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.

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.

What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Still basking in the glow of the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever, I turned my attention to a little album by the Mynabirds, a band named after a band (the Mynah Birds) that, no shit, once featured Neil Young and Rick James. At the same fucking time! The Mynabirds are mostly Laura Burhenn, who was in a D.C. duo called Georgie James. I know nothing else about Georgie James and it’s not important. The thing is, the Mynabirds quiet debut album (on Saddle Creek, no less. Saddle Creek spawned Bright Eyes and some other pretentious indie bands that I think are more than partly to blame for why non-music nerds get a little nervous when you say the word “indie”*), What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is nothing short of fucking gorgeous and elegantly simple.

Which is why, maybe, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in a Really Long Album Title is one of the first new albums I’ve been able to listen to since acquiring the latest Hold Steady offering. There’s a simple, meat-and-potatoes pleasure that I derive from how good the Hold Steady is at kickass rock ‘n’ roll. I get the same pleasure from listening to the Mynabirds – despite “having always wanted to make a record that sounded like Neil Young doing Motown” – do what the Band did pretty much better than anyone. I guess there’s some whiffs of Neil Youngish folk colliding with some Motown sound, especially on “Numbers Don’t Lie” and “L.A. Rain.” But to me, what the Band did very well was make aching, Broken-Ass Music. And if you don’t hear that on What We Lose in the Fire We Gain By Being By Far the Best Band on Saddle Creek, you might want to get your ears checked.

Everything the Mynabirds do is instantly familiar, but not in a bad way. Listening to this album is like stepping into my grandfather’s office where the smell of old books mingles with the smell of pipe tobacco. “What We Gained in the Fire”, nominally the title track, sets this tone from the outset and Burhenn and collaborator Richard Swift never deviate – they don’t need to. The album is instrumentally pretty simple – mostly piano, guitar, and drums, with some horns and a few nice backing vocal performances thrown in for spice (although Burhenn’s voice is fantastic on its own. She’s like a more confident Cat Power). The parts are few, but the sum is mighty. Getting back to my meat-and-potatoes analogy: you might think meat and potatoes is pretty dull, but what if you know someone who can whip up a homemade marinade for a juicy cut of steak and they grill it just right and serve it up with mashed spuds (maybe some garlic and rosemary in there**) and a nice smoked porter? My mouth is watering just thinking about that. That’s what the Hold Steady does with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s what She & Him do with the Beatles, and it’s what the Mynabirds do with country/gospel/folky/Bandy awesomeness.

At barely a half an hour, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in a Trade with the Red Sox is almost too brief, which is its own kind of accomplishment. Burhenn and Swift are clearly not trying to hide the fact that they’re being derivative, but they’re so damn good at it that you end the album wanting a little more. Which is exactly how an album like this should leave you feeling. You’re really gonna end up in one of two places after hearing an album like this: 1) you’re going to think, “Wow, that band has an amazing grasp of musical history up to this point. I should very much like to subscribe to their newsletter” or 2) you’ll think “what a bunch of hack-assed ripoff artists. I’d like to pull their internal organs out through their nose.” Interestingly enough, people have divided into those two camps about the likes of Led Zeppelin (they had some good songs, but I hope Zombie Willie Dixon comes to Robert Plant’s house in the [living] dead of night and bites his nuts off) and Bob Dylan (who, to be fair, is kinda ripping himself off at this point). I’m firmly in column numero uno when it comes to the Mynabirds.

I could spend all night parsing out the different influences that are evident on What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood Unless We’re Poor Black People in New Orleans and This is 2005 (okay, I’ll stop now) but at a certain point it doesn’t matter. To pastiche or not to pastiche*** is really not the question in music these days. We have twelve notes, folks. Different octaves, sure. But that’s a matter of the quality of the note, not the quantity of notes available. So the question then becomes: how good are you at using the past? Great musicians learn from their history in a way that human civilization at large has so far managed to avoid. Tom Waits is a genius at this. He hasn’t done anything that hasn’t been done before, he just has a very keen understanding of music’s past (and a broad one. If you threw Harry Partch,  Kurt Weill, Leadbelly, Captain Beefheart, and Exile On Main Street in a blender with a shitload of whiskey, you’d come up with something near a Tom Waits album. But name another guy who can juggle those influences so adeptly). The Mynabirds aren’t operating on Tom Waits’s level (who the hell is?), but they have spun their favorite records into a musical celebration instead of a theft and that makes What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood an album that can best be described, after all this writing, in two words: “fucking beautiful.”

*Which is why I’m trying not to use the word “indie” when describing bands. First off, it doesn’t describe how a band sounds (but neither does “post-rock” in my opinion) and second, it makes me think of Bright Eyes.

**Pro tip: steam some cauliflower, puree it, and mix it in your mashed potatoes. You get the extra vegetable nutrition, the consistency is about the same, and you can trick folks into eating their veggies this way. Also, if you like cauliflower, it’s just plain delicious. Also also, George Carlin once helpfully pointed out that cauliflower cures cancer. Unfortunately, it did not cure his congestive heart failure.

***I know it’s not a verb, but I couldn’t help myself.