Give Me the Places, I’ll Give You the Names

I’m not sure what I read about Erika M. Anderson that made me want to listen to her debut album (debut solo album, I guess. She was in two bands before going solo – the awesomely named Amps for Christ and Gowns – before embarking on her journey as EMA), Past Life Martyred Saints, but it might have been favorable comparisons to Patti Smith and Kim Gordon (two of the most ferocious women in the history of rock). And I think I saw a hastily cobbled together video for “California,” that I liked. Also, I just spent a bafflingly badass weekend in Portland laying the foundation for an August move out of the Golden State so a song that opens with the words, “Fuck California/ you made me boring” tickles my funny bone more than a little bit (honestly though, California, we had some great times and I met some totally amazing people – and the best dog in the world – here. So no hard feelings, okay? Okay).

There is not one new thing on Past Life Martyred Saints. But its nine tracks show deadly amounts of skill with a lot of old things. The album even opens with a tribute to Anderson’s Viking ancestors, which are apparently real. On her blog, EMA claims to be a “direct descendant of Erik Blood-Axe, the ruthless Viking warrior.” I know that doesn’t seem like it could be true, but it’s too awesome to not be true. So I’m going to make it today’s Official Bollocks! Fact: Erika M. Anderson is the direct descendant of a ruthless Viking warrior named Erik Bl00d-Axe. His music, released under the name EBA, mostly consisted of the blood-curdling screams of his enemies and the lamentations of their women.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Nothing new on Past Life Martyred Saints but plenty to like. Anderson welds lo-fi and hi-fi together (again on the opener, “Grey Ship”) and borrows from country, blues, folk, and gospel, mixes them all together, and somehow ends up with a gorgeous grunge record. Which is weird, but gets better every single time I listen to it.

On the absolutely sublime “California,” Anderson makes use of the classic blues lyric (used by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and lots of other black guys who spin in their graves every time someone speaks favorably of a George Thorogood song) “I’m just twenty-two and I don’t mind dyin’.” But where those old blues men often used the line as a form of braggadocio, Anderson’s delivery of it is dripping with pathos and her use of it to convey existential despair is a far wiser choice than writing something that sounds like a bad Live Journal post from your kid sister (does anyone use Live Journal anymore? Remember that Los Campesinos! song with the line about a “final, fatal Live Journal entry”? I wish I liked other Los Campesinos! albums as much as I liked their first one). Like Shannon McArdle’s Summer of the Whore, Past Life Martyred Saints appears to be Anderson’s post break-up (of a band and possibly also a relationship) record and it’s every bit as vulnerable and pained as the former Mendoza Line singer’s solo debut.

The first time through the album, I was impressed by Anderson’s voice but I felt like the songs shared basically one texture, albeit a good one. As I alluded to earlier, Past Life Martyred Saints sounds like it traveled to the future from sometime in the mid-1990s (two recurring themes for me in the musical year that is 2011: being pleasantly surprised by albums for which I didn’t have high hopes and albums that sound like the ’90s) with its fuzzy guitars, slow, sad songs, and the occasional whispered vocal. Subsequent listens revealed a little more variety – especially on headphones – although that lovely 1990s sheen (I guess “sheen” is kind of ironic here; is “anti-sheen” a thing? Let’s say it is) is still there, which is just all right with me. The layers of melody start to distinguish themselves and what you end up with is a fairly pretty album with a lot of dark, desperate subject matter (the way Anderson sings, “I’m gasping” on “Milkman” sounded like she was singing, “I’m desperate” the first time I heard it; whether that’s my fault or hers, I don’t think the misunderstanding detracts from the meaning of the song or the album as a whole).

The more I can decipher the lyrics on Past Life Martyred Saints, the more I feel like I’m listening to the sort of album one might conceive of in the throes of a miserable adolescence (and I’m not sure there’s another kind) but not properly execute until later in life. That is, if Erika Anderson had recorded this album at sixteen, it would be a sloppy mess. Hell, it’s barely not a mess now, but I happen to love music that is very nearly a mess. I think it’s Anderson’s musical maturity that balances out the more high-schoolish lines like, “I wish that every time he touched me, he left a mark,” which appears on the slow-building but beautiful “Marked.”

If I was impressed by Anderson’s voice the first time through the record, I’m fairly well blown away by it now. She doesn’t have a super-magnificent range or anything, but she is able to use her voice to create and release tension with incredible skill and she’s just as capable of warbling a country gospel melody (“Coda”) as she is singing a 1990s alternative radio hit (the aforementioned “Milkman”). She can whisper or scream with equal effect and she layers harmonies on top of each other the way a skilled chef might assemble a particularly unhealthy lasagna (and of course, unhealthy lasagna is the best lasagna).

The overall effect of Past Life Martyred Saints is still a little slight and some of the songs get a little repetitive, but each repetition adds a layer of distorted guitars and/or lovely harmonies (your love of the interplay of those two elements should pretty much determine your enjoyment of EMA) so I find myself enjoying a lot of distinct bits within each song (the end of the possibly subtle love song “Breakfast” is stunning; it reminds me a bit of Blur’s “Tender,” but with a darker vibe) every time I go through the album. At nine songs, I’ve been able to listen to Past Life Martyred Saints about twenty times in the last week and the returns have yet to diminish.

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The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #9: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (It’s Not What You Think)

Easy there, Bollocks! readers. I’m not about to suggest to you that the opening track from Nirvana’s Nevermind is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I love that song. I love that album.

But I found this (if your work computer restricts the YouTubes and/or if you’re not feeling brave enough to click the link, I’ll tell you what it leads to: a video of Miley Fucking Cyrus covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) on the internet the other night and it struck me that something very eerie is going on here. Indeed, there is such an all-encompassing aura of weirdness surrounding this… I’m not sure what to call it… that I feel I have to interrupt myself for a minute to tell you that, as I began working on this post, I consulted my Twitter feed only to discover that Jen Kirkman tweeted a link to a TMZ article about this very performance. I think Kirkman spoke for all of us – literally every generation – when she made the plea, “Leave my generation alone, Miley.” I’m glad that comedians are starting to pick up on this; we’re going to need all the help we can get.

It seems like it was just last week that I told you what happened when Billy Ray Cyrus went down to the crossroads.  I mentioned that Billy Ray labored in obscurity for a few years while formulating a diabolical scheme to return to the spotlight and/or a swimming pool full of money (and, naturally, an illegal immigrant to clean said pool). And I said the tale of that scheme, which involved selling his daughter Miley as a slave to the Walt Disney Company, would have to wait for another time.

Well, that time is now.

Here’s what I think is happening, and it’s been in the works for quite some time: Miley Cyrus, while spending years in a nightmare of dual identities (as both Hanna Montana and Miley Cyrus), had time to think. The easy answer would be to blame her father’s greed for landing her in her mouse-eared prison, but what about the society that allowed her father to taste fame and fortune to begin with? Surely, any world that would allow “Achy Breaky Heart” to ignite a line-dancing craze was not worth preserving. So, like Ivo Shandor, Miley Cyrus decided that humanity was too sick to survive.

Of course, her father had to be punished too. Miley found little ways to rebel, ways that would sully her father’s reputation and force him to apologize to his fan(s) on Twitter. But what punishment could be greater for Billy Ray Cyrus than the daughter he sold as an entertainment product taking that path to its logical conclusion? Miley resolved to first dominate human culture and then destroy it – and she wouldn’t need the Devil to do it.

Phase One was subtle – Miley would exploit her position as Hanna Montana to seduce the world’s tween-agers into loving her insipid pop music. This would generate a steady revenue stream to fund the next steps in her twisted plan for vengeance. Her cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” marks a tactical shift to Phase Two of this plot: Miley will take aim at songs that defined generations, and she will destroy them, rendering the music that soundtracked the best moments of literally all of our lives completely unlistenable and, indeed, repugnant. With the great songs of our lives sullied by Cyrus’s vocal touch of evil, we will stop remembering our best moments – just to be safe. We will become depressed, we will completely lose our bearings as a people, and we will beg Miley Cyrus to end it all for us. At which point, she will announce seven new Disney shows featuring members of her family and these safe, cutesy, bullshit shows will be the only cultural items we’re fit to consume. Ever.

You might think I’m overreacting. “Surely,” you’re thinking to yourself, “Miley Cyrus can’t do all that.”

I tell you she can. And don’t call me Shirley. Think about it: isn’t her cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” almost kind of beautiful in its sheer perversity? Listen to the guitars, slightly off that indelible rhythm; the drums that are like a sick joke about Dave Grohl’s drumming. Listen to the way she casually blows off the entire second verse of a song that she claims played such a big role in her life (Official Bollocks! Fact: Nobody ever forgets the second verse of a song that has truly inspired them. Nobody. If you forget the second verse, the song clearly did not inspire you). And listen to the way she sings it – this is the sound Obi Wan Kenobi heard when Alderaan was destroyed (at least one Star Wars nerd is sitting in his mom’s basement right now ready to send me a nasty email which reads, “Obi Wan didn’t hear a sound when Alderaan was destroyed; he felt a disturbance in the Force that was as if “millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” That person is going to miss the point, now and forever).

I don’t want you to think, dear reader, that it’s too late. But I would like to instill in you a sense of urgency. Who knows what iconic song could be next? Do you want to hear Miley Cyrus slaughter “The Times, They are A-Changin'”? Then I suggest you take action. Direct confrontation is futile; what we must do, for the good of every living creature on this planet (outside of the Cyrus family, obviously) is engage in subtle resistance to the influence of Miley Cyrus and her child-pimping father. When your kid says they want the new Miley Cyrus CD, pretend you misheard them and get them a Bikini Kill album (which album? Fuck, any of them). Yes, your child may hate you in the short term and possibly even in the long term, but isn’t that a small price to pay for the preservation of a healthy musical culture?

Obviously, compact disc misdirection won’t be enough on its own. We must also do our level best to ignore – and put no money in the pockets of – the Cyrus family. In order to do this, we’ll need to distract ourselves. I suggest we devote hours upon hours to educating ourselves, taking an active interest in our communities, and perhaps enjoying fine meals with good friends. We must avoid the 24-hour news channels, lest a Cyrus magically appear on one of them. I’m sure some of my more technically savvy friends can set up a universal Cyrus Filter on the internet that keeps us from inadvertently paying attention to a Cyrus, even for a second. If Miley Cyrus’s goal is the ultimate destruction of all human culture – and I submit to you that it is – then our best defense is a rigorous, dignified enriching of that culture, is it not?

Who’s with me?

The Pains of Being Precious (Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire)

I think it might be time to do an installment of Great Fucking Albums on Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. It seems like I’m hearing that album everywhere lately. I guess a lot of kids who were raised on it (and other great 1990s guitar albums) are in bands now. I consider this a blessing and a curse because it reminds me that Billy Corgan is no longer worth taking seriously as a musician and possibly also as a person.

The latest band to remind me of the halcyon days when Billy Corgan’s ego and pretension were forgivable is The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who just released their second album, Belong. I listened to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut and, thanks to low expectations, I found that I actually kind of enjoyed it. Why is it that My Bloody Valentine sucks so badly, yet they’ve actually inspired some pretty good music? How does that happen?

Anyway, Belong is a whole lot louder and a whole lot 1990s-er than its predecessor. The title track opens the album and is the most Siamese Dream-esque of the lot, but the remaining nine tracks definitely exist firmly in that time period. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Flood, who produced some of the good Pumpkins records (Butch Vig produced Siamese Dream. As a producer, it was Vig’s only big hit of the 1990s. Rock historians refer to it as his “Lost Decade”), co-produced Belong.

From where I sit, the formula that worked well enough on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – fuzzy guitars and whispery vocals – remains fully intact on Belong. Kip “Yes, Kip” Berman’s vocals are a little higher in the mix, but he still kinda sounds like he doesn’t want to wake up his mom. I know that’s the style, and it’s kind of a cute trick. At first. “Belong” is a really fun way to start an album, but the Pains of Being Pure at Heart pretty much only have the one dynamic and that makes Belong start to feel really static after the first few tracks. It’s not a bad album (I got it the same day I got the new Strokes album, which is a bad album), but it doesn’t hold my attention for long periods of time either.

Since I live in Los Angeles, I get to spend a perverse amount of time stuck in traffic and that (silver lining) gives me time to listen to albums and allow them to really wash over me. While I generally enjoy Belong, it doesn’t have the same effect on me that Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out did the first time I listened to it in my car. When I heard “Words and Guitar” for the first time, I was driving down the 101 grinning like an idiot. Because that song fucking rocks. I haven’t gotten that feeling from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and it may be because they’re just a bit too precious for me. There’s a word they use on the internet for this sort of thing, but I don’t want to use it here because 1) the word is as aesthetically pleasing to me as a sack of dead kittens covered in shit and 2) I suspect that this word is used as a pejorative against nice people and nice things by people who hate niceness. I’ve been accused of my share of cynicism, but I’m not going to support people who are openly hostile to niceness. It’s unseemly.

That said, though, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart get a little too cute for my liking, especially on “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” with its cringe-inducing repetition of the line “she was a miss in your mistake.” That’s the kind of line you’re supposed to write and then cross it out, saying to yourself, “No. I’m a grown-up. Grown-ups don’t write like that.” In their review of the first Pains of Being Pure at Heart (I refuse to abbreviate the name, though I will submit a helpful list of Rejected Pains of Being Pure at Heart Name Puns if you’d like) record, Pitchfork tried to suggest that the band was actually a lot darker than they appear at first. That argument reminds me of the bit from Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves and Lollipops where he’s talking about getting in people’s faces about Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required – “He’s totally punk rock, he’s got on sneakers with a suit!” The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are not that dark and that really doesn’t matter that much anyway.

Their first album was pretty catchy and pretty pretty and I enjoyed it a fair amount. Belong is not drastically different, except that the production is a little cleaner. In that sense, Belong is a better album than The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but that’s like comparing brands of chunky peanut butter. At a certain end of the spectrum, it’s all just chunky peanut butter, you should buy the one that’s on sale and go the fuck home (Official Bollocks! Fact:  all of the peanut butter in the world – in the world! – is made in only two locations. There’s a Chunky Peanut Butter Factory in Minot, North Dakota, and a Creamy Peanut Butter Factory in Argentina and all the different peanut butter companies pay a nominal fee to these factories to stick the peanut butter in jars with their label on them. This is done to give you, the consumer, the illusion of choice). About half way through Belong, I feel like I’ve been listening to the same song over and over, although “Too Tough” sticks out enough from the others for me to count it as a highlight.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart get a lot of positive press and this may be the most negative review of Belong that you’ll read. Don’t get me wrong; I like the album fine, but I don’t see anything very amazing or anthemic about it (side note: WordPress’s text editor doesn’t seem to think “anthemic” is a word, which makes me sad for the good people at WordPress. Have they never heard anything anthemic before? You know, like “Death or Glory” or “White Riot”?). I think you could create a Random Internet Chorus Generator that would, five times out of twenty, cough up a Pains of Being Pure at Heart song for you. That’s not a slight against the band (really, it’s not), I’m just pointing out that they make simple, pretty music. Belong will probably be the soundtrack to many people’s summer this year and I’m all for that, but my musical diet requires something with a bit more substance in order to sustain me (in this analogy, I guess Tom Waits is the musical equivalent of roughage).

The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #7: Every Breath You Take

In his excellent biography of the Clash, Return of the Last Gang in Town, Marcus Gray calls the Police what they were (and I guess are, since they reunited or something): the “most obvious of opportunists.” Gray was giving so-called “third wave” punk bands a stern wag of his finger for being “inspired by punk records and media reports to either form from scratch or adapt their existing musical style to fit.” In other words, the Police were guilty of “turning rebellion into money” as Joe Strummer sang in “White Man at Hammersmith Palais” (the line wasn’t directly aimed at the Police, but if the shoe fits, I say throw it at Sting’s head).

I’ve never, ever understood the popularity of the Police. At all. “Banal” is too good a word for their music. And it’s mind-blowing to me that they were considered part of the third wave of punk (must have been a pretty shitty wave, which is basically Marcus Gray’s contention). The Police are about as punk as a loaf of Velveeta – and I’m not talking about sound here either. I’m talking about spirit. Few famous musicians have pumped more soulless crap into the universe than Sting. Maybe Bryan Adams. Maybe.

If the Police’s general popularity is a severe blow to my faith in humanity, then the “classic” status of “Every Breath You Take” is like kicking that waning faith in the nuts when it’s already down. Though one YouTube commenter claims that this song is not about stalking people (they offer not one shred of evidence to support this fact), it most certainly is the all-time stalker anthem. And I have to take issue with this song based really on two things – the dull melody and the insane lyrics. Because musically, there is less than nothing to this song.

Here’s where the sadness starts for me: a couple of weeks ago, I realized that you could substitute the word “shit” for “breath” in “Every  Breath You Take” and you would change neither the meter nor the meaning of the song. That makes the song a lot creepier. And it’s already plenty creepy. Sting sings, in his repetitive way, about watching “every bond you break” and “every step you take” and “every smile you fake.” And the sad thing is that the bridge tries to pass off this classic stalker behavior as just typical “my baby left me and I feel so sad” heartache – “My poor heart aches/ with every shit breath you take.” I’m not buying it, Sting. You fucking creep. By the way, did you know that practicing tantra, in some cases, just means that you can be boring for a really long time? That, my friends, is an Official Bollocks! Fact (Warning: Official Bollocks! Facts may contain up to 90% opinion. This is still 10% less opinion than Fox News facts).

But hey, let’s talk about that bridge for a second. The part that really pisses me off is “Oh can’t you see/ you belong to me.” Hard to imagine a girl would leave a guy who talks like that, am I right? So even if the song isn’t about stalking someone (and it fucking is), Sting still explicitly states that his ex (or rather, his stalking victim) is property, which is a totally shit-ass thing to do. It’s hard – nay, impossible – for me to sympathize with a dude whose “poor heart” aches because his property had the audacity to think she was a woman with thoughts, feelings, and goals of her own. I hope she left you for a Sex Pistol, you prick.

All this stalking and objectifying is delivered via one of the most dull and repetitive melodies in the history of (ahem) rock music. And musically, “Every Breath You Take” sounds like a hoax. In the video, Sting plays (and appears to have sex with) an upright bass, but I hear almost no bass at all in the song. I refuse to believe he played an upright bass on the recording and you can spare me your indignant comments to the contrary because I also just don’t give a shit. This is like the Coke Zero of songs. Except someone drank the Coke and replaced it with air. Stewart Copeland is venerated as some kind of great rock drummer, but I could play the drums for this song – and I am known, where I am known, as one fuck-terrible drummer. As for Andy Summers’ guitar “riff”, which is probably the most distinctive part of this absolute waste of four minutes, let me put it this way: if I was in a band and wrote something as insipid as what Summers plays on “Every Breath You Take,” I would expect nothing less than a severe ass-beating and a swift dismissal. Why even bother playing the electric guitar if you’re going to play it like that?

I have this vision of how the Police formed. Sting, Summers, and Copeland were sitting around their flat one day discussing market fluctuations when Sting suddenly asked, “You know how rock music, especially this punk movement that the kids seem to enjoy, is all exciting and stuff? I bet we could make a shitload of money by making it less exciting and tailoring our image to make it look like we’re vaguely punkish. What do you say, lads?”

Copeland asked, “Will you get a real name?”

To which Sting emphatically replied, “No. But you and Andy have to use real names.”

It is rumored (mostly by me) that this name conflict is what led to the breakup of the Police, one of the world’s best-loved bands (at least by the Police), in 1984. They would later be memorialized in the N.W.A. song, “Fuck the Police,” a certainly controversial tribute. Much of the controversy surrounded Ice Cube’s insinuation that Sting believes “he has the authority to kill a minority.” Cube would later clarify his meaning during an interview on the set of Are We There Yet Part 3: Eazy Does It, by patiently explaining, “I wanted to address Sting’s rampant cell0-fucking in the ‘Every Breath You Take’ video, but I just couldn’t work out a good rhyme. Still though, fuck the Police.”

Indeed, Mr. Cube. Fuck the Police, fuck “Every Breath You Take,” and fuck every band that does such a shitty job of ripping off the Clash.

Life is Just Totally Not at All Like a Box of Chocolates

I’m not sure I understand the concept of the mixtape. I mean, I know what one is, but I don’t know why it’s something that musicians release. Perhaps they function much like EPs, as a sort of “hey-here-ya-go” for the fans between full-length albums. At the very least, I suppose mixtapes and EPs are a good way to let the people know you’re still making music.

In the case of Shareese Renée Ballard – Res, to her hopefully growing legion of fans – that sort of reminder has special significance. After all, those of us who have been following her since her 2001 debut (How I Do, which was largely co-written with Santi White, who I’m hoping will release her second album before 2016. Oh shit, I guess I better hope she gets it out before May 21st!) had to wait eight years for a follow-up (2009′s folky but fine Black Girls Rock), largely because of industry bullshit.  So giving her fans the sense that the interim between Black Girls Rock and whatever her third album is called (rumors abound of an album called Reset, but I’ll believe it when I can listen to it) will be relatively short makes her free mixtape, A Box of Chocolates, all the sweeter, if you’ll pardon the pun (I wouldn’t).

Res gave us A Box of Chocolates on Valentine’s Day and if you think that’s as cutesy as it gets, wait until you realize that the first thing you hear on the mixtape is Forrest Fucking Gump saying his pithy little line about what life is like. Apparently Mr. Gump, a retard of infuriatingly vague (read: no) diagnosis, has never actually seen a box of chocolates; you see, most of them come with little cards that tell you exactly what you’re gonna get. And let’s face it, even if you get the shitty boxes of chocolates that don’t tell you what’s in them, sometimes in life, you know exactly what’s coming. Like when your wife/husband/significant other says, “We need to talk.” You know what’s coming – your ass is in some kind of trouble. I realize that has nothing to do with Res but I really really don’t like Forrest Gump. It’s Baby Boomer Nostalgia Bait at its absolute worst.

Anyway, you can download A Box of Chocolates here if you wanna check it out. I’m sure you can also download Forrest Gump plenty of places too, but I don’t want to link to any of them. It’s not an anti-piracy thing so much as it’s a not-wanting-to-steer-my-readers-toward-crappy-things thing.

A Box of Chocolates features new versions and/or remixes of songs from Res’s two great albums, a couple songs I’ve never heard before, and a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One.” The whole thing is just about a half an hour long and I think it’s safe to say that Res’s fans will find a lot to like about it. So if the intention of this particular mixtape is to let us know that Res’s creative juices are still flowing just fine, thanks, then mission accomplished. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a brief reminder that Res is one of the best (and by far the most underrated) Soul/R&B/Pretty Much Whatever Else She Does vocalists of the last eleven years.

Both its intense brevity and my lack of experience with mixtapes make A Box of Chocolates kind of hard to judge like a conventional album. Don’t get me wrong, there is stuff to criticize here, chiefly the use of Auto-Tune on “Say You Will.” I get, for the millionth time, that some people use it as an aesthetic choice. But I still hate it. Auto-Tune makes everything sound awful, especially awesome voices. Res’s voice is way too awesome for Auto-Tune and that’s final (honestly, the Auto-Tune and the presence of his Gumpitude are my least favorite things about this whole album. You can file those under “minor grievances”). Plenty of people disagree with me about Auto-Tune, by the way, but I didn’t start doing Bollocks! because I thought everyone would (or should) agree with me. I started Bollocks! because I was tired of masturbating.

Conceptually, A Box of Chocolates flows kind of like a flashback episode – there are new versions of old songs (the stuff from How I Do still sounds fresh as hell), and a few spoken-word bits about Res’s career up to this point. It may seem premature to do that after only two albums, but remember that Res fought for years to get her second album out (and Black Girls Rock is really only her second released album. According to her website, she recorded an album for Geffen that never saw the light of day. Nobody knows how to fuck up good music quite like the music industry). So yeah, the sung/spoken/rapped “Industry Diaries” might seem a little obvious but overall, A Box of Chocolates shows that Res is still excited to make music (and plenty playful at making it too) at a point when a lot of people would’ve thrown in the towel and gotten a job mucking out the video booths at an all-night porn arcade (Official Bollocks! Fact: everyone who quits or is forced out of the music industry is immediately offered a position as All-Night Porn Arcade Video Booth Mucker-Outer. What do you think the guys from Semisonic have been doing for the last ten years?).

The new songs – at least they’re new to me – indicate that Res Album #3 might have more of the funk/hip-hop vibe of How I Do, which is just fine with me. I like Black Girls Rock quite a bit, but How I Do had a real swagger to it that I kind of missed on the second record. “One” seems to split the difference between the two albums, to extremely pleasant effect. Regardless of which album you prefer, Res, like her pal Santi White, has a real potential to make awesome, genreless music and if A Box of Chocolates is as much a mixed bag as it is a mixtape, it still offers compelling evidence of that fact.

I Can Like Wye Oak By Mostly Ignoring Wye Oak

The last time I listened to a Wye Oak album, it was called The Knot and I liked exactly two songs on it. Obviously, I liked them enough to give Wye Oak another chance to impress me, so long as that chance required minimum financial risk on my part. Which is why, when NPR decided to add the Baltimore duo’s Civilian to their First Listen list, I carpe‘d the diem (sorry, my Latin’s a little rusty. Or nonexistent) and spent some time trying to figure out whether or not it’s the kind of album I’d like Wye Oak to make.

The jury’s still kind of out. In all honesty, I don’t really remember The Knot, but I do remember that I thought the two songs I liked would serve as a nice blueprint for any Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner on guitar and vocals, Andy Stack on basically everything else) music to follow. Whether or not that was the band’s explicit aim in recording Civilian (I doubt it), I certainly like it a lot better than I liked The Knot. In fact, I’d say Civilian sounds a lot like I wanted the last Besnard Lakes album to sound. There’s that quiet/loud dynamic that, let’s face it, a lot of indie bands use (thanks, the Pixies. Wye Oak’s “Holy Holy” even features a guitar riff that is a very close cousin to the Pixies song “Dead”), but Civilian builds to much more interesting climaxes than The Knot did.

The lyrics are often unclear, but the mood of the record is unmistakable. Like a lot of other indie bands, Wye Oak seems preoccupied with alienation (thanks, Radiohead). These two are from Baltimore, remember, so a thematically dark record makes a good deal of sense, as does opening the album with a song called “Two Small Deaths.” I like Wasner’s voice well enough on its own but better enough with the layered harmonies that show up on virtually every track. If memory serves, this was not the case on The Knot.

But here’s the thing: NPR’s First Listen has been a real money saver for me. If I listen to an album, say, a dozen times before its release date and I want to keep listening to it, I will purchase that album. If I listen to an album a dozen times and still can’t bring myself to shell out some dollars for it, it doesn’t mean I dislike that album; it means I just don’t like it enough to pay for it (hey, remember when people were all pissed about the downloading and they assumed that people would pay for the stuff they pirated if they couldn’t get it for free? I’m sure glad we as a society stopped reasoning so poorly. Right?). Civilian has its great moments – “Holy Holy” is really fucking awesome, for instance. But the album has not convinced me to buy it yet, despite its many improvements over its predecessor.

I’ve noticed, over the last four trips through Civilian (I like to get my zero dollars’ worth when I use First Listen, which everyone should use. And hey, while I’m doing the parenthetical rant thing [I’ve been doing that a lot lately  – oh shit, double parentheses! What does it mean?], don’t you think having non-profit media is pretty cool? And don’t you think the Republican-led House of Gerrymandered Districts is kind of skirting the thornier budget issues by going after political targets instead of expensive ones? Here’s an Official Bollocks! Fact: NPR talks about, plays the music of, and interviews Tom Waits more than any other radio station on the planet. On that basis alone, it is worth saving), I’ve noticed that I like it best when I’m not completely focused on it. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but that’s because it is a backhanded compliment.

Wye Oak employs the same dynamics and themes that a lot of indie bands do and, while they seem to be getting better and better at it, Civilian still seems to operate at a sort of low-level, monotonous hum, from which moments of almost staggering beauty sometimes emerge (that’s a real compliment, from the bottom of my icy cold heart). So it seems to work best for me when I’m doing something else and can then have my attention drawn back to the album by songs like “Holy Holy” and the title track. Although, as I make my way through Civilian for the nth time, those two songs, “Hot As Day,” and “Doubt,” the obvious Beach House homage that closes the album, are the only ones that seem to hold my attention for any length of time. But that’s definitely a step in the right direction – on their last full-length, Wye Oak managed to produce only two songs that I thought were unimpeachably awesome (“Tattoo” and “I Want for Nothing”). This time out, they’ve doubled the goodness.

If I could own Civilian for about five bucks, I’d buy it today. According to my best research, that’s impossible. But I can own the six songs of theirs that I like for about a dollar apiece, and that proposition is somewhat enticing. As loath as I am (correct usage for the win, eh, Zac?) to use the phrase “market-based approach,” that’s essentially what I’m taking toward Wye Oak. I like to reward bands I like for making music I like (I’m basically tithed to the Hold Steady for any of their albums and shows that come within my greedy little grasp) and usually that occurs in the form of albums or concert tickets purchased. There’s no way I’m gonna see Wye Oak live because I feel like it would be eerily similar to the time I saw Beach House live. Though I have a positive view of the shared characteristics of both bands, Beach House bored me nearly to sleep in concert and I have a feeling Wye Oak would do the same. But if I give Wye Oak money only for the songs I like, perhaps I can create some small demand for an album full of songs as consistently rewarding as “Holy Holy.” Of course, that probably won’t happen because the thing all the free-market fanboys don’t like to mention is that the market doesn’t really give a shit about you (or anybody or anything else but money, which is why taking a “market-based approach” to things like the environment is a good way to make me want to cock-punch you until your hair changes color).