The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/  hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t, so he died/ she said, ‘You’re pretty good with words/ but words won’t save your life’/ and they didn’t, so he died.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.

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My Ten(ish) Favorite Albums of 2010

Well, I can’t fight the tide of year-end best-of lists forever, but I can try to have fun with it. What follows is a rambling, shambling list of my ten-ish favorite albums (I say “ten-ish” because there’s a tie at number ten and a three-way tie for my second favorite album of the year) and, in the interest of defying tradition while still being stuck with it, I’m doing it “count-up” style, starting with my first favorite and ending with my 10th(ish) favorite. It’s Monday, and I figure we can handle it without the suspense.

1. The National, High VioletIf you’ve read Bollocks! over the last two weeks, you already know this is my favorite album of 2010. There’s not much more to say about it – the National have set the bar incredibly high for whatever they do next and this album still gives me chills.

2. Tie: LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening; The Screaming Females, Castle Talk; The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever. I know the so-called pros will frown on my refusal to make a distinction between these three albums. “Surely,” they will scoff, “you can’t love all three of these albums exactly the same amount.” “Yes I can,” I will reply, “and don’t call me Shirley.” (Rest in peace, Leslie Nielsen. You are forgiven for Dracula: Dead and Loving It). LCD Soundsystem made a dance/pop/rock/electronic masterpiece with This is Happening. It’s a smart, catchy album, and it’s got some of the finest songs James Murphy’s ever written. The Screaming Females, over their last two records really, have injected some much needed vitality into modern rock music. Castle Talk is probably the best straight-up rock album released this year and, in case you haven’t noticed, everyone here at Bollocks! likes Castle Talk almost as much as we like food. As for the Hold Steady, well, Heaven is Whenever is another in a long line of profoundly awesome albums from my favorite band. More than their previous releases, Heaven is Whenever sends me running for their references – different songs make me want to listen to Jim Carroll or Hüsker Dü and then come back to the Hold Steady. I know some people saw Heaven is Whenever as a step down for the Hold Steady, and they’re entitled to that opinion as long as they don’t try to peddle that bullshit ’round here.

3. The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. What you have to realize about this list is that the separation of affection I have for these albums is minuscule. 2010 was like Christmas all year long for me, with new albums dropping almost monthly that had me wishing that I could just stay home for a week straight and listen to music. The Suburbs is goddamn gorgeous, substantive, and exactly what I’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire.

4. Menomena, Mines. This album is candy for your ears. Much is made of Menomena’s songwriting and recording techniques, but none of that is as important as the fact that Mines is stuffed to the gills with soaring melodies and lush harmonies. It’s Menomena’s best album so far and I hope you run out and get it as soon as you finish reading this.

5. The New Pornographers, Together. Some of my friends look at me funny when they ask what pop artists I like and I say, “The New Pornographers.” This is usually because they’ve never heard of the New Pornos and labor under the  popular delusion that “pop” is short for “popular.” I know a lot of people think that, but I’m referring to pop as the kind of rock music made popular by the Beatles. You know, big choruses, catchy melodies. Listen to Together and tell me you don’t hear some of the best pop music of 2010. And then I’ll tell you that I would very much like to donate to whatever telethon helps people like you.

6. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks. Ted Leo is a bit of an unsung hero of rock music. He plays the guitar like a motherfucker, creates stylistically diverse music with a punk spirit, and even puts in the work to keep ticket prices down (as much as possible) for his fans. The Brutalist Bricks is a pretty relentless record – that is, it’s pretty and relentless, sometimes in the same track (album closer “Last Days” comes to mind). And the band brings just as much thunder on the stage as they do in the studio. The show Leo & the Pharmacists played in Los Angeles last spring was one of the most satisfying concerts I’ve ever attended.

7. The Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in the Flood. Laura Burhenn is an incredibly powerful singer, and she doesn’t need any goddamn auto-tune to deliver a melody that’ll put some fire in your blood. What We Lose in the Fire is nothing new musically, but it’s played with the deep faith of someone who as been baptized in the river of the music they’re mimicking. The album starts with a stunner (the somewhat paradoxically titled “What We Gained in the Fire”) and is littered with musical treasures throughout. Listen to the this record.

8. The Corin Tucker Band, 1,000 Years. I had read somewhere, long before it came out, that Corin Tucker’s first post-Sleater-Kinney album was inspired by her marriage and two kids. Given my feelings about such music, my Trepidation Meter was pegged over in the red until I heard 1,000 Years, which is actually just a very lovely rock album with some nice melodies and some really kickass moments. Tucker’s voice is still in the same great shape it was in on The Woods and her return to making music was one of the best things about a very rewarding year in music.

9. Wolf Parade, Expo 86. Wolf Parade channeled 80s David Bowie (the Dan Boeckner-led “Yulia” is “Space Oddity” with a Russian historical flavor) and their own personal weirdness to craft the best 1980s album of 2010. I hate to use the word “accessible” when discussing music, but Expo 86 probably was a breath of fresh air to people who were a bit put off by At Mount Zoomer (I don’t count myself in that group). Either way you slice it, songs like “Caveosapien” and “Ghost Pressure” help make Expo 86 an album that I couldn’t leave alone for long this year.

10. Tie: The Manic Street Preacher, Postcards from a Young Man; Roky Erickson and Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Both of these albums ended up tied for my tenth favorite in the last two weeks. In preparing for all this year-end nonsense, I tried to go back through all of the albums I really enjoyed throughout the year, and these two have done nothing but grow on me. Sure, Postcards from a Young Man is a bit overstuffed in places, but “All We Make is Entertainment” might be the best song the Manic Street Preachers have ever written (it’s definitely one of my favorite songs of 2010) and the rest of the album is pretty great too. James Dean Bradfield is an underrated rock vocalist and he proves it on every Manic Street Preachers album. As for legendary loony Roky Erickson, I spent the better part of this past holiday weekend rediscovering True Love Cast Out All Evil, and that album is really fucking beautiful. Like Postcards, it’s got some dodgy moments but those are far outweighed by moments of transcendent musical awesomeness. “True Love Cast Out All Evil” might be the best title track of the year.

There are lots of great albums that didn’t make this list. I still love them, but 2010 was an amazingly satisfying year for music (at least for me it was) and the albums discussed above are the ones from this year that I return to time and time again. We’re almost done with the year-in-review stuff, but I have found what is definitely the worst album of 2010 and I might need two days to tell you about it. Until then, some unsolicited advice: listen to music more than you talk, write, or read about it. Namaste!

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.

Great Fucking Albums #14: Zen Arcade

I rarely discuss liner notes on albums, but I have to admit that my favorite liner note from Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade album is, “We all threw chairs on ‘Pride’.” If you just read that one line and knew nothing else about Hüsker Dü, you’d probably get an accurate idea of how aggressively badass Zen Arcade is. And, if you like the edges rounded off of your rock music, you might quickly discover that Hüsker Dü is not for you.

I was four years old when Zen Arcade came out, but I didn’t know about this album until I lived in Boston and met some dudes who said their band was heavily influenced by Hüsker Dü. I had heard the name but not the music and, in a moment of weakness, I nodded and affirmed the awesomeness of being influenced by Hüsker Dü even though I had no fucking clue what that meant. I’m not proud. I’m a bit older and a bit wiser now, so when someone says they dig a band I’ve never heard of, I cop to it and then go find something by that band to listen to. (Incidentally, I never got to hear the band that said they were influenced by Hüsker Dü, but I see now that’s a sort of risky thing to be. My research indicates that those dudes were either noisy and terrible or shambolic and brilliant. Sadly, it’s easier to be the former.)

I didn’t own a copy of Zen Arcade until this year, but it doesn’t matter when you get great fucking albums; it matters that you get great fucking albums. And there can be no doubt, ladies and genitals, that Zen Arcade is a great fucking album. Hüsker Dü was ostensibly a hardcore band, but that’s like calling the Clash merely a punk band. There’s a lot going on on Zen Arcade from classic rock (the keyboards on “What’s Going On”, for instance, are total classic rock. Hey, I have a really bad idea, but I want someone to take me up on it: I know mash-ups are all the rage nowadays and I want someone out there with a laptop and more time than I care to spend on it to make a mash-up of Hüsker Dü’s “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye’s drastically different song of the same title. Any takers?) to hardcore (“Something I Learned Today” and the aforementioned “Pride”) to trippy stoner stuff (“Hare Krsna” is probably better when you’re stoned).

A lazy internet search (I was looking for the official release date of the album on the web) revealed to me that Zen Arcade is a concept album about a kid who leaves home and finds out that the world sucks. Or something. Fine. Doesn’t matter. It matters more that this is one of the few albums along with Black Flag’s Damaged and most of Minor Threat’s stuff, to come out of that whole 80s hardcore scene that you can still put on and just listen to. I like early Bad Brains as much as the next guy (maybe slightly more. I really want someone to croon their way onto American Idol and then bust out “Pay to Cum” one week. When they finish the song, they can jump off stage and beat the shit out of all the judges and everyone in the audience, especially the family members of the other contestants), but you can’t just sit there and listen to Banned in D.C.. In fact, Bad Brains’ more recent “listenable” stuff (think 1993’s Rise) is terrible. Zen Arcade transcends hardcore,  punk, and most other genres. In fact, the album takes most flavors of rock music and pummels the living shit out of them, warping them to reflect the angst of the album’s protagonist (if it has one; I still only half believe the concept album thing. It’s epic for sure, but the “concept” hangs a little loose for my liking. Feel free to argue). It’s safe to say that Zen Arcade is the blue print for the “alternative rock” that would follow it a few years later – for better or worse. I can certainly hear strains of Hüsker Dü in Nirvana and the Manic Street Preachers, but I’m sure there’s at least one joker out there who will try to tell you that The Black Parade is their generation’s Zen Arcade. If you ever meet this person, it is legal to punch them in the face.

Lyrically, Zen Arcade is not as narrative as, say, Separation Sunday (by another Minnesota band I love called the Hold Steady. You might’ve heard of them), but the songs are still incredibly relevant. “Newest Industry” features a line about running out of oil and annexing Mexico for the land, while “Turn On the News” sounds like it was written while watching Glenn Beck (“with all this uptight pushing & shoving/ that keeps us away from who we’re loving”).

For as rough and aggressive as Zen Arcade is, it is also musically rich and wonderfully textured. There are catchy melodies, harmonies to spare, and quite a bit of face-melting guitar to go ’round. It’s rather impressive that all but two of these songs were recorded on the first take (“Something I Learned Today” and “Newest Industry” started too fast, according to the liner notes). For a trio of Minnesota punks, Hüsker Dü was also a band of intensely talented musicians and Zen Arcade, like London Calling before it, is a prime example of a brilliant band at the height of their power. Do yourself a favor and check out this great fucking album.

You can find other Great Fucking Albums here.

Believe This Hype Too: The 8 Most Underrated Guitarists I Can Think of Right Now

Even if you hate the guitar, you probably know some guitar player names: Hendrix, Slash, Eric Clapton, that asshole from Metallica (no, the other asshole from Metallica. No the other one). But there are some guitarists you might not know and I think you need to know them if you enjoy music. And fun.

1. Tad Kubler hid his guitar playing talents from the world by playing bass for Lifter Puller. When it came time to start the Hold Steady with fellow LP alumnus Craig Finn, Kubler upgraded to six strings and almost instantly (see “Most People Are DJs” from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me for proof) became the best rock guitarist in America (more proof: “You Gotta Dance [With Who You Came With]”) . Clearly a graduate of the Melodic Riffage School founded by Angus Young and Slash, Kubler spends the bulk of any given Hold Steady record kicking ass and taking names. Basically, if I could have just one guitar lesson from one living guitar player, it would be Tad Kubler. Hands down.

2. Ani DiFranco. You probably don’t think of the guitar when you hear Ani DiFranco’s name. You might think “angry feminist folkie,” and that’s your prerogative. However, DiFranco has one of the most unique approaches to the guitar I’ve ever seen, her rhythms all choppy and funky, almost as angry as some of her songs (which aren’t all angry. Listening to Ani DiFranco won’t make your penis fall off, guys). She sounds simultaneously self-taught and accomplished, which is harder to pull off than you might think. When I saw her live, it struck me that she was someone who picked up a guitar and had no preconception of how it was supposed to work – so she made her own way with it and is really one of our finest acoustic players working today.

3. J. Mascis is the Rainman of the electric guitar. Seriously, if you see Dinosaur Jr. live, it looks like he has to be led to the stage and propped up between his two giant stacks of amplifier. But once he starts playing, you will fucking see colors. Mascis’s solos can seem a bit overstuffed at first, but his attack is furious and at his best, he is staggering. Some of his best moments can be heard on Dinosaur Jr’s Beyond, the “comeback” album for the original Dino Jr. lineup. Also check him out playing “Maggot Brain” on Mike Watt’s Ballhog or Tugboat album.

4. Doug Martsch. Built to Spill, like Death Cab for Cutie, is one of those bands that I associated with indie rock long before I ever listened to them. I was almost intimidated by the expectations I had for those two bands (and I wasn’t disappointed until Death Cab released Plans back in 2006; but they’re much better now) but Doug Martsch and Built to Spill put my mind at ease from the first time I heard Keep It Like a Secret. Then, in 2006, I heard You in Reverse and “Conventional Wisdom,” the central riff for which just makes me giddy all over. Martsch is a total package guitar player, busting out melodic solos, excellent rhythm parts, and – as he showed us on his solo outing, Now You Know – he’s no slouch when it comes to acoustic and slide guitar. Martsch has something for everyone, really, and now that you know that, go find some of his stuff.

5. Peter Buck. You don’t get to be a guitar god by having a tight grasp of nuance. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck is one of my very favorite guitarists because he doesn’t put on any airs about it. He’s the epitome of no-frills, but he can still play a lovely solo when the song demands it (the solo for “Flowers of Guatemala” is a perfect example). The lesson Buck teaches, with the patience of a Zen master, is that a good guitarist should be more interested in making great songs with his band than in showboating and noodling like a prick. This lesson is lost on far too many guitarists (and lead vocalists too).

6. Marc Ribot is not a household name. If it helps, he played on a lot of Tom Waits records. He combines the sort of buzzing electricity of the Ramones with the choppy funk of, say, Danny Elfman. Ribot is well versed in basically every style of music you want and his work spans pretty much every section of the record store. In 2005, he released an album of improvised sort-of covers of Albert Ayler (the famed free jazz saxophonist) songs. Let’s see Yngwie Malmsteen tackle that shit.

7. Nels Cline. If you’ve seen Wilco live since A Ghost is Born came out, then you’ve heard Nels Cline take Wilco’s songs and wrap them in a lovely ribbon of his furious riffage. Clearly a disciple of the Tom Verlaine school of guitar playing, Cline is one of the noodliest guitarists that I still enjoy. Why? Because when Cline plays, I imagine the proton beams from Ghostbusters firing out of his pickups. Watching the man play is like peering through your fingers at the Ark of the Covenant – expect some face meltage.

8. Ted Leo. Ted Leo plays the guitar like a motherfucker, but like Peter Buck, he doesn’t have to play a solo one thousand miles per hour to prove his chops. I read an article the other day that chided Ted Leo & the Pharmacists for considering themselves punk, but that article was bullshit. Punk isn’t a genre (not anymore), it’s a spirit, and Ted Leo certainly has it. The Brutalist Bricks is a compelling argument, but it’s only a fraction of the case Leo can make as a guitarist. See his band live and you’ll understand what it means for a guitar player to literally rip into a solo. Leo rips into them and tears them apart from the inside and then, as you’re coming down from that, he might just wow you by strumming out a cover of “Fisherman’s Blues” or something.

So there you have it. Some guitarists that people love too much, some that people love exactly enough, and now some that need more love. So go give it to ’em. We’ll return to regularly scheduled bitching about albums later this week, probably starting with Avi Buffalo.

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?

Best Albums of My Life #6: Separation Sunday

Anyone who has read more than one post on this blog is certain of two things. 1) I love the Clash and 2) I love the Hold Steady. So it should surprise no one at all that a Hold Steady album would make it onto my list of the 29 Best Albums Released in My Life (a list which was supposed to be completed by the time I turned 30, but better late than never, right?).

Separation Sunday was the very first Hold Steady album I heard. And for those of you who think it was love at first sound, it wasn’t. I thought this Craig Finn fellow might be shouting about something worth hearing, but I wasn’t that interested in finding out. My favorite song upon first listen was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (still one of my favorites) and I didn’t really think much of the other ones. I got that the album was trying to tell me a story, but it took me a few months of owning the album (I got it for free – one of the perks of working for the now-defunct Tower Records) to really sit down and try to listen to that story.

Once I did, though, I was duly impressed. Not only was the story of Hallelujah’s disappearance and “resurrection” a compelling listen, but Tad Kubler’s guitars and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards had wormed their way into my brain, creating a boiling soup of classic rock and literature, two things I would not have thought to combine on a regular basis (largely because some of the most offensive Led Zeppelin songs are the ones where you can tell Robert Plant had been getting high and reading Tolkien).

That was 2005 in Boston and now, five freaking years later, I still love this album. I listen to at least one Hold Steady album a week and lately, I’ve been coming back to Separation Sunday a lot. Not just for the mind-blowingly badass guitar work on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Banging Camp” (I ask you: what kind of world are we living in where people think John Mayer is a great guitar player but only a fistful of lucky souls know and recognize Tad Kubler’s mad skills? Kubler is like  a dragon who breathes awesome riffs instead of fire) or the lyrical awesomeness of “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (“I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dudes blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ and I heard things ain’t never been the same since”), but because of the feeling that I get from Separation Sunday. Like the feelings I have toward a lot of albums, I get a very specific feeling from this album.

When I was a supervisor at Tower, I opened the store on Saturday mornings (a good shift – I was off by 6pm and able to go to shows or out drinking with my friends, most of whom worked at the same store), which meant getting to work by 9am. So I was on the train by 8:30. So every Saturday morning, I’d walk through my little Boston suburb and I loved the way the town felt that early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was like the whole city was sleeping off a hangover and I was tiptoeing through the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I’d march from my awesome basement apartment with my headphones on, listening to Separation Sunday more often than not, and sip coffee while I waited for the train. I’d get to work to be greeted by Baby Boomers with too much disposable income waiting to purchase tickets for whatever shitty show was going on sale that day (part of the joy of being a supervisor at Tower, you see, was running the Ticketmaster – or Ticketbastard, as I called it – counter). And when I look back at my time at Tower Records in Harvard Square (best retail job I ever had – among the top five jobs of any kind that I’ve ever had), the whole thing is soundtracked by Separation Sunday.

The album itself tells the story of a girl named Hallelujah (“the kids, they call her ‘Holly'”) who gets strung out on the Twin Cities drug and party scene and disappears for a while, only to crash into an Easter mass some months later (“Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”). She has a junkie boyfriend who cheats on her with her little hoodrat friend (Hallelujah is a hoodrat too, but you don’t find that out until the end of the album), and she finds some junkie revivalists camped on the banks of the Mississippi River who will give you a full-immersion baptism after a hit of nitrous to give you that “high as hell and born again” feeling. Along the way, she has visions of St. Theresa, sings a song to St. Barbara, and gets involved with a sweat-pants clad drug-dealer named Charlemagne (who, like Hallelujah, is a recurring character in many Hold Steady songs). The combination of the story and the hard-charging rock music that propels it serves to solidify Craig Finn’s underlying musical thesis: that you’re as good a savior as you’re likely to get and that, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is historically the least disappointing religion you can join. Though Separation Sunday depicts a druggie scene in all its puking glory, the album never becomes a morality play about the dangers of drug use. For Finn, drugs are just another self-made obstacle on Holly’s way to her self-made resurrection. Being high isn’t the problem, it’s why you get high that’s the problem (“I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story/ because when we left, we were defeated and depressed/ and when we arrived, we were rippin’ high”).

Finn’s voice is not great – most people know this. But, like Bob Dylan’s voice (yes, I did just make that comparison), Craig Finn’s voice strikes me as uniquely suited to telling the stories he has to tell. The ongoing story of people fucking themselves up and redeeming themselves is not a story to be told in the clean, polished, octave-scaling timber of a Josh Groban; it’s a story meant to be told by a guy who has lived through something. Finn sounds like he’s lived through a war – hell, like he’s sung through a war – and come out the other side. But his voice (and myriad references to early punk, early hardcore, the Bible, and John Berryman) might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people and that’s just fine by me. I can’t say for certain that I’d like the Hold Steady as much if I thought they were for everyone.