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.

My Ten(ish) Favorite Albums of 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Paint the Black Hole Blacker

actor_st_vincent_album

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.

Noble Beast

Face it: you probably weren’t excited about the new Andrew Bird album. It’s just not a thing one does in relation to Bird’s music. You may have been keenly interested to hear it (as I was), you may have awaited its release with deep, even forbidden desire, but the word “excited” probably didn’t really come up, did it? Bird’s just not that exciting. Which is not to say he’s bad – far from it. But you don’t line up at midnight to buy his albums at a store that’s staying open late specifically to sell them to you.

Nope. You walk in, quietly, you find Noble Beast on the shelf, and you buy it. Then you go home, not in any  particular hurry, and you maybe throw it on now or maybe you wait. You should certainly wait until you can hear the whole thing from start to finish.

So far, Noble Beast is the most accurate album title of 2009. Like all of Andrew Bird’s work, there’s a certain regal grace to the thing. And it’s a big, dense, odd, beautiful beast of a record.

Andrew Bird doesn’t really rock out, so there’s not much above midtempo on Noble Beast (Bird’s best song, “Fiery Crash,” from 2007’s pretty good Armchair Apocrypha, could be played at quite high volume in a room full of cardiac patients and not really thrust anyone’s blood pressure into the danger zone). No, the thrills provided here are of a much subtler nature. But they’re here.

“Oh No” opens and sets the tone for Noble Beast: lots of lush strings, some gentle acoustic guitar, and Andrew Bird’s stellar tenor singing about walking “arm in arm with all the harmless sociopaths”, the kind of rhythmic wordplay that Bird has perfected (and which he really shoots his load on in “Anonanimal” with some stream-of -consciousness spiel about his enemy seeing a sea anenome). Bird’s wit is sharp and dry, like Eleanor Roosevelt’s shin bones would be if you dug ’em right now, though Bird’s wit is probably less brittle.

It took me a long time to get into Noble Beast, but now, having done so, I really can’t get out. This album is beautiful the way Pitchfork mistakenly thinks Sufjan Stevens’ music is beautiful. These 14 tracks are hyper-intelligently composed but never self-indulgent, absolutely saturated with complex melodies and played with an economy of instrumentation that the geography-crazed Mr. Stevens should probably look into. You may only hear an electric guitar for a few bars on a song, but it comes in, does its job, then clocks out and goes home. On Noble Beast, Bird has composed a pop masterwork; “Masterswarm” and the superb “Anonanimal” have tangible movements to them, making them pop songs composed like classical suites. It’s a feat that would seem pretentious in the hands of more assuming performers (I know I’ve bagged on Sufjan Stevens a lot in this review, but I’m going to continue to do so. His compositions are bloated. I don’t give a shit about a 23 track album where some tracks are 30 seconds of glockenspiel or whatever. Write a fucking song.), but it’s hard to think of a less assuming performer than Andrew Bird.

Because the songs are so tightly composed, they’re not what you’d call radio-friendly. If you need a hook in the first 30 seconds, you might not like Noble Beast, but if you have some patience, melodies like the chorus of  “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” will grab you from behind, spin you around, and plant a big ol’ kiss on your psyche. Am I gushing over this album? Maybe, but maybe Noble Beast is as good as I say it is. In the past, and with the exception of The Mysterious Production of Eggs, I’ve gotten tired/bored about halfway through Andrew Bird albums. I fully expected that with Noble Beast as well. What I did not expect was that, within two rotations in the car, I would find myself coming back to Noble Beast again and again, patiently awaiting the soft shower of beauty it is all too willing to rain upon me. If Mysterious Production of Eggs was Bird’s accessible, poppy album, Noble Beast is his coming-out as a music nerd’s music nerd. You don’t have to share my love of music theory to enjoy Noble Beast, but my love of theory and composition does add an extra dollop of whipped cream to the hot fudge sundae that is this album.

Call it the Boxer Effect. When that album came out in the early part of 2007, I heard “Fake Empire” and had an orgasm. But I didn’t really get into the rest of the album until much later, when songs like “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Apartment Story” crept into my skull while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, Boxer was my favorite album of the year and The National became one of my favorite bands. Andrew Bird has sped up the Boxer Effect exponentially with Noble Beast. I’ve had this album for one week as of this writing and I’m going through it for possibly the 12th time.  And each time, I find new melodic treasures, so much so that I wonder now if I have suddenly understood Andrew Bird in an entirely new light. Perhaps I can go back and listen to the second half of Armchair Apocrypha without nodding off. Perhaps not.

If you’ve read other reviews of Noble Beast and find this one to be the most effusive, I can only hope that it is. Andrew Bird has completely won me over with this album, literally startled me with its beauty. If you’ve been reading Bollocks! regularly over the last year, 1) thanks! and 2) you might realize that I don’t easily go gooey over albums that aren’t by Tom Waits, The Clash, or The Hold Steady, and that might mean Noble Beast is worth some investigation on your part. That said, this album, like all Andrew Bird’s albums, will try the patience of a lot of listeners who might well write to me and tell me I’m full of shit (I have dear friends who will probably hate this album), but if you’re willing to bear with it for a while, it will pay off handsomely.

Santogold and the Kind of Pop Album I Like

You might get the idea, given how many times per week I make a reference to 1) The Clash and/or London Calling, 2) The Hold Steady and 3) Tom Waits, that I don’t much care for pop music. Few things could be further from the truth (some things are definitely further from the truth, like believing that the planet is younger than some civilizations). I’m actually a big fan of pop music, but I apply to it the same high standards I have for all other music (this is why I write hip-hop reviews for Atmosphere and not Eminem.). Obviously, I love The Beatles and I’ll even argue for the timeless pop goodness of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. But, like R&B, pop music has largely taken a giant fucking nosedive in the last twenty years or so, such that some our best artists in the pop style (namely The New Pornographers and Fountains of Wayne) are comparitively unknown (“Stacy’s Mom” notwithstanding, Fountains of Wayne is a completely awesome and clever band.).

So this is the climate in which I found Santogold, better known as Santi White to her friends (not least of whom is M.I.A., to whom Santi will no doubt garner comparisons). Well, in the interest of full disclosure, my friend Zac pointed me to “L.E.S. Artistes” and I was hooked. And rightfully so.

Santi White has written songs for Ashlee Simpson. White’s eponymous debut as Santogold is proof that she’s keeping her best stuff for herself. Santogold is a genre-hopping pop masterpiece full of funk, hip-hop, and even a little punk swagger. It’s the kind of album that people will either love or hate; Santogold is very good at being provocatively obnoxious, a trait she shares with M.I.A.

So yeah, there’s the big, funky beats and the woman using her voice in fun and interesting ways on Santogold, but let’s put the M.I.A. comparisons to bed. Santogold is much more of a straightforward pop album than M.I.A. is capable of making. “Lights Out” is the proof in the pudding – it’s a pure pop-rock tune, the musical equivalent of a Pixie Stick, injecting sugar straight into your brain.

Santi White’s musical awareness and versatility are on display from the beginning of “L.E.S. Artistes” (that’s “Lower East Side” Artistes, a jab at NYC posers, of which, apparently, there are many) straight through the final remix of “You’ll Find A Way” (which is actually completely unnecessary). “L.E.S. Artistes” starts with a steady pop beat before White comes in singing a little bit like Cindy Lauper before diving into the catchy-as-fuck chorus, “I can say I hope/ it will be worth what I give up.” White’s voice is abrasive at times and seductive at others – a true instrument that she uses tremendously throughout the album.

“You’ll Find A Way,” follows the opener and is a rock song with reggae-tinged guitar on the verses and an awesomely overdriven bassline.  As I listen to it again, I can still hear some Lauperisms in the chorus (“Don’t lean too far/ you will fall over”), but the whole thing is just so… damn… catchy. You know, like good pop should be.

The biggest treat on Santogold is really that there’s something for everyone. There’s an underlying hip-hop vibe to a lot of the songs (the beats are bass-driven and heavy as hell) and White blends various styles over that foundation, synthesizing styles with a seamlessness I haven’t seen since The Clash (not just shilling here – listen to London Calling and Combat Rock and tell me how many genres you hear in there). In particular, White seems to have a better sense of when to nod to her favorite reggae sounds (on “Shove It,” for instance) and when to just let a pop song be a pop song (as on “Lights Out”). The only genre I don’t hear on this album is country, which is admittedly hard to blend with many styles outside of rock (blend country with pop and you get Faith Hill, which is bad. Blend country with hip-hop and you get Big & Rich, which is offensively terrrible. Blend country with rock and you get The Band, Uncle Tupelo, and early My Morning Jacket. Perfect!).

To the astute listener, songs like “Say Aha,” and “L.E.S. Artistes” might call to mind the tragically under-rated Res (pronounced “Reese”), whose 2001 album How I Do would’ve been a blueprint for sounds like Santogold’s if the world hadn’t been too stupid to notice that album. Seriously, How I Do was the only R&B album of the early 21st century. Sorry, you can keep your Alicia Keys and whoever else is dabbling in R&B these days. I’ll take Res and Sharon Jones. If you’re reading this, Res, please make more music now. Please?

Anyway, back to the album at hand – Santogold is a great record for music nerds who can spot the style and the reference, but it’s also not as elitist as that sounds. If you put this album on at a party, you’ll get a whole lot of, “Hey, that’s really fresh. What is that?” Or you’ll get a lot of “Is this the new M.I.A.?” You can throw those people out.

We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

“I identify my star sign/ by asking which is least compatible with yours,” sings Gareth Campesinos on “Ways To Make It Through A Wall,” the first song on the second (!) Los Campesinos album of 2008. And I think to myself, “Here comes another awesome Los Campesinos record.”

Los Campesinos (which is Spanish for “The Campesinos”… just kidding. It means “The Peasants” or “The Farmers” in Spanish. And yes, Los Campesinos are from Cardiff, Wales.) scratched their name into my brain earlier this year with the outstanding Hold On Now, Youngster, a blistering set of snide pop tunes that lashed out at emo culture and romantic comedies with equal cleverness and ferocity. Needless to say, that album was, from its inception, bound to get stuck in my car’s CD player forever (or until Stay Positive came out three months later; but suffice it to say Hold On Now, Youngster got serious rotation between April and July).

And now, a scant 7 months after Hold On Now, Youngster, Los Campesinos are back with We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. A debut as impressive as Hold On Now, Youngster would be hard to follow up at any point and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is not quite the masterpiece that its predecessor is, but it’s still really fucking good. And, you have to admire their work ethic.  For the sake of contrast: The Killers re-released their debut and a singles boxed set (yeah, after one fucking album. Brilliant) before getting around to dropping the steaming turd that was Sam’s Town, an album that wanted so badly to be Born to Run that people reported spotting Brandon Flowers attached to Springsteen’s cock at those free Obama rallies The Boss played this year.

Ahem.

We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is riddled with the same bombast and wit that made Hold On Now, Youngster a success, packed with great lines like “We kid ourselves there’s future in the fucking/ but there is no fucking future,” followed by “I’ve taught myself the only way to get along in love/ is to like the other slightly less than you get in return/ I keep feeling like I’m being undercut” in the title track. Los Campesinos are a cyncial bunch particularly when it comes to love, but they never tend toward self-pity like so many emo bands do. Nope. With Los Campesinos, it’s “I’m okay, the world’s fucked up.” Imagine love songs that reflect a worldview that’s equal parts George Costanza and Friedrich Nietzsche, set to the bouncingest pop-rock beats and you’ll end up somewhere near We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed.

The six Campesinos use a mountain of intstruments to create the wall of twinkling bells and thunderous guitars  that serve as the backdrop to Gareth and Alecksandra Campesinos’ back-and-forth (and sometimes overlapping) barbs; both vocalists are more than capable of weaving in and out of the music or shouting over the top of it where necessary. And lest you think Los Campesinos are merely good writers, I should like to point out that they have  a really kick-ass guitar sound. Check out “Miserabilia” for the proof. While we’re on the subject, Los Campesinos also employ the best-ever discretion when electing to have everyone in the band sing at the same time. This worked brilliantly on Youngster‘s “We Are All Accelerated Readers” and is employed wonderfully on the last lines of “Miserabilia”: “Shout at the world/ because the world doesn’t love you/ Love yourself/ Because you know you have to.”

So if the Arcade Fire is the magnetic north of your indie rock compass (’cause they’re from Canada. See what I did there?), consider as their polar opposite (in a good way; let us never forget that The Arcade Fire is incredibly rad) Los Campesinos. Where The Arcade Fire are downcast and serious, Los Campesinos are merry pranksters, the guys (and gals!) who know they can’t beat you in fight but they’re going to get you with incomprehensibly awesome one-liners until you cast off your football helmet and go pound them to a pulp, soaking their K Records T-shirts through with blood. Both bands use a billion or so members to create unique and beautiful textures for their respective moods and both write incredibly well, noticeably better than many of their contemporaries.

I will end this review by quoting “You’ll Need Those Fingers for Crossing” at length because it contains some of my favorite lines of of 2008:

“You worry a million raindrops will die/ with the last memory of you and I/ in the soft-porn version of the end of the world/ I quake at the knees as my intentions unfurl/ you wrote a letter to God/ just in case/ you said/ “I’m nothing if I’m not a pragmatist/ you needn’t worry about us/ we can look after ourselves/ we’ve learned not to rely/ on you or anyone else.”