Warning: My Morning Jacket May Result in Unintended Pregnancy

I witnessed three separate diaper-changings at the My Morning Jacket show at McMenamin’s Edgefield last night. My friend Lea Anna suggested that the bands we like are “growing up,” but I would rather see this as testament to the virility of MMJ fans. And who wouldn’t want to sow some wild oats, after seeing Jim James explode on stage? Here is a man who has all the powers of a Dracula and a Sasquatch, with none of the drawbacks, plus some extra powers that probably come from the mystical combination of the two— powers like shredding ass on guitar and blasting forth with ovary-throbbing falsetto that I hope makes Prince nod in solemn approval.

Besides, after 13 years and 6 albums, MMJ had probably grown up long before I ever heard about them, and their broad set list showed it. There were plenty of tracks on hand from Circuital of course (including an impenetrably awesome rendition of “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” complete with its very own chorus of Black Metal Girls), but the tracks seemed to be split neatly between Circuital, Z, Evil Urges, and It Still Moves, which suits a nascent fan like me just fine.

Other highlights included an extended, skull-shaking, pants-dampening version of “Off the Record;” the band chuckling along with the audience during “Outta My System;” and each song that featured the intensely badass drumming of Patrick Hallahan (spolier alert: it was all the songs).

I love being at shows where you can tell most people in the crowd are there because they clearly love the band. I go to concerts sometimes and see people that don’t look like they’re having a good time, or they’re texting or whatever, and I just want to ask: “what on earth motivated you to foot $20-50 to sit through something you’ll mostly ignore?” This show was not one of those shows. I had a doofus grin plastered on my face the whole time, and looking around saw plenty of the same, with people dancing and belting out lyrics at the top of their lungs from the pit to the nosebleeds.

So if you’ve been trying for a baby but haven’t had much luck, skip all those boola-boola fertility drugs and just go to a MMJ show. Count Sasquatch will hook you up.

~Zac

Advertisements

I Get Comments

A couple years ago, when I started this blog (Bollocks! will be three years old in February – right now, it’s still going through that difficult toddler phase of climbing on stuff and putting everything in its mouth), I was genuinely astounded when people took the time to comment on anything I’d written. However, I was not astounded to find that people seem to be more motivated to say something to you when you’ve said something disapproving about a band they like. Rare indeed is the comment that says “Right the fuck on! I love that album too.” Rarer still is, “You know, I disagree with you but that review was funny and sure beat the shit out of working for a few minutes.”

In my opinion (and everything that appears here is my opinion, but we’ll get to that in a minute), internet comment sections are the new letters to the editor from your local newspaper (I think I might’ve mentioned that before). Mostly, they’re bad. But when people start going back and forth, they get ugly. And idiotic. Look at any Fark comment thread for proof of this. And I’m not saying any of this stuff to try to keep you from commenting on my blog; you are welcome to say anything you want to me in the comments section, so long as it’s not spam. I’ll try to respond, if a response is warranted, and I promise to do my best not to do any name-calling (again, that shit may fly on Fark, but we’ve got some standards here at Bollocks!). Let’s just try to remember that we’re not arguing over the fate of the free world here – we’re shooting the shit about music. It’s important in its way, but we (even Portugal. The Man fans) don’t need to get heated.

A while back, I wrote a bit about ten guitar players I think are overrated. A few months went by and I got a rather lengthy comment from someone calling himself  “That dude” (whether the “d” is lower case by choice or laziness, I can’t tell), telling me, among other things, that I “would have to be an utter moron” to criticize the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen who is, apparently, That dude’s personal guitar deity (is That dude in fact Yngwie Malmsteen, writing under an easier-to-pronounce pseudonym? Probably not. But I haven’t ruled it out completely). Now, I want to be fair here and say that That dude’s comments were, overall, fairly coherent and intelligent, if a bit long-winded. But calling me names doesn’t help your cause, That dude; it makes me laugh.

You can read the full comments on your own time, but I decided to make a post of what will probably be my last word on the subject because I feel like That dude and I are about to get into a high (read: no) stakes semantic argument about what we mean when we say a musician is “good.” That dude clearly gives a lot of weight to technical prowess and I clearly give more weight to whether or not the musician makes me want to stab my own eyes out with a pencil. To each his own, I guess. Nothing That dude said has convinced me that Yngwie Malmsteen is good (and, in some ways, That dude, you’ve really only solidified my belief that he’s overrated – a belief that is valid because it is my belief and is only true for me) and I’m sure nothing I say will convince That dude that Malmsteen sucks. Of course, I’m not trying to convince anyone that Malmsteen sucks. I’m merely recording my opinions and then being completely mind-fucked when people actually take the time to read this shit. I trust you to understand that whatever I say on my blog is my opinion, not a fact (whatever is said on most blogs is an opinion, although there are certainly exceptions). Most of you do. So thanks.

Incidentally, when someone on the internet disses a band I love (and it happens a lot), you know what I do? Nothing. I let it slide. It’s one motherfucker’s opinion and it doesn’t change a damn thing about the music or about my life. And let’s be clear: I’m not telling you not to argue with me about stuff I post here. By all means, argue! This isn’t Something Awful, though; I’m not trolling the internet trying to provoke outrage from people. I’m telling you what I think about music in a (hopefully) humorous and entertaining fashion.

But don’t, please do not ever, ever tell me what I can and cannot or should and should not say on Bollocks! This is my shitty little corner of the internet, folks, and I can do what I damn well please. I try to be nice, unless I hate an album, but even if I hate an album you love, it doesn’t mean I hate you, even if you made the album I hate. Hell, I probably don’t even know you. In his two separate comments, That dude told me not to criticize Yngwie (in all caps and Brit spelling: “DON’T CRITICISE HIM!” With a fucking exclamation point!) and then said, “…you may prefer AC/DC to Yngwie Malmsteen but that does not mean that you can say Malmsteen (or the other 4 I mentioned earlier) sucks. Period.”  Oh, That dude. Clearly, you have not read much in the way of Bollocks! Not only can I say that Yngwie Malmsteen sucks, I can say any fucking thing I want. You can, too, of course. You can start a blog about how much I suck. No one would read it though, because no one knows who I am. But you could do it.

The bottom line  is when you come to this, my virtual house, and tell me I can’t say something, it compels me to say the thing again and find a way to make it worse. Because to me, that makes it funny. Maybe that’s immature and maybe you’re a poopypants.

So but anyway:

Yngwie Malsmteen sucks. And he likes to have sex with dead people.

This Is Where It Gets Bad: A Clinical Examination of Eels’ Tomorrow Morning

Hey everyone. I’m busy getting ready for a Thanksgiving road trip to Oregon, so updates are going to be spotty this week. However, I’ve been listening to the new Eels record, Tomorrow Morning, a lot lately and I remembered that when I reviewed Hombre Lobo, I said I only needed to listen to Eels records to see how Mark Everett is doing. Tomorrow Morning isn’t a good album, but it sounds like Everett is a pretty happy guy at the moment. I don’t have time to break it down for you, but my musical pathologist friend, Dr. Rebecca Mellor, does (musical pathology is a fairly new field and she spends a lot of her time playing Tetris on her MacBook). So below is her expert opinion on the new Eels album and what it means for Mr. Mark “E” Everett. Enjoy! (Note: I might get one or two more updates in this week, but don’t hold your breath.)

Hello. Apparently, Mr. Chorpenning thinks I do not read his introductions. Although I am quite busy running a study that tests the ability of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to influence the size and flavor of beefsteak tomatoes (we have not published our results yet, but I can tell you they are mostly large and delicious), I am also quite fascinated by artists whose music seems to decline in quality as their personal lives improve.

There is ample evidence that Mark Everett’s life has been filled with emotional trials and, in the early part of his career, he turned those trials into anthems of hard-won optimism (“Last Stop: This Town” is a particularly edifying example). Experts in my field (and I hope you will not think me immodest for saying that I am foremost among those experts) agree that Mr. Everett reached his musical peak with 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy. Over the last ten years, he has wavered in quality from bad to pretty good.

On his last album, End Times, Everett sang of a cataclysmic break-up. He followed End Times only a few months later with Tomorrow Morning, an album of almost unyielding optimism. It is clear from the content of this new album that Mr. Everett has replaced the flood-bringing girl of End Times with someone new – a “Spectacular Girl,” by Everett’s own account. If I may indulge myself slightly by quoting the film Gloomy Sunday (a mildly melodramatic, but otherwise well-done fictionalization of the creation of one of the most depressing songs ever written): “apres le deluge, nous.”

Everett’s new love is placed on a pedestal almost immediately; her love, coming so soon on the heels of his last relationship, inspires him to sing that she loves him and “is smarter than you”. Elsewhere, he says that he is “the Man” which may betray delusions of grandeur, although I take it to be an attempt to convey that “on top of the world” feeling that we experience when we fall in love. Mr. Chorpenning has suggested that this is a good time to point out to Bollocks! readers that I am single. Personally, I do not see how that is relevant to our current discussion.

As a psychologist (I double-majored), I am concerned about the rapidity with which Mr. Everett has recovered from what was, according to the evidence, a profoundly difficult breakup. However, as a musical pathologist (which is the capacity in which I am currently writing – I do try to stay on task), I am more interested in the fact that Tomorrow Morning is almost uniformly bland where it is not cringe-inducingly awful. “Baby Loves Me” falls into the latter category and “Spectacular Girl” barely misses it. No serious person believes (do they?) that you have to be miserable to make brilliant music. Matt Berninger, the lyricist for the National, is a happily married father; yet, he writes mopey anthems like “Terrible Love.” And, he has written one of the best break-up songs of this young century (“Runaway”).

No, Mr. Everett’s problem is how eager he is to pour his happiness into the ears of his listeners. Sometimes, when we are striving for simple honesty, we end up with too much of the former which makes it hard for music fans to care much about the latter. Tom Waits lies about himself constantly and many of his songs are simply stories of people who have fallen by the wayside in life; but if you cannot identify the emotional honesty of his work, you need to schedule an appointment with me immediately (you can reach me by email at askdoctormellor@gmail.com). On Tomorrow Morning, Everett’s lyrics are forgettably direct – they are equivalent to a character loudly declaring, “I’m happy” instead of smiling, which would show us that they are, in fact, happy. You would not want to watch a film where the characters run around monotonously declaring their feelings but Tomorrow Morning is an all-too-appropriate soundtrack for just such a film.

You would have to be a sociopath to ask a musician to sacrifice personal happiness to make better music and I honestly hope that Mark Everett’s “Spectacular Girl” sticks around, even if it means that Eels will never be good again. Perhaps, as the relationship matures, Mr. Everett will find less declarative ways of conveying his happiness instead of verbalizing his diary over the same bland beats over and over again. This is purely speculative, but I am assured speculation (“the wilder, the better,” according to Mr. Chorpenning) is acceptable on Bollocks!, even if it is not accepted in the scientific community.

Perhaps a study is order: it seems harder than it has ever been to write decent, happy love songs (Tom Waits’s “Picture in a Frame,” which was written for his wife and songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, is one of the best love songs of the last twenty years. Along with “Do You Realize?” by the Flaming Lips and “I’ll Believe in Anything” by Wolf Parade) and while some artists can live happy lives and write compelling sad songs, there seems to be a general lack of artists who can turn their personal happiness into proportionally happy (and good) songs. Tomorrow Morning seems to prove fairly conclusively that Mark Everett fits all too well into this last category.

Rebecca Mellor is a musical pathologist and macramé enthusiast who will not reveal whether or not she is related, even tangentially, to a certain punk rock icon. She only uses contractions when she’s been drinking and only drinks when she’s hanging out with the Bollocks! staff. As the official musical pathologist of the Bollocks! music blog, Ms. Mellor is available to our readers to answer pressing musical health questions. Email her at askdoctormellor@gmail.com.

Crapping Rainbows All Over the Furniture

A fair criticism I’ve heard of Sigur Rós is that their music is a bit melodramatic, that the long, slow builds to beautiful crescendos are a little bit on the overwrought side. I like the bulk of Sigur Rós’s output and I still think some of their stuff is bogged down by its own sense of import (but when they balance their pomp and their pretension, they make achingly beautiful music). Jónsi Birgisson, the band’s lead singer, released a less dramatic record last year under the name Riceboy Sleeps (to say the least, it was a  down-tempo record that, as far as I know, only I liked). This year, he’s replaced the melodramatic flair but added a healthy dose of  sugary pop energy to the proceedings for a solo debut simply called Go. This album conjures up images of Gir from Invader Zim devouring a planet’s worth of Skittles and then running around the house on a sugar high, shitting rainbows all over the furniture (especially “Animal Arithmetic”). This should probably not be surprising, coming from a dude who made up a language called “Hopelandic” in which to sing the bulk of his songs.

The music on Go, which is totally worthy of a Legend of Zelda video game, is largely composed and arranged by Nico Muhly – also known as the dude who arranged the National’s “You’re So Far Around the Bend” for the Dark Was the Night compilation. I’d like to go on record right now as saying that I’d donate money to fund an album-length collaboration between Nico Muhly and Sigur Rós. On Go, Jónsi runs crazy happy rings around Muhly’s music, singing mostly in English, which is not always (or really ever) a good idea for him.

There are two things that I think turn people off about Sigur Rós’s music more than anything: the fact that nobody knows what the fuck Jónsi is singing about and the aforementioned melodramatic tendency. But Go doesn’t benefit from being mostly in English – when you only paid attention to the feeling of the words in Jónsi’s made-up language, you could have a fairly pleasant time with Sigur Rós. When Jónsi sings, “We should always know/ that we can do anything,” I feel like I’m listening to the denouement of a fucking Care Bears movie. And the more upbeat, “poppy” (for want of a better word) songs on Go seem to really suffer from a lack of gravitas. Seems counterintuitive, I know, but Go’s best moments are the ones that sound the most like Jónsi’s day job.

It’s weird to dislike something from a guy who seems to sincerely be a little happiness fairy, floating around the world, showering us in shimmery songs of hope and longing, but at the end of the day, the music on Go doesn’t really stick with me at all. It’s the aural equivalent of sucking down the world’s longest Pixy Stix (Pixy Stick? I’ve never seen it in the singular before) on an empty stomach; sounds like an interesting idea at first but you’re only gonna end up vomiting neon blue crud in the end. There are moments of real beauty within several of the songs here, but you’re rushed through them to get on to the next idea; maybe if the Riceboy Sleeps record tried your patience, Go will give you a big ol’ boner of instant gratification. But as the only guy on Earth who liked that album (or listened to it more than once), I find myself wanting to tell Go to slow down just a second and catch its breath. I don’t think I’m being curmudgeonly here, either. Sigur Rós and Riceboy Sleeps have trained me to like slow-moving majesty and the lilting, chimey tracks that make up the bulk of Go aren’t triggering my Pavlovian response.

For some reason, talking about Jónsi and Sigur Rós has led me to think of video games.  So let me continue the trend by saying that, in a lot of ways, Sigur Rós is the stoic, patient little boy from Limbo and Go is Sonic the Hedgehog, strung out on gold rings and running around in two and a half dimensions in search of his next fix. It’s more than okay to like both, but there’s something striking to me about how patient the boy in Limbo has to be – haste literally makes waste in that game, usually in  the form of the boy’s dead ass on a pile of spikes. The game moves slow but never bores you because it is so artfully presented, like a good Sigur Rós album. Like Sonic the Hedgehog, Go is fun in places, but you can only run around like that for so long before you get bored.

There was something about Sigur Rós, when I first heard them, that prevented me from dismissing them as new-agey bullshit (and I wanted to, believe me. You give me some dudes from Iceland who sing in a fake language and try to get all epic up in my grill and I should be able to give you a thousand words on why that’s exactly the kind of pretentious bullshit that ought to be outlawed in a civil society). They’re not the kind of music I normally enjoy, but I own most of their albums and really love them. Whatever intangible quality that exists in Sigur Rós albums is missing for me on Jónsi’s Go, but I still can’t dismiss it as new-age bullshit. It’s just an album for which I have no use.

Thoughts On the Changes At eMusic

So it’s been going ’round the internet that eMusic is making big changes this month. To hear them tell it, they’re adding over 250,000 new tracks to their system because of a new deal with Universal Music Group. Fine. I’m all for expanding consumer choice. But it doesn’t take long for this to get shitty. In order to get the Universal deal, eMusic had to change their price scheme to bring it more in line with the I-Tunes (and Amazon and just about everybody), price-per-song style of doing business. Before, I paid $20 dollars a month and got 50 “credits” good for song downloads. I could usually get four albums a month for $20. I was happy. What eMusic didn’t want to say explicitly is that their price “change” meant you were going to get “less” for your hard-earned “money.” I’m not alone in my disdain for this “change.”

eMusic’s shenanigans have had an unintended result (at least I hope it was unintended) that’s starting to get a lot of attention: indie labels like Beggars Group (which includes Matador, 4AD, Rough Trade, and XL) and Merge have opted not to go along with the new, awful scheme at eMusic. Which means artists like the National, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, She & Him, Titus Andronicus, Deerhunter, the Arcade Fire, Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, Dinosaur Jr., Camera Obscura, Art Brut, Jarvis Cocker, and you get the point will no longer be available (or their stuff will be limited to off-label releases and compilations) on a site that once claimed to be the “no. 1 site for independent music.” But you can get the new Weezer atrocity for just $8.50, as well as albums by Fall Out Boy, Hole, and Steely Fucking Dan. Goodie.  A press release from Beggars Group USA says that eMusic “was the dedicated home for independent music and is, in our view, not that any more.” They’re not kidding: if you go to eMusic right now, you’ll find more Ted Nugent than Ted Leo, which ain’t how it should be (Leo and the Pharmacists’ Living with the Living, on Touch and Go Records, is still available as I write this).

What’s clear is that eMusic had to change something to lure in Universal and that change was a bad deal for the smaller labels who, let’s be honest here, provide a ton of the music indie snobs like myself seek on eMusic. The trade-off must have been worth it to the folks at eMusic, and maybe it will be. But the loss of some of the best indie bands in the country could also be devastating (and maybe it should be). I can’t help but wonder, as I cancel my subscription yet again, if eMusic hasn’t just pissed away the one thing that made them distinct among so-called “legitimate” download sites. They emailed out a petition you can sign if you want to (ahem) beg Beggars Group, Merge, and a couple other labels to come back to eMusic, but I didn’t sign it. I have the nagging feeling that those labels got fucked by eMusic or, at the very least, got asked to fuck over their customers. I admit that I don’t have concrete evidence at the moment (let’s face it – I don’t have the cultural cachet of a Pitchfork so no one’s gonna return my emails asking what the fuck happened), but I’m pretty familiar with the artists on Beggars Group and Merge and those are labels that provide an extremely high value-for-money to their fans and I have a hard time believing that they would essentially make their stuff less available to those fans unless there was a good goddamn reason.

The first time I stopped being an eMusic subscriber was when I got fed up with the ratio of stuff they had that I didn’t give a fuck about to stuff they had that I wanted. When they fixed it, I rejoined them and was quite happy with them until this month. Just browsing through the Beggars Group roster, I see a lot of great stuff that won’t be available anymore. And, regardless of what eMusic says, it’s on them. Before they implemented their new scheme this month, those labels were happy keeping their music on the site and that music is gone because of changes eMusic chose to make. One has to guess that eMusic is doing what they’re doing to keep pace with the I-Tunes people, but they’ve inadvertently made it so I-Tunes can offer me something eMusic no longer can: National albums.

Even if I could forgive the fact that most of my favorite bands will no longer be available on eMusic (as I write this, for some reason, even the newest Hold Steady record is gone from the site. That does not bode well), I’d have a hard time looking past the whole thing where my money gets me less. eMusic tries to put the focus on the fact that the price of my plan hasn’t gone up, but if I pay the same amount of money and get less, how the fuck are you helping me? Oh, they also want to give me a paltry three dollar “loyalty bonus” every month, which will also not go as far as my eMusic money went in October. The bottom line, eMusic, is that there’s basically no way on earth to give me less for my money and make me happy about it. I’m better off just saving my twenty bucks a month for a trip to Amoeba.

At the moment, it’s hard to say what effect the loss of some of the best bands going today will do to eMusic, but it had an immediate negative effect on me as an eMusic customer. As I write this, I’m no longer an eMusic member and I made sure to let them know it was because they fucked things up this month. To be clear, I have no problem with the fact that eMusic added shitty bands from a major label – there are plenty of very shitty indie bands on eMusic too. My problems are 1) in order to get the additional shitty music, eMusic drove some of the best artists working today away from their site and 2) they trumpeted the fact that they didn’t raise their prices while hoping I would ignore the fact that my money buys me significantly less music than it did before. I’m guessing that I’m not  the only person who has these problems and I’m guessing that I won’t be the only guy getting out of his subscription as soon as humanly possible.

Jesus Christ Reviews the New Mavis Staples Record

I was going to review the new Mavis Staples album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. I really dig the record, but I’m no expert when it comes to gospel. But I know a guy who is. My pal Jesus Christ has been known to help out here from time to time and if anyone knows gospel, it’s the dude who supposedly inspired it. So if you want to know what Chorpenning thinks of You Are Not Alone: I think it’s a beautiful record from an amazing vocalist and I think you don’t have to be religious to like religious music. Now. If you want to know what the Son of God thinks of the record, read on…

Hey everyone, Jesus Christ here, typing away from my offices in Heaven. I have to admit that I had some reservations about reviewing the new Mavis Staples record; not because of Mavis, she’s great, but because last time Chorpenning asked me to review a record, it was Creed’s Full Circle. However, I tend to be a forgiving guy and I decided to give Chorpenning a chance to redeem himself.

Mavis Staples is a gospel singer and I know that a lot of Bollocks! readers are total heathens, so let me clear something  up right now: I really don’t mind if you don’t believe in me. It’s not that important. I mostly want you to be nice to each other, even on the internet. The reason I bring that up is that I don’t want people to miss out on good, soulful music just because someone is name-dropping me or my dad. You don’t have to like 7 Seconds to dig “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady, do you? (I show up in a few of their songs too. Which reminds me: I’ve been asked to pass on a very special message from someone up here. And that is this: every time you raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, he raises one right back to you.)

So but anyway, I’m always happy when a younger generation can discover a performer I consider iconic. When Johnny Cash started roping in the youth with those American Recordings albums, I was the happiest guy not on earth. In America right now, there are two vocalists enjoying a sort of late period of recognition that I hope only gets bigger: Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples. And by “I hope only gets bigger” I mean, “I’m the son of God, I died for your sins, and I command you to listen to Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples.” These two women are national treasures and not nearly enough people know it.

Whether soul music (sort of a sexier cousin to gospel and the blues, although downright chaste when compared to funk) is cheesy or not depends largely on the abilities of the performer. No one questions James Brown’s authority when he says he wants to make the scene like a sex machine, but if Michael McDonald tried that shit, I’m assuming he’d be run out of town on a rail. Hold on. I just got a text message from Chorpenning. According to him, some people down there on Earth actually like Michael McDonald. That has to be a joke. The guy looks like George Lucas’s (more) evil twin and he sounds like Wonder Bread that really wants to be dipped in chocolate milk (I think you can unpack that simile on your own).

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Mavis Staples. You Are Not Alone. Produced by Jeff Tweedy, the guy from Wilco. George Carlin (who, much to his surprise, showed up here a couple years ago) once said that the best thing to come out of religion is the music and I’m guessing he was listening to Mavis Staples when he said it. Everything Mavis sings is a gospel song because she makes it feel like one, and not in the Jesus-is-gonna-save-me kinda way but in the God-is-in-this-fucking-music kinda way; we prefer the latter up here. A little less “Jesus Freak” and a little more “Come On Up to the House”, thanks. The bottom line is all truly great music is holy (so is all great romance, all great sex, all great food, and all great beer).

On You Are Not Alone, Jeff Tweedy’s job is easy – arrange some instruments and let Mavis do her thing. You’d have to be a complete musical fuck-up to make Mavis Staples sound bad (which is why Glen Ballard will never produce a Mavis Staples album), and Tweedy is certainly not that. The standouts are numerous and, in fact, I can only think of one song on the album I don’t like: “Last Train” is a little too goofy for my taste. I don’t like hearing grownups say “choo choo train” and it kinda takes me out of the album a little bit. But one bad track out of thirteen (and it’s not terrible, it’s just goofy) is still pretty awesome.

I particularly love the title track, which Jeff Tweedy wrote for Mavis. It’s a gospel song about the importance of people, and I dig that. Sure, I’m the Messiah and all, but there’s six billion of you and one of me. I know I can turn water into wine, but you guys could do some pretty great stuff for each other too. So when Mavis sings, “I’m gonna get it through to you/ you’re not alone”, I have to smile. It’s a pledge to be there for her fellow people (and yes, Sunday school kids, it can be interpreted to be saying that you’re not alone because you have God, but God’s not singin’ it. Mavis is. Little known fact: my dad can’t sing for shit), and that thread runs throughout You Are Not Alone: Mavis Staples loves her God, but she’s not about to forget about her brothers and sisters down there in the good ol’ world. “Wrote A Song for Everyone” is an obvious choice to reinforce that sentiment and maybe an obvious choice of a cover song, but what Mavis Staples does with that song is downright awe-inspiring. She makes it her own, which is what all good cover songs should do. If you’re reading this, John Fogerty, you better just sign away the rights to that one. It’s not yours anymore.

It’s easy to argue against faith when it’s being abused and used to treat other people like shit, but You Are Not Alone shows us what faith is for. Mavis Staples’ faith moves her to have faith in her brothers and sisters and it moves her to make incredibly beautiful music. There’s no arguing with that.

Jesus Christ is an infrequent but highly valued contributor to Bollocks!. According to his publicist, he’s easier to reach by song than by prayer (although you can email him at jesushbollocks@gmail.com), he believes in evolution and not being a total dickhole to your fellow beings. His favorite album of 2010 is Nobody’s Fault But Mine, an album of duets between Nina Simone and Joe Strummer. It is only available in Heaven.

Luck and Courage

There is ample space in the comment section below this post for you to call me a total pussy for liking Franz Nicolay’s Luck and Courage and you’re free to do that if you want; I’ve been called worse. Nicolay’s second solo album, his first since leaving the Hold Steady, is lovely in a small way and sometimes lovely in a small way is just what I’m looking for musically. And sometimes I like to watch The View and have a good cry. What’s wrong with that?

Seriously though, Franz Nicolay departed the Hold Steady late last year, and a few folks on the internet tried to manufacture controversy over some remarks he made when asked why he would want to stop being in arguably America’s finest rock ‘n’ roll band (Pitchfork, specifically. In an interview with Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler, a Pitchfork staffer offered their opinion of Nicolay’s departure and sounded like they were trying to pry some fightin’ words out of Kubler regarding his old bandmate. To Kubler’s credit, he didn’t take the bait and actually said he thought Nicolay was a good guy). Nicolay basically said he wants to do a lot of things musically and the Hold Steady only does one thing musically. He was right, by the way; it’s just that the one thing they do is “kick ass.” Essentially, Franz Nicolay used a clumsy metaphor to say what he should’ve said outright, but it shouldn’t cost his solo work any fans (and I don’t think it will). Luck and Courage is stuffed with musical ideas, none of which sound much like the Hold Steady (Nicolay’s first solo record, Major General, definitely contained some songs with a Hold Steady vibe, including one – “Jeff Penalty” – about the dude who replaced Jello Biafra in the Dead Kennedys). He really does go in more musical directions than his old band did and if you think that’s speaking ill of the Hold Steady, it’s possible that you are mentally retarded. The sheer quantity of approaches you take to music (or genres you tackle in one album) is immaterial to how good you are at actually making music. The Hold Steady only ever attempts to write rock songs and they write kickass rock songs. You could call that “playing to their strengths.” Franz Nicolay likes to get his troubadour on, wax a bit dramatic, and occasionally impersonate James Taylor (on Major General’s actually really lovely “Do We Not Live in Dreams”, for instance). He’s pretty good at all those things, although his pretty stuff is his best stuff and his rock songs don’t really rock in that really satisfying way a song like “Ask Her for Adderall” does. One thing is certain: no one can honestly accuse Nicolay of selling out – he didn’t leave the Hold Steady to join the Black-Eyed Peas or to have a reality show on TLC. There’s no way his paycheck from Luck and Courage will be as big as it would’ve been fromHeaven is Whenever and I have to assume that, given that fact, Nicolay’s concerns are not financial. So I guess I’m saying I respect the guy for following his musical intuition.

That musical intuition leads him down some interesting avenues, some of which are more rewarding than others. While the sudden leap from dour, I’m-so-far-from-my-baby balladry to bouncing, A.M. radio rock on “Anchorage (New Moon Baby)” is interesting, the song is still probably the weakest on Luck and Courage. More rewarding is Nicolay’s flair for the dramatic (think more Decemberists than, say, Freddie Mercury), although sometimes it manifests itself in purely instrumental choices: “My Criminal Uncle” starts with a horn flourish that could usher in a particularly hilarious bullfight and then charges into this rollicking tune about a guy who was “led astray by country songs.” “Ask anyone I know,” says the uncle, “Isn’t this how a man’s supposed to be?” Nicolay inhabits his narrators with gusto but never loses his offbeat humor; in “Z for Zachariah”, he is death stalking the land and, though the harmonies are beautiful, there’s something hilarious about him singing, “and I’ll pluck out your eyes.”

As a writer, Franz Nicolay is unsurprisingly capable (although “This Is Not a Pipe” is more than a little bit obvious, he pulls the song back from the edge of mediocrity with a really lovely melody) and careful not to overstate lines like “Let us not remain songless/ when affliction is upon us” (“Job 35:10”) and “anyone can be a god-fearing man on a mountain” (“Luck & Courage”). Nicolay’s tunes have an unassuming poetry to them and, like the songs of Mr. Mike Doughty, they’re quirky in a good way (as opposed to Jason Mraz, who is so deliberately “quirky” that you kinda wanna punch him in the face. And by “you”, I mean “me”).

Getting back to the total non-scandal of Nicolay’s departure from the Hold Steady, I think Luck and Courage offers compelling evidence that it was just time for Franz to go off and do his own thing. The man is an extremely talented musician who has a ton of ideas; I’m guessing the reason he’s having a go as a solo artist is that just about any band would be limiting to him after a while. That doesn’t diminish the Hold Steady at all, it just means they’re not a permanent home for someone like Franz Nicolay. And I’m not saying he’s a genius or anything either. Luck and Courage is probably better described as a restless album, albeit a good one. It gets a bit repetitive here and there, but its good moments are beautiful (the aforementioned “Job 35:10” and “The Last Words of Gene Autry” come to mind).

I keep wanting to use the word “panache” in relation to Franz Nicolay and his music. There’s a certain confident oddness to Luck and Courage that helps it to rise to something a little greater than the sum of its parts; it should be merely a modern soft rock record (and if you’ve read Bollocks! much at all, you know how I hate soft rock) but it ends up being an imaginative, if a little quiet, journey into the mind of a man whose music seems to be every bit as earnestly eclectic as his facial hair.