This One’s Not About Music

Death Valley

This is just a picture of a desert. I don’t know why it seemed so fitting but it does.

 

I started writing this post around Valentine’s Day.

It all started with Dylan Farrow’s open letter from February 1st.  You’re probably aware of it and Woody Allen’s response and you may even have an opinion about who is telling the truth and who is lying. I do too, but that’s not what this is about either.

It’s about something I never talk about – my family doesn’t talk about it – that happened to me when I was a kid. From the age of seven to about the age of ten, I was molested by my cousin. My brother and sister were as well and my sister’s courageous attempt to actually do something about it led to the three of us being pulled out of public school to be “home schooled” by our mother, who was as qualified to educate us as I am to build rockets.

Being a survivor of sexual abuse is part of my identity, but it’s part that I don’t often share. It’s hard to – you can’t walk up to people at parties and say, “Hi, my name’s Matt and I was molested by my cousin. Pass the dip.” But Dylan Farrow’s letter has stuck with me because it reminded me that my sister tried to tell the truth and was forced to tell an attorney that she made the whole thing up even though she didn’t.  The message was loud and clear for all of us (as it is for many victims of abuse): “No one will believe you.”

But it happened. For years.

I know there are people out there who are inclined to ask why victims seem to recall or at least talk about childhood sex abuse years after the event. As I mentioned above, one reason is probably the feeling that you will not be believed – certain (former) members of my family made sure to cultivate that feeling in me, my brother and my sister.  There are probably lots of reasons people wait to speak out and I’m not going to pretend my reasons are universal. The most obvious one that comes to mind: when you’re a kid, you don’t have the vocabulary to say, “Hey, by the way, cousin Billy is molesting me.” I didn’t learn until much later how to talk about what my cousin did to me. Two things about that: 1) I’m still learning how to talk about it and 2) I’m really fucking lucky; some of us never develop the ability to speak about our abuse and that can lead folks (human beings, deserving of love and happiness) to pretty dark places. My brother has struggled most of his adult life with what happened to us (this is how we talk about it – “what happened to us” or sometimes just “what happened”) and I know he’s often felt unworthy of love and dignity because of the abuse he suffered – abuse that our mother and her family covered up.

I’ve tried to write about this before, with very little success. For one thing, it’s really goddamn difficult – I started writing this 2 months ago and have doubted ever since that I would ever actually publish it (I actually sat down at my computer tonight to play the new X-Com DLC, but started doing this instead).  I’m talking about a part of my life when I had no control and only one person (who is now dead) was brave enough to speak the truth. My dad believed my sister and, for his trouble, he was treated like shit by my biological mom’s family (and they in turn commanded my siblings and me to treat him like shit, which we did. I try not to treat my dad like shit now and I’d like to think I do an okay job, but that’s for Dad to judge).

So why bring all this up now?

It’s important for me to speak up now because I can speak up now.  Because I’ve managed to beat back enough of the shame and anger to articulate the facts. Because if I talk about it, maybe it will help my brother (or anyone else who sees this) talk about it. I’m not worried about being called a liar; I long ago stopped talking to those most likely to call me one. I’m a person who values the truth more than I value being comfortable or popular and the truth is that I was molested, I survived it (mind you, not without some serious issues about my own body and the unique ability to become massively freaked out about the power dynamics of sexual desire) and it wasn’t my fault. There are thousands of people like me and my brother and sister all over this country and some of them are probably feeling the same awkwardness about saying the truth out loud that I’m feeling even as I type this. Thousands. How many were called liars? How many have famous, beloved abusers?

This is hard to think about. It’s hard to write about and it’s really fucking hard to talk about. But it’s time to start talking and this is as good a place as any.

 

The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #13: “My Best Friend’s Brother”

Yesterday, when I was listening to Shabazz Palaces’ rather remarkable new album on Spotify, my enjoyment of Ishamel Butler’s spaced out hip-hop was interrupted by a commercial for a song by someone with the unlikely name of Victoria Justice. That song was called “My Best Friend’s Brother” and I alluded to it in my review of Black Up knowing full well that it was going to end up here eventually. Because without a doubt, “My Best Friend’s Brother” is one of the worst songs I have ever heard. I don’t know who Victoria Justice is, but I do know that she needs to be stopped.

And yes, I’m well aware that this music isn’t being made for people like me (that is, people who have any kind of discerning taste whatsoever), but Spotify clearly isn’t aware of that fact because they fucking advertised this piece of shit right into my earholes when I was trying to listen to some groovy, laid back hip-hop. So if this makes your tween-ager weep, blame Spotify. And then stop letting your fucking kids read Bollocks!.

“My Best Friend’s Brother” starts off with the kind of produced-until-lifeless synth and guitar riffs (over programmed drums, no less) that have backed every teenage pop track since Britney first demanded that you hit her, baby, one more time. It’s a formula that has been vile since its inception but it’s hardly the most stupefying thing about this particular song.

The thing I find the most baffling about “My Best Friend’s Brother” is its central premise. I just don’t see what’s so taboo about having the hots for your best friend’s sibling. If Ms. Justice was jonesing for her best friend’s boyfriend (or girlfriend maybe), I could see a conflict. But it’s not like Justice’s best friend is fucking her own brother, so what’s the problem? Is the brother in question a notorious brute who likes to beat the shit out of women (the song says he’s a “punk rock drummer” but I’m guessing Victoria Justice and I disagree vehemently about who is and who is not a punk rock drummer)? The song never bothers to say why exactly Justice’s best friend would object to the relationship, which makes Justice’s love seem about as forbidden as brushing your teeth.

And of course, the video has a stupid fucking dance that goes along with the chorus and said dance actually features a part where Justice motions for the hearer of her dirty little secret to keep mum about it in front of her best friend! So if you watch the video, you will see Victoria Justice attempting to be coy, in a completely Disney-fied way, about something that really doesn’t need to be a secret to begin with and then punching a truck-sized hole (with a dance!) in her own secret plot.

I get that a lot of this teenage Disney shit (I know, because the internet just told me, that “My Best Friend’s Brother” is from something called Victorious, which is a Nickelodeon show, but you get what I mean here) is fundamentally retarded but before you suggest that it shouldn’t matter to me as a functional, devilishly handsome adult with diverse interests and tastes, let me tell you why it should matter to all of us. The underlying message of the success of your Miley Cyruses (who is herself no stranger to our Worst Songs feature), Hillary Duffs, and Victoria Justices is that our kids are fucking stupid. At this juncture, it’s pointless to debate whether they were fucking stupid from the outset or if it is in fact a culture that allows not only Miley Cyrus but her bemulleted scumbag of a father to be (ahem) successful (ahem ahem) musicians that has made them (and perhaps all of us) fucking stupid. Many of us (well, many of you, parents) accept as an immutable fact the idea that our kids will like low-quality dreck when it comes to music (and movies and television) and that it’s just dandy to allow them to consume this shit so long as they keep their mouths shut and bring home a fridge-worthy homework assignment once in a while. But let me ask you this: would you let your kid consume cheeseburgers or Chocodiles with the same degree of passivity? I mean, clearly some of you would because we have an obesity epidemic in this country. But surely most of you (I’d like to think only good parents read Bollocks!. I happen to know a few awesome ones who do) would not allow your kid to consume terrible food the same way they consume culture that is absolutely designed to keep them tugging your pant leg for newest cutesy bullshit to be burned to disc. So I have to ask: why don’t we care about our kids’ cultural consumption as much as we do about their caloric consumption?

It seems to me that we’re only fighting half the battle if we’re working so hard to get our kids to exercise and eat right and then allowing them to poison their brains with shit like “My Best Friend’s Brother.” What good is a healthy body if it houses a mind turned to sludge by auto-tuned, assembly-line music that’s created to get you to tune into (and buy the shitty trademarked merchandise of) vapid, thoughtless television shows? And if you think your kid is somehow incapable of “getting” better music than can be found on Victorious or Hanna fucking Montana, then you’re implying that you agree with Disney and Nickelodeon and Mattel and most major record labels that your kid is fucking stupid. But hey; maybe your kid is fucking stupid. I don’t know. But it seems like exposing them to stuff like “My Best Friend’s Brother” is only gonna make it worse.

And yes, of course, this is ‘Merica and we have a constitutional right to be completely fucking stupid but if you find yourself using that defense for our most inexcusable cultural excesses, I don’t know that you’ve got anything worth defending. We’ve spent the last two hundred years finding better, faster ways to become physically, emotionally, and intellectually unhealthy and it hasn’t exactly borne us any useful fruit. For those of you who want a better future for your kids, why not start by making sure that your kids are just as culturally fit as they are physically fit? Why not create higher demand for intelligent, artful children’s culture (it exists, you know. Read a Shel Silverstein book) instead of relying on cable networks to pump our kids full of brain-dead crap like “My Best Friend’s Brother”? We can do this, America. We’re like the 23rd or 24th best country in the world and we can do anything if we put our minds to it!

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.”

The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #6: You Give Love a Bad Name

Have you ever wondered how and when I decide to do installments of The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard? I didn’t think you did, but I’ll tell you anyway. There are some songs I just know I’m gonna write about eventually (a perhaps unsurprising amount of them are by Kid Rock and John Mayer) but if, over the course of a week out in the world, I hear a song and can’t stop thinking about how awful it is, I start thinking about all the fun ways I could tell you how awful it is and that song ends up officially being one of The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard. Given that rubric, it’s actually pretty surprising to me that I haven’t done a Bon Jovi song before now.

We’re talking about “You Give Love a Bad Name” today because I was at a play last weekend (a series of short plays actually, called “Love Bites”, put on by the Elephant Theatre Company here in Los Angeles. I think the show runs two more weeks, so you should maybe see it if you can) and this song played at the end, perhaps to encourage people to leave the theater a little faster. My cousin-in-law is in the show and we were chatting with her afterwards, so “You Give Love a Bad Song” had time to worm its way into my brain and, luckily for you, I’ve spent the intervening four days thinking about how bloody terrible it is.

Trust me, it’s plenty terrible. With a lot of the songs I talk about in this feature, I have serious beef with the lyrics (because a lot of these songs have really stupid lyrics) but “You Give Love a Bad Name”, perhaps more than any of the other songs I’ve profiled so far, actually musically sounds like shit. The prominently featured bass drum sounds muffled and terrible (I also think I hear some kind of weird effect on the drums toward the end of the song), the guitar sounds almost electronic and fake (I’m not saying it was electronic and fake, Richie Sambora fanboys. I’m just saying it sounds that way), and though the video (also terrible, which is saying something because most hair metal videos were crap) shows a guy playing myriad keyboards, I don’t hear keyboards in the song (which, in all honesty, is a win for keyboards). It’s like Bon Jovi’s keyboardist was their manager’s nephew or something.

It might surprise you to discover that I don’t think the lyrics to “You Give Love a Bad Name” are offensively terrible. They’re not good or anything, but they’re by far the best part of the song. If you can’t guess what it’s about, let the good people at Ask.com tell you. I’m linking to their entry because it’s so clinical and hilarious. If your boss is blocking Ask.com, I’ll just tell you that, according to them, the song is “about a woman who has jilted her lover.” You should really read the whole entry when you get a chance, though – it’s all written in that mechanical tone and it’s full of information that can only properly be described as minutiae (spoiler alert: “You Give Love a Bad Name” went all the way to numero uno on the Polish singles chart in 1986. This article lists the Polish chart ahead of both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the German Singles Chart. Which is as it should be; 9/1/39. Never forget!). Anyway, for a song that’s about what every other song in the 1980s was about, there’s not much here lyrically to piss me off. It’s all pretty standard; “You Give Love a Bad Name” sucks almost entirely based on its presentation. Though I meant it when I said I had no beef with the lyrics, I can’t stand the way Jon Bon Jovi sings them. His pronunciation of “fingertips” alone causes the blood vessels in my eyes to burst. The background vocals (especially the chorus-ending repetition of the phrase “bad name”) are uniformly awful, but they would become the trademark of a bunch of Bon Jovi tunes in the 80s, including “Livin’ On a Prayer” and “Bad Medicine” (two more BJ tunes destined to be featured on this list someday).

If I was feeling charitable, I’d let “You Give Love a Bad Name” represent every other Bon Jovi song among the Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard, because it does so adequately exemplify their musical modus operandi. They wrote some of the most sterile music to ever be lumped in with the hair metal of clearly heavier bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses and Motley Crue; looking at the artwork from the “You Give Love a Bad Name” single, it’s hard to imagine Bon Jovi doing anything but getting their lunch money forcibly removed from their pockets throughout much of the 80s. But it was a weird time and these guys managed to survive until the 90s when they could cut their hair and, following in Aerosmith’s cheesy footsteps, start selling power ballads like Scientology sells crazy.

Near as I can tell, there are two kinds of people who like “You Give Love a Bad Name” – people who enjoy it ironically, like they hear it at bars and laugh and say stupid stuff like, “It’s so bad it’s good” or “It’s cheesy but I love it” and people who actually honestly really fucking love Bon Jovi. Those people exist. I think a lot of them live in Bon Jovi’s native New Jersey (and hey, as awful as I think Bon Jovi is, I bet they’re a lot less embarrassing to the Garden State than Jersey Shore). The top-rated YouTube comment for the official “You Give Love a Bad Name” video (linked above. Warning: reading comments on YouTube videos is like lodging a shit-covered beehive directly in your brain. You really shouldn’t do it. I wore goggles and welding gloves) says, “95% of teens these days listen to the same crappy pop songs over and over. if [sic] your [still sic] one of the 5% left who still listen to real music, thunb [sic for a third time] this up, then copy and paste it to least 5 video’s [and sic a fourth time even]. DONT [damn, that’s sic number five] LET THE SPIRIT OF ROCK DIE.” That was posted by a user named billymasterofpuppets, presumably a teen himself, possibly from New Jersey. I certainly hope he’s still in school because his English is fuck-terrible. I can’t decide which is sadder – the kid’s grammar or his misguided belief that “You Give Love a Bad Name” somehow embodies the all-caps “SPIRIT OF ROCK.”

Great Fucking Albums #18: Mermaid Avenue

Yesterday, I talked about Woody Guthrie and specifically about how he was reincarnated as Jonathan Coulton and started writing songs about computer programmers instead of union organizers. Though Guthrie only got a brief mention in my article that was ostensibly about Marian Call and the pros and cons of nerd culture, the socialist folkie has been on my mind a lot this week, mostly because I’ve been listening to Mermaid Avenue a lot.

Mermaid Avenue is the Brooklyn street upon which Woody Guthrie and his family lived in the years after World War II (before Guthrie moved to the hospital where he spent his final years). The album Mermaid Avenue is both for sure a Woody Guthrie album and kind of also not a Woody Guthrie album. Some clarification: back in 1995, Nora Guthrie approached British leftist folkie Billy Bragg (if you haven’t heard Billy Bragg, there are two songs you need to know right now: “Help Save the Youth of America” and “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”) and offered him the opportunity to write some new music for some of her father’s “lost” songs. In the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue, Bragg claims he had access to “over a thousand complete lyrics.” Bragg drafted Wilco to help him flesh out the tunes and Mermaid Avenue was born. Technically, the album is credited to Billy Bragg and Wilco, but it’s Billy Bragg and Wilco singing the lost songs of Woody Guthrie (a second volume was released in 2000 and rumors abound of a third volume in the works). Bragg says (again in the liner notes) that Nora Guthrie really wanted him to work “with her father to give his words a new sound and a new context.”

That new context could rightly be viewed as a coronation of Woody Guthrie as the raison d’etre for every alt.country wannabe that ever graced the pages of No Depression. Guthrie influenced everyone from the Clash (Joe Strummer even took to calling himself “Woody” for a while as a young man) to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his one-time cohort Jay Farrar (let’s face it – the best Uncle Tupelo songs are either punked-out nods to Woody Guthrie or campfire ripoffs of him, which is to say that the best Uncle Tupelo songs are fucking awesome) and it’s not that surprising that Summerteeth-era Wilco was so brilliant at setting his words to the right music. Bragg and Tweedy mostly split vocal duties (harmonizing wonderfully on album closer “The Unwelcome Guest”), with 1990s radio staple Natalie Merchant taking the helm on one song (“Birds and Ships”), and all three singers give career best performances – Tweedy’s comes on “California Stars” and we’ll talk about Bragg  a little later because that dude is so well suited to this material that, especially in light of 2009’s lackluster Mr. Love and Justice, he might consider going back to the rest of those thousand complete songs and working his way through them an album at a time.

A couple of references here and there to unions and organizing sound a little dated to twenty-first century ears, but the overall effect of Mermaid Avenue is to bring Guthrie’s sense of community, equality, and justice to a generation of people who probably forgot that Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” (Guthrie, a total badass, penned “This Land” in response to the Irving Berlin-composed “God Bless America”, which he was apparently sick of hearing. Good thing Guthrie died before 9/11 because you couldn’t fart after that day without it sounding like “God Bless America”). “Eisler On the Go” is a moving tribute to Hanns Eisler who was deported from America after being labled the “Karl Marx of music,” which is a pretty retarded accusation when you stop to think about it for even five seconds. Guthrie writes, “I don’t know what I’ll do” when wondering how he’d fare going up against the House Un-American Activities Committee as Eisler did (Eisler’s buddy Bertolt Brecht was supposed to stand before HUAC too, but he never got to read the super-badass speech he wrote that basically told them to go fuck themselves). But Guthrie had a keen sense of humor and a dirty mind too – exhibit A for the prosecution being “Ingrid Bergman” in which Bergman’s beauty causes a volcano to erupt because it’s been waiting “for your hand to touch it’s hardrock.” Subtle, Woody. Subtle. But even if Mermaid Avenue doesn’t send you scrambling to your nearest record store for Guthrie’s records, it will treat you to some damn fine American music.

I don’t think Billy Bragg has ever been in better vocal form than he is on Mermaid Avenue and his awesome baritone injects “Walt Whitman’s Niece” with humor and puts some serious wind under the sails of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” And he fucking nails “Eisler On the Go.” The first time I heard it, before I knew who Eisler was, Billy Bragg’s austere performance had me convinced that Eisler was a friend of Guthrie’s who had died. I’m not ashamed to say I wept. Bragg, whose early solo albums tend to feature just him and a clangy electric guitar, is also served very well by having a full band behind him, especially since that full band is Wilco. “At My Window Sad and Lonely” could have been an outtake from Wilco’s sessions for Summerteeth (the first time I saw Wilco live, after Jay Bennett had left the band, I was delighted that they played both “At My Window” and “California Stars”).

The adept interplay between Billy Bragg and Wilco makes Mermaid Avenue a stellar alt.country/folk/rock record, but what’s remarkable to me about the album is that it’s definitely not greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an album of songs penned by an underrated folk singer and brought to life by an underrated punk/folk singer and an (at the time) underrated American rock band. The combination is a testament to how awesome Guthrie was and how awesome Billy Bragg and Wilco are. That is, it’s precisely as great as the sum of its parts. Because the parts are fucking brilliant. Nora Guthrie published the following words of her dad’s in the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue and I just find them too completely badass to leave out of this post:

“The world is filled with people who are no longer needed – and who try to make slaves of all of us – and they have their music and we have ours – theirs, the wasted songs of a superstitious nightmare- and without their musical and ideological miscarriages to compare our song of freedom to, we’d not have any opposite to compare music with – and like the drifting wind, hitting against no obstacle, we’d never know its speed, its power…”

If you want to know the power of Woody Guthrie’s words, you could do a lot worse than just rereading the above quote. If you want to know the power of great music, I suggest you listen to Mermaid Avenue.

I Can’t Review the New Hold Steady Album

Why, you’re wondering, can’t I review Heaven is Whenever, the new album by the Hold Steady? After all, they are my favorite band. It would seem to be a natural fit: they put out an album and I tell you all about how wonderful it is.

But that’s exactly the problem. I’m not going to pretend that Bollocks! is ever (or has ever been) even remotely objective, but at this point me reviewing a Hold Steady album is like an alcoholic reviewing beer. Except the Hold Steady won’t fuck up my liver.

So there’s no point in me telling you that Heaven is Whenever, despite the departure of Franz Nicolay, is probably the best Hold Steady album yet (someone on the interwub claimed that Separation Sunday was the Hold Steady’s “peak” but that’s probably the drugs talking. The best Hold Steady album seems to always be the latest one, which is really an achievement. Almost Killed Me is a great record, and they’ve only gotten better since then. I keep waiting for the Hold Steady record that’s going to disappoint me and they keep not making it). Of course I think that. At this point, it’s in my blood to think that.

If you’ve read Bollocks! much at all over the last two years, you probably expect me to say that Craig Finn’s lyrics are sharper than ever (standout lines include, “You can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth”; “Heaven is whenever/ we can get together/ lock the door to your room/ and listen to your records”; and the simple, probably true, “In the end/ I bet no one learns a lesson”) and that Tad Kubler is still the most underrated guitar player in the world (opener “Sweet Part of the City” even features slide guitar and it sounds sweeter than honey dripping from the vulvas of angels*) .

So maybe you should find another reviewer to give you the nitpicky stuff. Someone will try to accuse the Hold Steady of making the same album over and over (which they haven’t) and someone else will say Craig Finn can’t sing (he’s gotten a lot better since Almost Killed Me and Heaven is Whenever is his strongest vocal performance yet). Pitchfork thinks “these new songs just don’t hit as hard,” so you can go there and try to figure out what about Heaven is Whenever warrants a score of 6.2. (Parenthetical rant:  I’ve got serious beef with scoring systems in general. If someone can’t tell how you feel about a record by what you wrote, you did a shitty job of writing. Almost every website rates things with numbers, stars, or grades like “A-“, which is bad. But Pitchfork’s numbered rating system is by far the most pretentious, goofiest bullshit ever. What the fuck are they judging, figure skating? Did the Hold Steady not land their Salchows and Lutzes to your liking? I suggest a new motto for you, Pitchfork: “No One Skates a Clean Program. Except Radiohead”) Perhaps Pitchfork didn’t notice the additional (and quite welcome) harmony vocals on nearly every track or the fact that Heaven is Whenever is heavy on chord-based riffs but not as heavy on Kubler’s guitar pyrotechnics (though those do make some appearances as well) .

You know who you should read? Probably that Robert Christgau guy. He’s a real intellectual about this shit and he’ll probably give you some good copy on Heaven is Whenever. He’ll probably tell you all about what’s wrong with it, from start to finish. But I won’t. Because I love it. Would I sit here and tell you all the bad stuff (which is far outweighed by the skull-crackingly awesome stuff) about my fiancee? No. Because I love her and I’m going to marry her and if things don’t work out, I just might marry Heaven is Whenever.

On the bright side, Heaven is Whenever has done some brilliant housekeeping for me here at the imaginary Bollocks! office. I no longer feel compelled to compile a list of my favorite albums of 2010 this December. Heaven is Whenever is my favorite album of the year – I listened to it six times the day it started streaming on NPR’s website and at least twice a day since then. That was before the fucking album even came out! Now that it’s out, there’s not gonna be a lot of time for me to listen to other albums in my car. I might as well roll out a little red carpet that leads to my CD player and forget that my other albums even exist.

So does this make me a Hold Steady fanboy? Possibly. Hell, probably. But I’m not gonna run to your blog and tell you to kill yourself if you don’t like Heaven is Whenever (this happened to me once when I had the temerity to not like an album. I won’t say which album, but the band’s name rhymes with Shmortugal. The Pan). Whether or not you like this album is immaterial to the fact that to my refined, devilishly handsome ears, this album kicks several buckets of ass.

So what is it, you might be inclined to ask, that makes me like the Hold Steady so damn much? Glad you asked. They consistently scratch an itch that I have for fun (listen to “Rock Problems” and “Our Whole Lives” and tell me those aren’t fun songs), literate rock ‘n’ roll music. Craig Finn’s musings on death and religion are not that far from my own – I believe, as he has mentioned before, that we are our only saviors. In a godless universe, we have two powerful things to help us out: each other and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not Nietzsche, but it’s not the worst ethos in the world either. But more than that, the Hold Steady has taken the music I grew up hating (I call it Alcoholic Stepdad Music, which should let you know everything you need to about where I’m coming from), music I thought was for dead-end buffoons in dead-end towns, and they’ve spit it back to me as something uplifting, positive, and goddamn entertaining. “Beautiful” is not a word that a lot of people would use to describe the Hold Steady’s music, but it’s beautiful to me.

So no pretense here. In an era of completely bullshit objectivity, I came here to praise Heaven is Whenever. There is nothing I don’t like about this album and if that ruins whatever credibility you were lending me, I can live with that (what the hell were you doing lending credibility to a blog anyway?). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only listened to Heaven is Whenever once today and that’s not nearly enough.

*If you’re unsure as to exactly how sweet that is, why not ask your reverend when you’re at church next Sunday?

Hockey, Quentin Tarantino, and Things that Bother Me

If you’re a little confused, let me clear it up: Bollocks! has not become a sports blog (that won’t happen until hurling invective becomes an Olympic event). Hockey is a band from Portland (!) that might remind astute listeners (or even not-that-astute listeners) of LCD Soundsystem or the last Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. By itself, that’s not an entirely bad thing – Hockey’s debut album, Mind Chaos is an enjoyable enough listen that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I rate it about on the level of the Killers’ first album, except the dudes in Hockey are far better musicians than the Killers.

No, Mind Chaos is not really a problem for me except that, when I listen to it, I get this feeling – a feeling a get when I watch Quentin Tarantino movies now, by the way –  well, it’s hard to explain. Let me try, by way of meandering analogy.

When I watch Tarantino movies, I sense two things: 1) Quentin Tarantino has a vast knowledge of cinematic history and is able to cobble together a usually-interesting pastiche out of that and 2) Quentin Tarantino clearly thinks that Quentin Tarantino is the coolest motherfucker who ever lived. I watched Inglourious Basterds the other night and it was filmed well, and fine as far as it goes, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Tarantino probably jerked off while watching the dailies from this thing. Tarantino’s ego is obscuring his art for me at this point, and I’m no longer compelled to reward him for it. You might think that’s a terrible reason to stop watching Tarantino movies, but cultural preference being entirely subjective, I’ll offer you my usual follow-up reason for why I do or don’t like something: Fuck you, I don’t need to justify my likes or dislikes to anyone (and neither do you).

Now, Ben Grubin (whose voice is actually pretty awesome) and company may not believe themselves to be geniuses – in fact, the lyrics on much of Mind Chaos suggest that they think quite the opposite. They’re just out for a dance-rocky good time, and I’m  not gonna dump on them for that. But Hockey’s music is so hyper-stylized (I may be damning myself by saying so, but Pitchfork was right to point out Hockey’s mostly agreeable cut-and-paste job of LCD Soundsystem and the second Strokes album) that it runs the risk of devolving into a shallow aestheticism – one song is the dance hit of the summer, one (“Four Holy Photos”) is the Dylan-esque song full of seemingly random imagery and strident harmonica bits. What I fear, is that Hockey’s triumph, if achieved, is the triumph of style over substance. I feel a similar discomfort about liking the Dandy Warhols’ 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl album. Both are fine albums from a musical perspective, but both are also indicative of two bands playing dress-up (it’s sadly telling to me that Howl remains Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s finest hour. And 13 Tales is pretty much the only Dandies album that shouldn’t go fuck itself). To Hockey’s credit, I think they’re playing dress-up to a much smaller degree than the Dandy Warhols, but I’ve always been a fan of balance, and even in the age of Lady Gaga, I think we can balance style and substance (the first person who attempts, with any seriousness of purpose, to argue to me that Lady Gaga’s music is in any way substantive will win a lifetime supply of scorn from yours truly).

I suppose some pretentious wanker who took a class in post-modernism might be compelled to suggest that maybe Hockey is striking such a large dance-rock pose to comment on poserdom itself. After all, the opening track on the album is called “Too Fake.” Surely, this wanker might suggest, that song is Grubin calling posers out as much as he’s labeling himself one, yes? My answer is a solid maybe. I know you can be in a rock band that comments on the nature of being in a rock band, but I also know that, to make it work, you have to be precisely as awesome as the Velvet Underground. But there’s nothing on Mind Chaos to suggest to me that Hockey is operating on any deeper level than the good-time music that litters the album. So I like them, but I’m careful not to like them too much until they prove that they are worth taking seriously.

And, lest I be accused of being humorless, let me clarify what I mean when I say, “worth taking seriously.” I don’t mean I want Hockey to start ingesting heavy doses of Joy Division and losing the quite-welcome spring in their step. I mean I want to hear something from them that suggests they’re doing something other than proving that any idiot can make a rock record (of course any idiot can make a rock record. How many albums does Kid Rock have? The problem is, I have no time for bands that exist to prove this point. That dead horse has been beaten enough, kids. Leave it alone). I’m certainly not asking Hockey to make a second album as colossally misguided as the Killers’ Sam’s Town, an album that crawled so far up Bruce Springsteen’s ass that I believe the Boss had to have Brandon Flowers surgically removed. I just want to know that they’re not laughing all the way to the bank. I’ll give you a for instance: “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, probably my favorite song of the last decade (that, right there, is all the counting down of the best of the decade that I’m willing to do, folks. Take it or leave it), is an excellent dance/pop song but it resonates much deeper than that. There isn’t a happy moment that I’ve had in the last ten years that couldn’t be adequately soundtracked by that song, and I guarantee you I won’t be saying that about anything from Mind Chaos in ten years. Now, if Hockey’s second album is more Sound of Silver and less Sam’s Town, well… it probably won’t be. But I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised.