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.

My 13 Favorite Albums of 2009 13-6

Well, here we are in 2010, the year we make contact. For those of you who don’t know, a new federal law went into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day: if you hear any of your fellow citizens call this year “oh-ten”, it is legal to punch them in the face exactly one time.

Having safely seen 2009 out the door, I think it’s time to start talking shit about it. Everyone loves a list, especially one that doesn’t include Animal Collective or Phoenix, so I compiled a list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. I don’t know if they’re the best albums of the year or not and I don’t care. They’re the ones I like the best and, honestly, I think that’s all anyone can say. Also, my list contains 14 albums (well, technically, 13 albums and an EP) because there was a tie. Anyway, feast yer eyes on this here list (helpfully rendered in a distinctly non-slide-show format):

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass. I’ll just assume everyone knows that Lord Cut-Glass is really former Delgado Alun Woodward. And I know that my review of this record spent a good deal of time bitching about how the Delgados ought to just reunite, come to the U.S. and play shows in the courtyard of my apartment complex. But the fact remains that Lord Cut-Glass is a really beautiful record; Woodward lilts over plucked acoustic guitars and low brass, quietly issuing some of the best melodies of his career. Highlights include “Picasso,” “Even Jesus Couldn’t Love You,” “Holy Fuck,” “A Pulse” and “Big Time Teddy.”

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man. Last year, Doughty put out an album called Golden Delicious that I liked well enough at first. And then it kinda grew off of me with a stunning quickness. Just wasn’t feeling it, I guess. However, because I love Mike Doughty, I’m always willing to listen to his stuff. This year, he put out the superb Sad Man Happy Man, which I nabbed from Amazon’s digital store for five freaking bucks (gargle my balls, I-Tunes). SMHM is driven by Doughty’s chunky guitar strumming and absurd humor, and it’s my favorite album of his since Skittish (which has to be one of the most underrated albums I’ve ever heard). It opens with one of its best moments, “Nectarine (Part Two)” and also includes the coolest prayer ever (“Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”) and “Year of the Dog,” which might be Doughty’s best tune since “Sweet Lord in Heaven.”

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz. 2009 was a great year for some of my favorite female vocalists, not least of whom is Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only did I get to delight in an affordable deluxe edition of It’s Blitz! (Amazon’s mp3 store has not yet let me down in the cheap goodies department), but I got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a kickass set at Coachella (one of the best sets I saw at that festival). The album is filled with awesome turbo-pop (starting with a pair of aces in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”) and a few pretty ballads (“Hysteric” splits the difference between the two types of song and is, in two words, fucking awesome). It’s Blitz! firmly established the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the best bands in America and their live shows will back that claim up for the doubters.

10. Brother Ali, Us. I could make a joke about how Brother Ali is the king of white rap (ha ha, because he’s an albino, ha ha), but, taking Us as exhibit A for the prosecution, it’s more accurate to place Ali near the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of skin pigment. Jay-Z has never, in my estimation, done anything to rival  “Tightrope” or “The Travelers.” To my knowledge, he’s never even tried. With Us, Ali threw down a gauntlet of new rules for the hip-hop community, chief among them: no skits and fewer songs about how badass you are (Us has ’em, but they’re matched pound for pound by songs of real substance and at least one tune wherein Ali shows gratitude for his good fortune, saying, “I’m the luckiest sonofabitch that ever lived”). Us is a truly refreshing album, and it stays fresh with every listen.

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Speaking of refreshing, Camera Obscura released one hell of an orchestral pop album last year. My Maudlin Career, despite its potentially emo-sounding name, starts and ends with a bang (“French Navy” and “Honey in the Sun”, respectively) – in between, Tracyanne Campbell drops lines like “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” and “drinking has never been the same again”, the latter from the stellar, mournful ballad “Other Towns and Cities”. My Maudlin Career is so good that I think almost anyone who likes music will like it. But some people who like music like Wavves, so I could be wrong.

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth. Killingsworth is the album that elevated Scott McCaughey from Person of Interest to Folk Hero in my estimation. It’s basically a dark country rock album, but it’s so fully realized and wittily rendered (“your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation”) that it cannot be denied. Backed by an excellent chorus of women, McCaughey sings of lurking barristers, broken love, and crowded urban apartment life (“Big Beat Up Moon”) with a drunken weariness that is deeply appealing to young curmudgeons like myself. He also takes the time to satirize fundamentalist Christianity on “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, a song that never fails to but a big smile on my face.

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another. I have said many times that, all appearances to the contrary, I like more music than I dislike. A small subsection of music that I like is nasty, noisy stuff that almost no one else I know likes. Titus Andronicus comes to mind here, as does the Future of the Left, whose Travels with Myself and Another beat its way into my skull and won my heart last year with its pounding drums and Andy Falkous’s snarling vocals. Subjects range from girls who get off on hitting people (“Chin Music” will only be appropriate at a very small number of weddings:  “I only hit him ’cause he made me crazy/ I only hit him ’cause he made me mad/ she only hit him ’cause it gets her wet/ yeah, she’s one of a kind/ she’s got chin music”) to the practical concerns of Satanism (“You Need Satan More than He Needs You”). Travels with Myself and Another pretty much kicks ass, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the humorless.

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. I guess #7 and #6 on my list are a study in contrast. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is an understated, mellow, and completely lovely work – his finest to date, if I may be so bold. It blends Bird’s myriad musical talents (no one on earth – no one – can whistle like this motherfucker) into quirky pop (“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”), old school folk (“Effigy,” which is nothing short of stunning), and whatever you’d classify “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” as. Some of the songs have unique movements, but they never seem to wander, even on the seven minute “Souverian.” Bird is a musician’s musician, a guy you can study as well as enjoy, and Noble Beast is the textbook for aspiring musical ninjas.

I know. It’s taken me four days into the new year to even start counting down my favorite albums of the old year and now I’m doing it in two parts. Pitchfork took a week to do their list and they still fucked it up, so maybe it’s better that I’m taking my time. I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse every choice I’ve made so far. Tune in tomorrow or Wednesday for albums 5 through 1, which are bound to include demure rodents, plenty of references to whiskey, a rant about shitty record labels, the best pop album of the year, the word vagina, and plenty of weather.

Annie-itis and Some Thoughts on Year-End Lists

Check it out: my numbers have gone up. I started out averaging about 6-8 readers a day and somehow, I’ve managed to get up above 20 readers a day in the last couple of months. That’s not shit for other blogs, I’m sure, but it fills me with the warm-and-fuzzies. Much gratitude to the folks who’ve found something fun to read here over the last year and a half. And I want to ask a question of those readers who have been around for a while (new readers can attempt to answer this question too, but it helps if you’ve read several posts). What are the odds, based on your reading, that I will like an album laden with synthesizers, programmed drums, and chirping girlie vocals? I think we can all agree that the odds are extremely long that I will enjoy such an album. Extremely.

The thing is: I think I have some sort of infection (let’s call it Annie-itis), and I think it was caused by Annie’s Don’t Stop album. It has wormed its way into my brain and is stuffing my synaptic clefts with sugary pop songs – if their is a musical equivalent to diabetes, I’m going to get it for sure. And I should fucking hate this album. As an experiment, my second time through, I tried to hate this album. I can’t do it.

Maybe I shouldn’t hate this album. I’ve never disliked good pop (like the Beatles and even Michael Jackson’s Thriller album – astute listeners have been pretending that Jackson died after making that album and experienced no great shock this summer. It’s been a real time saver for me), but I do hate bad pop and our culture is inundated with really awful pop. Now, a lot of pop (even some of the good stuff) can still be lyrically dumb but it usually features a melodic hook that pulls your brain out through your nose and replaces it with sugar, sunshine, and orgasms. These days, a lot of pop is reliant on pre-progammed/sequenced music and beats. Of course, there are exceptions, like the New Pornographers who still play pop with actual instruments. But because the technology is so readily available, it’s now easier than ever before to make a really shitty pop record (“buy yourself a sequencer/ and let the games begin,” Annie sings on “I Don’t Like Your Band”).

My first trip through Don’t Stop was a sugary haze; I rode the first six tracks all the way to Heaven. To quote the late Captain Murphy, it was “like a koala bear crapped a rainbow in my brain.” Subsequent trips through the album have had similar, if diminishing, results. Don’t Stop definitely falls off toward the end, but it’s still better than, say, anything Chris Brown can muster. Throughout, Annie displays an uncanny ability to knock out a memorable, danceable pop tune. Even her bad songs (and there are a few here – “The Breakfast Song” is the most offensive to my ears) are still catchy, and that gives the listener some encouragement to wade through them to get to the good stuff. Because Annie’s good stuff is fucking perfect, as pop music goes. “Hey, Annie” opens the album gloriously and the first half of the album is amazing and unrelenting, right up to “Marie Cherie,” which begins its slow decline. The album never really makes it to Awfultown, but it’s definitely loitering around Mediocreville by the time “Heaven and Hell” closes things up.

And maybe what really hamstrings Don’t Stop is the fact that Annie’s good stuff is so good. Songs like “The Breakfast Song” and “Heaven and Hell” sound all the worse for sitting next to songs like the title track and “I Don’t Like Your Band” (which may be the year’s most perfect pop tune).” I’m not suggesting Annie should repeat herself (a trap many pop artists fall into), but she’s definitely at her best when the tempo is up and she’s being playful.

Apparently, a copy of Don’t Stop leaked last year – when the album was originally supposed to be released – that had a different track listing. This blog offers a correction to the final version of Don’t Stop and it suggests to me that the dropped tracks might indeed be worth checking out (which would mean obtaining them through less-than-legal means. Bollocks! doesn’t officially encourage stealing from anyone except for EMI. Fuck those clowns), especially if they are a little less of a slog than “Marie Cherie”, which is (unsurprisingly) the longest track on the album. Other down-tempo tunes on Don’t Stop work just fine (“Take You Home,” which immediately follows “Marie Cherie,” is excellent. Best line: “I don’t love you/ I want to take you home”), so it’s not that Annie can’t pull off slower tunes. Even “When the Night” has its merits, except that it’s followed by “Heaven and Hell,” which is an aimless and unfitting closer to such a sumptuous pop feast.

Overall, though, Don’t Stop is still a must-have for fans of dancey pop music. Even without the dropped tracks, you can improve the disc by skipping “Marie Cherie” and stopping the album after “When the Night”, leaving you with ten songs that range from good to superb.

Well, kids, I’m off to Seattle tomorrow morning to celebrate the birth of my good buddy Jesus with my future in-laws. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be updating much between now and the 28th, but I’ll probably cough up some year-end listy goodness upon my return, for those who are interested in that sort of thing. Year-end lists are always arbitrary so I’ll be calling my list(s) “my favorite” whatevers of 2009. I don’t presume (despite accusations to the contrary) to know the absolute best of anything. Music is a subjective art form so trying to pretend there are objective criteria for ranking albums is a fool’s errand. There are lots of albums from this year that I have listened to and not reviewed (early trips through Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park are proving fruitful), but I’ll get to ’em eventually, I promise. If you like to list stuff, feel free to post a comment with your favorite few albums from the year (I’m probably going to do 13 albums because 13 is a nice arbitrary number and I feel it suits the arbitrary nature of the exercise). Whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope they’re merry/joyous/alcohol-fueled.  So Bollocks! to all and to all, a good drink.

Glitter and Doom

Sixty years ago today – the day after Leadbelly died (for those of you who believe in reincarnation, this could be regarded as auspicious), right here in southern California, lightning struck a bottle of moonshine, shattering it into thousands of tiny shards, one of which pierced the pregnant belly of a school teacher, opening her up wide enough for her newborn son to step out into the light. He was born walking – he made a bedroll from his umbilical cord and set off on the road that very day, bumming smokes, bread, and beans as he went. He got a few gigs here and there crooning country/jazz in shitty little bars; no great shakes, but it kept him in cigarettes and whiskey until the early 1980s when he took folk, jazz, rock, beat poetry, Kurt Weill, and everything else, threw ’em in a blender with some stale beer and train smoke, and became one of the foremost songwriters in American music history.

I’m talking, of course, about Tom Waits. Happy birthday, Mr. Waits. You are an American hero; you are, in fact, both a folk hero and a maker of folk heroes and not even Bob Dylan is that anymore. And, in all seriousness, thank you, sir, for the music you’ve been making for most of my life. Thank you.

But to get down to business: live albums, if we’re being honest with ourselves, are almost always treats for diehard fans and no one else. You don’t generally put on a live album as a way of introducing someone to your favorite band. The live album is typically “Greatest Hits with Cheering” but every so often, you get a live album that is a treasure for fans and newcomers alike. Glitter and Doom, by our Birthday Boy Tom, is one such album. There is everything Waits fans love on this album and an energy that is only adequately described as a force of nature. One spin through Glitter and Doom and you will understand why the man doesn’t go on long tours anymore. He puts everything he has into every show he plays, and Tom Waits has a lot. I can confidently say that, if you’re going to like Tom Waits, you’re going to like Glitter and Doom. If you love Tom Waits, you’ll love the album’s second disc, which is Tom Waits bullshitting for half an hour. I know I love it.

One of the bigger problems live albums face, in my humble (ha!) opinion, is that the songs sound like the recorded versions, but there are more assholes singing along. Waits is not content to leave his songs alone, and that creates a very compelling argument for seeking out his live shows. Ideally, you’ll get to see the man in concert but, if you’re like many people who cursed the ill luck of living in a city that Waits didn’t visit on his “Glitter & Doom” Tour last year, you’ll grab a live Waits album and revel in its awesome weirdness, its blustering theatricality, and its distorted beauty.

Tom Waits avoids the pitfall of sounding like “Greatest Hits with Cheering” because he doesn’t have any hits. The radio is not ready for Tom Waits (except for National Public Radio, which is just college radio for college-educated grown-ups – and that’s clearly not driving our culture right now. If it were, you’d hear more Waits and Flaming Lips on American Idol and Sarah Palin would have no supporters) and he steadfastly refuses to let people use his music for commercials. Despite being the only guy I know of to win both the Best Alternative Rock and Contemporary Folk Grammys, Waits has what I consider an extremely healthy disdain for awards. Having said all that, Glitter and Doom does cover some familiar territory to Tom Waits fans. But the songs do not remain the same. “Singapore” ends with Waits simulating a bombing, while “Such a Scream” becomes a chugging funk number (it’s like a Bizarro Prince tune) and “Goin’ Out West” becomes a twisted homage to T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”

Waits was surrounded by incredible musicians (all the bass on this album is upright bass, played by Seth Ford-Young) for this tour, including his son Casey on drums and percussion (Casey also played the ass-beating drum part on Waits’s cover of “The Return of Jackie and Judy”), but Waits’s voice remains the most versatile instrument in the ensemble. Whether whispering, howling, or growling, Tom Waits has one of the most distinctive voices in music, and he uses it to inhabit his characters fully. On “Lucinda/Ain’t Goin’ Down,” Waits brings William the Pleaser to life as a wounded, terrified, and haunted man who “left Texas/ to follow Lucinda/ Now I will never see Heaven/ or home.” Glitter and Doom tends to mine from Waits’s darker stuff, relying heavily on Blood Money, Bone Machine, and Real Gone for the bulk of its material. The only song that is a repeat from Waits’s other live album, Big Time, is “Falling Down” which was a studio track on that record. It’s nice to see Waits take that tune back after that uber-dilettante Scarlett Johansson mangled it on her ill-advised album of Tom Waits covers (it’s called Anywhere I Lay My Head, for those of you who think I’m making it up. Johansson commits the cardinal sin of thinking that prettying up Tom Waits songs will somehow 1) pay fitting tribute to them and 2) please fans of Mr. Waits. Her album, of course, does neither. I listened to the album shortly after starting Bollocks! and hated it so much that I couldn’t find the words to give it a sufficient review).

Though the album is cobbled together from the fistful of dates Waits played across the American south and parts of Europe last year, it’s sequenced like a proper Waits concert, with all the roaring loud moments (“Lucinda,” “Metropolitan Glide”) and low-moaning soft moments (“Trampled Rose,” “Fannin Street”) that entails. It’s surely no substitute for an actual ticket, but Glitter and Doom is still a nice bone to throw me for not making the road trip to Phoenix to see him in person. I can’t really blame Waits for not wanting to come to L.A., but if he can make it as far as Bakersfield, I’ll be the first in line to see him and I’ll even bring him dinner.

Best Albums of My Life #3: The Soft Bulletin

The Soft Bulletin

A word that gets tossed around way too much in critical circles is the word “essential.”  If you say something is essential, you mean people have to have it. It is necessary. Vitally necessary. Which is why smart critics don’t do it very often. There are very few cultural things that are essential. If you own any sort of video game playing apparatus, Half Life 2 and Psychonauts are essential. You should be playing them right now (0r as soon as you finish reading this incredibly non-essential blog). If you like theatre, Shakespeare is essential (as is Tony Kushner). If you like breathing, oxygen is essential. If you like Sarah Palin, a lobotomy is essential.

And if you like music, you have no business not owning The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips. Yeah, Yoshimi is great, At War with the Mystics is good, but The Soft Bulletin is fucking essential. It is your duty as a cool person to own this album and to give it your full attention (I can only assume that you are a cool person if you read Bollocks!, assuming also that you aren’t just here to assault people with grammatically embarrassing comments).

Flaming Lips albums run the gamut from good to great, with occasional (okay, frequent) stops at weird, but The Soft Bulletin manages to raise the bar all the way up to “Holy fuck, I’ve never heard anything at all like that.” It’s part pop album and part sci-fi movie; occasionally, it’s space gospel (“The Gash”) and sometimes it’s Bizarro-World FM Radio (“Buggin”, which is also what the Beach Boys should’ve tried to sound like). But it’s always, from “Race for the Prize” (the first one) to “Waitin’ for a Superman” (the second one), absolutely drenched in beauty. In fact, “Beautiful,” is the word that most often comes to my mind to describe The Soft Bulletin, and it doesn’t come anywhere close to describing what the album really is. The Germans, who have better descriptive words than we do, might have a word that means, “transcendentally, inexpressibly awesome experience.” German-speakers, get cracking, and let me know what you find.

When I set out to compile (ever so slowly, dear reader[s?]) a list of the best albums released in my lifetime, I knew the Flaming Lips would have an entry or two. The list is always evolving because I’m constantly listening and re-listening to music (and because I’m a moody bitch about music). I think The Soft Bulletin started out somewhere in the 20s on the preliminary list. When I put an album on the list (before I write about it), I “test” it by listening to it several times to see if it really is one of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I have to be 100% assured of an album’s place in my life before I tell you about it. That way, I don’t feel like I’m blowing smoke up your ass when I tell you something like, “The Soft Bulletin is fucking essential.” Now, here the album stands, the third best album released in my lifetime, ranking right up there near London Calling and whatever #2 turns out to be (is the suspense killing you? Yeah, probably not). My list is nothing if not a meritocracy and The Soft Bulletin has earned its spot.

Why?

Let’s start with the obvious: great songs tend to make albums great (unless you only have 1 0r 2 great songs on an album of bad songs; that makes your album kind of infuriating). The Soft Bulletin is wall-to-wall great songs (two of the songs are so great they appear twice). But the really awesome (and harder to do) thing is an album that consists of great songs that compellingly establish a mood. Try an experiment with me: put on The Soft Bulletin. Now, try being unhappy. You can’t do it, can you? Or, if you can, perhaps you have some sort of brain disorder that makes you hate joy. As I write this, I am listening to The Soft Bulletin after a particularly frustrating morning dealing with what passes for a judicial system here in Los Angeles (a judiciary that can acquit O.J. Simpson is capable of anything) and believe you me, when I sat down at this here computer, I was fuming. Fucking furious. So I cranked up my favorite Flaming Lips album. I’m three tracks in (“The Spark that Bled”) and the anger is just melting away. So long, anger.

But it’s not just that The Soft Bulletin is a shiny, happy album – it’s not, really. It’s kinda death-obsessed, in an interesting sort of way. But the music is incredible, from the crashing drums and twinkling bells to the rich piano tones of “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “The Gash” t0 Wayne Coyne’s warbly-ass voice. After seeing the Lips in concert last week, my fiance pointed out that Coyne isn’t a great singer, but he just goes for it and his voice fits each song in just the right way.

Which gets me to the next reason you should love The Soft Bulletin and the Flaming Lips in general: they’re one of the most honest bands in the world. Under Coyne’s oddball direction, they strive to give their audience an experience that transcends the standard rock concert thing. And they mean every fucking thing that they do, heedless of whether or not they might fail. Truly, as the documentary’s title states, they are fearless freaks. The Flaming Lips album that best exemplifies that awesome experience is The Soft Bulletin. This album makes me want to drive my car out to the middle of nowhere, park in a field, and lay on the hood staring at the stars while “What is the Light?” blasts from my shitty, Toyota Corolla factory-issue speakers. Or better speakers. You get the idea.

It is nearly impossible, these days, to make an album that doesn’t sound like something else. There are just too many sounds and they’ve all been recorded. And yeah, you can say The Soft Bulletin owes some debt to the Beatles or something, but I’ve never heard another album that does what The Soft Bulletin does. It’s the senseless act of beauty that trite people are hyping on their bumper stickers and it’s only made better by the fact that you can’t capture its vibe in a catchphrase. You can come close with this t-shirt I got at the Flaming Lips show last week: “I experienced the Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being.” The Soft Bulletin might not make you a better human being, but it will, for fifty minutes or so, make your life fucking awesome.

Never Turn Your Back on Neko Case

middle-cyclone

Take a moment and look at that album art again. Go ahead.

That’s Neko Case, perched on the hood of a car (is it a GTO? I have no clue), carrying a fucking sword! Ladies and gentlemen, I know it’s early, but let’s go ahead and give Ms. Case the Album Cover of the Year award. “But,” you say, “you’re not here to review her album art. What about the music?”

I’m getting to that.

I’m going to start with the bad stuff first, and you’ll see why in a minute. The last “song” on Middle Cyclone is “Marais la Nuit”, 30 minutes of farm noises, recorded by Neko on an actual farm. Her farm. Again, that’s 30 minutes of nothing but frogs croaking and crickets chirping. This is pretentious and highly unnecessary. It’s really, really annoying.

So what would it take to forgive “Marais la Nuit”? I tell you exactly: it would take the fourteen tracks that precede it. The entire rest of Middle Cyclone is an unparalleled acheivement, a work of stunning beauty that showcases perfectly Neko Case’s myriad talents. Middle Cyclone is so good apart from Track 15 that I have fallen into the habit of listening to it straight through, skipping the final track, and going right back to “This Tornado Loves You.”  My Imaginary Secretary has fled the office today, fearing a repeat of the TV on the Radio incident of last year.

Case’s music is parked (like a car carrying a chick and a big fucking sword) at the intersection of folk, country, pop, and Byrds-style classic rock, and Middle Cyclone, like Fox Confessor Brings the Flood before it, blends those genres into something that is entirely Neko’s. And true to it’s title, Middle Cyclone is all about forces of nature: Neko as a romantic force of nature (she sings “I carved your name across three counties,” on “This Tornado Loves You”) and songs about actual nature, like her cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” one of the highlights on an album of highlights.  Some songs blend both concepts, as on the advanced single, “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” where Neko not only reminds us that killer whales are called that for a reason but also uses the metaphor to embrace a common perjorative for heartbreaking women: “I’m a man-man-man/ man-man-man-eater/ but still you’re surprised-prised-prised/ when I eat ya.” In other words, if you tangle with a woman who car surfs GTOs (we’ll just pretend it’s a GTO, okay?) with a sword in her hand, you shouldn’t be shocked when you get your head chopped off.

Neko’s ferociousness isn’t all turned outward on Middle Cyclone either. The title track is a simple and gorgeous acoustic ditty with nuggets like “did someone make a fool of me?/ For I could show ’em how it’s done” and “can’t scrape together enough/ to ride the bus to the outskirts/ of the Fact that I Need Love”. Case takes the whipped-raw feeling that one sometimes get from romantic entanglements and makes them elemental – a tornado, messy and seemingly undirected, is following you through three counties, destroying everything in its path trying to work its way back to your arms. It’s a metaphorical trick that seems ingrained in Neko Case’s soul, as many of the songs on Fox Confessor follow a similar pattern.

The album is driven by Neko’s voice, one of the strongest and most beautiful in music. She soars on “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” weeps on “Vengeance is Sleeping,” smirks on “People Got A Lot a Nerve,” and does all of the above on “The Pharoahs,” where she sings, “I want the Pharoahs/ but there’s only men.” Neko’s longtime guitarist Paul Rigby handles most of the arranging, building the music perfectly around the mood of her lyrics. This is carried off to devastating efffect on “Prison Girls,” where Neko sings, “I love your long shadows/ and your gunpowder eyes,” adding that the prison girls have “traded more for cigarettes/ than I’ve managed to express.”

If I seem a bit gushy re: Neko Case, let me tell you why: first off, she deserves it. Nobody sings like Neko Case, and her albums are consistently lovely, substantive works. Secondly, look at the women who get attention in music – you’ve got your Miley Cyruses, your JessicAshlee Simpsons, a smattering of first-name-only R&B girls, your Britney Spearses, and so on and so on. It’s not that there aren’t far superior performers out there; if you dig deeper, you’ll find your Kathleen Edwardses, Anis DiFranco, Regina Spektors, and Neko Cases. Neko Case, for my money, is the best of this underrated crop of women, and Middle Cyclone is strong enough on its own to back up my claim.

If you have a friend who is all about Neko Case and you’re thinking you might check her out, get Middle Cyclone and get it now. If this album is not in my top three at year’s end, I’ll eat a pound of steamed brussel sprouts and chase ’em with a bottle of Boone’s Strawberry Whatthefuck. If you wanna try before you buy, come to my place and we’ll open up a bottle of red wine and make my girlfriend sick of Middle Cyclone (it’ll be a nice break from being sick of The Hold Steady and The National). We can let the beauty of the thing wash over us. But we’ll skip the last track, if it’s all the same to you.

Sambassadeur: It’s Like a Koala Bear Crapped A Rainbow in My Brain

Sambassadeur is a catchy-as-hell pop band from Sweden, which might sound like the sort of thing we here at Bollocks! would pillory with our usual sadistic glee, but I’ve already professed my love of good pop music on this blog many times. It’s just that good pop music is so hard to find.

Which is why we should start importing it from Sweden. Sambassadeur traffics in seriously 80s pop, complete with synthesizers and bouncy-ass melodies. The key to their success, however, rests mostly on the shoulders of vocalist Anna Persson, who delivers those melodies with breathy perfection.

Their new album (only album? I really have no idea) is called Migration and it’s pretty short (9 songs, one of which is an instrumental and one of which is a cover), which is I think is crucial with music as wonderfully old-school as this. If you make an album of 80s pop in 2008, you don’t want it to run past the moment when people’s nostalgia passes. I’m a peculiar case for this, however, because most 80s pop (nearly everything that wasn’t by R.E.M. or the Cure) infuriates me. So what’s so great about Sambassadeur?

Brevity and Beauty. The album starts off with “The Park,” which is about a couple sitting on a park bench putting off breaking up (“Please don’t bring it up tonight”, Persson sings). The subject matter would be sad but the intsrumentation never allows you to trip off into emo moping. You’re too busy nodding your head to the violins and bopping drums. That’s pretty much the formula they follow on Migration, occassionally tossing in Peter Buck-ish guitars (as on the title track) or offering a male counterpoint to Persson (Daniel Permbo, who sings on “Someday We’re Through,” the second slowest track on the album – not to say it’s bad; it’s actually pretty nice) here and there.

The cover tune on Migration is a rendition of Dennis Wilson’s “Falling in Love,” which welds 60s pop to 80s pop in perfect proportion. If someone makes a Graduate for my generation, I want this song on the soundtrack. It’s a minor-key love song, drifting along on a cloud, and its a perfect example of Sambassadeur’s ability to create music that is somehow sugary-sweet but not cloying.

Migration is another one of those pop albums that the radio (at least here in the U.S. of A.) doesn’t know about and it’s one of those albums that really should be heavily featured on the radio. You know, to make the radio suck less. Right now, we seem to think Britney Spears and the fucking (or promising not to fuck, in this case) Jonas Brothers are pop. There was a time when The Beatles were pop (back when they invented it). Books can be written, have been written, and will continue to be written on exactly what the hell happened to pop, but in the meantime, albums like Migration and Santogold’s debut could go a long way toward repairing the damage. Part of what’s been lost is the realization that pop can be catchy and fun and also be good fucking music. There’s room for musical competence in every genre, just as there’s room for good songwriting in every genre. Mainstream pop and hip-hop (not to mention R& B, which hardly even exists in a listenable form these days) in the U.S., however, are plagued with boring, homogeneous artists (many of whom don’t write their own songs) who are lost in a whirlwind of coat-tails, grasping for any pair to ride until they’re the next celebrity rehab case. Don’t even get me started on Kanye West claiming to be the voice of my generation. (Kanye is a mediocre-at-best rapper and I’m sorry, but you don’t get to declare yourself the voice of a generation. So go fuck yourself, Kanye West.) There are great pop and hip-hop artists in the U.S. right now, but they’re not popular. Sure, I could sit here and say it’s the fault of the record companies for only signing acts that sound the same (and they certainly share in the blame), but let’s face it, folks: as a music-consuming public, many of us have been failing to perform our due diligence in the search for quality music.

Well, no more. Here’s what we’re gonna do – the holidays are a upon us and that means people will want gifts from you. So here’s the Bollocks! gift guide for 2008. If you have people on your list who like pop music, get them Migration or Santogold or a Fountains of Wayne album. If you have rock fans, get them (please!) Stay Positive or at the very least Boys and Girls in America. If you’re shopping for fans of R&B, get them anything by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. If you have hip-hop fans, get them either of the last two Atmosphere records, or Madvillainy. If you have punk fans, well, pour one out for that genre ’cause it’s all but dead. Just kidding – get them the live Clash album (it’s super good) or the Titus Andronicus record. It’s up to us to elevate the musical discourse in this country, folks – spread the love by showing people the way to better music. There’s great music out there and you can help people find it. Americans hate having to find shit out for themselves and the holidays provide the perfect excuse to educate them.