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

 

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.

Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Neko Case

Hopefully you understand that there are many ways to define a badass woman. Some are badass because they use their formidable voices to sing soulful songs and fight for civil rights. Others are badass because they have relentlessly brought the true spirit of folk music to a generation of feminists. This isn’t some kind of spectrum and there are no hard and fast criteria by which we here at Bollocks! confer Official Badassitude upon a woman. Or anyone else, for that matter; we’re not trying to be condescending here. We simply know a total badass when we see one.

And if you’ve seen the cover of Neko Case’s goddamn brilliant Middle Cyclone, you have certainly seen a Badass Woman. She’s riding on a… a sports car (I think it’s a GTO but, as I hinted in my original review of that album, I know exactly fuckall about cars)… well, that’s not really accurate. As you can plainly see, she’s surfing on the hood of a (possibly) GTO with a goddamn sword in her hand. That’s probably my favorite album cover of the last ten years. And that’s just the tip of Neko Case’s iceberg of badassery.

I could go into Case’s biographical what-nots and et ceteras, but her website does a way better (and more hilarious) job of it than I could. I get the feeling that Neko Case and I had somewhat similar childhoods, which is not to say that having it rough when you’re young automatically qualifies you as a badass (I do not, for instance, claim the title of Badass for myself. I’m not even a wiseass; if I’m lucky, I am a smartass though my wife sometimes tells me I have a nice ass), but coming through adversity with grace certainly puts you on the road to Badasstown.

For starters, Neko Case is so badass that she is an integral part of not one but two superb musical ventures. As a solo artist, she has been releasing quality country-ish rock (although at this point, I feel much better considering Neko Case her own genre) since the late 1990s. But she’s also been part of the totally awesome New Pornographers (yes, it’s my goal to link to the “Moves” video more than any other blog ever for the rest of all time. Why? Because the song is fucking awesome and the video is – if possible – even more awesome) since 2000, singing on some of their finest tunes, including last year’s excellent “My Shepherd.” So Ms. Case gets a pretty perfect score for work ethic, which is important – if we did have some sort of strict rubric for determining whether or not someone is a badass, work ethic would count for a hefty amount of the overall grade.

But Neko Case’s strongest asset, in general as well as when it comes to being a badass, is her voice. If I’ve said it a million times, I have not said it enough: there is no one singing right now – man, woman, or child – who sings like Neko Case does. In “Sounds of Sinners,” Joe Strummer sang about looking “for that great jazz note/ that destroyed/ the walls of Jericho.” Well, Neko Case sings that note on every fucking song she sings. She doesn’t have to let loose some nineteen octave-spanning, vibrato filled flurry of notes like Mariah Carey – Case has devastating tone and a control of it that could, if she wished, be used to reduce every once and future VH1 Diva to a pile of ash.

I mentioned earlier that I basically consider Neko Case her own genre, and that’s another point in her favor. Like Tom Waits, Case seamlessly blends elements of folk, country, rock, gospel and blues into her own eerie, beautiful (and yes, badass) music. Music’s been around for a long time and they are badass indeed who can weave humanity’s long musical history into a tapestry of sonic splendor. Should Mr. Waits and Ms. Case ever tour together, I would travel to the fucking moon and back to see it. Then I would die of happiness and instantly attain enlightenment.

Though Case’s early albums feature quite a few (excellent) covers, she has emerged as a powerful songwriter as well. Examples? Let’s take a few from Middle Cyclone, since I’m listening to it right now. There’s the simple, direct logic of “The Next Time You Say Forever,” in which Case sings, “The next time you say forever/ I will punch you in your face/ just because you don’t believe it/ doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.” Then we have “I’m an Animal,” in which Neko is sure that “Heaven will smell like the airport/ but I may never get there to prove it.” I could go on, but you should just get the album and listen for yourself.

Another common theme among our badass women is some kind of community service and/or impact beyond mere musical magnificence (I never met an alliteration I didn’t like), though – again – it’s not required or anything. In Case’s… uh… case, she advocates very actively on behalf of animals, especially greyhounds. Case makes use of Twitter to spread the word about donation opportunities (like this one for the Best Friends Animal Society’s birthday donation drive. They’re only asking for $27 by July 25th, so make a donation if you can, eh?) and will usually give your cause a solid re-Tweeting if it’s worthy. Even if you don’t donate to the Best Friends Animal Society (you should though. I mean, they’re asking for a maximum of $27 and if you can’t do that, you can pick your own amount. I’m poor as hell and I could spare ten bucks for ’em. What say you?), you might find Neko Case worth following on the Twitters. She’s frequently hilarious and also turned me (and, you know, probably lots of other people) on to GOOD, which is an infinitely awesome internet news magazine-type thing. Put it this way – the Daily GOOD is the only daily email I get from any company that isn’t deleted right away. Because they tell me about great shit like interstate bike paths and states finally banning styrofoam.

What more do you need to know? Her last two albums, the aforementioned Middle Cyclone and 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood are two of the best albums of this young century (you can bet your ass they’ll still be among its best when this century is in its late 90s too, when my great grandkids have taken over Bollocks! and turned it into a blog about their crazy Great Gramps, who would sit in his rocking chair shouting about the Hold Steady and Finnegans Wake until Gram brought him his medicine, which seemed to always come in twenty-two ounce bottles) and her albums before those, both solo and with the New Pornographers, are – at worst – pretty rad. So: because she can sing better than your ten favorite singers stacked on top of each other, because she does good stuff for awesome animals, and because Middle Cyclone still sends shivers in every possible direction along my spine, I declare for all to witness that Neko Case is a badass and no summer of Badass Women is complete without her.

 

Serve the People

Handsome Furs

Sound Kapital

2011 Sub Pop

by Chorpenning

Until very recently, I was in a bit of a rut with my video games. It started with me playing Red Dead Redemption, a game which has garnered much critical ballyhoo and even a little bit of hullabaloo. Well, the truth is it’s an all right game, I suppose. But it chose some inopportune moments to get buggy on me and the end was artificially padded to the point that I almost decided not to finish it (seriously – and there’s a spoiler in here, if you give shit – toward the end of the game, while you’re busy waiting for the sudden and inevitable betrayal to come, you have to shoot some crows to protect your corn. And if you don’t shoot enough of them in a short enough amount of time, you fail the “mission” and have to redo it. This is not some optional side quest, mind you – you have to do it to get to the end of the fucking game!). But I did finish it, I quite enjoyed the actual end of the game, and then thought I’d go for something more lighthearted and fun; so I picked up Dead to Rights: Retribution (I call this time my “dead” phase of video gaming)… and put it down barely an hour in when I realized that it is probably the worst video game I’ve played in the last three years. Poor design, wonky combat, having to walk around the same two or three levels over and over again. It’s a game that tends to show naked contempt for you as a player of video games. Take heart – I got it for free. So but anyway, after Dead to Rights: Retardation, I started to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with me. Like maybe I just suddenly didn’t like video games as much as I used to.

And then I played Gears of War 2. Holy shit. Yes, the plot is brick stupid, but the combat is deliciously visceral, easy to manage, and you get to chainsaw your way out of a giant fucking worm. I don’t think I’m a third of the way through the game and it has already very kindly assured me that yes, goddammit, I loves me some video games. Turns out I only like the good ones. Gears of War 2, whatever else it is, is a helluva lot of fun. And it’s fun almost immediately.

Which brings me to why I’m even talking about video games in a Bollocks! post in the first place: the new Handsome Furs album, Sound Kapital, was the perfect album to come along for me right when I was remembering how much fun video games can be when they’re not made with a seething disdain for the people who play them. Like Gears of War 2, Sound Kapital is immediately entertaining. Unlike my current video game of choice, however, Sound Kapital mixes a heavy dose of substance with its entertainment.

If there’s one theme I’ve found consistently in the two Handsome Furs albums that I own – I also highly recommend 2009’s Face Control – it’s that of people working way harder than Americans (and, presumably, Canadians) have to in order to hear or play music. Face Control was influenced by Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry’s trip around Eastern Europe, learning about underground clubs and radio stations like Serbia’s B92, a radio station that audaciously smuggled the truth out of that country when Slobodan Milošević was busy waging genocide there. Supporting that album apparently led the Handsome Furs to Burma in 2010, where public rock shows are strictly forbidden by the military fucks who run that country.

You can read Alexei Perry’s wildly entertaining version of events here but I’ll just summarize everything this way: last year, the Handsome Furs took one helluva risk to bring music to people who were taking one helluva risk by putting on a show and the best part is that Perry and Boeckner donated their proceeds to help their Burmese opening band (Side Effect, name-checked in the Sound Kapital highlight “Serve the People”) fund the recording of an album. For those of you keeping score at home, this is not only one hundred percent virtuous rock star behavior, it’s fucking awesome human behavior.

An adventure like that would have an impact on anybody, and the influence of the Furs’ visit to Burma (I will not call it fucking Myanmar, that’s what the assholes wanna call it) can be felt all over Sound Kapital. So once more, we have awesome songs about people risking their necks to hear music (the international garage anthem “Cheap Music” and the aforementioned “Serve the People”) and once more, the political themes of the record stem from the personal struggles of the people who inspired the music.

And what awesome, infectious, ragged-ass pop music it is! Where Face Control had a few unnecessary bits, Sound Kapital is fit and trim at nine tracks, at least five of which can be classified as “Fucking Awesome.” In case you’re wondering, the remaining four are still “pretty fucking great,” and are growing on me rapidly. In short, Sound Kapital is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of 2011. It’s a stunning example of the marriage of style and substance that Talib Kweli was talking about earlier this year.

Part of what I have loved about that last two Handsome Furs records is also what I have loved about Wolf Parade pretty much since “This Heart’s On Fire” and that’s the fact that Dan Boeckner doesn’t seem capable of writing a song that isn’t at least a little bit anthemic. It’s in his fucking blood. When he sings, “Nostalgia never really meant that much to me” on “Memories of the Future,” I feel like I’m hearing a mantra. Of course, this could be due in part to the fact that I’ve recently been bombarded with forwarded emails and Facebook statuses from friends that romanticize the past to an almost willfully ignorant degree (seriously, you know who’s nostalgic for the 50s and 60s? Privileged white men. I’ve never met a black dude who thinks shit was better back in the Eisenhower administration). But the phrase is couched in such hypnotically head-nodding music that the whole package sometimes comes across as a message from the future to stop living in the past (Boeckner even sings, “I have seen the future/ I will never be repatriated” on the appropriately titled “Repatriated”).

I should also point out that it takes a special talent for someone to use synthesizers as much as the Handsome Furs do without pissing me off (Wolf Parade was also capable of this. If Expo 86 was their swan song, it was one helluva way to go out). Synths appear on, I think, every Handsome Furs song and I find myself loving it. I never believed synthesizers were inherently evil, mind you, but I know that they’re very infrequently used for good. Sound Kapital is a case where they’re used for awesome, especially on “Repatriated” and my current favorite track “Bury Me Standing.”

In my post about Face Control, I mentioned that people like the staff of B92 were exactly the sort of people who ought to be celebrated in rock songs. The same is true of bands like Side Effect and all the people who helped the Handsome Furs put on their show in Yangon. That the Furs choose to celebrate people like this in songs that so frequently make my dopamine reward pathway light up like Times Square is a reason to celebrate them as one of the most promising bands working right now.

Great Fucking Albums #25: Shake the Sheets

Here in Los Angeles, spring has sprung and that means the fucking sun is going to shine every single day between now and when I finally blow this popsicle stand in August (Bollocks! will continue when I move to Portland to start grad school, but updates will probably get more sporadic for a while). Temperatures may not return even to the 60s until November, and I might be the only person in this city who takes a dim view of such weather. The bright side is that we enjoy a long season for so-called “summer” records – albums that make you want to turn up the volume and drive quickly to pretty much anywhere. Or, more commonly in L.A., albums that are great for relieving your fury while you’re stuck in traffic because apparently everyone else decided to ditch work and go to the beach today too.

I’m rambling, I know, but the reason I mention weather and being stuck in traffic (and needing music that will prevent murder whilst you’re stuck in said traffic) is because I’ve been listening to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets a lot lately and when I can’t stop listening to an album, I am compelled to consider listing it as a Great Fucking Album. Though we here at Bollocks! like all of the albums we’ve heard by Mr. Leo and his Pharmacists, I’ve elected Shake the Sheets to be their first (but by no means last) entry on my ever-expanding list of Great Fucking Albums.

Shake the Sheets was recorded as a trio – Ted Leo on vocals/guitar, Dave Lerner on bass, and Chris Wilson on drums – and released in 2004. The album is clearly a visceral response to the Baby Bush presidency, but if that’s all it was, there would be no need to discuss it here. No, Shake the Sheets is a Great Fucking Album because it has riffs and hooks to spare and much of what Leo said about Bush is applicable to the current regime (before I get Obama-worshipping hate mail: I like Obama, I voted for him and I dedicated hours upon hours to volunteering for him. That said, his Department of Justice is still treating your civil liberties like most of us treat toilet paper. I applaud Obama for beginning to withdraw troops from Iraq and planning an Afghanistan draw-down this summer, for getting the New Start treaty signed, for getting rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and for [finally] refusing to defend the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act. But blindly  and uncritically following leaders – especially if you like them – is not healthy for your democracy).

Though the exceedingly toxic political climate of the day was clearly on Leo’s mind during the writing and recording of Shake the Sheets, the album is not as depressive as a lot of its topics, which include war (obviously), healthcare (“when you can’t afford a broken nose/ how can you afford to fight?”), and the inability of the working poor to fight bad government because they’re too busy trying to survive. That said, the music is purely life-affirming stuff. Some of Ted Leo’s finest melodies are on Shake the Sheets, especially tracks like “Counting Down the Hours,” “Criminal Piece,” and “Bleeding Powers.” Sure, the album was fueled by a lot of anger, but the joy of making really fucking loud rock music is a great antidote to anger (half-assed political theory: the people who want to control you hate it when you have fun. So rocking out can be a rebellious act in and of itself) and Leo and the Pharmacists use the musical exuberance of Shake the Sheets to hone their frustration to a fine point. I didn’t even hear this album until 2007 (I think), but looking back, I’d say that Shake the Sheets and the Arcade Fire’s Funeral (along with “The Day After Tomorrow” from Tom Waits’ Real Gone) pretty much sum up everything I felt about 2004 (especially the line “Your peace and quiet is criminal/ while there’s injustice in this town” from “Criminal Piece”).

I’ve mentioned a few times fairly recently that Ted Leo deserves a lot more respect as a guitar player than he currently receives. I love his tone and he plays his guitar like it’s a weapon – in his hands, it is a weapon. But on Shake the Sheets, Leo plays with unmatched ferocity, despite the fact that that there aren’t a ton of long solos on the album (and only one song ventures past the five minute mark). For example, he blasts some awesome melodic lines underneath the end of “The One Who Got Us Out” (while singing, “I’ll put it to you plain and bluntly/ I’m worried for my tired country”), adding considerable beef to the song (I know Ted Leo’s a vegan, but I think he’ll get the metaphor) but never squashing it to prove that he can play a million notes really fast. Unlike a lot of your mega-famous guitarists, Ted Leo doesn’t play like he’s trying to prove he’s awesome; he plays like he’s got some fucking work to do.

Underneath the decidedly punk bent of most of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists’ music, there frequently lurks a strong pop sensibility that enables them to create catchy songs that still carry substantive weight. This is kind of what Green Day tried to do with American Idiot (released the same year as Shake the Sheets, but to a stupefying amount of acclaim. To show you just how much American Idiot changed the American political landscape, I will give you two pieces of information. First, they made a fucking Broadway musical out of it and now Universal is going to make a fucking movie based on that musical), but with worse music. Of course, no album is going to end all of the injustice in the world (especially not a Green Day album), but Shake the Sheets is an excellent soundtrack for people who will never stop trying. I know it sounds cliché, but studies have shown conclusively that if you never try to change the shit you don’t like in life, that shit gets worse and the next thing you know, Donald Trump is a legitimate contender for the presidency. Although I have to give Trump credit for trying to change the things he doesn’t like in life. I’m just sad that “things he doesn’t like” basically means “black people.”

Nine Types of… Shit, I Had Something for This

Long-time readers of Bollocks! may remember that we used to have a pretty effective Imaginary Secretary here at Bollocks! HQ and you may or may not be wondering whatever became of her. There was a bit of an incident surrounding the last TV on the Radio album, 2008’s Dear Science, after which she quietly left our offices, never to return. I wasn’t given a concrete reason for her sudden departure, but I suspect that the Dear Science Incident might have had something to do with it.

But just the other day, completely out of the blue, she wandered back into Bollocks! HQ, wanting to talk. Apparently, the job market is pretty lousy for imaginary secretaries (I hear Tom Cruise recently fired his). We had what I thought was a pretty good conversation, which I’ve helpfully transcribed for you below.

Me: Well, well, well. The Prodigal Secretary returns.

Imaginary Secretary: You don’t know what “prodigal” means, do you?

Me: I’ll ask the questions here, Imaginary Former Secretary. What brings you back to Bollocks! HQ?

Imaginary Secretary: I’m going to be honest with you. There’s very little work right now for Imaginary Secretaries —

Me: I hear Tom Cruise is hiring.

Imaginary Secretary: Forget it. I don’t like to work with crazy people.

Me: So you’re not here to ask for your old job back?

Imaginary Secretary: (laughs) I had some good times here.

Me: Why’d you leave? Was it the Dear Science thing?

Imaginary Secretary: That was part of it. The other part was… well, you know how some offices have Casual Friday? It’s usually an option. People dress casually if they want to. I didn’t really appreciate your Mandatory Naked Time Fridays.

Me: moonbeam loves Mandatory Naked Time Fridays.

Imaginary Secretary: moonbeam is a hippie. Hippies love being naked more than they love food.

Me: You’ve got a point. So if I changed Mandatory Naked Time Fridays to Optional Naked Time Fridays, you’d take your job back?

Imaginary Secretary: I think so. Wait. What’s this we’re listening to?

Me: It’s the new TV on the Radio album, Nine Types of Light. I’ve been thinking of calling it “Nine Types of Awesome” for my review, but I feel like I should come up with something better.

Imaginary Secretary: Oh shit. How many times have you listened to this album in a row?

Me: What, today? I dunno. Like… (counting on fingers) probably only seven.

Imaginary Secretary: Are the doors locked?

Me: No, of course not.

Imaginary Secretary: (taking a cautious step toward the door) Does that mean this album is worse than Dear Science?

Me: I don’t think so. I like both albums a lot. I think TV on the Radio has achieved a pretty high level of consistent awesomeness. They’re one of the few bands that can spend a ton of time fucking around in the studio and turn out a really excellent record.

Imaginary Secretary: Unlike, say, R.E.M.?

Me: What do you mean?

Imaginary Secretary: Admit it: R.E.M. should have strict time limits imposed on them when they go into the studio and there should be signs on several of the buttons and boards that read, “Please don’t touch these, lest you make another Around the Sun.”

Me: But Collapse Into Now was awesome.

Imaginary Secretary: You say that, but when was the last time you listened to it?

Me: I’ve been busy.

Imaginary Secretary: Doing what?

Me: Well, listening to Nine Types of Light, for one thing. This album is fucking fantastic.

Imaginary Secretary: It is pretty good. And I didn’t think I’d ever be able to listen to TV on the Radio again after what you did when Dear Science came out.

Me: Well, I’ve grown as a person.

Imaginary Secretary: I have my doubts about that. What’s this song called?

Me: It’s called “You.” As in “You’re the only one I ever loved.”

Imaginary Secretary: It’s beautiful. Some of these songs have a sort of funky dance vibe to them that I really like.

Me: Yeah, “Second Song” is like that. It’s a little bit Bee Gees but I still like it. You know what else I’d like?

Imaginary Secretary: In no particular order: a cup of coffee, me to hold all of your calls, and to spend the afternoon listening to Nine Types of Light, hopefully while remembering to let your staff go home at a reasonable hour.

Me: Pretty much. But why not make it two cups of coffee, and you can listen to the album with me?

Imaginary Secretary: I don’t drink coffee.

Me: Tea, then.

Imaginary Secretary: Okay. Does that mean I have my job back?

Me: As far as I’m concerned, Imaginary Secretary, you never lost it.

So we spent the rest of the afternoon, drinking coffee and tea, and listening to Nine Types of Light Awesome. And, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t lock everyone in the office. But at the end of the day, no one wanted to leave. Coffees and teas turned into beers and mint juleps (my Imaginary Secretary’s drink of choice), pizzas were ordered, and the album spun on into the night. 

And into the next day. Which is today. I think. All I know is that pretty much everyone at Bollocks! HQ right now is in dire need of a shower. Also, drunk on mint juleps, my Imaginary Secretary revealed that she had a framed Roger Dean album cover above her bed (I assume it’s a Yes album cover, but she didn’t say).  

Anyway, the things you need to know about Nine Types of Light are as follows: 1) Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are strong contenders for this year’s Curtis Mayfield Award for the Acceptable Use of a Falsetto at the Bollocks! Awards; 2) if, like me, you are fairly confident that banjos cannot be used in blatantly gorgeous music, “Killer Crane” will serve you your words with a side of garlic fries; 3) TV on the Radio has become almost dangerously good at writing strong melodies; 4) Nine Types of Light continues the band’s proud tradition of being totally fucking awesome. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pour mint julep and Guinness on some Frosted Mini Wheats and take a shower. Good day!