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.

Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

Great Fucking Albums #14: Zen Arcade

I rarely discuss liner notes on albums, but I have to admit that my favorite liner note from Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade album is, “We all threw chairs on ‘Pride’.” If you just read that one line and knew nothing else about Hüsker Dü, you’d probably get an accurate idea of how aggressively badass Zen Arcade is. And, if you like the edges rounded off of your rock music, you might quickly discover that Hüsker Dü is not for you.

I was four years old when Zen Arcade came out, but I didn’t know about this album until I lived in Boston and met some dudes who said their band was heavily influenced by Hüsker Dü. I had heard the name but not the music and, in a moment of weakness, I nodded and affirmed the awesomeness of being influenced by Hüsker Dü even though I had no fucking clue what that meant. I’m not proud. I’m a bit older and a bit wiser now, so when someone says they dig a band I’ve never heard of, I cop to it and then go find something by that band to listen to. (Incidentally, I never got to hear the band that said they were influenced by Hüsker Dü, but I see now that’s a sort of risky thing to be. My research indicates that those dudes were either noisy and terrible or shambolic and brilliant. Sadly, it’s easier to be the former.)

I didn’t own a copy of Zen Arcade until this year, but it doesn’t matter when you get great fucking albums; it matters that you get great fucking albums. And there can be no doubt, ladies and genitals, that Zen Arcade is a great fucking album. Hüsker Dü was ostensibly a hardcore band, but that’s like calling the Clash merely a punk band. There’s a lot going on on Zen Arcade from classic rock (the keyboards on “What’s Going On”, for instance, are total classic rock. Hey, I have a really bad idea, but I want someone to take me up on it: I know mash-ups are all the rage nowadays and I want someone out there with a laptop and more time than I care to spend on it to make a mash-up of Hüsker Dü’s “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye’s drastically different song of the same title. Any takers?) to hardcore (“Something I Learned Today” and the aforementioned “Pride”) to trippy stoner stuff (“Hare Krsna” is probably better when you’re stoned).

A lazy internet search (I was looking for the official release date of the album on the web) revealed to me that Zen Arcade is a concept album about a kid who leaves home and finds out that the world sucks. Or something. Fine. Doesn’t matter. It matters more that this is one of the few albums along with Black Flag’s Damaged and most of Minor Threat’s stuff, to come out of that whole 80s hardcore scene that you can still put on and just listen to. I like early Bad Brains as much as the next guy (maybe slightly more. I really want someone to croon their way onto American Idol and then bust out “Pay to Cum” one week. When they finish the song, they can jump off stage and beat the shit out of all the judges and everyone in the audience, especially the family members of the other contestants), but you can’t just sit there and listen to Banned in D.C.. In fact, Bad Brains’ more recent “listenable” stuff (think 1993’s Rise) is terrible. Zen Arcade transcends hardcore,  punk, and most other genres. In fact, the album takes most flavors of rock music and pummels the living shit out of them, warping them to reflect the angst of the album’s protagonist (if it has one; I still only half believe the concept album thing. It’s epic for sure, but the “concept” hangs a little loose for my liking. Feel free to argue). It’s safe to say that Zen Arcade is the blue print for the “alternative rock” that would follow it a few years later – for better or worse. I can certainly hear strains of Hüsker Dü in Nirvana and the Manic Street Preachers, but I’m sure there’s at least one joker out there who will try to tell you that The Black Parade is their generation’s Zen Arcade. If you ever meet this person, it is legal to punch them in the face.

Lyrically, Zen Arcade is not as narrative as, say, Separation Sunday (by another Minnesota band I love called the Hold Steady. You might’ve heard of them), but the songs are still incredibly relevant. “Newest Industry” features a line about running out of oil and annexing Mexico for the land, while “Turn On the News” sounds like it was written while watching Glenn Beck (“with all this uptight pushing & shoving/ that keeps us away from who we’re loving”).

For as rough and aggressive as Zen Arcade is, it is also musically rich and wonderfully textured. There are catchy melodies, harmonies to spare, and quite a bit of face-melting guitar to go ’round. It’s rather impressive that all but two of these songs were recorded on the first take (“Something I Learned Today” and “Newest Industry” started too fast, according to the liner notes). For a trio of Minnesota punks, Hüsker Dü was also a band of intensely talented musicians and Zen Arcade, like London Calling before it, is a prime example of a brilliant band at the height of their power. Do yourself a favor and check out this great fucking album.

You can find other Great Fucking Albums here.

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.

A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 5: It Was Hard to Be Cool in the 80s

I’ve never understood 1980s nostalgia, despite the fact that I am a child of that decade and VH1 thinks I should love it to death. With the benefit of hindsight and some education, I’m puzzled as to why we impeached Bill Clinton over a blowjob in the 1990s but didn’t really do much to Reagan for Iran/Contra, wherein his administration sold weapons to one group of brutal assholes with the goal of funding some other brutal assholes. And I don’t get why fiscal conservatives love Ronnie so much when he tripled – tripled! – our national debt in the name of defense (at the risk of ranting, why is it that some people want to spend tons of your tax dollars killing foreigners but don’t want to spend any of it giving you healthcare or education? Talk amongst yourselves). Also also, there was a lot of shitty music in the 1980s. A lot.

However, there was also some awesome music in the 80s. Like the Jim Carroll Band, urged into creation by none other than Patti Smith. Poet Jim Carroll started a band that influenced, among other bands, my beloved Hold Steady. In 1980, Carroll released Catholic Boy, which is an underrated punk treasure. Carroll was something of a one-hit wonder for the song “People Who Died,” but the whole album is utterly awesome, combining classic rock and punk riffs with Carroll’s literary observations on addiction, love, and death. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, Mr. Carroll is now himself among the people who died, having shuffled loose this mortal coil last year from some heart-related bad news. From what I’ve read and heard, Carroll was cool as hell, which was really hard to do in the 80s.

R.E.M. was also cool in the 80s. Somewhat paradoxically, they were actually cooler then than they are now (Accelerate was okay, but it’s no Life’s Rich Pageant. Or Fables of the Reconstruction. Or Document. I could go on). Formed in Athens, Georgia, around a shared love of Patti Smith, Television, and the Velvet Underground, R.E.M. was indie/alternative before that was even a thing. Mixing Peter Buck’s jangly guitars with Michael Stipe’s mumbly vocals, Bill Berry’s subtle-yet-raucous drumming, and Mike Mills’s mutli-instrumental abilities (not to mention the fact that Mills is the quintessential backing vocalist. How many great R.E.M. songs would be great without backing vocals from Mike Mills? Only “Nightswimming,” which features a badass piano part written and played by Mills), R.E.M. crafted some awesome, melodic pop in the 80s (“Pretty Persuasion,” “Sitting Still,” and “Perfect Circle” come to mind) as well as some scathing social commentary (“Exhuming McCarthy” is one of my all-time favorite musical middle fingers to fly at the right wingers. And once again, it’s improved by Mills’s bouncy “Meet me at the book burning” in the outro) where it was needed. They got kinda huge in the late 80s and early 90s and a lot of people don’t like their later stuff, but for my money, R.E.M. is just an awesome band. Sure, some of their albums are worse than others, but their live shows are always (even now, perhaps especially now) worth it. I’ve seen them twice and been left slack-jawed both times.

The punk movement of the 1970s gave rise to hardcore in the United States. I’m not well-versed enough to discuss the hardcore movement at length, but the bands to know (based on my limited knowledge) are Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, and Black Flag. Black Flag released Damaged in 1981, featuring a young Henry Rollins on vocals (their previous vocalist, Dez Cadena, opted to switch to guitar after shredding his voice on Black Flag’s rigorous touring schedule). Damaged seemed to split the difference between punk and hardcore, and Rollins was lyrically adept at lampooning some of the apathy and nihilism of certain punks while using their style of music to antagonize the cops and various other authority figures. Along with Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and Minor Threat, Damaged is probably the best listening experience you can have of hardcore without going back in time to a show and getting the shit kicked out of you.

Aggressive touring (not to mention smoking like a furnace and drinking like an Irish stereotype) shredded Tom Waits‘s voice in the late 1970s, when he started out as a barroom piano/songwriter in Los Angeles. I didn’t mention him in the 1970s post because it was in the 1980s that Waits really rose to greatness, shedding his jazz-bum image (well, sort of), marring Kathleen Brennan (who turned out to be an excellent songwriting partner) and turning American folk, Kurt Weill-style  cabaret, Captain Beefheart, and gospel inside out on three monumental records: Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years. The 1980s are, in other words, the decade in which Tom Waits got really, beautifully, blissfully weird and cemented his place as America’s greatest songwriter. Waits not only figured out how to be awesome in the 80s, he’s continued being awesome right up to the present day. Waits is so cool that he’s the only guy to have been covered by the Ramones and covered one of their songs himself.

Nirvana was so big in the 1990s and seemed to change so much that you could fool yourself into thinking everything they did was original (if you were high). But Kurt Cobain himself once admitted that he was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. Formed in Boston (home of the vastly inferior Aerosmith) in 1986, the Pixies (Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering) released not one but two entirely essential albums back to back: 1988’s super badass Surfer Rosa and 1989’s even better Doolittle. The Pixies excelled at the loud/quiet/loud dynamic (there is actually a documentary about them called loudQUIETloud) and made great music out of the interplay between Black Francis’s voice and Kim Deal’s voice. You probably know “Where is My Mind” from Fight Club, but if you haven’t heard “Debaser,” “Gigantic,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Hey,” and – who am I kidding? – most of the rest of their stuff, you don’t know shit about the Pixies and I feel a great sadness for you.

There were not one but two really awesome women named Kim making great music (they were both bassists too!) in the 1980s. The first is the aforementioned Kim Deal and the second is Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth, like Pavement, is one of those bands that is simultaneously why a lot of so-called indie kids like indie and why a lot of other people are terrified of the word “indie.” Love ’em or hate ’em, Sonic Youth’s Gordon and Thurston Moore are often looked at as the godparents of alternative rock, although Sonic Youth is also saddled with tags like “noise-rock” and “art-rock.” In 1988, Sonic Youth released an album that I fucking love called Daydream Nation (I was eight at the time and too busy listening to cock-rock, but at least a little wisdom has come with age – I started listening to Sonic Youth in college and haven’t stopped since) that went on to become more than slightly iconic, and with good reason.

Hip-hop also exploded in the 80s, and I’m not talking about the M.C. Hammer shit either. I’m talking about Public Enemy, who released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back the same year Sonic Youth dropped Daydream Nation. The highlight of any given Public Enemy tune is Chuck D’s totally aggressive flow – the dude knew how to drop rhymes like bombs. The lowlight was, let’s face it, Flava Flav, who is credited with inventing the role of the hype man in hip-hop. According to hip-hop experts, Chuck D found Flava Flav on the streets of Los Angeles, begging for change, and took pity on him. Not that Flava doesn’t lend a certain level of comic relief to Public Enemy’s work, but I’m just saying that I wouldn’t like their stuff less if he wasn’t there.

That should do it for the 1980s. Some bands from Seattle did some stuff in the 1990s and I’ll probably talk about some of that tomorrow and we’ll probably have to talk about Tom Waits some more. And the 1990s is a good decade to talk about some bands you might not have heard of that you should, by all means, be listening to. Stay tuned.


A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 3: The 60s

I know. Somewhere along the line, someone is gonna get all up in my shit about skipping Elvis. “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” they’ll say. Here’s the thing with kings though: every king I can think of was one kind of sonofabitch or another (to paraphrase Captain Malcolm Reynolds) and Elvis is no exception. Sure, he had a nice voice and he did a lot to bring rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream, but I don’t classify him as awesome and that’s my right. If I’m gonna talk about an awesome guy who passed through Sun Records, I’m gonna talk about Johnny Cash, whose voice I like better and whose At Folsom Prison is one of the finest American albums ever recorded. Cash, a Christian, often referred to himself as one of the biggest sinners of all time and he probably wasn’t just fishing for compliments – he did tons of drugs, womanized, and even set fire (well, his truck did) to the Los Padres National Forest. But, if you dig redemption, please note that Cash ended up being the poster boy for Aging Gracefully, enjoying a much-deserved career rebirth in the 1990s and early 2000s with his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series, which featured intimate performances of classic Cash tunes as well as straight-outta-left-field cover songs (Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and, of course, “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails) and totally predictably awesome cover songs (Tom Waits’s “Down There by the Train” and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See A Darkness”). Cash’s mark on American music was so large that it reached across the Atlantic a bit – Joe Strummer’s “Long Shadow,” (from his last album, Streetcore) was originally written for/about Johnny Cash and the two recorded a version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that is only slightly less amazing than Strummer’s solo version (also on Streetcore).

Since we’re on the 1960s, can I just say Bob Dylan and be done with it? What can I add to the conversation about Robert Zimmerman that you don’t already know? He was, apparently reluctantly, the voice of his generation (he claims he wasn’t, but your generation decides if you are. Are you getting this, Kanye West? You don’t get to declare yourself the voice of your generation. And, with whatever respect is due to Kanye, Craig Finn and Jarvis Cocker are leading the sweepstakes for Voice of My Generation), for whatever that’s worth. More importantly, he crafted two of the most essential albums in the history of American music, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blood on the Tracks (1974), helped introduce The Band to the world (I’m not mentioning them much in my history because they were mostly Canadian, though their influence is clearly heard in bands like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses), and had the good grace to admit that Jimi Hendrix’s version of his “All Along the Watchtower” was the definitive version of that song (much the same way I imagine Bob Marley would feel about Joe Strummer’s cover of “Redemption Song”). If someone asks you to tell them about Bob Dylan’s place in music history, just say, “Bob Dylan!” and hand them a copy of Highway 61 Revisited. They’ll either get it or they won’t. And if someone is all, “But his voice is so bad,” then you look ’em in the eye and point out that the times required nothing less than a strident, nasally voice to do what Dylan did. If he sounded like Frank Sinatra, nobody would give a shit about “Desolation Row,” and that would be tragic (although not as tragic as My Chemical Romance’s cover of that song for the Watchmen soundtrack. I believe it is legal to assault that band for their rape of the best Bob Dylan song ever). Dylan started out politically provocative and, when the politicos got all dogmatic, he became a merry prankster, pointing out the hypocrisies of those in power and those who sought power (see “Positively 4th Street” and “Idiot Wind” for examples of this). Of course, he hasn’t aged as gracefully as Johnny Cash did, but aging gracefully is hard in music.

Since Bob Dylan was nice enough to acknowledge Jimi Hendrix’s superiority regarding “All Along the Watchtower,” allow me to acknowledge his superiority regarding the playing of the electric guitar. Hendrix lived two years longer than Charlie Christian and in his paltry 27 years, he recorded some of the most badass guitar music ever recorded. Listen to the original version of “Little Wing.”  It’s two and a half minutes long and it’s sublime. Often imitated and never duplicated, Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar what Coltrane did for the saxophone (if you know me, you know what weight I lend to such a statement) and he was a pretty great singer as well. He died young because of drugs, just like Billie Holiday and a bunch of other awesome people. I won’t tell you not to do drugs because what you do is your business, but drugs have killed plenty of talented people. You do the math.

Speaking of drugs, one of the best songs about drugs ever is “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. I know some people you might regard as (I hate this word) “hipsters” probably prattle on and on about how awesome the Velvet Underground was and how Lou Reed is possibly the coolest motherfucker ever, but here’s the thing: they might be right. The Velvet Underground inspired some amazing music that came later (like R.E.M.) and they wrote some amazing pop songs, most of which were about drugs or sex or murder or all three. They got their start as the house band at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1966 and in 1967, they released The Velvet Underground and Nico which is rightly regarded as one of the best rock albums ever recorded. Tension between Lou Reed and John Cale (Cale’s approach to music is said to be more “experimental,” but I can’t really believe that in light of Reed’s solo album Metal Machine Music) eventually led to the end of the Velvet Underground. Both Reed and Cale went on to make some lovely solo music (Reed had a hit with a little song called “Walk on the Wild Side,” which is about cross-dressing. However, his finest solo hour in my mind is his cover of “This Magic Moment” for the Lost Highway soundtrack) and Reed went on to (probably)  bang David Bowie and/or Iggy Pop before (while?) marrying experimental/post-modern musician Laurie Anderson.

The sixties ended with some assassinations and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. To quote the Hold Steady, “The Seventies got heavy/ we woke up on bloody carpets/ got tangled up in gas lines/ and I guess that’s where it started.” In the seventies, bands like Kiss and Journey rose to prominence, along with raging jackholes like Ted Nugent. This is where cock-rock began, ladies and gentlemen.  But, as is always the case, there were some great and visionary Americans in the 70s determined to keep the flame of awesomeness burning bright. So instead of focusing on the insane world that would allow Ted Nugent any kind of public forum, we’ll talk about a young man named James Osterberg and a woman named Patricia Smith who were the true heroes of American music in the 1970s. And (giggidy) The Ramones.

What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Still basking in the glow of the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever, I turned my attention to a little album by the Mynabirds, a band named after a band (the Mynah Birds) that, no shit, once featured Neil Young and Rick James. At the same fucking time! The Mynabirds are mostly Laura Burhenn, who was in a D.C. duo called Georgie James. I know nothing else about Georgie James and it’s not important. The thing is, the Mynabirds quiet debut album (on Saddle Creek, no less. Saddle Creek spawned Bright Eyes and some other pretentious indie bands that I think are more than partly to blame for why non-music nerds get a little nervous when you say the word “indie”*), What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is nothing short of fucking gorgeous and elegantly simple.

Which is why, maybe, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in a Really Long Album Title is one of the first new albums I’ve been able to listen to since acquiring the latest Hold Steady offering. There’s a simple, meat-and-potatoes pleasure that I derive from how good the Hold Steady is at kickass rock ‘n’ roll. I get the same pleasure from listening to the Mynabirds – despite “having always wanted to make a record that sounded like Neil Young doing Motown” – do what the Band did pretty much better than anyone. I guess there’s some whiffs of Neil Youngish folk colliding with some Motown sound, especially on “Numbers Don’t Lie” and “L.A. Rain.” But to me, what the Band did very well was make aching, Broken-Ass Music. And if you don’t hear that on What We Lose in the Fire We Gain By Being By Far the Best Band on Saddle Creek, you might want to get your ears checked.

Everything the Mynabirds do is instantly familiar, but not in a bad way. Listening to this album is like stepping into my grandfather’s office where the smell of old books mingles with the smell of pipe tobacco. “What We Gained in the Fire”, nominally the title track, sets this tone from the outset and Burhenn and collaborator Richard Swift never deviate – they don’t need to. The album is instrumentally pretty simple – mostly piano, guitar, and drums, with some horns and a few nice backing vocal performances thrown in for spice (although Burhenn’s voice is fantastic on its own. She’s like a more confident Cat Power). The parts are few, but the sum is mighty. Getting back to my meat-and-potatoes analogy: you might think meat and potatoes is pretty dull, but what if you know someone who can whip up a homemade marinade for a juicy cut of steak and they grill it just right and serve it up with mashed spuds (maybe some garlic and rosemary in there**) and a nice smoked porter? My mouth is watering just thinking about that. That’s what the Hold Steady does with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s what She & Him do with the Beatles, and it’s what the Mynabirds do with country/gospel/folky/Bandy awesomeness.

At barely a half an hour, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in a Trade with the Red Sox is almost too brief, which is its own kind of accomplishment. Burhenn and Swift are clearly not trying to hide the fact that they’re being derivative, but they’re so damn good at it that you end the album wanting a little more. Which is exactly how an album like this should leave you feeling. You’re really gonna end up in one of two places after hearing an album like this: 1) you’re going to think, “Wow, that band has an amazing grasp of musical history up to this point. I should very much like to subscribe to their newsletter” or 2) you’ll think “what a bunch of hack-assed ripoff artists. I’d like to pull their internal organs out through their nose.” Interestingly enough, people have divided into those two camps about the likes of Led Zeppelin (they had some good songs, but I hope Zombie Willie Dixon comes to Robert Plant’s house in the [living] dead of night and bites his nuts off) and Bob Dylan (who, to be fair, is kinda ripping himself off at this point). I’m firmly in column numero uno when it comes to the Mynabirds.

I could spend all night parsing out the different influences that are evident on What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood Unless We’re Poor Black People in New Orleans and This is 2005 (okay, I’ll stop now) but at a certain point it doesn’t matter. To pastiche or not to pastiche*** is really not the question in music these days. We have twelve notes, folks. Different octaves, sure. But that’s a matter of the quality of the note, not the quantity of notes available. So the question then becomes: how good are you at using the past? Great musicians learn from their history in a way that human civilization at large has so far managed to avoid. Tom Waits is a genius at this. He hasn’t done anything that hasn’t been done before, he just has a very keen understanding of music’s past (and a broad one. If you threw Harry Partch,  Kurt Weill, Leadbelly, Captain Beefheart, and Exile On Main Street in a blender with a shitload of whiskey, you’d come up with something near a Tom Waits album. But name another guy who can juggle those influences so adeptly). The Mynabirds aren’t operating on Tom Waits’s level (who the hell is?), but they have spun their favorite records into a musical celebration instead of a theft and that makes What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood an album that can best be described, after all this writing, in two words: “fucking beautiful.”

*Which is why I’m trying not to use the word “indie” when describing bands. First off, it doesn’t describe how a band sounds (but neither does “post-rock” in my opinion) and second, it makes me think of Bright Eyes.

**Pro tip: steam some cauliflower, puree it, and mix it in your mashed potatoes. You get the extra vegetable nutrition, the consistency is about the same, and you can trick folks into eating their veggies this way. Also, if you like cauliflower, it’s just plain delicious. Also also, George Carlin once helpfully pointed out that cauliflower cures cancer. Unfortunately, it did not cure his congestive heart failure.

***I know it’s not a verb, but I couldn’t help myself.