Verlaine, but they weren’t really punk. Nor were they really art-rock. They were totally unique; I haven’t heard anything else like Marquee Moon since I first heard it. The closest is Wilco’s A Ghost is Born, which owes a considerable debt to Television.

If you think it was hard to be cool in America in the 1970s, wait until we get to the 80s. Which we’ll do tomorrow. The 80s were a mess, but there was still lots of good music to be had. For shits ‘n’ giggles, here’s a list of bands I will be totally ignoring in my discussion of 1980s American music: Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Don Henley, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Metallica (we’ll talk about these assholes when we get to the 1990s, when they took a massive shit on their fans), and Vanilla Ice. Until then, enjoy your Monday off, if you’ve got one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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