Sky Ferreira and the Dubious Math of the Sexiest Man Alive

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I am listening to Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time album right now and trying to figure the math around Adam Levine being voted the Sexiest Man Alive. I didn’t even get to vote and nobody else I know voted either. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me to be pretty fucking unlikely that, of all the men alive on the planet, the sexiest one alive would be American, let alone white, let alone (again) famous, let alone (once more with feeling) Adam Levine. I mean, what are the odds? Ms. Ferreira opens her album by opining that boys are a dime a dozen, which is how I tend to feel about frat-pop hucksters like Adam Levine but I’m still baffled by his ascension to the sexiest man throne. One would almost begin to think the exercise of choosing the sexiest man alive is as pointless as, well, reading People magazine.

Almost.

Why am I thinking about Adam Levine anyway? Someone mentioned him over the holiday weekend and I got all irritated because I found myself wishing they’d mentioned Curtis Mayfield instead. Every time I get to the end of a Curtis Mayfield album, I just want to listen to another Mayfield album. Or the same one again. I say it all the time and I will continue to do so until everyone agrees: Curtis Mayfield was a goddamn genius and your kids should be taught about him in school. If People wrote more about people like Curtis Mayfield than it does about people like Adam Levine, the world would be a better place.

So but anyway, this Sky Ferreira album is pretty good. It’s a shame she’s stuck opening for Miley Cyrus’s Minstrel Show (I mean, um, tour). Questionable taste in tour mates aside, Ferreira has a clear knack for 80s pop and rock; Night Time, My Time makes the obvious nods to Madonna, but you also get a whiff of the Runaways and the Pixies throughout. The melodies are catchy and the songs don’t hang around any longer than they should. I have no idea how this album is doing on the charts (do we still have charts? If so, why?) but it is worth hearing.

For some reason, Night Time, My Time reminds me a bit of EMA’s album Past Life Martyred Saintsespecially on the title track with its lumbering beat and dour atmosphere. Both Erika Anderson and Sky Ferreira share a sense of adventure musically – they’re not afraid to be a little dissonant here and there and yet you can’t find one of their songs that lacks a hook. And both Ferreira & Anderson demonstrate a skillful synthesis of their record collections into music that is at once familiar without being hack work. I was gonna make a Miley Cyrus joke there, but she’s transcended your usual hack shit and gone on to brazen racist appropriation (and if you think it’s impossible to be racist just because you’re trying to be flattering or nice, you need to understand that impact matters more than intent, Brad Paisley). I’m probably gonna talk about that more later (I think it intertwines with the lie, especially popular among white fans of Led Zeppelin, that all music is theft of some kind and so it’s okay for white musicians to steal from musicians of color and get rich doing so) but for now (I have to get up in 5.5 hours!) I’ll leave you with the thought that Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time is lovely and it only makes sense for her to open for Miley Cyrus in the sort of irrational universe where Adam Levine is considered the sexiest man alive.

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.

Paint the Black Hole Blacker

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Dropping out of Boston’s Berklee School of Music is sort of a badge of honor. It’s almost as if making it through the program is a signifier of some disturbing lack of music business acumen. John Mayer is probably Berklee’s most famous dropout to date (should’ve stuck around for songwriting classes, Mr. Mayer. You need ’em), but he is also but one in a line that extends as far back in time as the school itself. My current favorite Berklee dropout, however, is Annie Clark, who left Berklee to join The Polyphonic Spree and then play in Sufjan Stevens’s live band and then began choosing her own musical adventure as  St. Vincent.

The Polyphonic Spree? Sufjan Stevens? Oh boy. I’m gonna hate St. Vincent. Right?

I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of judging a book by its cover here on Bollocks! and that’s because I don’t. And the same goes with people’s musical associations, for the most part. If you hang out with my various musical nemeses, I might tread cautiously around you, but I probably will still give you a listen (in fact, many of my favorite acts kick it with Sufjan, but that’s because everyone loves him but me) This is, hopefully, one of the key differences between being a snob and being an asshole.

And, one of the key differences between Annie Clark and Sufjan Stevens is that she isn’t trying to impress us with her compositional skill (I can here some besweatered Pitchforker out there fortifying themselves with a quick hit of their inhaler and preparing to tell me that Sufjan is so not trying to do that, but when one of your “songs” is a thirty second horn part, you’re either 1) showing people you know how to write horn parts, 2) an asshole, or 3) some combination of 1 and 2). Come to think of it, that’s one of the key differences between Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens… which must mean (follow me on this circle of logic, won’t you?) that St. Vincent and Andrew Bird should tour together so nerds like me can go and nerd out.

St. Annie Clark Vincent is a composer worthy of comparison to Mr. Bird, but her compositions, for those of you who find Bird a little inaccessible, are much poppier. This is not a bad thing, just a difference. Actor is a breezy listen where Noble Beast takes some time and a little more willingness to follow Andrew Bird wherever the songs take him. Clark tends to hover round the three minute mark (the uber-catchy title track is less than three minutes) for the most part, infusing each song with layers of instruments and vocal parts that all dance in and out of the outstanding melodies.

Opener “The Strangers” is one of the best examples of what I’m talking about. It starts out with strings and a soft beat, followed by Clark’s voice in both the fore and background (catchiest background vocal of the year: “paint the black hole blacker”) and the song builds to fuzzy guitar spazz outs and drums straight out of a Delgados album. And the whole thing is barely four minutes (one of only four songs on Actor that eclipses the four minute mark, and it doesn’t feel that long to me).

In fact, on melodies alone, perhaps Camera Obscura would be a fitting tour partner for St. Vincent so that those of us who like melody (and realize that Phoenix mostly sucks at it) a whole bunch can be satiated. I realize that this review is becoming one long solicitation for St. Vincent to pair up with some of my other favorite acts and come to Los Angeles, but so what? The odds are more favorable that someone will actually participate in my National ticket contest than they are that Annie Clark will read this post and say, “Shit, I gotta call Andrew Bird and get us both to L.A. forthwith!”

Actor, like some Andrew Bird albums (I thought this was true of Noble Beast, but it’s actually only really true of Armchair Apocrypha), can tend to sag a little after the first six tracks, but the more I listen to it, the more I find that it’s a product of stacked sequencing. Clark put the six cathiest tracks on the album right up front and the other five are good, they just can’t match the fire of their predecessors. On the other hand, it does give Actor a sort of made-for-vinyl feel, with Side A ending on “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood.” If anyone out there has this album on vinyl, drop me a line and let me know where the split is – it’d be a damn shame if it was anywhere else.

I Don’t Like Phoenix. What’s Wrong with Me?

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Despite being named one of Spin magazine’s 20 best albums of 2009 so far, Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has not made a favorable impression upon yours truly. I know the album now comes floating in its own jar of critical jizz, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I get that it’s catchy, but that’s not a defense for repetitive songs that say exactly jack shit about fuckall.

But hold on: the wise people at Pitchfork.com had this to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: “It’s truly universal– everybody live, love, and die.” I’m with ya on the “die” part, Pitchfork. But I’m trying to keep an open mind here. I’ll allow that maybe, just maybe the fact that I don’t like an album that every-fucking-body else seems to like might suggest that I am either 1) wrong this time and/or 2) in need of help.

So I got help. From my good friend and resident musical pathologist Rebecca Mellor (no relation). We sat down over coffee (I wanted booze, but she suggested that drinking makes conversation with me somehow less productive and two or three times as vulgar. Since I’m seeking help here, I decided to trust the professional). I recorded our conversation and transcribed it below; you can judge for yourself if it’s me or the world that’s fucked up here.

Me: Thanks for meeting with me on the weekend.

Dr. M: You’re welcome. Thanks for showing up sober.

Me: No problem. So, have you listened to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix?

Dr. M: I have. I’m pleased – and somewhat surprised – to report that you are perfectly justified in your contempt for this album.

Me: I am?

Dr. M: Certainly. Let me tell you what’s going on here: every year, sometimes twice a year, an album comes along that is just so outrageously catchy that it seduces a significant portion of the population. You might put MGMT and Vampire Weekend in this category, for instance.

Me: Those records were mostly okay.

Dr. M: Sure they were. But they weren’t great, were they?

Me: Definitely not. They were exactly okay. But this one dude swore to me that MGMT’s record was the album of the year last  year, despite the fact that it actually came out in 2007.

Dr. M: Exactly. People get so caught up in how catchy these kind of albums are that they experience something akin to a mild psychotic break and engage in acts of tragic – though sometimes hilarious – hyperbole in their rush to praise the album in question. The Phoenix album is no different. Pitchfork said Phoenix “discards anything– an outro, a bridge, an extra hi-hat hit– that could be deemed superfluous”, displaying a stunning and willful lack of awareness that the entire five and a half minutes of  “Love Like A Sunset Part I” is musically masturbatory bullshit.

Me: Wow. You sounded like me there for a second.

Dr. M: I’m sorry. But seeing people attribute near Christ-like healing powers to albums of the fluffiest musical stuff – the lyrics on this album aren’t “cryptic,” they’re just awful – provokes a strong reaction in me. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix represents a disturbing trend among these over-praised pop albums. MGMT had some songs that were a little ridiculous, but they were catchy and still somewhat coherent.

Me: “Time to Pretend” is a great song.

Dr. M: Exactly. MGMT and Vampire Weekend both snuck bits of real high quality music into their albums. Phoenix is cutting and pasting nonsense together into something that is melodically catchy but otherwise entirely meaningless.

Me: So let me play devil’s advocate here. The counterargument you’ll probably get is “What’s wrong with a good melody? The Beatles had melody. Kurt Cobain wrote good melodies. Why do you hate America?”

Dr. M: I’m not sure my patriotism will be questioned for not liking Phoenix, especially since they’re apparently French.

Me: You underestimate the stupid-power of internet comments.

Dr. M: Perhaps. But to address your counterargument, there’s nothing wrong with melody in and of itself. But catchy melodies can be used to make you nod your head to songs that can actually make you a stupider person. Great music, generally, requires a strong sense of melody, but if you’re singing words over that melody, you have to be careful what you’re planting in people’s brains. Consider Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, for instance. While there’s no denying that “Music of the Night” is a melodically lovely tune, there is also no denying that Phantom of the Opera is a puffed up, plotless spectacle designed to rake in the disposable income of middle-aged white women.

Me: So you think Phoenix is trying to use their melodic powers to get people to buy and rave over a completely bullshit album?

Dr. M: That’s my professional opinion, yes. The lyrics on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix might as well be gibberish – they make Anthony Keidis and Axl Rose look like Allen Ginsberg and John Berryman by comparison. At the end of the day, because there are only so many musical notes at any given musician’s disposal, it is not enough to suggest that the mere arrangement of those notes into a pleasing  – or not pleasing but simply memorable – pattern is some kind of high artistic achievement. On a long enough timeline, any idiot could slap together a catchy melody entirely by accident. You could write a computer program that would make Phoenix songs and, while I don’t want to tell people what they should and should not listen to, I would suggest to you that understanding this album as anything other than a sugary pop confection might be a sign of brain damage.

Me: So, just so we’re clear here: I am not only correct in disliking Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but it’s a sign that I’m of sound mind?

Dr. M: Yes, though you shouldn’t ignore the many other signs that you, specifically, are not of sound mind.

Me: Such as?

Dr. M: You work in an invisible office with an Imaginary Secretary.

Me: Right. But I don’t like Phoenix. So I’m okay, right?

Dr. M: (long sigh) Yes. Sure. You’re fine. Can I go now?

Me: Yeah. You sure you don’t to come back to the Imaginary Office, maybe have a beer and listen to Captain Beefheart?

Dr. M: I’m sure.

Me: Suit yourself.

And that’s how it went down, folks. You heard it from my own resident musical pathologist: the people at Pitchfork are officially brain-damaged.

Send hatemail and/or questions for the good doctor to askdoctormellor@gmail.com.

This Maudlin Career is Over?

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I was going to say something about how Camera Obscura makes old stuff sound new, but that’s not really accurate. Nothing on My Maudlin Career sounds new to me at all. What Tracyanne Campbell and company do is make old stuff sound awesome, which is usually a better thing to do with old stuff anyway.

Granted, not too many people are doing the kind of orchestral pop that Campbell is so adept at, although My Maudlin Career could be seen as a close cousin to She & Him’s also-lovely Volume 1, but that’s hardly a point against it when you consider what it means: both albums feature women with incredible voices and clearly deep record collections. And Tracyanne Campbell could probably mentor Zooey Deschanel in the broken-hearted songstress department. She’s an old pro and she shows it, singing as she does on the title track, “You used to kiss my forehead/ now your kisses give me a concussion” and later adding that she doesn’t want to be sad anymore.

Which is really a shame because Campbell is very good at being sad and not being emo; there’s a sense of sarcasm to her most heartbroken barbs and it actually reminds me of what good blues singers used to do (I say “used to do” because the blues has mostly been co-opted by Midwestern white kids like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and they are probably the white people George Carlin was talking about when he observed, “White people fucked up the blues”), which is convey a sense of laughing to keep from crying. Am I connecting Tracyanne Campbell to Robert Johnson? Why the fuck not? Listen to some of his tunes – the dude knew that sometimes, when shit is really really bad, you have to laugh a little. Campbell would add that, if you laugh a little and make your heartache catchy, you can share it with the world without sounding like an emo twat. By which I mean, of course, Billy Corgan.

My Maudlin Career is a musically bright album, bursting with horns and strings and drums, making Camera Obscura sound like the house band on the emotional equivalent of the Titanic. But it’s a brilliant tactic because (are you getting this, emo kids?) if lines like “if the blood that’s pumping through my veins could freeze/ like the river in Toronto/ then I’d be pleased” were delivered in a mopier context, this album would be unlistenable and, indeed, infuriating. As it is, Campbell’s romantic trail of dead is strewn across bouncing, indelible arrangements making My Maudlin Career simultaneously one of the catchiest and saddest albums you’ll hear this year.

Assuming Campbell isn’t bullshitting her audience (and I don’t think she is), she’s clearly been romantically fucked over and its led her to shield herself from what might be productive relationships (on the catchy-as-hell album closer “Honey in the Sun,” she sings, “I’m in training to become as cold as ice/ I’m determined to protect my feelings disguise” before launching into the chorus, which states that no matter how hard she tries to be cold, she’s all heated up for whoever. Good luck to that guy) and I’m not gonna attempt to go into the psychology much here because 1) I’m not a psychologist and 2) from a musical perpsective, it’s really goddamn fascinating.

For all of the musical ideas packed into every second of My Maudlin Career, its best track is the austere “Other Towns and Cities”, which is mostly a quiet electric guitar and Campbell’s incredible voice singing, “These words are weak/ and to your dislike/ but you’ll never believe them/ so I guess it’s all right,” the kinda thing that, again, would be dangerous in less capable hands. But rather than wailing about how she’s not okay, Campbell earnestly pours her sorrow into the song and then ends it with the kiss-off of “you mean nothing to me tonight.”

Camera Obscura is, at the end of the day, a blueprint for the kind of pop that ought to be on the radio.  I know I take this particular drum out and beat the shit out of it fairly frequently, and it’s not like I’m saying I want everyone in the world to listen to everything that I love because then idiots would like the things I like and that would really damage my sense of cultural superiority. But – on the other hand – I sometimes think that, if the pop stations were more Camera Obscura, more New Pornographers and the rock stations were more Hold Steady and more My Morning Jacket, it would be some kind of signal that humanity had achieved some much-needed revolution in consciousness and I really would be willing to sacrifice my sense of cultural superiority (much as I love it) if it meant that I could also shed, brick by brick, the wall of misanthropy I’ve erected to shield myself from people who refer to Dave Matthews by his first name only or people who tell me that a band is great because it sold a lot of records, and/or people who think John Mayer is good. Although one could make a compelling argument that the Misanthropy Shield is as much for you as it is for me.

Touchdown

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Looking back on this week, I’ve not liked much in the albums I’ve reviewed (it’ll get better, Bollocks! reader[s] – I like the new Thermals record but seem to be too lazy to write about it. Maybe next week). So it’s time to get happy and have some fucking fun. And I can think of no better album to exemplify that spirit than Touchdown by Brakes (or Brakesbrakesbrakes outside the U.S. for reasons known only to… well, somebody. I bet Andy Richter knows why). It’s a really poppy album and I’m struck by how many of my favorite albums this year have been so damn poppy they could make your teeth hurt.

That Brakes is dominated by a former member of British Sea Power is pretty impressive to me, largely because, despite the high praise British Sea Power (“BSP”, to their fans. I can’t call ’em that because it’d be too easy for me to convince myself that BSP stands for Bullshit Purveyors or Butt Sex Prostitutes – I said I was gonna talk about an album I like, I never promised I’d be mature about it) has received, they bore me to tears. I wonder if Eamon Hamilton had left the band by the time they recorded whatever shitty album of theirs I heard. Probably.

Hamilton is known for being hyper as hell live, and I can dig that a lot. I like hyper musicians because I never see a hyper guy live and think, “Poor dude’s not having any fun.” If you want an example of what I’m talking about, pay attention to Franz Nicolay the next time you see the Hold Steady live – he’s jumping around behind the keyboards and generally having a good time. Likewise, Jim James rocks so hard live that one time, he fell off the stage,  inducing a concussion that caused the cancellation of two My Morning Jacket shows. That’s rocking pretty fucking hard. And if you’re listening to the wrong indie music, you might become convinced that fun is strictly verboten. So if you’re busy digging Interpol, whose albums – I’ve heard – are packaged with a stainless steel stick for you to ram up your butt to achieve the appropriate amount of seriousness while listening, why not check out Brakes and see if we can get that rod outta yer arse?

Touchdown is a straight pop album, but it has a punkish roughness to it (the whole thing feels like it was recorded live in one or two takes, but that may be due to the energetic nature of the tunes) and careens from the thumping drum-pop of opener “Two Shocks” to the awesome, lilting country-rock stomp of “Why Tell the Truth (When It’s Easier to Lie?)”. The whole thing is a breeze at under forty minutes, indicating that Eamon Hamilton knows something a lot of better known pop stars have forgotten: brevity is the soul of pop.

Hamilton’s lyrics can be simplistic and silly at times (on the catchy-as-fuck “Crush On You,” he sings, “Fritz Lang/ Laser Eyes/ Freedom Fries/ Oh, I’ve got a crush on you” which is awesome in its own way but also pretty damn ridiculous) but his delivery, like the band’s music, is so unassuming and infectious that I end up forgiving him his every excess. This is not easy for me to do, as those who know me well are well aware (even in songs I like, if something embarrassing happens, I dwell on it. For instance, in “Helter Skelter,” my favorite Beatles song, there’s a part toward the end where Paul McCartney sings the titular phrase in this shrill, high voice that nowadays reminds me of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Clown from Metalocalypse; you know, the guy who screams, “I DO COCAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE!” It’s awful, and every time I hear “Helter Skelter,” I love it until I get to that part and then I’m just sad – sad – that John Lennon let McCartney do that. I wouldn’t let my singer do that on a song. Ever. I’d assault the poor guy first). It helps that songs like “Don’t Take Me to Space (Man)” are catchy enough to overcome lines like, “I was punching the air on this lonely drive/ singing ‘goddamn, I’m happy just to be alive'” which would be trite, O.C.-ready fare in someone else’s hands, but the song is such an honest expression of Hamilton’s happiness that I can’t complain. By the way, is The O.C. still on the air? I don’t care.

But don’t be misled – Hamilton turns out some pretty great lines over the course of Touchdown and many of them come on “Why Tell the Truth”. For instance, “I’m gonna tell you why it is that I drink my days away/ it’s ’cause the beer helps the cigarettes go down” which is going on the list of lines I wish I’d written along with a whole bunch of Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, Craig Finn, and Jeff Tweedy lyrics (and the entirety of Jarvis Cocker’s “Running the World”  – all of it).

The other thing that excites me about Brakes is that they exemplify what I would imagine a genre called punk/pop to sound like. Because Touchdown is shot through with punk spirit (which sticks its head up overtly on the deliciously obnoxious “Red Rag”) but never loses its keen pop sensibility. Too many so-called punk/pop bands have precious little in common with punk or pop. Yeah, Blink-182 don’t know more than four chords but punk isn’t just about being a shitty musician – I would offer The Clash as exhibit A for the prosecution here. Mick Jones, even on their first album, was a gifted arranger of music and when they brought Topper Headon into the band, he propelled them even further in terms of musical versatility. Add in Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon’s myriad influences and hunger to challenge boundaries, blend on high for a minute, and pour yourself a sexy musical smoothie known as London Calling. I don’t care who you are or what you think of them, either: Joe Strummer was the real fucking deal when it came to being an awesome punk and the spirit of Brakes’ music is much closer to that spirit than Blink-182 or any of the shitty bands that people are touting as the next Clash. It helps that Eamon Hamilton seems to have no interest in being the next Clash – no one is going to accuse Touchdown of carrying a subversive social message – or any social message – but Hamilton is in love and happy and having fun, and when you can do it with as little pretention as Brakes, I’ll raise a pint to you any day.

Incidentally, I bet you all (both of you) thought I’d totally lost the plot of the review when I started talking about the Clash. I did too for a second there, but here we are talking about the band we came to talk about: the Clash.

Oops.

Metric Fantasies are Easier to Convert

Metric-Fantasies

Normally, if you sang, “Everybody just wanna fall in love,” in the chorus of your song, I would probably want to punch you in the face and then pee on you while you’re down. It’s just how I roll.

Clearly, you’re not Emily Haines. Because she’s sung those very words on “Sick Muse,” from Metric’s Fantasies album and… goddammit, I really like that song. I think I’ve mentioned a number of times recently that I don’t normally go for slick, poppy sounding stuff, as if it’s somehow the exception to whatever musical rule it is I follow (I’ll give you a hint – I don’t follow any musical rules). Metric is gonna make me look like a liar. Because Fantasies is a ridiculously poppy album with shimmery guitars and pounding drums and Haines’s cute-as-a-button voice (I believe she supplied the vocal to Broken Social Scene’s standout track “Anthems for a 17-Year-Old Girl”). So, given my addiction to the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record and now the aural candy that is Fantasies, what are my options? Am I a hypocrite of some kind? Probably not. Then what? Underneath all the scowl and snark and sn0bbery, am I just one big goddamn teddy bear?

Who cares?

The point is, when you say “pop music”, you might mean Chris Brown or Mariah Carey and I really do hate that shit. I guess what it boils down to is that when I say, “pop”, I start with The Beatles and go from there. The New Pornographers, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Metric; these are great pop bands, I don’t care how few people have heard of them. The fact is, just in time for me to roll down the window and crank up a great driving album, Metric has delivered Fantasies. Too bad some crooked fucker did a hit and run on my poor Corolla last weekend. Guess I’ll be waiting a few weeks for that windows-down, rocking-out thing. (Dont’ mourn, loyal Bollocks! reader<s> – my car is going to pull through this. And I got a witness, so the afore-mentioned crooked fucker is in for a legal smackdown as well).

Fantasies is a whole lot of fun, though it might be too sugary sweet for some people. When I said it’s ridiculously poppy, I was indulging in not one jot of hyperbole – listen to “Stadium Love” and tell me it’s not ridiculous. But I like it. I can’t help liking it. Just for fun, I tried to hate this album after I’d heard it once. Couldn’t be done. Granted, Fantasies isn’t going to change your life, but that’s not Metric’s goal. I’m pretty sure they just want to dance. That might not appeal to some brands of humorless indie dickweed out there, but for those of us who like joy, there’s lots to be had on Fantasies.

Haines has a good ear for 80s style pop tunes (like “Gold Guns Girls”) but isn’t afraid to be a bit subversive here and there (she sings about hearing you “fuck through the wall” on “Satellite Mind.” You should maybe quiet down a little) – her voice sounds cute, but the songs don’t hit you over the head with it. They’re not like, say, the novelty songish shit that you get out of Britney Spears and her herpes-addled ilk. Where your average teenage pop princess telegraphs the “Hey, look at me, I’m coy and sexy,” thing (Britney, and I hate myself for knowing this, has a single called “If You Seek Amy”. As with Wavves, I refuse – refuse! – to see what she did there), Haines makes more organic use of her voice, especially on the good-natured breakup (or is it?) song “Gimme Sympathy.” “Who would you rather be:/ The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?,” she asks her lover, and it’s an intriguing question. Would you rather stay together for forty years and know that your relationship was way better twenty years ago or stay together ten years and be regarded as legendary? I know which one I’d prefer, and when Haines sings, “Come on, play me something/ like ‘Here Comes the Sun'”, she tips her hand quite cleverly. Around the time of Exile on Main Street, you could have had a substantive debate about whether the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were the best band or whatever, but the Beatles quit before they could make a bad album and the Rolling Stones have now put out more bad albums than good ones. This analogy/diatribe will not, for those of you who are curious, be written into my wedding vows. At least I don’t think so.

Pitchfork praises the slower moments on Fantasies for revealing some sense of vulnerability that isn’t there on the faster tunes, but I (big surprise) don’t really see what they’re driving at. None of these songs seem particularly revealing  – I don’t listen to Fantasies and go, “Oh. Now I know exactly who Emily Haines is.” And that’s not the point. The slow songs are fine, but the fast songs are fucking fun, and while Pitchfork staffers have this idea that fun = listening to that tool from Wavves masturbate onto a distortion pedal, I happen to think listening to Emily Haines sing about burnt out stars (“Front Row” is my current favorite track on the album”, partly because Haines sounds eerily like Emma Pollock on that tune) is a better bet.

There’s a deluxe edition of Fantasies that has acoustic versions of a couple of the songs, but I can’t imagine why you’d want to hear them – they’re not bad at all, but this album (kinda like It’s Blitz! by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs) needs no unplugging, especially not right after ending on the awesomely silly “Stadium Love”. It needs to be cranked up and enjoyed in all its fully electric, poppy glory. Which I’m gonna do right now.