This One’s Not About Music

Death Valley

This is just a picture of a desert. I don’t know why it seemed so fitting but it does.

 

I started writing this post around Valentine’s Day.

It all started with Dylan Farrow’s open letter from February 1st.  You’re probably aware of it and Woody Allen’s response and you may even have an opinion about who is telling the truth and who is lying. I do too, but that’s not what this is about either.

It’s about something I never talk about – my family doesn’t talk about it – that happened to me when I was a kid. From the age of seven to about the age of ten, I was molested by my cousin. My brother and sister were as well and my sister’s courageous attempt to actually do something about it led to the three of us being pulled out of public school to be “home schooled” by our mother, who was as qualified to educate us as I am to build rockets.

Being a survivor of sexual abuse is part of my identity, but it’s part that I don’t often share. It’s hard to – you can’t walk up to people at parties and say, “Hi, my name’s Matt and I was molested by my cousin. Pass the dip.” But Dylan Farrow’s letter has stuck with me because it reminded me that my sister tried to tell the truth and was forced to tell an attorney that she made the whole thing up even though she didn’t.  The message was loud and clear for all of us (as it is for many victims of abuse): “No one will believe you.”

But it happened. For years.

I know there are people out there who are inclined to ask why victims seem to recall or at least talk about childhood sex abuse years after the event. As I mentioned above, one reason is probably the feeling that you will not be believed – certain (former) members of my family made sure to cultivate that feeling in me, my brother and my sister.  There are probably lots of reasons people wait to speak out and I’m not going to pretend my reasons are universal. The most obvious one that comes to mind: when you’re a kid, you don’t have the vocabulary to say, “Hey, by the way, cousin Billy is molesting me.” I didn’t learn until much later how to talk about what my cousin did to me. Two things about that: 1) I’m still learning how to talk about it and 2) I’m really fucking lucky; some of us never develop the ability to speak about our abuse and that can lead folks (human beings, deserving of love and happiness) to pretty dark places. My brother has struggled most of his adult life with what happened to us (this is how we talk about it – “what happened to us” or sometimes just “what happened”) and I know he’s often felt unworthy of love and dignity because of the abuse he suffered – abuse that our mother and her family covered up.

I’ve tried to write about this before, with very little success. For one thing, it’s really goddamn difficult – I started writing this 2 months ago and have doubted ever since that I would ever actually publish it (I actually sat down at my computer tonight to play the new X-Com DLC, but started doing this instead).  I’m talking about a part of my life when I had no control and only one person (who is now dead) was brave enough to speak the truth. My dad believed my sister and, for his trouble, he was treated like shit by my biological mom’s family (and they in turn commanded my siblings and me to treat him like shit, which we did. I try not to treat my dad like shit now and I’d like to think I do an okay job, but that’s for Dad to judge).

So why bring all this up now?

It’s important for me to speak up now because I can speak up now.  Because I’ve managed to beat back enough of the shame and anger to articulate the facts. Because if I talk about it, maybe it will help my brother (or anyone else who sees this) talk about it. I’m not worried about being called a liar; I long ago stopped talking to those most likely to call me one. I’m a person who values the truth more than I value being comfortable or popular and the truth is that I was molested, I survived it (mind you, not without some serious issues about my own body and the unique ability to become massively freaked out about the power dynamics of sexual desire) and it wasn’t my fault. There are thousands of people like me and my brother and sister all over this country and some of them are probably feeling the same awkwardness about saying the truth out loud that I’m feeling even as I type this. Thousands. How many were called liars? How many have famous, beloved abusers?

This is hard to think about. It’s hard to write about and it’s really fucking hard to talk about. But it’s time to start talking and this is as good a place as any.

 

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Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part Two): “The Music Industry is Lying to You”

You might get the impression that a lot of music pissed me off in 2013 and while it is true that lots of music (and many other things) got my ire cranking during the last year, there was a lot of really great music this year and I’m happy that I got to listen to some of it.

This is not a countdown of my favorite albums of the year because I hate those. I don’t believe that nine or nineteen or 49 albums are measurable and precise intervals worse than my favorite album of the year and I think it’s silly to pretend they are. How the fuck do you calculate that, of all the albums released on the planet this year, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is precisely the 72nd best? You don’t, because that would be silly.

Yes, the new Future of the Left album is my favorite album of 2013 and my other favorites are all albums that, like How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, thrilled me to the point of distraction. So rather than some artificial countdown, think of this as “If you only had to hear six or seven albums from 2013, these are my recommendations.” But think of it with the following grain of salt – you might totally fucking despise the things I like and that is absolutely your right.

So what do I love so much about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident? First off, I love how it came into existence – Future of the Left announced a PledgeMusic campaign in the spring which, understandably, hit its goal in short order. I was able to send some money to the band so they could make this album and in return, I got a signed copy of the album, a T-shirt, and a digital copy of their Love Songs for Our Husbands EP. The band asked for help from their fans and then made an excellent and sincere show of gratitude. Oh yeah, and they made an album full of all the things I like from Future of the Left – sarcasm,  yelling, pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and kazoos. Okay, the kazoos are new but they really tie “Things to Say to Friendly Policemen” together:

The Pitchfork review of this album pointed out How to Stop Your Brain‘s implied critique of macho asshole behavior but then kind of chided the band for providing “no model for a better society” which I find a little bit odd. This is a website that chose the new Vampire Weekend album as the best album of 2013 and if there is a vision for a better society in that band’s music, I haven’t heard it. Forgive me, but I don’t see how a society where everyone endlessly plagiarizes Graceland is any better than the one we have now. Besides, Future of the Left has never been what you would call “solution-focused” (unless you count their suggestion that we “re-imagine god as just a mental illness” on Travels with Myself and Another). Andrew Falkous’s sarcasm, wielded with a skill and precision that cannot be taught, is probably indicative of a certain amount of hopelessness. Mind you, I don’t know the guy – maybe he’s a wide-eyed idealist like me but I doubt it. So why would a guy like me listen to such (on its surface, at least) negative music? There’s a certain catharsis inherent in the sharply barbed wit of Future of the Left’s music and what I love about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident in particular is that the two minute bursts of catchy-yet-snide stuff (“There’s nothing like a military coup,” sings Falco on “Johnny Borrell Afterlife” before adding, “The clothes are great / and everybody loves a curfew”) are occasionally offset but things like the opening line to “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine (But I Think I Love You)” which goes like so: “One day/ Soon/ Let’s talk about love/ like we talk about food: Generously/ and then/ without irony.” Cheeky title notwithstanding, the song opens with an honest (and, to my mind anyway, laudable) sentiment. Plus, I’m just generally in favor of doing things without irony. 

Obviously, Future of the Left isn’t for everyone but you probably didn’t start reading a music blog called Bollocks! to hear about stuff that might be for everyone. That said, I’m pretty sure most people who like music and/or joy will find something to love about Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady. 

One of the great things about life now is that, if you have the privilege of access to the internet and leisure time, you can find the music of pretty much anyone that your friends recommend to you. I read about Monáe when her first full-length, The Arch-Android, came out in 2010 but didn’t get around to listening to her until this year. I tend not to describe a lot of music as being “a revelation” but that’s what The Electric Lady is – it’s a truly thrilling, surprising slice of science fiction-infused soul. All of Monáe’s recorded output of which I am aware takes place in this sort of alternate reality (maybe the future?) where androids are marginalized and abused by mainstream society. But they are led in resistance by Cindi Mayweather, the ostensible alter-ego of Janelle Monáe. In 2011, Monáe told the London Evening Standard“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.” 

I can’t, as a heterosexual white guy, connect with Monáe’s music from a standpoint of marginalization – just like I can’t connect with, say, Bikini Kill or Curtis Mayfield in the same way that women and people of color do. It would be dishonest, not to mention a bit foolish. Where I strongly connect to Monáe’s work is as 1) someone who loves a good R&B record (and The Electric Lady is a great R&B record) and 2) someone who can quite easily imagine a world where people aren’t chronically fucked over because they are viewed as “less-than” in the eyes of the dominant culture (indeed, I can quite easily imagine an end to “dominant culture” – I told you I’m a wide-eyed idealist). Like a lot of the music I love (Mayfield, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Public Enemy – I could go on), The Electric Lady offers ironclad proof that we never have to choose between style and substance. We can have music that is aesthetically astounding and demands liberation at the same time. Isn’t that what all good art should do?

Writing about and thinking about Janelle Monáe and Future of the Left all morning (it takes me longer to write this stuff than it used to) has led me to a pretty happy conclusion – these are probably the two albums that I have listened to the most in 2013 (and they both came out in the last half of the year) and they both suit different sides of my personality. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is loud, sarcastic and (somewhat) diagnostic while The Electric Lady is bombastic, stylistically diverse, and (somewhat) prescriptive. In terms of hopelessness and hopefulness, they kinda balance each other out in some way. It may not work for you, but it does for me.

Those are only two of my favorites from 2013 – I guess you’ll have to wait until 2014 to read about (if you want to, that is – we don’t force anyone to read blogs around here) some of the others, which include albums by Neko Case, Aye Nako, Hilly Eye, The Julie Ruin, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

In the meantime, here’s a link to “Dance Apocalyptic” from The Electric Lady: 

Happy New Year!

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Bikini Kill

It should go without saying that Bikini Kill would be at the heart of a Summer of Badass Women, or any season of Badass women for that matter. After all, Bikini Kill is a large part of the inspiration for the Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women, which I dreamed up as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Riot Grrrl, a movement whose peculiar spelling actually came from Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail fucking around with feminist spellings of the word “women” (i.e. “womyn,” “wymyn” and so on). So there.

The women of Bikini Kill were Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail (they were joined by Billy Karren on guitar) and as a group, they were about as badass as you can be. Hanna, according to legend, was advised by Kathy Acker to start a band because that would be the best way to for Hanna to have her voice heard. The music scene in Olympia, Washington (home of Evergreen State College, the alma mater of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, all three women in Bikini Kill, as well as Futurama creator Matt Groening) was pretty fertile for experimentation to begin with and it wasn’t long before Hanna was in a band called Amy Carter, which used to play before exhibitions at Reko Muse, the feminist art gallery Hanna had started with some friends. After Amy Carter came Viva Knievel and then, at long last, Bikini Kill, named after a zine Hanna was working on with Tobi Vail (who is still chronicling the northwest feminist punk underground to this very day) and Kathi Wilcox. The three pinched Billy Karren from a band called the Go Team (not to be confused with twee British group The Go! Team) to play guitar in their band and that’s when shit gets really awesome.

While giving Le Tigre’s self-titled debut the Great Fucking Albums treatment, Zac mentioned that Bikini Kill – and not the more singable, dance-able Le Tigre – was the band that should’ve sent your jock-prick ex-boyfriend back-pedaling as far from Riot Grrrl music as humanly possible and my esteemed colleague has a point. It’s easier to enjoy Le Tigre more on purely musical terms but let me tell you something else: on purely musical terms, I totally fucking love Bikini Kill, especially the gritty early shit on the The CD Version of the First Two EPs. But then, I also like to work out to Minor Threat’s Complete Discography (which you can almost listen to in its entirety in a thirty minute workout).

You might be tempted, when listening to a song like “Double Dare Ya” to ask, “What’s all the shouting about?” Well, I’ll tell you. Bikini Kill was providing the soundtrack for a movement that, dog bless ’em, wanted a brand of feminism that reflected their aesthetic ideas as well as their political ones (indeed, I would argue that Riot Grrrl didn’t make much of a distinction between the two, given their frequent – and spot on – attacks on the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media) and that movement was infused with a punk spirit that a lot of mainstream “punk” music had (and still has) lost. Tobi Vail pounded the drums like she was in the fight of her life and Kathleen Hanna was a hurricane on stage, whirling, screaming, and occasionally flashing the audience. Vail has compared Bikini Kill shows to a war, and for good reason: as I mentioned in my review of Sara Marcus’s excellent Girls to the Front, men came to Bikini Kill concerts specifically to try to menace the band, something that doesn’t happen at Blink-182 shows (although it probably should) (I kid) (mostly).

But it’s not just the sound of their music – which, by the way, was the sound of liberation – that makes Bikini Kill badass. If I had to choose one word to describe all of their albums that I own (and I think I own all of them), that word would be “exhilarating.” If you like raucous, real punk music, you should definitely listen to Bikini Kill. But what they accomplished goes far beyond just playing loud, angry music. The Riot Grrrl movement was already under way when Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox got the idea to play in a band together, but they galvanized it and give it arguably its loudest, proudest voice.

And it wasn’t fuckin’ easy either. They were harassed, shouted at, and called all manner of horrible name just for daring to make their grievances public. Do me a  favor and ask yourself this, dear Bollocks! readers of any and all genders: why is it that we are always ready to approve of some angry dude – like your Clint Eastwood movie types and all those blowhard political pundit fucktards on the TV – but when a woman, any woman, gets upset because she has to have more education to make less money at the same position as a dude, people instantly accuse her of man-hating? Never mind the fact that the men Bikini Kill supposedly “hated” – men who relentlessly belittle, objectify, abuse, and rape women – are men that everyone should hate. I don’t hate the sadistic fuck who raped and murdered Mia Zapata because he’s a man; I hate him because he’s a fucking rapist. Likewise, I don’t hate Fred Phelps because he’s a man or even because he’s a Christian – I hate him because he’s a bigoted asshole who thinks that a being intelligent and creative enough to make (from scratch!) everything there fucking is has the same prejudices that he has.

There’s a reason you can’t have a serious discussion about Riot Grrrl without mentioning Bikini Kill and here it is: they brought the spirit of Capital-P Punk to that movement (which already had quite a bit of a punk ethos to it). For those of you who don’t know, Punk is “punk” with a purpose. It’s the kind of punk Joe Strummer was even when he wasn’t playing punk music. When the Handsome Furs snuck into Burma, played a secret show, and donated all the proceeds to their friends in a Burmese band, that was Punk. Hell, any band trying to make music under the boot of an oppressive regime is a Punk band. Bikini Kill were Punk because they played songs of liberation with reckless abandon, right in the faces of those who wanted to shut them up (or worse, physically hurt them). And they were badass women because they stood their ground and inspired a generation of young women to do the same.

Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

Does Anyone Own Stock in Flavor Aid?

Am I just a sucker for this stuff? It seems like an awful lot of awesome/beautiful pop music is being made by women and/or bands fronted by women and, try as I might, I can’t seem to get enough of it. Lazier writers (I’m only lazy on Fridays) will get a lot of mileage out of comparing Cults (fronted by Madeline Follin) to Camera Obscura, Lykke Li, and a billion other seemingly similar artists but I find enough of a difference between them all that I can enjoy them. Sure, all three borrow heavily from that great 60s girl group stuff (I always feel stupid typing the phrase “girl group.” They were women who could sing their asses off and giving that phenomenon the title “girl group” strikes me as pretty fucking condescending) that Phil Spector produced when he wasn’t kidnapping the Ramones and killing people. But from there, Lykke Li tosses in elements of country and blues, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell… well, she kinda stays in that 60s milieu but, being a good Scot, she soaks it in a gallon of whiskey, and Cults propel that bouncy doo-wop stuff straight on into a William Gibson-imagined future where we all have glowing skin for one reason or another. I can easily imagine Captain Malcolm Reynolds walking into a bar on some swanky Alliance planet and getting into an awesome fist fight while Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion try to finish their set without becoming collateral damage. But maybe that’s just me.

I came to Cults in a kind of backward fashion because I first heard Follin on the new Fucked Up record and remembered that I had heard and read good things about her full-time band (and now I find myself wondering what the overlap is between Cults fans and Fucked Up fans). Their debut, aptly titled Cults, is an immediately gratifying listen (you know, like that Foster the People album) that reveals a little more to me every time I listen to it (unlike that Foster the People album, which I like the same way I like Dr. Pepper; I know it’s horrible for me  but on occasion, it’s delicious and refreshing, especially when consumed with a giant fucking burrito).

At first, the melding of speeches by various cult leaders into the songs on Cults annoyed me but my inner pretentious child was quite taken with the subtle connection of the desperation of your average love song and the desperation of someone who turns to wackaloons like David Koresh for explanations of the greatest mysteries of life. Love, and sometimes strong, misguided infatuation, can captivate us in much the same way that certain charismatic nutjobs can. The concept makes me very happy indeed that I seem to have matured into an adult who can function in a romantic relationship (I guess you should verify that with my wife) and who has no requirement of a savior (please note: I’m not saying that all people who believe in messiahs are crazy and/or immature, although that fucking nutter in Norway certainly proves that there is some overlap).

But you know what? The more I listen to Cults, the more it almost seems like (oh shit. I hate this phrase) it could be a concept album. Madeline Follin, obviously, plays the main character, a young girl (she sings like one, which makes the “Fuck you” on “Never Heal Myself” all the more sharply pointed), who is wandering the halls of some compound, encountering grown-ups who have signed on with the messiah of the week. Her mom could be the heartbroken narrator of “Abducted,” who joined this cult because she was in love with some dude and maybe now he loves the cult leader more than he ever loved her. So then the girl starts to think that this shit is all pretty whack (singing, “Please don’t tell me you know the plans for my life” on “Oh My God”) and then she sings the warped finale “Rave On” as the tanks breach the compound walls. In that context, the smash lead single, “Go Outside,” takes on a whole new, more perverse layer of meaning; it’s like Follin’s main character is trying to get her despondent, lovelorn mom to stop stirring the Flavor Aid for a minute and just take a long walk in the evening air. What can I say? If there’s one thing I like, it’s adding perverse layers of meaning to things (although I think my concept for Cults comes somewhat close to the plot of Pan’s Labyrinth except with a cult replacing fascist Spain).

Of course, you don’t have to weave together such a story of lost love and found religious mania in order to enjoy Cults. It’s a helluva pop record if nothing else and “Go Outside’ enjoys the company of a few other musical confections, including “Most Wanted,” the old school duet “Bumper,” and a couple of excellent slower numbers, “Oh My God,” and “You Know What I Mean.” As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, a lot of bands are going back to the well of the 1960s right now, but Cults have wisely decided to crank up the juice on that sound, with Brian Oblivion (that’s a stage name. His real name is Brian Voldemort) layering in tasteful guitar lines around the tinkling bells, plinking keyboards, and finger-snapping rhythms. Repeated listens reveal a band that has carefully crafted something that sounds more simple than it is and even if you don’t agree with that, I defy you to argue (you’ll be arguing with Captain Reynolds, however) against these infinitely awesome melodies.

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Neko Case

Hopefully you understand that there are many ways to define a badass woman. Some are badass because they use their formidable voices to sing soulful songs and fight for civil rights. Others are badass because they have relentlessly brought the true spirit of folk music to a generation of feminists. This isn’t some kind of spectrum and there are no hard and fast criteria by which we here at Bollocks! confer Official Badassitude upon a woman. Or anyone else, for that matter; we’re not trying to be condescending here. We simply know a total badass when we see one.

And if you’ve seen the cover of Neko Case’s goddamn brilliant Middle Cyclone, you have certainly seen a Badass Woman. She’s riding on a… a sports car (I think it’s a GTO but, as I hinted in my original review of that album, I know exactly fuckall about cars)… well, that’s not really accurate. As you can plainly see, she’s surfing on the hood of a (possibly) GTO with a goddamn sword in her hand. That’s probably my favorite album cover of the last ten years. And that’s just the tip of Neko Case’s iceberg of badassery.

I could go into Case’s biographical what-nots and et ceteras, but her website does a way better (and more hilarious) job of it than I could. I get the feeling that Neko Case and I had somewhat similar childhoods, which is not to say that having it rough when you’re young automatically qualifies you as a badass (I do not, for instance, claim the title of Badass for myself. I’m not even a wiseass; if I’m lucky, I am a smartass though my wife sometimes tells me I have a nice ass), but coming through adversity with grace certainly puts you on the road to Badasstown.

For starters, Neko Case is so badass that she is an integral part of not one but two superb musical ventures. As a solo artist, she has been releasing quality country-ish rock (although at this point, I feel much better considering Neko Case her own genre) since the late 1990s. But she’s also been part of the totally awesome New Pornographers (yes, it’s my goal to link to the “Moves” video more than any other blog ever for the rest of all time. Why? Because the song is fucking awesome and the video is – if possible – even more awesome) since 2000, singing on some of their finest tunes, including last year’s excellent “My Shepherd.” So Ms. Case gets a pretty perfect score for work ethic, which is important – if we did have some sort of strict rubric for determining whether or not someone is a badass, work ethic would count for a hefty amount of the overall grade.

But Neko Case’s strongest asset, in general as well as when it comes to being a badass, is her voice. If I’ve said it a million times, I have not said it enough: there is no one singing right now – man, woman, or child – who sings like Neko Case does. In “Sounds of Sinners,” Joe Strummer sang about looking “for that great jazz note/ that destroyed/ the walls of Jericho.” Well, Neko Case sings that note on every fucking song she sings. She doesn’t have to let loose some nineteen octave-spanning, vibrato filled flurry of notes like Mariah Carey – Case has devastating tone and a control of it that could, if she wished, be used to reduce every once and future VH1 Diva to a pile of ash.

I mentioned earlier that I basically consider Neko Case her own genre, and that’s another point in her favor. Like Tom Waits, Case seamlessly blends elements of folk, country, rock, gospel and blues into her own eerie, beautiful (and yes, badass) music. Music’s been around for a long time and they are badass indeed who can weave humanity’s long musical history into a tapestry of sonic splendor. Should Mr. Waits and Ms. Case ever tour together, I would travel to the fucking moon and back to see it. Then I would die of happiness and instantly attain enlightenment.

Though Case’s early albums feature quite a few (excellent) covers, she has emerged as a powerful songwriter as well. Examples? Let’s take a few from Middle Cyclone, since I’m listening to it right now. There’s the simple, direct logic of “The Next Time You Say Forever,” in which Case sings, “The next time you say forever/ I will punch you in your face/ just because you don’t believe it/ doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.” Then we have “I’m an Animal,” in which Neko is sure that “Heaven will smell like the airport/ but I may never get there to prove it.” I could go on, but you should just get the album and listen for yourself.

Another common theme among our badass women is some kind of community service and/or impact beyond mere musical magnificence (I never met an alliteration I didn’t like), though – again – it’s not required or anything. In Case’s… uh… case, she advocates very actively on behalf of animals, especially greyhounds. Case makes use of Twitter to spread the word about donation opportunities (like this one for the Best Friends Animal Society’s birthday donation drive. They’re only asking for $27 by July 25th, so make a donation if you can, eh?) and will usually give your cause a solid re-Tweeting if it’s worthy. Even if you don’t donate to the Best Friends Animal Society (you should though. I mean, they’re asking for a maximum of $27 and if you can’t do that, you can pick your own amount. I’m poor as hell and I could spare ten bucks for ’em. What say you?), you might find Neko Case worth following on the Twitters. She’s frequently hilarious and also turned me (and, you know, probably lots of other people) on to GOOD, which is an infinitely awesome internet news magazine-type thing. Put it this way – the Daily GOOD is the only daily email I get from any company that isn’t deleted right away. Because they tell me about great shit like interstate bike paths and states finally banning styrofoam.

What more do you need to know? Her last two albums, the aforementioned Middle Cyclone and 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood are two of the best albums of this young century (you can bet your ass they’ll still be among its best when this century is in its late 90s too, when my great grandkids have taken over Bollocks! and turned it into a blog about their crazy Great Gramps, who would sit in his rocking chair shouting about the Hold Steady and Finnegans Wake until Gram brought him his medicine, which seemed to always come in twenty-two ounce bottles) and her albums before those, both solo and with the New Pornographers, are – at worst – pretty rad. So: because she can sing better than your ten favorite singers stacked on top of each other, because she does good stuff for awesome animals, and because Middle Cyclone still sends shivers in every possible direction along my spine, I declare for all to witness that Neko Case is a badass and no summer of Badass Women is complete without her.

 

Spoiler Alert: It’s All Been Worth It

I’ve actually always been pretty dubious about the “concept” album. It’s not that I mind that a band is stringing together a series of songs around a common theme (or even attempting to tell some kind of specific story with a bunch of songs); it’s that I object to being told there is some underlying concept to an album, especially before I listen to it. You see, I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent bloke and when I’m listening to an album and a story starts to emerge from the songs, I like to pat myself on the back for getting it. It’s like a little reward for listening to an album enough times to feel like I know it on a deeper level.

Being informed of a concept album’s conceptitude doesn’t ruin it for me – in some cases, being told an album is a concept album doesn’t even always convince me that it is one. After deciding that Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was a Great Fucking Album, I read on the ol’ interwub that it was a concept album. In my GFA write-up, I mentioned that the alleged concept didn’t hold much water for me (that “concept” can basically be summed up like so: “A young person is tired of his parents’ bullshit so he goes out into the world in search of adventure and finds more bullshit. Perhaps he understands his parents better and perhaps he just does a lot of drugs and records a trippy instrumental track at the end of a seminal hardcore/punk/awesome album”). There are common themes running through Zen Arcade for sure and the album is a richer experience for it. But knowing – or believing, I guess – that it’s a concept album neither adds to nor subtracts from my enjoyment of it (and if you haven’t heard Zen Arcade, it better be in your headphones by the time you get done reading this or… well, I probably won’t do anything to you. But it’s a great goddamn album).

Which brings us now to David Comes to Life, the new album by Canadian hardcore/etc. outfit (how many of those do you reckon there are?) Fucked Up (to answer my own question: based on the one Fucked Up album I’ve listened to, they really only need the one hardcore band). I’ve heard it described as a concept album and, less helpfully, as a “rock opera.” If telling me an album is a concept album causes me some trepidation, telling me it’s a “rock opera” makes me wanted to handle it with long robotic arms from behind some kind of soundproof glass. Because the phrase “rock opera” implies an almost certainly wanton degree of pretension. And, though I enjoy it, David Comes to Life is a pretty pretentious record.

It attempts to tell the story of a dude named David who falls in love with a girl, the girl dies, and then he kinda goes nuts (Pitchfork’s review of David Comes to Life states that David and his girl “conspire to build a bomb together” but that’s nowhere in the lyrics that are in front of me). He ends up fighting his narrator, a handy stand-in for God (who later seems to feel ashamed for what he’s put David through), and the whole thing ends (spoiler alert) by David experiencing something akin to a resurrection “with love in his heart,” according to the extensive liner notes. Clearly a concept album, nothing particularly operatic about it that I can see.

But what I can hear is the kind of awesome, cathartic, melodic hardcore music that makes Zen Arcade such essential listening combined with the Last Call, Bar Band, Really Really Really Big Decision Blues guitar riffage of the Hold Steady’s also essential concept album, Separation Sunday. So if you’re tempted to try to sell a friend on David Comes to Life by calling it a concept album or “rock opera,” maybe you should consider describe it as a totally kickass rock record instead. Because who doesn’t like those?

Of course, the throat shredding vocals of singer/lyricist Pink Eyes (I know the name seems funny; they name people using the metric system in Canada) will not endear this album to everyone, but as a fan of 1980s hardcore, I have no problem with a guy shouting his nuts off, as long as the song is awesome. And there are plenty of awesome songs on David Comes to Life that don’t require a lit professor’s understanding of the album’s plot. In fact, the first three real songs (I don’t count opener “Let Her Rest” because it’s an instrumental overture-type thing that I find myself skipping to get to the uptempo stuff) are blissfully aggressive, surprisingly melodic anthems. And if the story really is gonna have a moral, it’s sounded on “Under My Nose” when Pink Eyes howls, “It’s all been worth it.” It takes this David dude the whole fucking album to figure out that all the pain and bullshit you put up with in life is worth it if you have true love. Does that sound trite? Not on David Comes to Life.

I know I’ve been alluding to Finnegans Wake with some frequency lately, but that really just means that book accomplished its considerable aim, which was (at least in part) to create a modern myth for the continued rise and fall of humankind. The more I listen to David Comes to Life, the more I see an analogy between the album and James Joyce’s masterpiece. Both are a bit daunting, at least at first, both have shifting identities and narrative voices (both female characters in David Comes to Life have the same initials and there’s a sort of Fight Club-y dichotomy between David and Octavio, the narrator. In fact, their relationship reminds me of that of Joyce’s Shem and Shaun) that shed new perspectives on the same events, and both operate in a cyclical manner – Finnegans Wake ends in the middle of the same sentence that opens it and David Comes to Life ends with the “Lights Up,” wherein David is reborn and eager to “do it all again.”

But – and here’s where the Pitchfork review pretty much nailed it (hey, I give credit where it’s due) – those are thoughts you can have or not have upon your own nth trip through David Comes to Life. The first one or two times, you can just crank this fucker up and let the sonic ferocity get all up in you like Boston’s humidity in the summer. Like the best music of their forebears (Minor Threat, Black Flag, the aforementioned Hüsker Dü), Fucked Up’s best moments on David Comes to Life are immediately, viscerally pleasurable, especially for people in need of instant violent catharsis.

I have no way to end this post, so I’m going to sign off by saying that Instant Violent Catharsis is the name of my Fucked Up cover band.