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.”

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.

I Am Very Far, Finnegans Wake, and the Train to Awesometown

When Okkervil River released The Stage Names in 2007, I bought it and listened to it in my car on the way home from Amoeba Music. And when it finished with “John Allyn Smith Sails,” I let it start right back up again with “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe.” For like a week straight. Somewhere in that cloud of what I thought was just me being too lazy to change the disc, I realized that I really loved the album. I couldn’t wait to hear the next song and it didn’t matter which song it was. I did not have that experience with the follow-up, The Stand-Ins. It had some great songs but, as an entire album, it didn’t grab me the same way that The Stage Names did.

Earlier this month, Okkervil River released I Am Very Far, an album that is indeed very far from the cinematic concept(ish) albums that preceded it. And that’s a good thing, because (I hate to admit this) Pitchfork was correct in pointing out that the themes that resonated so wonderfully on The Stage Names were drying up on The Stand-Ins. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a unifying idea behind I Am Very Far – it is, to my ears anyway, definitely an album about death, decay, and the blood, guts, and dirt of human existence. But those themes come across in each song without necessarily tying the songs together as what you would call a “concept album” (note – I’m listening to I Am Very Far as I write this and it might seem, in a couple paragraphs, like I’m arguing with myself about this assertion. You can deal with that, yeah?). It’s more of a “this is stuff that was on Will Sheff’s mind, perhaps because Okkervil River spent a lot of the last two years with Roky Erickson” kind of album.

Will Sheff must feel pretty good about how he produced Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil, because he took the controls himself for I Am Very Far and the results, like a lot of Okkervil River’s best music, are dancing right on the line between “pretentious, yet profound” and “just annoyingly pretentious” (“Piratess” features, where some might put an instrumental solo of some kind, a cassette making that sound it makes when you destroy it by pushing fast-forward and play at the same time). So does that mean I Am Very Far is Okkervil River’s best album? I really can’t say. The soft spot in my heart for The Stage Names is basically the size of my whole heart, so I’m more inclined to tell you that album is their best, despite the fact that it might just be my favorite. Either way, though, I Am Very Far is a very good album.

It’s been billed far and wide as a “dark” record, and the recurring themes to which I alluded earlier support that claim, but I find a lurking beauty underneath the bloody mess that is I Am Jamie Farr and I don’t think the album is as hopeless as it’s been made out to be (I just realized that I have made a very similar defense of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing on many occasions). I’ve been listening to the album for basically this entire week and it occurred to me this morning that, taken in its entirety, I Am Very Far feels like a nightmare that’s exploding with turmoil and violence (“We were piled on the shore with the rock ‘n’ roll singed,” sings Sheff on Waitsian opener “The Valley”) but is tempered with sweetness (depending on how you look at “Hanging By a Hit.” Your Past Life as a Blast” is pretty positive though – it’s the main reason for that lurking beauty I mentioned), kind of like Finnegans Wake, but without the world-beginning/ending sex (yes, that’s really in Finnegans Wake. I bet you wanna read it now, don’t you?).

In that light, it’s kind of funny that I Am Very Far isn’t supposed to be a concept album (although let’s face it: what the fuck is a “concept album” anyway? Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Here’s its concept: “let’s use a spotty story of a rock star losing his goddamn mind to thinly veil the fact that Roger Waters hates – hates – the people who made him famous.” Don’t get me wrong; I like The Wall, but not because of its supposed “concept”) because to me, it has the sort of emotional cohesion that Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight had. I think it might be a stretch to suggest that after Tonight on the town, your dreams will be I Am Very Far, but there’s a sense on the latter record of descending into nightmare on “The Valley” and slowly waking from it on the super-lovely “The Rise.” Or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time with James Joyce lately.

Listeners who dug some of the rougher textures on the Roky Erickson album will be happy to note that Sheff is painting in the same thick layers on I Am Very Far. There’s stuff being broken and kicked over, Sheff layers his own screams underneath his (slightly) calmer singing on “Show Yourself,” and, as mentioned earlier, “The Valley” sounds like a poppier answer to Tom Waits’s “The Earth Died Screaming.” This is new territory for Okkervil River (The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins were both pretty clean albums, from a production standpoint), and I have to admit that I didn’t really like it on the first listen. It sounded a little too intentionally murky but a few more trips through the record and I was enjoying picking the layers apart and concentrating on a cello line here or a horn part there. To go back to the Tom Waits analogy, I felt the same way about some of his weirder stuff when I first started listening to him.

So while I Am Very Far has yet to unseat The Stage Names as my favorite Okkervil River album, it has certainly earned its place among my favorite records so far in 2011. It’s got all the literate writing I expect from Will Sheff, the subtle-yet-gorgeous melodies, and it’s still a musical step forward that was needed but doesn’t feel forced in any way.  I don’t think Okkervil River was in a rut after The Stand-Ins, but they were definitely camping on the outskirts of Rutville and I’m glad I Am Very Far came along and put them on the train back home to Awesometown.

Tapes ‘n Tapes, Hipster Hate, and Special Pitchfork Dispensation

Like a lot of people, I rather enjoyed The Loon, which was the first Tapes ‘n Tapes album. Also like a lot of people, I didn’t much care for the follow-up, Walk It Off. If that makes me a hipster in your book, the only thing I can say to that is, “Fuck you. I like what I like.” (Seriously, though, can we just stop 1) calling people hipsters and 2) hating hipsters on the internet already? Honestly, why did anyone give a fuck about so-called hipsters in the first place? They’re just people liking stuff and doing stuff that you don’t like. Lots of people like and do stuff I don’t like, but I don’t divide them into groups so I can sort my would-be enemies. Who has that kind of time?)

Anyway.

So Tapes ‘n Tapes stand accused, with Outside (an album that was released on my birthday this year), of brazenly trying to go back to the well from whence they pulled The Loon. According to every review of Outside that I have read – positive and negative – Tapes ‘n Tapes are trying to forget Walk It Off and push the reset button with this new record. The Pitchfork review (I’m sure they think it’s witty) even opens with the line, “You’re forgiven for forgetting Tapes ‘n Tapes.” There are two things that piss me off about that line. First, I don’t need special dispensation from Pitchfork for anything, thanks. But the second thing that pisses me off about that line is that it is sadly correct. I have forgotten Tapes ‘n Tapes. Though I liked The Loon, I haven’t listened to it in years.

As far as pushing the reset button goes, Outside sounds a lot more like The Loon than Walk It Off, but it doesn’t strike me that Tapes ‘n Tapes are making some cynical attempt to delete their second album from their musical history. I think it’s more likely that the band wanted to take a simpler approach to Outside and take their time to make a good record on their own terms. Sure, Outside smacks a little of “back to the drawing board” but that inclination makes sense after an album as messy as Walk It Off (and let’s face it, folks: after the critical jizz bath that greeted The Loon, Tapes ‘n Tapes never really stood a chance of delivering a second album that met expectations).

So the fifteen dollar question: is Outside good? Will it once again make Tapes ‘n Tapes a prototypical “blog band”, whatever the fuck that means? (I had never encountered that phrase before reading reviews of this album and I hope to never encounter it again. Using phrases like “blog band” is a good way to get labeled a hipster and be showered in scorn. In that case, you’d deserve it.) According to the band’s Wikipedia page, “it wasn’t until The Loon received a favorable review from Pitchfork Media…that the band started to find success.” I guess Pitchfork staffers are writing Wikipedia pages now, huh? Anyway, Pitchfork has pulled a Pontius Pilate on Tapes ‘n Tapes and washed their hands of that band entirely (take heart, Tapes ‘n Tapes – you are not the first band to get the Pitchfork Verbal Hump & Dump™ and you will most definitely not be the last band to get it either), so if they need Pitchfork’s blessing to once again be catapulted into the hearts and minds of the Indie Internet Intelligentsia, I guess they’re boned. But I’ve read plenty of reviews of Outside and I think Pitchfork’s is by far the harshest.

If I sound like I’m picking on Pitchfork, it’s because I am (it’s part of our mission here at Bollocks! to take the piss out of Pitchfork. It’s in the charter). But look: if Pitchfork is a little smug in their approach (and they are), they are not wholly inaccurate in their assertion that Tapes ‘n Tapes is a bit nondescript as a band. A lot of Outside sounds like a lot of stuff that has come out since The Loon. Though I certainly don’t think “One in the World” is a shameless attempt at ripping off Vampire Weekend (though they say it takes a thief to catch one), people are going to associate that sound with the more popular band. And, whether you like their sound or not, Vampire Weekend has a sound and I still feel like Tapes ‘n Tapes only kinda sorta has one. The faster, looser, jangly numbers are still the best, but the two longest songs on Outside – “Nightfall” and “Hidee Ho” – definitely feel like the longest, which is always gonna get you in trouble. I can understand the desire to be genreless (my hatred of genre is well-documented on Bollocks!, and I consider it a subdivision of my hatred of useless labels used to categorize people and things for the convenience of the close-minded and intellectually lazy), but “being difficult to distinguish from most other bands” is not the same as being genreless.

So we can call Tapes ‘n Tapes a “work in progress” and give them a Pitchfork 5.5, but how helpful is that? It’s not helpful. So I wanna help Tapes ‘n Tapes if I can and, like all pretentious blowhards, I believe I can.

Firstly, looking toward the development of a distinctive sound, Tapes ‘n Tapes might turn Josh Grier’s vocals loose a little more frequently. He has a great growl to his voice that I think has been underused since The Loon (it also helps “Nightfall” end better than it starts) and I think he could really pick up the ball that Caleb Followill seemed to willfully drop right after Aha Shake Heartbreak.

Second, I think both Walk It Off and Outside are still too clean from a production standpoint. This band will be better when Grier is yowling and the music is a little less polished. Not every band can pull off the calculatedly sloppy thing, but we’ve already heard Tapes ‘n Tapes do it and I firmly believe they can do it again. Sooner is better on this one, guys.

Finally, perhaps most important of all, I think Tapes ‘n Tapes needs to stop giving a fuck what people think about them. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that The Loon’s greatest triumph was that, though it was fairly unoriginal (even in the context of a young century where Green Day stumbles from badly aping the Clash to worsely aping the Who and My Chemical Romance labors under the delusion that they’re somehow not an emo band), the songs came too fast and felt too free for a listener to get too serious about them. I think that’s because Tapes ‘n Tapes didn’t worry too much about what people would think of The Loon. It was, well, loony (how else do you explain a hit single in which a guy screams, “I’ll be your badger”?). Walk It Off was supposed to be their Big Indie Rock coming out party and it ended up being frightfully dull. So now we have timid, awkward Outside, an auditory adolescence which is certainly listenable but nowhere near as much fun as the form to which it is supposed to be a return.

My Ten(ish) Favorite Albums of 2010

Well, I can’t fight the tide of year-end best-of lists forever, but I can try to have fun with it. What follows is a rambling, shambling list of my ten-ish favorite albums (I say “ten-ish” because there’s a tie at number ten and a three-way tie for my second favorite album of the year) and, in the interest of defying tradition while still being stuck with it, I’m doing it “count-up” style, starting with my first favorite and ending with my 10th(ish) favorite. It’s Monday, and I figure we can handle it without the suspense.

1. The National, High VioletIf you’ve read Bollocks! over the last two weeks, you already know this is my favorite album of 2010. There’s not much more to say about it – the National have set the bar incredibly high for whatever they do next and this album still gives me chills.

2. Tie: LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening; The Screaming Females, Castle Talk; The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever. I know the so-called pros will frown on my refusal to make a distinction between these three albums. “Surely,” they will scoff, “you can’t love all three of these albums exactly the same amount.” “Yes I can,” I will reply, “and don’t call me Shirley.” (Rest in peace, Leslie Nielsen. You are forgiven for Dracula: Dead and Loving It). LCD Soundsystem made a dance/pop/rock/electronic masterpiece with This is Happening. It’s a smart, catchy album, and it’s got some of the finest songs James Murphy’s ever written. The Screaming Females, over their last two records really, have injected some much needed vitality into modern rock music. Castle Talk is probably the best straight-up rock album released this year and, in case you haven’t noticed, everyone here at Bollocks! likes Castle Talk almost as much as we like food. As for the Hold Steady, well, Heaven is Whenever is another in a long line of profoundly awesome albums from my favorite band. More than their previous releases, Heaven is Whenever sends me running for their references – different songs make me want to listen to Jim Carroll or Hüsker Dü and then come back to the Hold Steady. I know some people saw Heaven is Whenever as a step down for the Hold Steady, and they’re entitled to that opinion as long as they don’t try to peddle that bullshit ’round here.

3. The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. What you have to realize about this list is that the separation of affection I have for these albums is minuscule. 2010 was like Christmas all year long for me, with new albums dropping almost monthly that had me wishing that I could just stay home for a week straight and listen to music. The Suburbs is goddamn gorgeous, substantive, and exactly what I’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire.

4. Menomena, Mines. This album is candy for your ears. Much is made of Menomena’s songwriting and recording techniques, but none of that is as important as the fact that Mines is stuffed to the gills with soaring melodies and lush harmonies. It’s Menomena’s best album so far and I hope you run out and get it as soon as you finish reading this.

5. The New Pornographers, Together. Some of my friends look at me funny when they ask what pop artists I like and I say, “The New Pornographers.” This is usually because they’ve never heard of the New Pornos and labor under the  popular delusion that “pop” is short for “popular.” I know a lot of people think that, but I’m referring to pop as the kind of rock music made popular by the Beatles. You know, big choruses, catchy melodies. Listen to Together and tell me you don’t hear some of the best pop music of 2010. And then I’ll tell you that I would very much like to donate to whatever telethon helps people like you.

6. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks. Ted Leo is a bit of an unsung hero of rock music. He plays the guitar like a motherfucker, creates stylistically diverse music with a punk spirit, and even puts in the work to keep ticket prices down (as much as possible) for his fans. The Brutalist Bricks is a pretty relentless record – that is, it’s pretty and relentless, sometimes in the same track (album closer “Last Days” comes to mind). And the band brings just as much thunder on the stage as they do in the studio. The show Leo & the Pharmacists played in Los Angeles last spring was one of the most satisfying concerts I’ve ever attended.

7. The Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in the Flood. Laura Burhenn is an incredibly powerful singer, and she doesn’t need any goddamn auto-tune to deliver a melody that’ll put some fire in your blood. What We Lose in the Fire is nothing new musically, but it’s played with the deep faith of someone who as been baptized in the river of the music they’re mimicking. The album starts with a stunner (the somewhat paradoxically titled “What We Gained in the Fire”) and is littered with musical treasures throughout. Listen to the this record.

8. The Corin Tucker Band, 1,000 Years. I had read somewhere, long before it came out, that Corin Tucker’s first post-Sleater-Kinney album was inspired by her marriage and two kids. Given my feelings about such music, my Trepidation Meter was pegged over in the red until I heard 1,000 Years, which is actually just a very lovely rock album with some nice melodies and some really kickass moments. Tucker’s voice is still in the same great shape it was in on The Woods and her return to making music was one of the best things about a very rewarding year in music.

9. Wolf Parade, Expo 86. Wolf Parade channeled 80s David Bowie (the Dan Boeckner-led “Yulia” is “Space Oddity” with a Russian historical flavor) and their own personal weirdness to craft the best 1980s album of 2010. I hate to use the word “accessible” when discussing music, but Expo 86 probably was a breath of fresh air to people who were a bit put off by At Mount Zoomer (I don’t count myself in that group). Either way you slice it, songs like “Caveosapien” and “Ghost Pressure” help make Expo 86 an album that I couldn’t leave alone for long this year.

10. Tie: The Manic Street Preacher, Postcards from a Young Man; Roky Erickson and Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Both of these albums ended up tied for my tenth favorite in the last two weeks. In preparing for all this year-end nonsense, I tried to go back through all of the albums I really enjoyed throughout the year, and these two have done nothing but grow on me. Sure, Postcards from a Young Man is a bit overstuffed in places, but “All We Make is Entertainment” might be the best song the Manic Street Preachers have ever written (it’s definitely one of my favorite songs of 2010) and the rest of the album is pretty great too. James Dean Bradfield is an underrated rock vocalist and he proves it on every Manic Street Preachers album. As for legendary loony Roky Erickson, I spent the better part of this past holiday weekend rediscovering True Love Cast Out All Evil, and that album is really fucking beautiful. Like Postcards, it’s got some dodgy moments but those are far outweighed by moments of transcendent musical awesomeness. “True Love Cast Out All Evil” might be the best title track of the year.

There are lots of great albums that didn’t make this list. I still love them, but 2010 was an amazingly satisfying year for music (at least for me it was) and the albums discussed above are the ones from this year that I return to time and time again. We’re almost done with the year-in-review stuff, but I have found what is definitely the worst album of 2010 and I might need two days to tell you about it. Until then, some unsolicited advice: listen to music more than you talk, write, or read about it. Namaste!

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.

Titus Andronicus Forever

Pitchfork is so rarely right these days that the event becomes somewhat analogous to a total solar eclipse. People gather in fields and point in awe, knowing this is something that may never occur again in their lifetime. There are few bands about which Pitchfork is usually correct and they are, in no particular order: The Hold Steady, Jet, LCD Soundsystem, and Titus Andronicus (in case you’re wondering, Pitchfork correctly despises Jet, as most thinking people do).

Titus Andronicus, named for Shakespeare’s most Michael Bay-ish play (Bay doesn’t direct Shakespeare, thank goodness, but Julie Taymor put together a pretty good film version of Titus featuring Anthony Hopkins), is a band of literary punks from New Jersey who won all my affection for their bruising debut, The Airing of Grievances. That album was a lovely slice of existential outrage that came into my life right when I needed it. And now, Titus Andronicus is back with The Monitor, named not for an episode of Seinfeld but for a Civil War ship.

Though The Monitor has been reported as a “loose concept album” or something similar, I suggest you drop that expectation right away. The Monitor contains myriad references to the Civil War (including quotes from Honest Abe Lincoln) but what this album is really about, when you get down to it, is breaking up. Vocalist Patrick Stickles moved to Massachusetts for a girl, they broke up, and the result is The Monitor. But, because Stickles is intelligent (sorry, Blink-182, real punks read books), the album ends up being a perfect reflection of the current American political climate – The Monitor is as much about Stickles’s recent break up as it is about a country breaking up with itself, much like it did during the Civil War (of course, the South doesn’t seem to be inclined to secede from the union these days, although the Texas State Board of Education has been seceding from reason at an alarming rate). Standout track “Four Score and Seven” puts it as succinctly as anyone can: “After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them.” And “Titus Andronicus Forever,” repeats, in bouncing sing-along fashion, “The enemy is everywhere.”

And musically, The Monitor is a big, angry rock record, every bit as satisfying as its predecessor and then some. There are more honky-tonk pianos on this album (especially on “A Pot in Which to Piss”, which also ends with the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn reading some Walt Whitman), some bagpipes (including on the overlong album closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”), and even a ballady duet with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner (I still have some hopes that Wye Oak will end up being a good band. Titus Andronicus’s “To Old Friends and New” is one reason) that celebrates human contradiction with Stickles’s usual humor: “It’s all right, the way you piss and moan” gives way to “It’s all right, the way that you live.” But that’s not what I came to Titus Andronicus for; no, I want Stickles spitting venom and he doesn’t disappoint. On the second half of  “Four Score and Seven,” he howls, “I struggle and stammer until I’m up to my ears/ in miserable quote-unquote art” and then mentions that “humans treat humans like humans treat hogs.” The song ends with a chorus of “It’s still us against them” before ending on “and they’re winning.” The Monitor is nothing if not a battle cry of “Fuck Them,” whoever they are (we all choose our Them, though, don’t we?); it even calls on us to “rally ’round the flag” on album opener “A More Perfect Union”, a song which scores points for a winning Billy Bragg reference (“I never wanted to change the world/ but I’m looking for a New New Jersey”) and paraphrases fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen with the less hopeful, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die.”

The reason The Monitor works as a breakup record is that, in a way that only Titus Andronicus can really do, it seems to sort of celebrate the disintegration of the relationship as a completely expected outcome. Stickles closes “Theme from Cheers”  by asking, “What the fuck was it for anyway?” Of course, Patrick Stickles isn’t pleased that his relationship ended, but he seems to find some affirmation in the destruction. If he can’t have true love, he can have some whiskey and a beer and yell out his anger with equal parts fury and humor (he makes a reference about “pissing into the void” at one point, which puts a smile on my face. If you piss long into an abyss, will the abyss piss into you?).

“The Battle of Hampton Roads,” though about seven minutes too long, is still a fitting closer for The Monitor. The titular boat was involved in the first ever battle between ironclad warships, but the battle was a messy stalemate, which seems to reflect Stickles’s worldview at the end of the album. If you want to live by some sense of values, Stickles warns, “Prepare to be told/ ‘That shit’s gay, dude'” and, if love is a battlefield, that battle is the Battle of Hampton Roads and no one wins. At at the end of the day, Stickles is “as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been” and to his enemy (presumably this recent ex, who might be perversely honored to have partially inspired such an epic album) he says, “I’ve done to you what you’ve done to me.”

Is The Monitor a bit pretentious, and doesn’t it run a dire risk of falling into melodrama? Yes and yes. How does it overcome those two not-insignificant obstacles? From what I can tell, Titus Andronicus does it by keeping their sense of  humor (Stickles claims every one of the rest of his days will be “a fart in the face of your idea of success”) and by rocking out with an impressively shambolic competence. The pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and swelling horns on The Monitor make it a triumphant rock record first and everything else it may or may not be second. Sometimes, you just need a beer and an excuse to yell and curse – for the second album in a row, Titus Andronicus has provided me with my preferred soundtrack for those times.