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.

A Fairly Unfiltered Reaction to Beach House’s Teen Dream

First off: it’s 2010, and that means wedding planning is gonna fuck with my posting schedule a bit. So be it. For some reason, people are still dropping by, even when I haven’t posted in a while. Thanks.

Anyway, I wanna talk to you about the new Beach House record, Teen Dream. The Pitchfork review of this album uses phrases like “shadowy dream-pop”, “dark and blurry resonance,” and “Mazzy Star” in the first paragraph alone. After reading the Pitchfork (or P4K, as those pretentious twats abbreviate it. I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve abused a parenthesis, so I’m just gonna vent here for a minute. I don’t know who is to blame for changing “you’re” into “Ur”, “your” into “yr” or thinking abbreviations like P4K are acceptable, but I want them found and I want them killed. Our country is already hemorrhaging intelligence at a horrifying rate [check this shit out if you don’t believe me. Kirk Cameron actually talks about convincing people God exists by bypassing the intellect. This is probably the same way you convince people to eat shit.] and this needless pruning of already short words is not helping things at all. I don’t know if people who do it think it’s cute or convenient or what, but knock it the fuck off. If you’re texting a message to somebody and you can’t afford an extra three letters, just fucking call them. Whew. That’s some good parenthetical abuse right there) review, I was all set to hate Teen Dream. It’s called Teen Dream, for fuck’s sake.

I sought this album out to despise it. Not just because I’m an asshole (but I’ll cop to that), but because I learned a little lesson a year or so ago about a really shitty “band” from San Diego called Wavves. Pitchfork ejaculated a spoogey river of praise onto Wavves’ album, Wavvves (I still refuse to see what they did there), and, based on their review, I decided to check that album out. And it was dog shit. No. Dog shit still sounds better to me than Wavves. Now, to be fair, there are bands that I like that get pretty good marks from the Pitchforkers, but there are certain Pitchfork reviews, like the one for Beach House’s latest, that signal to me that this is overblown praise for a complete turd of a band. The word “droning” shows up in the Pitchfork review for Teen Dream and that’s a big red flag. The whole review conjures up analogy after analogy to light and darkness – also a huge red flag. The review also praises the use of a cheap drum machine, which is not encouraging. And the review contains this sentence: “Hearing her voice in such a spare setting reinforces just how rich, earthy, and, dare I say it, soulful it really is.” Yes, Pitchfork Managing Editor Mark Richardson, you dare say it. So just fucking say it, you giant pussy. If something is soulful, you can say it’s soulful. Saying Jeff Buckley is soulful only makes sense. Saying Wavves is soulful means you probably have a brain tumor.

But enough (at last!) about everything to do (even tangentially – it’s great to be back here, making parentheses my bitch) with Teen Dream but the music. Because this album is mostly fucking gorgeous. Victoria Legrand is a soulful (seriously, Mark Richardson, why is there a problem with saying that?) vocalist, her voice fits the instrumentation like a glove and, if that’s a cheap drum machine they’re using, good on them. Sounds great to my ears. Given how much I expected to loathe Teen Dream, I have to say it strikes me as nothing short of stunning. I’m listening to it right now on headphones and I am not infrequently getting chills.

So I think I’ve learned something here today. No, I haven’t learned to give Pitchfork the benefit of the doubt – I’m still right about them 9 times out of 10 (although, to be fair, they point me to a lot of good music. I read their site, wading through their mostly pretentious prose [cue someone saying this about me in 5, 4, and so on] to decide whether or not I will like the band they are reviewing) and they still give high praise to stuff a brain-damaged monkey could do with his ballsack, a laptop, and a MIDI-ready Stratocaster that so far from in tune that you have to measure the distance in megaparsecs. What I’ve learned is that I like to be surprised. The one time out of ten that I’m wrong about something Pitchfork likes is a moment of serenity for me. In this fucked up world, the fact that even Pitchfork and I can agree on something gives me a shred of hope (an admittedly small one) for humanity.

There’s another lesson here, one that is very important to remember, especially when Pitchfork or Bollocks! is bagging on something near and dear to your heart (although, come on, that never happens here): the music is what matters. It doesn’t matter what I think of an album if it moves you and it doesn’t matter that Pitchfork was blind to the beauty of My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges because I sure as fuck understood that album for the hulking slab of awesome that it was. I’m telling you what I think of an album in a given moment – in this moment, I really dig this Beach House album. I’m not getting paid for it (the Pitchfork guys are, but I don’t begrudge them that. They’ve achieved the American Dream: getting paid to masturbate) and I am comfortable with my complete lack of influence (which is what it is, at least until 400 motherfuckers come here to vehemently agree with me about something). There’s some reason you read music reviews and that’s for you to sort out. I write music reviews because, well, I love music and I don’t sleep much.

But seriously, Pitchfork was – dare I say it? – correct about Teen Dream. And while I am pretty happy when we agree on stuff, I’m still perplexed at how much I hate how they praise albums. They take their shit waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more seriously than I take mine. Of course, “criticism” is their job and what I do here is more Free-Floating Hostility, to borrow a phrase from George Carlin (if I’m funny, ever, it’s because of George Carlin or Kurt Vonnegut. Either by lessons learned or jokes blatantly stolen). You can decide which you prefer and adjust your reading habits accordingly. But do yourself a favor and at least listen to Teen Dream. I’ve listened to it like four times while writing this (I took a lengthy detour on the Way of the Master website, where I took their quiz to see if I’m a good person. You can guess, by their criteria anyway, how that went) and it is still fucking gorgeous.

The Songs of Rocktober 30-21

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Do you ever do “thirsty” Thursdays? Who has a job where they can do that? Don’t you have to work Friday morning? Okay, I don’t work until Friday afternoon, but I do work late  Thursday nights. If only there was some other way to celebrate this glorious Thursday. I know… how about ten more songs of Rocktober?

30. Sonic Youth – “Teenage Riot” – Probably Sonic Youth’s best song. It’s got a weird guitar tuning, but it’s a great song about how someone like J. Mascis should rule the world as some sort of guitar-wielding slacker Messiah. “Teenage Riot” is the lead track on 1988’s incredible Daydream Nation (you might notice that both Sonic Youth tracks on this countdown came from that record) and it might be the reason so many older indie types get all gooey over Sonic Youth. It may sound like typical electric indie stuff to the enlightened ears of 2009, but imagine this song hitting in 1988 when the best-known rock bands were complete tossers like Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Warrant, and Skid Row. In that context, Sonic Youth was performing a public service by releasing “Teenage Riot.”

29. Arctic Monkeys – “A Certain Romance” – “Over there, there’s broken bones/ there’s only music so that there’s new ring tones,” sings Alex Turner on the Arctic Monkeys’ best song (this is the one that was my gateway to liking this band). The lilting reggae guitar and jumpy bass line anchor the verses so Turner can focus on what’s really important: spittin’ some melodic vitriol. The Arctic Monkeys were but young pups when they cut this tune, but it is evidence of plenty of fight in those little dogs. It’s also evidence that their first album deserved some of the hype it got.

28. Wolf Parade – “This Heart’s On Fire” – Wolf Parade kinda splits its musical styles between the synth-driven pop of Spencer Krug and the growly, guitar-driven rock of Dan Boeckner. “This Heart’s On Fire” is a Boeckner tune, with chugging guitar, pounding drums, and earnestly howled vocals. I love the way Boeckner yelps “And you’re my favorite thing/ tell it everywhere I go/ I don’t know what to do” because every time I hear it, I realize that I’ve felt that way before. I might still feel that way now. Is a component of true love not knowing what to do with yourself? I think so. But there’s no way in hell I can sneak this song into my wedding play list anywhere. In lieu of that, it would make a good addition to Rocktoberfest (perhaps – perhaps! – a slightly better venue for it).

27. The Flaming Lips – “Be My Head” – I was in a pretty good band (I liked us) this year called Radical Edward. We played exactly one show (drummer moved to NY, bass player joined the Air Force. “And in June reformed without me/ and they got a different name”… just kidding. I hope) and in that show, we covered “Be My Head” by the Flaming Lips. This song, from Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, is tons of fun to play and sing or just listen to at top volume. The guitars are all crazy (nice riff on G in there) and Wayne Coyne is his usual awesome, weird self. Sing with me: “Be my head/ and I’ll be yours.”

26. The Breeders – “Cannonball” – This song is embedded in my brain from growing up a child of the alternative rock 1990s. It wasn’t until much later that I would learn that Kim Deal was from the Pixies (a little-known band who never did anything remarkable) – in the meantime, I had “Cannonball” and the Breeders. This song was all over alternative radio as soon as that existed, with the distorted vocals, the palm mutes, that zig-zaggy clean guitar line on the verse. Every time I listen to it, I just stop and listen and I forget that I was miserable through much of the 90s – I just remember this song (and a handful of others) looming large on my radio, urging me toward a life of rock music geekdom. Thank you, Kim Deal. Thank you.

25. David Bowie – “Queen Bitch” – Another song that Radical Edward covered; I loved blasting out that G-F-C progression and doing the chorus noodles. One of Bowie’s best rock tunes and, naturally, it’s about drag queens. Doesn’t matter though – Bowie was the king of the 70s. If he made an album, it was amazing. If he produced your album, it was amazing. If you travel back in time, go to the 1970s, hang out with David Bowie, and feel your awesomeness increase exponentially. Physicists call this effect the 1970s David Bowie Awesomeness Multiplier (or the 70s D-BAM for short)

24. My Morning Jacket – “Off the Record” – I know the guitar intro sounds like Hawaii Five-O. I know. But this song, the verse of which is sung by Jim James (the awesome bear) in a manner that somewhat channels the ghost of Joe Strummer (this is something most mortals cannot do – you have to be the halfbreed son of Awesome and a bear) and the chorus is skull-fuckingly catchy. This song still makes me want to jump around the room and shout “Off the record!” along with Jim the Bear every time I hear it. And I hear it a lot. For a band that pretty much only traffics in raucous badassery, “Off the Record” is still a crowning achievement.

23. Titus Andronicus – “Titus Andronicus” – Time to get a little bit obnoxious. This New Jersey band is loud, abrasive, and – at times – unlistenable. Underneath all that is something of a melodic sense, which is brought to the forefront in “Titus Andronicus”, their catchiest song by far. The lyrics are dark (there’s even a tossed-off “Fuck everything/ fuh-uck me!” in there) and angry: “There’ll be: no more cigarettes/ no more having sex/ no more drinking ’til you fall on the floor/ no more indie rock/ just a ticking clock/ you’ve no time for that any more” and the chorus is “Your life is over.” It’s mad cathartic. My sister was dying when I first heard this band and I was plenty angry that someone so awesome would only live 31 years. So this is the song I listened to when I wanted to punch everyone and everything right in the fucking face. It still is.

22. Iggy Pop – “Lust for Life” – I’ve already established that David Bowie was awesome in the 70s. Proof? He produced Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life album, the title track of which (despite now being used to shill for cruise companies) is still one of the most badass songs ever. It features an iconic bass line and Mr. Pop talking about how he’s  worth a million in prizes (and how he’s had it in his ear before; you get three guesses as to what “it” is). Though he vows to stop beating his brains with liquor and drugs, you get the feeling that this guy is a more frequent backslider than Pete Doherty (If you don’t know who Pete Doherty is, do not despair. Simply substitute “Amy Winehouse” for “Pete Doherty” to make that joke work).

21. Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out” – This song got all the love in the world when it first came out, which (of course) meant that I resisted it with all my might. But no longer. “Take Me Out” is a pop treasure that actually rocks. The jagged rhythm guitars (that are, toward the end of the song, lovingly embraced by snarly little lead noodles), the crisp cymbal crashes, the fatalistic “I know I won’t be leaving here with you” lyrics. It still makes the feet stomp, and it still should.

There are only two days left of this madness. And then the ‘Fest begins. Tomorrow’s set features four of the best songs of the 1990s, a surprising (well, not to me) but raucous cover song, and a guy who banged Courtney Love and then understandably shot himself.

Here’s a lot of linkage if you missed the beginning of this countdown or want to go back and confirm that I have, so far anyway, excluded your favorite band: 100-91 90-81 80-71 70-61 60-51 50-41 40-31

Best Albums of My Life #3: The Soft Bulletin

The Soft Bulletin

A word that gets tossed around way too much in critical circles is the word “essential.”  If you say something is essential, you mean people have to have it. It is necessary. Vitally necessary. Which is why smart critics don’t do it very often. There are very few cultural things that are essential. If you own any sort of video game playing apparatus, Half Life 2 and Psychonauts are essential. You should be playing them right now (0r as soon as you finish reading this incredibly non-essential blog). If you like theatre, Shakespeare is essential (as is Tony Kushner). If you like breathing, oxygen is essential. If you like Sarah Palin, a lobotomy is essential.

And if you like music, you have no business not owning The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips. Yeah, Yoshimi is great, At War with the Mystics is good, but The Soft Bulletin is fucking essential. It is your duty as a cool person to own this album and to give it your full attention (I can only assume that you are a cool person if you read Bollocks!, assuming also that you aren’t just here to assault people with grammatically embarrassing comments).

Flaming Lips albums run the gamut from good to great, with occasional (okay, frequent) stops at weird, but The Soft Bulletin manages to raise the bar all the way up to “Holy fuck, I’ve never heard anything at all like that.” It’s part pop album and part sci-fi movie; occasionally, it’s space gospel (“The Gash”) and sometimes it’s Bizarro-World FM Radio (“Buggin”, which is also what the Beach Boys should’ve tried to sound like). But it’s always, from “Race for the Prize” (the first one) to “Waitin’ for a Superman” (the second one), absolutely drenched in beauty. In fact, “Beautiful,” is the word that most often comes to my mind to describe The Soft Bulletin, and it doesn’t come anywhere close to describing what the album really is. The Germans, who have better descriptive words than we do, might have a word that means, “transcendentally, inexpressibly awesome experience.” German-speakers, get cracking, and let me know what you find.

When I set out to compile (ever so slowly, dear reader[s?]) a list of the best albums released in my lifetime, I knew the Flaming Lips would have an entry or two. The list is always evolving because I’m constantly listening and re-listening to music (and because I’m a moody bitch about music). I think The Soft Bulletin started out somewhere in the 20s on the preliminary list. When I put an album on the list (before I write about it), I “test” it by listening to it several times to see if it really is one of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I have to be 100% assured of an album’s place in my life before I tell you about it. That way, I don’t feel like I’m blowing smoke up your ass when I tell you something like, “The Soft Bulletin is fucking essential.” Now, here the album stands, the third best album released in my lifetime, ranking right up there near London Calling and whatever #2 turns out to be (is the suspense killing you? Yeah, probably not). My list is nothing if not a meritocracy and The Soft Bulletin has earned its spot.

Why?

Let’s start with the obvious: great songs tend to make albums great (unless you only have 1 0r 2 great songs on an album of bad songs; that makes your album kind of infuriating). The Soft Bulletin is wall-to-wall great songs (two of the songs are so great they appear twice). But the really awesome (and harder to do) thing is an album that consists of great songs that compellingly establish a mood. Try an experiment with me: put on The Soft Bulletin. Now, try being unhappy. You can’t do it, can you? Or, if you can, perhaps you have some sort of brain disorder that makes you hate joy. As I write this, I am listening to The Soft Bulletin after a particularly frustrating morning dealing with what passes for a judicial system here in Los Angeles (a judiciary that can acquit O.J. Simpson is capable of anything) and believe you me, when I sat down at this here computer, I was fuming. Fucking furious. So I cranked up my favorite Flaming Lips album. I’m three tracks in (“The Spark that Bled”) and the anger is just melting away. So long, anger.

But it’s not just that The Soft Bulletin is a shiny, happy album – it’s not, really. It’s kinda death-obsessed, in an interesting sort of way. But the music is incredible, from the crashing drums and twinkling bells to the rich piano tones of “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “The Gash” t0 Wayne Coyne’s warbly-ass voice. After seeing the Lips in concert last week, my fiance pointed out that Coyne isn’t a great singer, but he just goes for it and his voice fits each song in just the right way.

Which gets me to the next reason you should love The Soft Bulletin and the Flaming Lips in general: they’re one of the most honest bands in the world. Under Coyne’s oddball direction, they strive to give their audience an experience that transcends the standard rock concert thing. And they mean every fucking thing that they do, heedless of whether or not they might fail. Truly, as the documentary’s title states, they are fearless freaks. The Flaming Lips album that best exemplifies that awesome experience is The Soft Bulletin. This album makes me want to drive my car out to the middle of nowhere, park in a field, and lay on the hood staring at the stars while “What is the Light?” blasts from my shitty, Toyota Corolla factory-issue speakers. Or better speakers. You get the idea.

It is nearly impossible, these days, to make an album that doesn’t sound like something else. There are just too many sounds and they’ve all been recorded. And yeah, you can say The Soft Bulletin owes some debt to the Beatles or something, but I’ve never heard another album that does what The Soft Bulletin does. It’s the senseless act of beauty that trite people are hyping on their bumper stickers and it’s only made better by the fact that you can’t capture its vibe in a catchphrase. You can come close with this t-shirt I got at the Flaming Lips show last week: “I experienced the Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being.” The Soft Bulletin might not make you a better human being, but it will, for fifty minutes or so, make your life fucking awesome.