Pumped Up Kicks and Petty Theft

I first heard Foster the People when I was up in Portland in June, doing orientation for grad school, interviewing for a job (not bragging, but I totally got it), and looking for places to live. One day, I was borrowing me ma’s car and listening to good ol’ 94.7 KNRK when I heard a song called “Pumped Up Kicks.” I wasn’t blown away on the initial listen (I don’t think “blown away” describes how I feel about the song now, but I do like the hell out of it), but it damn sure got stuck in my head. After a few more times hearing it (KNRK is a great radio station, but even they are not entirely immune to the pressure to repeat popular stuff infinity times a day), I found that I liked it a lot, although I consistently recalled the lyric as “all the other kids with the scuffed up kicks/ better run, better run/ faster than my bullets,” and I wondered why a dude would wanna shoot people with dirty shoes.

As far as I know, “Pumped Up Kicks” is the lead single from Foster the People’s debut album, Torches. I say “as far as I know” because the way singles work in my head and the way they work in the real world are drastically different. In the real world, you release a single and someone puts it on the radio somewhere and at some point, if all goes according to plan, you are playing Coachella and spending each night up to your neck in the sex parts of whichever gender you prefer to enjoy your naked romps with. In my head, any song I like and want to listen to a lot becomes a “single” and nothing much happens after that except maybe my wife gets sick of hearing it.

I think that it’s both a great strength and a great weakness of Torches that, between its beginning (“Helena Beat”) and its end (“Warrant”), you can hear basically every halfway decent indie-dance/pop song of the last ten or fifteen years. On the one hand, it’s instantly familiar, even if you haven’t heard any of their songs before. For folks who feel less musically adventurous in the summertime and just want to throw something on and commence the booty-shaking, Torches has your back. But there are moments when it apes MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular so hard that it would feel monumentally pathetic if you weren’t so busy enjoying the head-bopping beats and indelible melodies. There’s even one track (“I Would Do Anything for You,” which is dangerously close in title and theme to one of the worst songs I have ever heard) that deftly steals a bit of the melody from a Kylie Minogue song (I don’t know the name of it. I know it only as “the only Kylie Minogue song I know”). So that familiarity is a double-edged sword, especially if you’re the holder of the copyright to certain songs.

But for all its petty thievery, I have to admit that I find Torches almost bafflingly enjoyable. I found it using my newly fired-up Spotify account, so I’ve invested absolutely zero dollars in the record. For music that I’ve spent no money (and very little effort) on, Foster the People (presumably named for singer Mark Foster. Pitchfork thinks he sounds like Jamiroquai and the dude from Mercury Rev, but I think they’re deliberately dancing around the fact that Foster sometimes sounds a whole lot like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, especially on the verse to “Houdini”) have crafted something pretty decent, if not mind-blowing, life-changing, or even slightly original.

The case for the defense is that old chestnut that “all music is derivative of something” and I don’t disagree. But my concern isn’t the fact that Torches is derivative, it’s the degree to which it’s derivative. Some of these songs give me the feeling that Foster the People should be sending out royalty checks. Plenty of bands that I adore are blatantly derivative but most of them stop short of the wholesale (unattributed) assimilation of other songs that I already own.

I know I sound like I’m bagging on Torches pretty hard, but the album is fine, musically speaking, although “Don’t Stop” feels longer than it is, largely because the chorus is way too repetitive for my taste. “Pumped Up Kicks” is still my favorite song (by a long shot) and the rest of the album is okay but not amazing and I’ve made that distinction twice now because it bears repeating. Why? I’ll tell you: I have this sinking feeling that someone is going to come up to me at a party sometime in the next six months and tell me I just have to listen to this new band, Foster the People, because they’ve made the best album of the year and it’s just so great and I’ve never heard anything like them and so on and so forth and blah blah blah barf. I’m trying to preempt that uncomfortable conversation while still giving Torches exactly the amount of praise that I think it deserves (it’s a great summer pop album and I’m sure that many of your parties and barbecues will be enhanced by throwing it in your mix) because it is deserving of some praise. Just not as much as I suspect it will get.

As I listen to Torches for the ninth or tenth time now, I can’t help thinking of the Dandy Warhols’ 13 Tales From Urban Bohemia, an album that was, in terms of originality, utter hackwork (it goes well beyond a mere pastiche of the Velvet Underground and early Rolling Stones). But it’s also, by a landslide, the best Dandy Warhols album and it’s a really entertaining listen that I still like to throw on every once in a while. I happen to believe, perhaps because I’m an optimist, that Foster the People are more talented than the Dandy Warhols so it’s my hope that Torches will be followed up by something that borrows a little less liberally from its contemporaries. As it is, I can listen to it to my heart’s content for free on Spotify and by the time we disconnect our internet for the move to Portland, my wife will be goddamn tired of hearing “Pumped Up Kicks.”

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.

Portugal. The Man Makes Crappy. The Album

the-satanic-satanist

Okay. There’s no point beating around the bush here. I really don’t like Portugal. The Man. I hate the pretentious period in their name, which would be a stupid name without the superfluous punctuation. I hate their stupid, redundant album title, The Satanic Satanist. And I hate the fact that words like “lovers” and “golden” appear roughly 90,000 times in the space of 11 songs. I don’t really have anything nice to say about The Satanic Satanist and I know you’re inclined to suggest that I say nothing at all because of that. But that cliche imperative could use a 21st century update and that is this: if you don’t have anything nice to say, post it on the internet.

I don’t honestly even remember how I got this album. I read that Stupid. The Band Name was from Portland (which is only partly true – they’re originally from Wasilla, Alaska, a place from whence, thankfully, no other unbearably stupid people have emerged) and I think that prompted me to check them out. I have a great deal of pride in the music that my old hometown is cranking out these days (and no small amount of pride in the fact that my beloved Oregon Ducks just handed the USC Trojans the worst ass whoopin’ of Pete Carroll’s tenure there. I don’t want to rub USC’s noses in it too hard, though – they’ve given Oregon so much already. Like 613 yards of offense. 386 of which came from our tiny, spry quarterback) and so I’m usually willing to check out a Portland band. But Portugal. The Pretentious is giving me reason to revise this strategy.

In many ways, The Redundant Album Title is a prototypical Album I’m Not Going to Like At All. Among its many offenses, it strives to revive the 1970s, or some TV dream of the 1970s, in much the same way Amazing Baby tried to do earlier this year (you’ll remember that I despised them as well). They come off as the kind of people who will futilely argue with me that the Bee Gees were fun and that “Stayin’ Alive” is “catchy.” I don’t care; fuck the Bee Gees. On top of that, Portugal Period The Man traffics in that annoying white-bread funk that was made more popular by Maroon 5. There are several reasons that this is a crime against music and possibly humanity. I’ll just list the first few that come to mind: 1) George Clinton 2) Curtis Mayfield 3) early Stevie wonder 4) As a rule, you should never do anything that Maroon 5 beat you to the punch on.  Do you really want to be accused of riding those coattails?

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Also, the best bits on The Satanist (fixed that for you, Portugal. The Repetitive) are sue-ably close in melody and sound to the best bits of MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, an album I appreciate more and more after hearing shitty bands like Amazing Baby and Portugal The Seriously, I’m Not Putting A Fucking Period After the First Word of Your Stupid Band Name. If Joe Satriani could get a nice settlement from Coldplay over whatever stupid song of theirs (allegedly) ripped off a stupid song of his, MGMT could probably fund their next three albums and tours with the money owed them by PTM. If I had the technology, I’d do a mash-up of PTM’s “The Sun” and MGMT’s “Weekend Wars” that would be particularly instructive. And, what PTM isn’t taking from MGMT’s songbook, they’re taking from Curtis Mayfield’s playbook (you know, the guy who supplied the “People Get Ready” part to Bob Marley’s “One Love/ People Get Ready”. Also, the guy who wrote fucking “Superfly”). If Mayfield were alive today, I imagine “music” like he’d find on The Satanic Satanist would kill him.

Which brings me to perhaps the biggest crime committed by PTM on The Satanic Scientologist (see, that’s at least funny. Did you know Scientologists hate gay people? That’s why the guy who directed Crash left their flock.) is one of prioritizing style over substance to a harmful degree. Now, I’m not saying that substance is better than style – good bands (and artists like the aforementioned Curtis Mayfield) have both. The Clash, a.k.a. the best band ever, welded the two together in a way few bands have been able to manage since. But it seems like, at least lately, a lot of bands are coming out aping their favorite old records without actually saying anything. PTM, for instance, offers this line in the annoyingly repetitive song “Lovers in Love”: “Lovers loving love just like these lovers are loving in love.” Unless you have some odd combination of Autism and Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, that’s just plain lazy and you should either be kicked in the crotch or forced to watch Suzanne Somers blather on about how bad vaccines are for you (I thought about linking to some of that, but that would be cruel). And every other song on this pastiche-and-shit sandwich has that same, lumbering, white-bread funk beat and an annoying, Scissor Sisters-esque falsetto, courtesy of singer John Baldwin Gourley. I propose a new rule, kids: if you use a white-funk falsetto, your song has to be at least as awesome as Beck’s “Debra.” If it isn’t, you’re instantly classifying yourself as a douchebag.

Douche. The Bag’s defenders (assuming they have any) will probably accuse me of taking the band too seriously and say, “They’re just fun, man!” That’s fine. People think that about Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, Maroon 5, and Jimmy Buffet too. That doesn’t mean I have to like any of that shit (and, in case you missed where I’m going with this, I don’t). One man’s fun is another man’s torture (not to beat a dead Trojan horse here, but I’m guessing Jeremiah Masoli’s fun last Saturday was not fun for a USC defense that had, until they met the Ducks, allowed just under 80 rushing yards a game) and you’re well within your rights to have “fun” listening to Period. The Used Incorrectly. If you do, however, pray that you never encounter the music of Curtis Mayfield; the experience will illuminate your folly with such blinding clarity that you’ll set fire to your house to get rid of your copy of The Satanic Satanist and the stench that it left there.

Don’t Keep It Hid

I’m gonna get this outta the way right quickly, with the help of enumeration. Two things:

1) Dan Auerbach is one of the finest guitar players in any band playing right now. Check out the Black Keys Live at the Crystal Ballroom DVD if you don’t believe me.

2) His solo debut, Keep It Hid is a beautiful album, where Auerbach expands on the old school blues sound he pushes in The Black Keys and tosses in some old school soul and some seriously Band-ish country rock. It’s good stuff and good for you, Dan Auerbach.

Seriously, Keep It Hid is a good album, it’s not just a Black Keys album by any other name. Somewhat paradoxically, this is what kinda pisses me off about Dan Auerbach and his pal Pat Carney, who are better known as the two guys in The Black Keys.

The Black Keys, despite producing one of their finest albums yet with Danger Mouse, continue as a two-piece, which may be why Auerbach kept their name off of his solo debut, which employs nifty things like a bass player and a keyboardist. But make no mistake, following last year’s Attack & Release with Keep It Hid only solidifies this point: The Black Keys need to give up the two-man show, hire some other musicians full-time and use Keep It Hid as their launchpad to bigger and better musical things.

The two-man show thing works pretty well for what it is (again, see them live or see a live video of theirs for evidence), but it only lends itself to the expression of so many musical ideas. Auerbach very clearly has more in him than that, as evidenced by the achingly beautiful Keep It Hid opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton.” It’s a harmony rich, acoustic ballad that hits you like a ton of bricks. And wouldn’t it be refreshing on a Black Keys album if they could just drop their usual shtick (good as it usually is) and go for that kind of vibe? There were places on their last album where they hinted at this capability, but why limit that exploration to the studio? Carney and Auerbach are clearly talented musicians, so why cage up all those great ideas?

There are songs on Keep It Hid that sound like Black Keys songs (“I Want Some More”, “The Prowl,” and the title track come to mind), but what they’re missing is Carney’s stellar drumming. The songs are still pretty good, but you think, “Wow, these could use some of that crashing Pat Carney drumming.” But then you come to songs like “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” “Real Desire,” and “When the Night Comes,” and you realize that if you added Pat Carney to Keep It Hid, you’d have everything you love about The Black Keys plus that ever-sought-after So Much More. Auerbach’s solo debut is a good album, but if you added to it everything that made Attack & Release so strong, you’d have a truly great record. And it woudn’t be that hard to do. Auerbach would merely have to keep everyone who played on his solo album except for the drummer, who would be replaced with Auerbach’s fellow Black Key.

Perhaps there’s a feeling between Auerbach and Carney that their fans love the Black Keys for their lo-tech,two-man sound, but I’m willing to bet that their fans would be willing to forgive them for foisting an album upon us that had the strong melodies of Keep It Hid and all the pure balls of, say, Thickfreakness. Sure, it’d be a change, but some change is just too awesome to pass up. And it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to the Black Keys’ more attentive fans, who, among the ones I’ve spoken to, generally approve of the expanded sonic palette of Attack & Release.

Keep It Hid is lovely, as I’ve said, but that’s not really what we need to be discussing here; Auerbach’s solo album can stand on its own merits. What really needs to be said, and said loudly and repeatedly, is that it’s time for The Black Keys to put two and two together (meaning Carney’s drumming with the sort of songs Auerbach cooked up for Keep It Hid; “My Last Mistake” is a great song toward the end of the album, by the way, but it is the tune that most egregiously suffers for the lack of Carney drumming) and just become a bigger band. They can add a few more musicians and not sacrifice their deliciously old school sound and no one with a brain or an appreciative ear would accuse them of selling out.

(Sigh) The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

I am known, where I am known, for being about as anti-emo as a person can get. I’ll not be marching in any black parades, I think this resembles a scene much more than an arms race, thank you very much, and I don’t give a fuck about whatever it is Dashboard Confessional sings about (I’m guessing it’s to do with crying and self-mutilating in your car whilst the girl of your dreams is out on a date with the captain of the football team or maybe walking through the rain thinking about how your ex girl was totally right about your faults)

So you might imagine I was drawn to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart like a guy who slaughters lambs is drawn to lambs. Who are then slaughtered. Metaphor = broken. At any rate, a name like The Pains of Being Pure At Heart deserves all the scorn you can heap upon it. So heap away. If it helps, their lead singer is named, I shit you not, Kip.

But a funny thing happens when you listen to their eponymous debut. Where you expect to find My Chemical Fall-Out-esque banshee wailing bullshit, you find instead that, despite the claims on their crapspace page, these guys are more like Modern English than like Kurt Cobain. They also list The Ramones among their influences and I can kinda see it – the album is the picture of brevity and bounce. Kip’s vocals are buried under noisy guitars and occasionally surface to belt out a chorus with the help of keyboardist Peggy (aren’t they precious? None of them have last names!).

So what’s in a name, right? I mean, a good band by any shitty name is still a good band. But I can’t think of too many bands with terrible names that are really good, can you? The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are to 80s pop and shoegaze (I think it’s shoegaze – it’s music that’s fuzzy and noisy and would probably sound a lot better if you did a bunch of heroin all the time – think The Jesus Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine) what the Black Keys and White Stripes are to the blues, meaning that they’re absolutely unoriginal and yet, on balance, completely enjoyable.

The Pains, as I’ll call them for short (because their name really is unbearable), don’t wait long to throw you off the emo scent, opening their album with a one-two punch of “Contender” and “Come Saturday,” both of which are jangly, pop songs, with Kip’s voice not even really rising to a shout (much less a banshee wail) when he sneers, “You never were/ you never were a contender” or whatever it is he says on “Come Saturday”, which also features a  nifty guitar lick that wouldn’t be out of place on an early 90s Cure album. Kip’s voice is so soft and buried in the mix (someone in the control room was sleeping on the knobs marked “bass” and “guitar” because you mostly hear those two things really well and the other things slightly less well) that it’s often hard to make out what he’s saying, but when I can, it’s definitely not emo. It’s usually something fairly harmless like “you’re my sister/ and this love is fucking right.” I’m sure he means “sister” in a spiritual sense, right? Right?

A lot of critics have gone all gooey over The Pains, and that’s due in large part, I think, to their hook-laden, melodic poppiness. The ten tracks that make up The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are catchy as hell, to the point that it might start to feel a little formulaic by the end. So whether or not you like this album will depend largely on how soon the formula starts to wear thin with you. I’ve been through the album about a dozen times and can still find it fairly pleasant – it’s probably not gonna top my year-end list or anything, but it’s an enjoyable listen and it’s fun to tell my friends that I like a band called The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and wait for them to search my medicine cabinet for guyliner.

The Pitchfork reviewer turned in a fairly defensive endorsement of the Pains that basically shot its load on the premise that you’re just being a big old meany (I think their word was “asshole”) if you think that only old bands from Way Back When should be allowed to dabble in the fuzzy, melodic pop that is all over The Pains’ debut. I chuckled when I read that becuase I don’t know anyone who thinks that way. Of course the Pains are allowed to do What Has Been Done Before; lots of bands do it and some do it incredibly well (cough *Hold Steady* cough) while some do it incredibly poorly (vomit *Brian Jonestown Massacre* more vomit). All rock music, hell all music, is built on what came before it (yes, Pitchfork, even your precious Radiohead; where are your rock gods now?) but there’s something to be said for making something feel new and interesting, you know, for putting your own stamp on the thing. If someone doesn’t like The Pains because they find Kip & Co. too derivative, that’s perfectly fine with me. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the album in the slightest, and it’s a valid criticism (much like when people don’t like Stephen Malkmus, whom I adore, because they find him pretentious – it’s a valid criticism and it just so happens that I’m able to forgive him for it). You’re not an asshole if you don’t like The Pains, you’re an asshole if you dictate to people the grounds upon which they may or may not like an album.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is a good listen, it’s brief, and I suggest this little experiment when you get to the end of the album: picture this band covering Modern English’s “Melt With You”. I can imagine this so clearly that if I ever see them live, I will shout a request for this song so loudly and so frequently that they’ll have to fucking play it.

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand vs. The More-of-the-Samies

While the reviews of Franz Ferdinand’s new album, Tonight, have mostly been laudatory, many have complained that Tonight is more of the same from everyone’s favorite Glaswegians (everyone but me – The Delgados will always be my favorite Scottish band). Meaning more catchy, dancey pop with the occasionally subversive lyric from Alex Kapranos (see You Could Have It So Much Better’s “The Fallen” for lines like “Walk among us/ if you judge us/ yeah, we’re all damned”). I want to get the More-of-Same thing out of the way before we truly begin discussing Tonight, because it’s important to start with the right context. So first off, Franz Ferdinand never promised nor did they indicate in any way that they would shake their sound up much from album to album. No, one gets the feeling that all they ever promised you was a good time. They’ve delivered consistently over the years and maybe you don’t want to shack up with a guy who can only ever promise a good time and not much else, but the good times are good, aren’t they? So if you dismiss Tonight on the grounds that it sounds like their first two albums, I have to ask you if you liked their first two albums. If you didn’t, hey, it’s fair game to say it sounds exactly like two other albums that you didn’t like (An example, yeah? I didn’t like John Mayer’s first two albums. I think they sounded like shit. And I think his recent work sounds exactly the same: like shit. So I can claim “more-of-the-samies” on John Mayer and all’s fair). But, if you did like their first two albums and now don’t like Tonight because it sounds just like the first two, what you really mean is, “Tonight sounds like their first two albums, but I’ve decided that I only want two albums that sound like that, so I’ll be trading Tonight for something different at my local used CD shop.” Or something like that. (Note: this is different than saying an album is more of the same and lavishing a shrugging indifference upon it; for instance, I’m fine with Placebo, but I don’t necessarily give a shit when they release an album. I already own two of their albums and that’s all I need. But I’m glad they make their living making music even though I get the feeling that Brian Molko is the world’s biggest drama queen.)

I’m not arguing that you should like Tonight (let’s be clear: Bollocks! is about what I like and why I like it, not about what you should or shouldn’t like — I report, you decide, and I’m continually amazed that anyone really reads this shit), I’m merely saying that “It’s the same as the other two” is a weak argument against it. Yeah, on first listen, there’s a lot on Tonight that sounds like the first two albums, and I realize that to some people, having a favorite Franz Ferdinand album is like having a favorite Black Keys album (which I do – last year’s Attack & Release) or a favorite Placebo album (okay, I admit that it’s pointless to have a favorite Placebo album), but I say to you now with no hesitation that Tonight is my favorite Franz Ferdinand album and their best work to date.

Tonight is the first Franz Ferdinand album that sets up and consistently executes a mood. Beginning with “Ulysses,” straight on through “Katharine Kiss Me”, Tonight is a long night’s journey into day, “Ulysses” the tune that ushers in a night of drunken carousing about town, the middle tunes tracing the night hopping from pub to pub, searching for Mrs. Right (or Mrs. Right Now, har har) or Mrs. Maybe, and the album winding down through the transition from happy-drunk (“Turn It On”) to morose drunk (“What She Came For” and “Live Alone”)  to hangover (“Lucid Dreams”) and ending with Kapranos serenading a woman named Katharine drunkenly in the morning, perhaps sitting on her front stoop with a half-empty bottle at his foot, a six-string in his lap, and a cigarette clinging to his bottom lip for dear life. And through the whole thing, these ersatz Archdukes are tuneful sons of bitches, augmenting their normally jangly guitar pop with some synths, a little more falsetto from Kapranos, and an honest to god rocking out guitar solo at the end of “What She Came For.”

So there are indications of growth on Tonight, though not as much as the band probably sees nor as little as their detractors would claim. Franz Ferdinand has always been a pretty tight band (especially for a pop group), but Tonight reveals a heretofore unseen cohesiveness in both music and theme that is actually pretty refreshing. While I’ve enjoyed previous outings by Franz Ferdinand, Tonight is the only album of theirs that I would regard as truly compelling.  Perhaps this is because, my college days not being that fucking far behind me, I can recall nights of (mis)adventure where I thought I was never going home. And I’ve definitely been to parties where I can see “What She Came For” (it was never me, for the record). You start these kind of nights feeling every ounce of your youth – you’re invincible and then, by the end of the night, you’ve got, to borrow from Tom Waits, a bad liver and a broken heart. (Or, if you’re me, you’re drinking with one or two pals in your room listening to Tom Waits and/0r Wilco, knowing with every fiber of your being that those dudes are dead fucking on about whatever it is they’re singing about.)

There are way too many enjoyable moments on Tonight for me to dismiss it as just another Franz Ferdinand album. It has all the stuff I liked about the first two albums without the feeling that I’m listening to a dozen consecutive singles. The only place where Tonight really bogs down is the electronic self-indulgence at the end of “Lucid Dreams,” a moment that has a bit too much of a hard-on for Broadcast (if you don’t know who Broadcast is, I demand you check out Tender Buttons immediately) without the chops to back it up. Still, this is the album I expected Franz Ferdinand to make back when everyone was coming in their pants about “Take Me Out” (I know there are people out there on the internet who would argue for spelling it “cumming,” but they can go fuck themselves until they cum).

Franz Nicolay is the Very Model of a Modern Major General

One of the guys from Oasis once quipped that the problem with Keane was that the two biggest assholes in any band are the keyboardist and the singer (meant to imply, I suppose, that 2/3 of Keane are assholes). Franz Nicolay doesn’t strike me as much of an asshole (and certainly not as much of an asshole as the Gallagher brothers, who are pioneers of assholery), so his first solo album since joining The Hold Steady (I’ve mentioned them once or twice, haven’t I?) shouldn’t be hamstrung by the fact that he plays keyboards and sings.

As long as you don’t expect Major General to sound like a Craig Finn-less Hold Steady album, you should find it a pleasant and revealing listen. Album opener “Jeff Penalty”,  about the poor bastard who dared to fill Jello Biafra’s shoes in The Dead Kennedys,  might mislead you into thinking that Nicolay is trying to play Craig Finn on his own, sans Tad Kubler, with the speaking/singing on the chorus “I’m sorry Jeff What’s-his-name/ if we didn’t take you serious/ but the punks all still sang along/ when we got to the chorus.” The fact is, though, that Nicolay has a much broader vocal range than my hero Mr. Finn, and he doesn’t wait long to expand the sonic palette on Major General. The album departs sharply from its opener; Nicolay’s shtick seems to be mixing Nick Drake, Modest Mouse and Tom Waits-esque cabaret in a blender with a dash of early Springsteen for flavor.

Nicolay was doing music on his own and with other bands prior to joining The Hold Steady and on Major General, he re-establishes himself as a songwriter in his own right and shows exactly why The Hold Steady took him on full-time during Separation Sunday (he has guest credits on Almost Killed Me but was still doing his own thing as well at the time). His musical capabilities expanded The Hold Steady’s sound tremendously and pushed them into the broader musicality of Boys and Girls in America and last year’s tremendous Stay Positive. Nicoaly’s influences on Major General share some overlap with those of The Hold Steady, but Nicolay applies them to different effect, allowing himself to wander quite far from The Hold Steady’s classic-rock-done-better-than-everyone-else formula. “You’re always surrounded by lovers/ you’re never as broke as you seem,” Nicolay sings on “World Inferno vs. The End of the Evening,” dramatically singing a line that is probably what that douchebag Brandon Flowers was going for on Sam’s Town.  “World Inferno” is followed by “Dead Sailors,” a song that Nicolay could’ve co-penned with Tom Waits (“I guess no one cares about sailors in this bar”), and the exemplary acoustic ditty “Do We Not Live in Dreams?”

Some Hold Steady fans might find Major General a little too croony for their liking, but none of those fans work at Bollocks!.  The consenus among our editorial board (which is just me, sitting in my Imaginary Office) is that Major General is an often-beautiful if sometimes melodramatic glimpse into the soul of music’s best Super Mario lookalike. And some of its best moments are a little croony, like “Cease-Fire, or Mrs. Norman Maine,” a song carried by a nifty banjo lick and the line “we still believe in forgiveness/ but we believe in vengeance too.” But so fucking be it.

If I’ve painted a portrait of Major General and/or Franz Nicolay as somehow indie-precious or sickeningly sensitive (a la Sufjan Stevens, Conor Oberst or any of their ilk), allow me to direct your attention to the best opening line on Major General: “She yelled, ‘Fuck you, Franz/ from the back of an ambulance/ but I’ll still fuck you/ the next time we dance'” on “Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova.” Nicolay is still able to get down to real shit, mere moments after musing about living in dreams (in a song that has a lovely clarinet solo). Later in the same song, he sings, “I could say I still love her/ but what do I know about love/ except love songs?,” and yeah, it’s the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hold Steady song, but its the exception on an album that rules. It helps one see how Nicolay can sit down with Craig Finn and turn out something as awesome as “One for the Cutters.”

Major General may not gain much notoriety outside of circles of curious Hold Steady fans, and Nicolay might well be aware of that fact. Perhaps that knowledge is what freed him up to wander so wonderfully from genre to genre, bouncing between raging punk nerd (on “Jeff Penalty”) to wide-eyed strummer (on “X-Games” and “Do We Not Live in Dreams?”). Major General deserves much wider attention than it will probably receive, but if you read Bollocks! and have ever liked any of the music I have liked, you have no excuse for not getting Major General right now.