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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Something Good

The last time I heard a Laura Veirs album, I worked at Tower Records in Boston and I have to admit that, save for one or two songs, the album (Year of Meteors) bored me to tears. So I kind of surprised myself by shelling out a few of my hard-earned dollars for Veirs’s July Flame the same day I picked up Spoon’s Transference (for some reason, I have a hard time just buying one album. I don’t know why, but I always feel better buying two. It’s not always for purposes of comparison either, because sometimes the two albums have absolutely nothing in common with each other). I was further surprised to find, at first listen, that I preferred the Veirs album to the Spoon one by a landslide. At this point, having recovered from my initial shock, I can comfortably say that July Flame, an album named after a variety of peach, is a masterpiece, an album whose simple beauty puts it somewhere between Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Middle Cyclone on the Scale of Albums that are So Gorgeous They Kind of Freak Me Out. And Middle Cyclone (if you don’t know, Middle Cyclone and Fox Confessor Bring the Flood are albums by Neko Case. They are literally distractingly beautiful records and if you don’t own them, you should) is probably near the top of the scale. I am seriously weirded out by how much I love that record. I have relatives, none of whom read this blog, that I like less than I like Middle Cyclone. Of course, I also have relatives I like less than Wavves, but who doesn’t?

Where was I? Oh yeah. July Flame. It’s a fairly quiet album, something you could adequately describe as mostly folkish, but Veirs brings in instrumental and vocal collaborators (not least of whom is Jim James, also known as the singer from My Morning Jacket, also also known as  the Best Singer in Rock Music Right Now*) to give July Flame the kind of texture that sets it apart from your typical coffeehouse folk fare. Credit for those textures should be shared with producer/percussionist Tucker Martine, whose contribution to the album can be best exemplified by the tympani drums he inserts into “Silo Song,” giving it just a dash of epic awesomeness without the slightest hint of pretension. That’s a fine line to walk, but Martine and Veirs toe it perfectly over 13 tracks, none of which march past the four and a half minute mark  (“Wide-Eyed, Legless” even has a fucking bass clarinet in it, or I am much mistaken).

Veirs’s lyrics are somewhat literate (she adapts the Rimbaud poem “The Sleeper in the Valley” into a song of the same name) but never overly complex and they result in songs that have a refreshing sort of poetic directness. There’s something (enormously positive, in my mind) to be said for lines like, “I want nothing more/ than to dance with you” (from “Little Deschutes”) or “Can I call you mine?” (from the title track). The story goes that Veirs was battling some serious writer’s block before making this record and, apparently, the July Flame peach helped her get over this. I’m not sure how that works, but based on the results, I might reach for the peaches the next time I have writer’s block.

The other thing I love about July Flame is its seasonal feel – there’s the obvious connection to spring and summer (on one track, the “Sun is King” and on another, “Summer is the Champion”) via the titular peach but there are tracks on this album that, for whatever reason, remind me of walking home from the train station during a Boston winter. Songs like “Where are You Driving” (the chorus of which is harmonized in just such a way as to produce chills in me every time I hear it) and “Little Deschutes” feel like a winter night in a city that actually has winter (we don’t have it here in Los Angeles, and I can see the appeal of not having winter, really. But I miss it. Sometimes, I need to come in from the cold and Los Angeles doesn’t ever really have the kind of cold I want to come in from. We had some mid-seventies weather just a week and a half ago), a city like Boston or Portland (where July Flame was recorded). At any rate, there is winter, spring, summer, and fall on July Flame and that makes it a perfect album for wherever you are and whatever time of year it happens to be.

I listen to a lot of music, something which is fuel for (and is fueled by) this blog. I love nothing better than to find an album that I can’t stop listening to, even when I know I should move on to something else in the ever-increasing stack of albums I have to (and want to) get to. Those are the albums that remind me why I love music so much. Every once in a while, I come across an album like TV On the Radio’s Dear Science or the National’s Boxer or Laura Veirs’s July Flame (or the aforementioned Neko Case albums) that is just so captivating that it becomes worthy of the word “necessary.” I know there are people who won’t like July Flame (I know people who don’t like the National, but I forgive them), but I’m willing to risk cliche by asserting that it is the first necessary album I’ve heard in 2010.

*I firmly believe that musical taste is subjective. After all, there are people who like Kid Rock  – people who are so far out as to consider what he does “music” in the first place. That said, I can brook no dissent regarding Jim James. You listen to Evil Urges or Z or At Dawn or “His Master’s Voice” from the otherwise forgettable Monsters of Folk album (not to mention his immensely badass harmonizing on July Flame) and tell me James doesn’t have the best voice in rock music right now. And if you can tell me that, you can probably tell me that you don’t believe in vaccines, global warming, the heliocentric model of the universe, or anything else for which there is abundant scientific evidence.