Low is Probably the Most Boring Band I Like

C’mon, the name of the new Low album, is quite probably a joke. “C’mon” is the sort of thing you shout before leading your friends on a sprint to the shores of your favorite lake, dropping trou, and skinny dipping until the cops come to run you off. Or maybe you howl a hearty “C’mon” before leading your band into a particularly rousing cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” But Low’s new album is the equivalent of bellowing your most enthusiastic, “C’mon!” before walking, as slowly as you can, from your couch to your bed. And then just, you know, sleeping in your bed.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I actually really like Low. I loved 2007’s Drums and Guns, which opened with one of the most gleefully depressing songs I’ve ever heard, “Pretty People” (as in “All the pretty people/ are all gonna die.” The song basically talks about lots of different kinds of people – “all the poets/ and all the lovers” – and how they’re all gonna die. I’d like to see them put that in an episode of Glee).

Here’s the thing: I think Low’s music sounds exactly like music should sound if it’s made by people who have consistently survived Duluth, Minnesota, winters without responding in some unnecessary and rash manner- such as murdering someone and/or moving to Florida. But I fully recognize that their music (branded “slowcore” by some critical people. The band disapproves of this label but, though I loathe genre labels and deeply admire Low for not wanting to be called slowcore, it’s fairly difficult to deny that it’s an apt description of what they do) can seem a little… well… tedious. Or, more accurately, boring.

So what’s to like?

For starters, the vocal harmonies between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are consistently badass. Whatever else is going on in a Low song, those two voices make magic together. C’mon‘s “Done” is nothing short of exquisite because Sparhawk and Parker’s voices fit so well together singing about rain drops that burn up “before they hit your cheek.” And then there’s the end of “Nothing But Heart,” a song which I’m going to mention like ninety-five times in the next seven hundred words because I think it’s a pretty great litmus test for people who are new to Low’s music.

The whole point of Low’s aesthetic is to use repetition and sparse musical arrangements to make the listener want to inject heroin into their rectum while chowing down on a plate of Ambien cookies.

I kid, I kid.

The vibe you’re supposed to get from C’mon, I suspect, is one of a sort of haunted beauty. It works, for the most part; the melodies are repetitive but very often gorgeous (the epic “Nothing but Heart” tests the limits here, but is saved by the layering in of Mimi Parker’s vocals during what is basically a six minute outro) and the instrumental arrangements are spare but still fairly diverse. “Done” has little flourishes of steel guitar, Sparhawk accidentally turns his amp up to a respectable volume on the intro to “Nothing but Heart” (which also features Wilco’s Nels Cline) and some little synthy blips and bleeps make their way into the end of “Majesty/Magic.”

Probably the worst thing about C’mon is “Witches,” which starts out okay but it goes on too long and gets weird toward the end when Alan Sparhawk starts sneering at guys who want to sound like Al Green (I could be misunderstanding the lyrics here, but I don’t think so). The song isn’t pretty enough to warrant such a lyrical non sequitur and, because Low’s music already crawls along at a snail’s pace, they can ill afford to have one tenth of their album suck. “Suck” might be a strong word for “Witches” but “good” would be a dishonest word for it. So there you go.

So here’s the aforementioned litmus test (dear science-minded Bollocks! readers: I am fully aware that litmus tests are used to determine alkalinity or acidity, but the phrase “litmus test” has evolved through common usage to also mean a test that firmly indicates one thing or another. If you’ve ever typed “lol” or “ttyl” to someone, you absolutely can’t crawl up my ass about using “litmus test” in the current context): you’ll know right away if you like Low by listening to, I believe, two songs on C’mon: “Majesty/Magic” and “Nothing but Heart.” Both are beautiful in their own right, but both are incredibly repetitive. In the right mood, I can positively adore these songs and the way they swell up to their lovely little climaxes. But in that same mood, I can totally see why you might listen to those songs and think I was drinking expired Nyquil and cheap vodka (a drink known as the “Lester Bangs” in some circles). Either way, I have no doubt that your opinion of Low – be it positive or negative – can be determined by those two songs. They exemplify pretty much everything Low does, for better or worse. I say “for better.” You say “po-tah-to.”

I think context is crucial when considering the pros and cons of C’mon (and, to be honest, a lot of albums). “Nothing But Heart” is too long for me to really enjoy when driving down the freeway, but sitting at my dining room table, listening to it through my headphones (at a quarter to midnight), it’s pretty fucking stellar. The album feels longer than it is because the songs are paced so slowly (closer “Something’s Turning Over” is the most uptempo tune on the album and you’re not gonna break a sweat dancing to it), and your own personal level of patience is going to determine pretty quickly your inclination to forgive that pacing.

My endorsement of C’mon will no doubt come off as a little more tepid than it really is, but I can’t help but feel like that’s an appropriate response to Low’s music. At their best, they make absolute beauty out of the basest components of rock ‘n’ roll music. At their worst, they make…. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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.

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.

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.

Let’s Talk About Us

Brother-Ali-Us

Sometimes, I review an album just to take the piss out of it – like Chris Cornell’s Scream or like I intend to do with the forthcoming Creed reunion record. It’s fun and easy and allows me to vent a lot of frustration in a short amount of time (usually while drinking quality brews). A friend recently asked me why I don’t do similar take-downs of, say, 50 Cent albums. I pointed out to him that I usually play the fish-in-a-barrel game with rock albums because a lot of people seem to understand that there is a wide variety of rock music (I’m including indie here as well because, generally, “indie” just means “rock music that the radio is too dumb to play” – and it doesn’t always even mean that) that is good and that I’m just poking fun at its most egregious offenders. I don’t do that with hip-hop artists because I’ve met too many people who immediately dismiss that genre as completely worthless, full of misogyny and violence. So when it comes to hip-hop, I like to focus my energy on showing people the really awesome performers who are out there waiting to blow your mind.

So let’s talk about Brother Ali, shall we? Based on his voice, some have compared him to Pharaohe Monch. I can kinda see the comparison, in that both artists are aggressively awesome, but I think Ali sounds more like Lyrics Born back when he was still doing rap (New Rule for Hip-Hop: if you’re an awesome MC, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a good soul/pop record), if he sounds like anyone. The more I listen to Us, his recent masterpiece, the more I hear Brother Ali’s distinctive voice and the happier I am about it.

For those of you who value such ephemeral concepts as “cred,” Us starts with a sermon by a true hip-hop luminary: Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Of course, Chuck D’s endorsement is meaningless if Brother Ali doesn’t earn it, but he does so almost immediately, launching into “The Preacher,” with relish, working the beat like I imagine Muhammad Ali worked a punching bag back in the day (you thought I was going to make a Parkinson’s Disease joke there, didn’t you? I’m not quite that tasteless, although I did just remind myself to listen to the new Shaky Hands album).

Part of the reason mainstream hip-hop blows is that there is a long list of sins that rappers commit. One of the biggest is piling song after song about how awesome they are on their albums. We get it – you have healthy self-esteem. Shut the fuck up. (DOOM, formerly known as MF Doom, is one of the very few rappers who self-deprecates as much as he self-aggrandizes. Also, he did song about how Batman and Robin are gay which gives him a free pass on a lot of stuff.) Now Us does have songs about how awesome Brother Ali is but it also has songs about how grateful he is to have the life he has (“Fresh Air”), a song that calls out society for hating on homosexuals (Brother Ali gets it. Fucking Iowa gets it. Why doesn’t California get it?), a song about slavery (“The Travelers”), and songs about how he was hated on by white kids for being an albino (as such, I’d like to point out, Brother Ali is a pretty awesome “post-racial” rapper. He’s so good at it that the press used to think he was black. I’m not gonna rip on ’em for it, though, because I thought he was the first time I heard him too. Take that, assumptions!). Ali is, in fact, brimming with a positivity and gratitude that a lot of rappers like. Rather than pulling a Kanye and saying God chose him to be the voice of his generation, Brother Ali is working ass off and being happy about where it gets him. Kinda reminds me of some certain other Minnesota musicians I can think of right now (*cough* Hold Steady *cough*)…

In fact, I’m just gonna spend a paragraph here handing some props to Minnesota. They have the best radio station on earth, America’s best freshman senator, they’re the birth place of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and they’ve given us the Hold Steady, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Bob Dylan and Prince. So thank you, Minnesota. Now can you get rid of that crazy bitch Michele Bachmann?

Rap, historically, is a political beast (I know you wouldn’t know it from listening to 50 Cent or Eminem, but it’s true. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, perhaps the best hip-hop album ever recorded, is largely not about how great money and bitches are) and Brother Ali’s stuff addresses the political through the prism of the personal, spinning tales of deep human complexity while not letting the listener (or himself, for that matter) off the hook fortheir part in a bloody history. In very few lines of “Tight Rope,” he, among many topics, manages a substantive discussion of homosexual equality in just one verse ( featuring the couplet “there ain’t no flame that can blaze enough/ to trump being hated for the way you love”) in a way that has a lot less to do with the left/right stuff of American politics than it does with simple empathy. Ali’s gift is his ability to identify with the people in his songs (some of whom are probably people who listen to his albums and come to his shows) and the best tracks on Us are the ones that tackle the thorniest subject matter.

Given that subject matter, you might get the idea that Us is a total downer, but it’s not. It’s actually exceedingly uplifting, which you can credit both to Ali’s unsurpassed delivery and Ant’s (you might know him as the other half of Atmosphere) stellar production. At 16 tracks, Us avoids being unwieldy and ends up feeling like a party album for people who are more likely to discuss*, rather than run from, the world’s problems while they’re throwing back drinks and hanging out.

* A discussion is this thing rational people can have where they may politely disagree about things but are interested in hearing and respecting the other person’s viewpoint. Scientists think the discussion will actually become extinct sometime near primary season in 2012.