The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/  hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t, so he died/ she said, ‘You’re pretty good with words/ but words won’t save your life’/ and they didn’t, so he died.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.

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Rocktoberfest Acht

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Albums of My Life #6: Separation Sunday

Anyone who has read more than one post on this blog is certain of two things. 1) I love the Clash and 2) I love the Hold Steady. So it should surprise no one at all that a Hold Steady album would make it onto my list of the 29 Best Albums Released in My Life (a list which was supposed to be completed by the time I turned 30, but better late than never, right?).

Separation Sunday was the very first Hold Steady album I heard. And for those of you who think it was love at first sound, it wasn’t. I thought this Craig Finn fellow might be shouting about something worth hearing, but I wasn’t that interested in finding out. My favorite song upon first listen was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (still one of my favorites) and I didn’t really think much of the other ones. I got that the album was trying to tell me a story, but it took me a few months of owning the album (I got it for free – one of the perks of working for the now-defunct Tower Records) to really sit down and try to listen to that story.

Once I did, though, I was duly impressed. Not only was the story of Hallelujah’s disappearance and “resurrection” a compelling listen, but Tad Kubler’s guitars and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards had wormed their way into my brain, creating a boiling soup of classic rock and literature, two things I would not have thought to combine on a regular basis (largely because some of the most offensive Led Zeppelin songs are the ones where you can tell Robert Plant had been getting high and reading Tolkien).

That was 2005 in Boston and now, five freaking years later, I still love this album. I listen to at least one Hold Steady album a week and lately, I’ve been coming back to Separation Sunday a lot. Not just for the mind-blowingly badass guitar work on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Banging Camp” (I ask you: what kind of world are we living in where people think John Mayer is a great guitar player but only a fistful of lucky souls know and recognize Tad Kubler’s mad skills? Kubler is like  a dragon who breathes awesome riffs instead of fire) or the lyrical awesomeness of “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (“I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dudes blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ and I heard things ain’t never been the same since”), but because of the feeling that I get from Separation Sunday. Like the feelings I have toward a lot of albums, I get a very specific feeling from this album.

When I was a supervisor at Tower, I opened the store on Saturday mornings (a good shift – I was off by 6pm and able to go to shows or out drinking with my friends, most of whom worked at the same store), which meant getting to work by 9am. So I was on the train by 8:30. So every Saturday morning, I’d walk through my little Boston suburb and I loved the way the town felt that early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was like the whole city was sleeping off a hangover and I was tiptoeing through the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I’d march from my awesome basement apartment with my headphones on, listening to Separation Sunday more often than not, and sip coffee while I waited for the train. I’d get to work to be greeted by Baby Boomers with too much disposable income waiting to purchase tickets for whatever shitty show was going on sale that day (part of the joy of being a supervisor at Tower, you see, was running the Ticketmaster – or Ticketbastard, as I called it – counter). And when I look back at my time at Tower Records in Harvard Square (best retail job I ever had – among the top five jobs of any kind that I’ve ever had), the whole thing is soundtracked by Separation Sunday.

The album itself tells the story of a girl named Hallelujah (“the kids, they call her ‘Holly'”) who gets strung out on the Twin Cities drug and party scene and disappears for a while, only to crash into an Easter mass some months later (“Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”). She has a junkie boyfriend who cheats on her with her little hoodrat friend (Hallelujah is a hoodrat too, but you don’t find that out until the end of the album), and she finds some junkie revivalists camped on the banks of the Mississippi River who will give you a full-immersion baptism after a hit of nitrous to give you that “high as hell and born again” feeling. Along the way, she has visions of St. Theresa, sings a song to St. Barbara, and gets involved with a sweat-pants clad drug-dealer named Charlemagne (who, like Hallelujah, is a recurring character in many Hold Steady songs). The combination of the story and the hard-charging rock music that propels it serves to solidify Craig Finn’s underlying musical thesis: that you’re as good a savior as you’re likely to get and that, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is historically the least disappointing religion you can join. Though Separation Sunday depicts a druggie scene in all its puking glory, the album never becomes a morality play about the dangers of drug use. For Finn, drugs are just another self-made obstacle on Holly’s way to her self-made resurrection. Being high isn’t the problem, it’s why you get high that’s the problem (“I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story/ because when we left, we were defeated and depressed/ and when we arrived, we were rippin’ high”).

Finn’s voice is not great – most people know this. But, like Bob Dylan’s voice (yes, I did just make that comparison), Craig Finn’s voice strikes me as uniquely suited to telling the stories he has to tell. The ongoing story of people fucking themselves up and redeeming themselves is not a story to be told in the clean, polished, octave-scaling timber of a Josh Groban; it’s a story meant to be told by a guy who has lived through something. Finn sounds like he’s lived through a war – hell, like he’s sung through a war – and come out the other side. But his voice (and myriad references to early punk, early hardcore, the Bible, and John Berryman) might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people and that’s just fine by me. I can’t say for certain that I’d like the Hold Steady as much if I thought they were for everyone.

Furr is Murder (And by “Murder”, I Mean “Awesome”)

Hey. Do you remember the album? (If Bollocks! is ever awesome enough to have t-shirts, one of them will be “Remember the Album!” and it will shortly thereafter replace “Remember the Alamo” as a battle cry.) See, kids, back in the day, bands made entire albums of songs, meant to be heard from start to finish. You know, instead of five singles and five filler-songs? Well, Blitzen Trapper (from Portland like half of the awesome music I’ve heard this year) remembers the album. They also remember The Band, The Beatles, and 70’s David Bowie. And if you like 1)albums, 2)The Band, 3) The Beatles and 4)You see where I’m going with this, right? Well, get ready to fucking love Furr, Blitzen Trapper’s first album for Sub Pop and the follow up to their whacked-out, awesome, self-released Wild Mountain Nation.

I saw Blitzen Trapper open for The Hold Steady last year and I must confess, at the time, I had no idea what to do with them. They looked like hippies and it made sense to me that they were from Portland. But their music was all over the map. There were elements of heavy metal, folk, punk, and country. The dudes completely won me over by the end of their set and I ran out and picked up Wild Mountain Nation (which is tied with Grand Buffet’s King Vision for “Most Undeservedly Overlooked Album of 2007”) soon after.

On Furr, Blitzen Trapper has streamlined some of their weirdness (some) and highlighted their ability to sagaciously synthesize the Beatles’ pop sound with the broke-ass country of The Band. “Sleepytime in the Western World,” launches Furr and the album does not let up until the soft country closer “Lady on the Water.” These northwest hippies have slapped together something that simultaneously sounds like nothing you’ve heard before and everything you’ve heard before. Kinda like Beck used to.

“Sleepytime” is total Paul McCartney pop, the kind of thing that would come off as a novelty song if Blitzen Trapper weren’t so naturally, earnestly weird. “Gold for Bread” follows, showing that Blitzen Trapper really has picked up something that’s been lost in the last couple of Beck records. And then we get to the title track. “Furr” is a folk/country ditty with a beautiful melody that smacks of evangelical lycanthropy with lines like “You’d better be sure/ if you’re makin’ God a liar.” The song is about a guy who turns into a wolf and then back into a human, but don’t worry: vocalist Eric Earley handles it very well, again with that off-handed weirdness that keeps the song  from straying into Ronnie James Dio territory.

As with Wild Mountain Nation, Furr operates under a pretty strict desire for brevity. The title track is the longest at a breezy four minutes, which makes the album all the more impressive. This band can pack a lot of music into two to three minutes and they have an uncanny grasp of when a song is over. There are like six guys in this band who play multiple instruments and sing and yet they never seem to produce songs that sound overstuffed (you know, like The Polyphonic Spree). Furr rides in on a summer wind and blows right back out again, with nothing really to skip over, although “Love U” is an outburst of utter weirdness toward the end of the album, it’s still kind of endearing.

An album this well thought-out and flawlessly executed has numerous highlights but a few the tracks stand out among the stand-outs, so to speak. “Furr” is, as already discussed, an excellent tune. “Black River Killer” is a murder ballad that would make Johnny Cash proud and it’s followed with “Not Your Lover,” a piano love song with the simple/sweet refrain of “In my sleep/ I’m not your lover anymore”. The song also features the awesome, “I’m a moon-walking cowboy/ dusty riding/ and I don’t know what’s in store,” which wouldn’t at all be out of place among Yoko Kanno’s songs for Cowboy Bebop. If you don’t know who Yoko Kanno is or what Cowboy Bebop was, I’m actually kind of surprised you know what Bollocks! is. My last favorite (for now – I’ve been listening to this album on a rotation that is only exceeded by Dear Science and the new Hold Steady album) is “War On Machines,” which features the line “I’m gonna catch you by the tail/ and teach you how to live,” and remains awesomely dubious about whether or not Blitzen Trapper is making war on machines in the sense that they are fighting machines (perhaps alongside The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi) or in the sense that they are creating war using machines. Either way, good song.

Furr has the feel of a so-called “breakthrough” album, the kind of thing that might lead more people to Blitzen Trapper; if it’s the right kind of people, that’s all right with me (yeah, I know that’s elitist, but have you read this blog before?). But it might also attract people who like one or two songs, buy a concert ticket, and are completely weirded out at the show. Which, come to think of it, is also all right with me.

Red Letter Year

There are a few unenlightened individuals out there who think that, if you’re a straight white guy, Ani DiFranco albums will know who you are when you pick them up, leap from their packaging, and chop off your naughty bits.

Let me assure you that this is not the case.

Let me further assure you that there is no line for the men’s room at an Ani DiFranco concert. You have time to pee a little bit in each lonely urinal, if you’re so inclined. I mention this because I took my girlfriend to see Ani DiFranco at the Oprheum for our anniversary this year and that’s where I first heard the bulk of the songs that make up Red Letter Year, Ani DiFranco’s millionth album (possibly an exaggeration, but the woman has been nothing if not prolific since she started back in the 1990s).

Red Letter Year is, right out of the box, a sunnier album than you might be used to from Ani DiFranco, assuming you’re used to Ani DiFranco albums. The same woman who brought us, “Fuck you/ and your untouchable face” is now singing about how she’d be smiling if she were stuck in traffic with her new guy (the father of her baby, and we’ll get to that later) with a flaming Christmas wreath around her neck.

DiFranco has been one of the most staunchly and truly independent artists in music for nearly 20 years – her stuff is out on a label she started (Righteous Babe) and she does not seem to have ever been tempted to make a serious bid for Top 40-type success (although some chick covered “32 Flavors” back in ’98, I still have never heard Ani’s voice on the radio). Instead, she’s earned a loyal base of fans by consistently releasing albums and touring her ass off.

Red Letter Year, in fact, is DiFranco’s poppiest album to date (this is kinda like saying something is Tom Waits’ poppiest album or Gavin Bryars’ poppiest or… you get the idea), which I largely attribute to her self-declared new mantra: “Don’t forget to have a good time.”  DiFranco’s critics (and there are many; like Bruce Springsteen, DiFranco has both rabid fans who think you’re awful if you don’t like her music and rabid detractors who think that liking her music makes you some sort of brainwashed leftist wacko. Neither case is the truth – DiFranco can be strident and even obnoxious with her politics at times, but I like that –  I’m a Billy Bragg fan, remember – however, I’m still a reasonable person. In short, liking or not liking Ani DiFranco’s music is okay; hating people for how they feel about her music is fucking stupid) have, in the past dinged her for being too angry, and while I could write you an entire essay on that topic (entitled “Ani DiFranco is Probably, At the Very Least, Appropriately Angry”) , suffice it to say that outrage has caused some (not all) of her albums to come off as a little one-dimensional. Like all good artists, her best work transcends whatever political statements it’s trying to make and is good art first. In short, I like Ani DiFranco because I like her voice, she plays guitar like no one I’ve ever heard, and she writes intelligently even if you don’t always agree with her.

But enough about her. Let’s talk about the music: Red Letter Year opens with its title track, a rather typical song for DiFranco: down-tempo, cautiously optimistic, and contrasting personal joy and optimism with social worry.  The album doesn’t really throw a curveball in the first couple of tracks, but “Present/Infant” comes along and outs itself as DiFranco’s poppiest song to date: it’s concise, melodic, and features the biggest ray-of-sunshine lyric I’ve ever heard Ani sing: “Love is all over the place.” The other impressive trick that “Present/Infant” turns is that it is, ostensibly, a song about Ani’s daughter (born earlier this year or late last year, I forget) that manages not to piss me off. If you’re one of my 6 to 9 (on average) readers, you know that this is no mean feat. This is largely because Ani is reflecting on the fact that she, Ani Di-Fucking-Franco, sometimes feels bad when she looks in the mirror; rather than a saccharine celebration of parenthood, the song becomes a solemn vow not to pass on the stupid societal ideas about the female form to her daughter.

As if “Present/Infant”‘s resolute optimism isn’t shocking enough, DiFranco follows it right up with “Smiling Underneath”, the afore-mentioned “I love you so much I can’t even be annoyed by the TSA at the airport” song. (I love my girlfriend more than anything, but I still find time to be irritated by the TSA.) That sugar-plum of a song is followed by “Way Tight,” a very very sweet tune that is nonetheless an honest look at the complications and contradictions of actually bothering with love and relationships. “Way Tight” is bluesy, sultry, and one of the more compelling reasons to enjoy Ani DiFranco for her voice – while the teen pop chicks are out there burying their botched notes in digital effects, DiFranco’s voice has the naked honesty that really good folk music requires.

But my favorite song on Red Letter Year is “The Atom,” Ani’s little love note to science and perspective. Advocating for reason in the U.S. these days is like putting a “Kick Me” sign on your back (or a “Brand Me as an America-Hating Liberal” sign, if you prefer) and “The Atom” is an appeal for reason and activism. Might make a good addition to Brian Greene’s I-Pod. Sure, the science is over-simplified and poeticized, but remember: there are people who think the Large Hadron Collider will end the universe, that being homosexual is a choice, and that you should have to have babies that were put in you by rapists. Contrasted with that, “The Atom,” is pretty fucking soothing.

Overall, if you didn’t like Ani DiFranco before, you might like one or two songs here, but Red Letter Year isn’t going to convert you. If you were/are an Ani fan, you’ll be surprised by a few tracks and probably really dig this album. I was talking to my old boss last night about Red Letter Year and she exclaimed that this album is “so happy!” This statement was made, of course, in the context of a question: “Will hardcore Ani fans like this album?” They should – you can love an artist’s anger all you want, but you shouldn’t begrudge them their happiness. We tend to think that artists get worse as they get happier and you can rattle off a ton of pretty good examples, but I’ve got a battery of counter-examples ready for you: Tom Waits has been happily married for most of my life and still makes the best broken-ass music in the business. The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne has a happy, stable marriage, and is one of the most compelling artists in music. Tad Kubler, guitarist for The Hold Steady (and best rock guitarist in the world right now), has kids! In other words, the best artists are good artists and it’s only a sign that they’re slipping creatively when the happiness of their home-lives leads them to write shitty songs. This means you, Elvis Costello.

David Byrne and Billy Bragg: How Well Are My Heroes Aging?

I used to get a lot of shit when I worked at Tower Records in Boston for liking Billy Bragg. Some of my co-workers would ridicule Mr. Bragg’s snotty British snarl on songs like “Help Save the Youth of America.” I had a few allies there, but for the most part, I was content to ambush people with Billy Bragg in the from Mermaid Avenue, his incredibly awesome recording of some lost Woody Guthrie lyrics (he did the album with Wilco and if you don’t own it, you’re missing one of the most amazing albums recorded in my lifetime, I shit you not). Every time I had Mermaid Avenue on in the store, someone would buy a copy.

Shortly before I left the East Coast (which was, sadly, shortly before Tower Records was wiped out), Billy Bragg reissued a bunch of his early stuff and put out a boxed set, which prompted me to wonder if a new Billy Bragg album wasn’t also in the works. Turns out it was and turns out it’s called Mr. Love and Justice and turns out it arrived earlier this year. It’s Billy Bragg’s least abrasive work to date, which might win him new fans and lose him some old ones. He’s at his most melodic and romantic on Mr. Love and Justice, which is to say he is at his most adult-contemporary.  The album is more about the love than the justice, which is not a criticism necessarily, but it does grind on one a bit to know that Billy Bragg posseses the razor-sharp wit we need here in 2008 to cut some of our more egregiously awful elected officials down to size but uses it only sparingly. But look: if Bragg spent 12 songs saying, “Man, the world is fucked up and the blame can be squarely laid upon corrupt leadership and apathetic citizenry,” you’d shoot yourself by the end of the set. Billy Bragg’s wide-eyed idealism is itself a romantic venture, so it only makes sense that he would ache for love as much as social change. Hence, the standout tracks on Mr. Love & Justice are, in descending order, “O Freedom,” (political – duh), “The Beach is Free” (political and romantic) and album opener “I Keep Faith” (romantic). The rest of the album is pretty good too – for those who long for the old days when Bragg was the only folk singer who eschewed the strummy acoustic vibe for the jangly solo electric guitar, you can check out the deluxe edition of Mr. Love and Justice which features “solo” versions of all the tracks, just the way Billy did it when he wasn’t looking for a new England.

Yeah, Mr. Love and Justice is Billy Bragg’s most FM-Radio album ever, but that’s not really hanging the sellout tag on him; you’re still not gonna see him on the red carpet at the fucking VMA’s. Dude’s still on solid ideological ground and, after three decades of fighting the good fight, I’ll give him a little break to wax romantic. It still beats the shit out of whatever Springsteen is doing now and Billy Bragg has aged better by far than, say, Eric Clapton. The important question here is: who’s gonna pick up the mantle when Billy Bragg is (god forbid) gone? There is one other ex-military Brit singer, but he’s James Fucking Blunt and that guy is not ever (ever!) gonna sing a song that would rock the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack boat. So who’s left? Bloc Party might walk a similar path, so long as they can avoid another Weekend in the City (look for a review of Intimacy later this week).

David Byrne, one of the other great oddballs of all time, is back this year too, with another Brian Eno collaboration called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It’s like a gospel album for agnostics (how many gospel albums do you own that mention “when the angel fucks the whore”? Go on and count ’em up. I’ll wait. Oh? You don’t have any? Odd.); it’s hopeful but not entirely innocent, melodic but not cloyingly grandiose. Byrne’s voice is a multi-faceted instrument and he uses it to great effect on Everything That Happens, keeping the overwhelmingly positive outlook of most of the lyrics from coming off like the score from a Disney flick.

The album opens with “Home,” which lets you know exactly what you’re in for: lots of harmonies, lilting instruments in the background, and Byrne waxing optimistic and world-weary within the same line: “Home/ with the neighbors fighting/ Home/ always so exciting”. You get the sense that Bryne doesn’t wish he was homeward bound quite as enthusiastically as Simon and Garfunkel did, but he’s still glad to be going.

Like Billy Bragg’s Mr. Love and Justice, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today can skirt the line of adult-contemporary radio rock, but its players (Eno’s music, for which Byrne wrote and performed the lyrics) usually hold it to the correct side of that line. Everything That Happens does feature some slow tunes that, at first listen, can sound awful similar, but Misters Eno and Byrne deliver them with an impressively earnest beauty for two guys who’ve been around as long as they have and, upon repeated listening, they kinda wash over you like a Gavin Bryars record.

Neither album is apt to make my best of 2008 list, but they’ve got some great songs between the pair of them that show an ability to age gracefully. Neither album feels like a last gasp before dying by either Byrne or Bragg – in fact, both albums feel like a new breath of life for each artist. Here’s hoping Bragg knocks one out of the park on his next outing, though I won’t suffer a McCain presidency to inspire it.

We Are Our Only Saviors

Over the course of their career, The Hold Steady have been given half-assed titles like, “America’s best bar band,” or “America’s best party band,” or whatever. But let’s not mince words, kids (instead, mince some garlic, toss it in a bowl with some chili powder and black pepper. Your tuna steaks should’ve been soaking in tequila and lime juice for a few hours; go ahead and dip them in the dry mixture and then pan fry on medium heat until the tuna flakes easily with a fork. Serve over a salad of black beans, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and avocado. Goes down nicely with a cold pale ale): The Hold Steady are the best rock band there is right now. Bar none. You can have your Chemical Romances and your Panics at the Disco, you can sell your organs on the black market to get Rolling Stones tickets (“Sure, I’ll pay four months’ rent to see corpses on stage! They’re legendary corpses!”), you can get high enough to dream that 1)Axl Rose will ever actually release Chinese Democracy and 2) it will be any kind of listenable, but you’d be throwing shit at a wall and waiting for it to stick. The Hold Steady are the real deal.

Consider: Stay Positive was supposed to drop July 15th. Sometime in June, it got leaked to the internet (like everything eventually does), and what did the band do? Did they throw a Metallica-style fit and make asinine claims about how they don’t make music for their fans? No. They put the whole fucking album up on their MySpace page, put the album out early on iTunes (youTunes, actually; I don’t), and then slapped three bonus tracks on the hard release, not least of which is “Ask Her for Adderall.” Because, as Mr. Finn says on “Stay Positive”: “We couldn’t even have done this if it wasn’t for you”. I’ve seen these dudes live three times and every time, they say thanks to us, the little folks, for giving them the coolest job in the world. The Hold Steady doesn’t have time for websites about how they saved your life – they’re too busy kicking your ass with the best rock music available anywhere.

From Almost Killed Me to Stay Positive, The Hold Steady have bested themselves, tightened their sound, added more instrumental flourishes, et cetera. The time was gonna come when Craig Finn was gonna have to learn to sing or destroy his voice (which should be listed as “baritone sax” on their first 3 records). So he took some voice lessons between Boys and Girls In America and the new album. The band is tighter than ever (Tad Kubler may be our last true guitar hero) and they’ve added some nice textures (horns on “Sequestered in Memphis”, a harpsichord on “One for the Cutters,” and J. Mascis playing banjo on “Both Crosses”) to back up Finn’s working-class poetry.  Stay Positive opens with my new obsession, “Constructive Summer,” which continues the Hold Steady’s tradition of opening the fuck out of an album and ups the ante considerably with lines like “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/ I think he might have been our only decent teacher/getting older makes it harder to remember/ we are our only saviors/ we’re gonna build something this summer.” It’s a blue-collar anthem (“me and my friends are like/ the drums on ‘Lust for Life’/ we pound it out on floor toms/ our psalms are sing-along songs”) that eats the lunch of every Springsteen song ever. I cannot listen to Stay Positive without listening to “Constructive Summer” twice every single time.

I could bore you with the track by track, but you already know I fucking love this record. It turns all of The Hold Steady’s previous tricks up to 11 – sing-along choruses, big guitar riffs, pounding drums, and Craig Finn’s raspy-assed poetry on every track. Stay Positive features, I think, some of Finn’s best writing. Take “One for the Cutters,” for instance: a sprawling epic (for a Hold Steady song) about the dangers of partying with townies, Finn pencils in every detail with verve (“one drop of blood on immaculate Keds,” is a line worthy of Tom Waits). There’s humor and hope and hopelessness all bound up in the 14 songs that make up Stay Positive. Finn is also one of a handful of songwriters who can use religious imagery without being a cloying, pretentious twat. “I met your savior/ I knelt at his feet/ he took my ten bucks/ and he went down the street” (from “Constructive Summer” – see? it’s fucking awesome!). On “Lord I’m Discouraged,” Finn talks about praying that his junkie girlfriend doesn’t die, but he’s getting the feeling that maybe no one’s hearing the prayer because she keeps “coming up with/ excuses and half-truths/ and fortified wine”. “Both Crosses” details the crucifixion of Jeebus through a woman’s visions – “she saw the footage right before it got cut.” “Both Crosses” describes the violence of crucifixion, the exploitation that followed (“Baby, that’s how we get energized”), and humanizes a story that some folks tend to see in very starry-eyed terms. Jesus, if he was a real dude, suffered a horrible death (on a day some people actually refer to as “Good Friday” without a trace of irony) – as did many other folks at the time (the Romans were big on crucifixion). If the story won’t save you, what will? Finn suggests that you have to save yourself, but he has also suggested, since the band’s inception on Almost Killed Me,  that rock ‘n’ roll can help.

All in all, Stay Positive is a love letter to rock music and to The Hold Steady’s fans – like all Hold Steady albums, it’s a great disc to crank up while you’re driving anywhere with the windows down during the summer. Or when you’re having friends over for a beer or five. In any case, it’s The Hold Steady’s best album yet and a true rock accomplishment in an age of emo and pop-punk posers. If someone is going to release a better rock album than Stay Positive, they’d better get to work – the gauntlet has been thrown down by The Hold Steady. While Craig Finn and company are raising a toast to St. Joe Strummer, they can rest assured that somewhere, perhaps from a corner booth at The Afterlife Bar & Grill, he’s raising a pint right back at them.