The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Bikini Kill

It should go without saying that Bikini Kill would be at the heart of a Summer of Badass Women, or any season of Badass women for that matter. After all, Bikini Kill is a large part of the inspiration for the Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women, which I dreamed up as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Riot Grrrl, a movement whose peculiar spelling actually came from Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail fucking around with feminist spellings of the word “women” (i.e. “womyn,” “wymyn” and so on). So there.

The women of Bikini Kill were Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail (they were joined by Billy Karren on guitar) and as a group, they were about as badass as you can be. Hanna, according to legend, was advised by Kathy Acker to start a band because that would be the best way to for Hanna to have her voice heard. The music scene in Olympia, Washington (home of Evergreen State College, the alma mater of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, all three women in Bikini Kill, as well as Futurama creator Matt Groening) was pretty fertile for experimentation to begin with and it wasn’t long before Hanna was in a band called Amy Carter, which used to play before exhibitions at Reko Muse, the feminist art gallery Hanna had started with some friends. After Amy Carter came Viva Knievel and then, at long last, Bikini Kill, named after a zine Hanna was working on with Tobi Vail (who is still chronicling the northwest feminist punk underground to this very day) and Kathi Wilcox. The three pinched Billy Karren from a band called the Go Team (not to be confused with twee British group The Go! Team) to play guitar in their band and that’s when shit gets really awesome.

While giving Le Tigre’s self-titled debut the Great Fucking Albums treatment, Zac mentioned that Bikini Kill – and not the more singable, dance-able Le Tigre – was the band that should’ve sent your jock-prick ex-boyfriend back-pedaling as far from Riot Grrrl music as humanly possible and my esteemed colleague has a point. It’s easier to enjoy Le Tigre more on purely musical terms but let me tell you something else: on purely musical terms, I totally fucking love Bikini Kill, especially the gritty early shit on the The CD Version of the First Two EPs. But then, I also like to work out to Minor Threat’s Complete Discography (which you can almost listen to in its entirety in a thirty minute workout).

You might be tempted, when listening to a song like “Double Dare Ya” to ask, “What’s all the shouting about?” Well, I’ll tell you. Bikini Kill was providing the soundtrack for a movement that, dog bless ’em, wanted a brand of feminism that reflected their aesthetic ideas as well as their political ones (indeed, I would argue that Riot Grrrl didn’t make much of a distinction between the two, given their frequent – and spot on – attacks on the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media) and that movement was infused with a punk spirit that a lot of mainstream “punk” music had (and still has) lost. Tobi Vail pounded the drums like she was in the fight of her life and Kathleen Hanna was a hurricane on stage, whirling, screaming, and occasionally flashing the audience. Vail has compared Bikini Kill shows to a war, and for good reason: as I mentioned in my review of Sara Marcus’s excellent Girls to the Front, men came to Bikini Kill concerts specifically to try to menace the band, something that doesn’t happen at Blink-182 shows (although it probably should) (I kid) (mostly).

But it’s not just the sound of their music – which, by the way, was the sound of liberation – that makes Bikini Kill badass. If I had to choose one word to describe all of their albums that I own (and I think I own all of them), that word would be “exhilarating.” If you like raucous, real punk music, you should definitely listen to Bikini Kill. But what they accomplished goes far beyond just playing loud, angry music. The Riot Grrrl movement was already under way when Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox got the idea to play in a band together, but they galvanized it and give it arguably its loudest, proudest voice.

And it wasn’t fuckin’ easy either. They were harassed, shouted at, and called all manner of horrible name just for daring to make their grievances public. Do me a  favor and ask yourself this, dear Bollocks! readers of any and all genders: why is it that we are always ready to approve of some angry dude – like your Clint Eastwood movie types and all those blowhard political pundit fucktards on the TV – but when a woman, any woman, gets upset because she has to have more education to make less money at the same position as a dude, people instantly accuse her of man-hating? Never mind the fact that the men Bikini Kill supposedly “hated” – men who relentlessly belittle, objectify, abuse, and rape women – are men that everyone should hate. I don’t hate the sadistic fuck who raped and murdered Mia Zapata because he’s a man; I hate him because he’s a fucking rapist. Likewise, I don’t hate Fred Phelps because he’s a man or even because he’s a Christian – I hate him because he’s a bigoted asshole who thinks that a being intelligent and creative enough to make (from scratch!) everything there fucking is has the same prejudices that he has.

There’s a reason you can’t have a serious discussion about Riot Grrrl without mentioning Bikini Kill and here it is: they brought the spirit of Capital-P Punk to that movement (which already had quite a bit of a punk ethos to it). For those of you who don’t know, Punk is “punk” with a purpose. It’s the kind of punk Joe Strummer was even when he wasn’t playing punk music. When the Handsome Furs snuck into Burma, played a secret show, and donated all the proceeds to their friends in a Burmese band, that was Punk. Hell, any band trying to make music under the boot of an oppressive regime is a Punk band. Bikini Kill were Punk because they played songs of liberation with reckless abandon, right in the faces of those who wanted to shut them up (or worse, physically hurt them). And they were badass women because they stood their ground and inspired a generation of young women to do the same.

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Great Fucking Albums #22: Dirt Floor

I guess it’s Dead Guy Week here at Bollocks!.

After briefly mentioning Chris Whitley yesterday, I’ve found myself unable to do anything but sit here listening to his excellent 1998 album Dirt Floor over and over. So instead of talking about the new Res mix-tape today (I’ll get to it this weekend or next week, I promise), I’m gonna tell you about another Great Fucking Album. File this one under Shit You Need to Know.

Chris Whitley, for those of you who don’t know (and unfortunately, there are way too many of you who don’t know) was a folkish/bluesish/soulish/totally awesome singer/guitarist who started putting out records in 1991, got shit out by the major labels around 1998 or so, and died of lung cancer in 2005. Also: he was probably the second coming of Robert Johnson, though almost nobody seems to know it (and if you’re gonna try to tell me that Eric Clapton is, you better sit down with some Chris Whitley and prepare to experience the hot, buttery taste of discovering that everything you know is wrong).

After getting dropped by Sony, Whitley recorded Dirt Floor to a two-track analog recorder, basically by himself. Live. In his dad’s barn in Vermont. The instruments were guitar and banjo, the percussion was Whitley’s stomping fucking foot. That, for those of you keeping score at home, is what I’m talking about when I talk about real shit. No vocal effects, no fancy foot pedals – hell, no fucking amps. I’m all for loud electric music (my favorite bands are the Clash and the Hold Steady, for dog’s sake), but there’s something so pure and dazzling about what Whitley did on Dirt Floor that it almost seems profound to me. When he sings about “returning to the wild where I’m from” on “Wild Country,” I get a chill because this music comes from a wild place if any music does (hint: the best music does).

Like Robert Johnson, Whitley’s guitar playing is loose and unschooled (Johnson learned from following Son House around, which beats the shit out of attending – and dropping out of – Berklee like John Mayer did) and his singing is almost other-worldly, not unlike the late Mr. Buckley. You know, it occurs to me that it’s a good thing I don’t get paid to do Bollocks! because I’ve spent the last two days listening almost exclusively to Jeff Buckley and Chris Whitley and it’d feel a bit weird to get paid for just sitting in my apartment (am I naked? You really don’t know) listening to amazing fucking music. What made Robert Johnson’s blues so great to me wasn’t just his amazing guitar playing; it was also the vocal sense that the dude was haunted. That’s a sound you can’t duplicate – either you’re feeling that or your not. John Mayer clearly can’t feel it and that’s why his music will always be a bad cartoon of the better music to which he obviously listens. Chris Whitley, like Johnson (and Buckley and Nina Simone and Tom Waits), can make you believe he’s outrunning the devil with every note he plays.

Dirt Floor opens with Whitley “searching a scrapyard for my dirty crown” (“Scrapyard Lullaby”), and you get the feeling right out of the box that if Whitley is sonically related to Robert Johnson, he’s a closer cousin to Tom Waits (so he’s still in pretty stellar company) lyrically. There’s lots of steel and rust on Dirt Floor, jackhammers break rocks (the job from which the narrator wishes to flee) on “Wild Country”, and references to dirt (obviously), grime, and fire (he sings “It’s so hard to get warm when it’s so easy to get burned” on “Indian Summer”) serve as evidence that this is an album carved out of the hard stuff of the earth.

Though I own and love other Chris Whitley albums (2004’s War Crime Blues, inspired by certain arcane political events in the early 21st century, is also excellent and may be listed in this feature someday soon), his vocals absolutely shine in the austere setting of Dirt Floor. His voice is warm, worn, and whiskey-tinged, evoking the best Jimi Hendrix vocal takes (I heard someone a few days ago say that Hendrix was “a bad singer” and I remember thinking that person was totally full of shit. Listen to “Little Wing” and tell me that’s not awesome singing. Then I will do something awful to your face) and delivering lines like “Broken can be golden in its very own time” with an unassuming authority. It’s no accident that my brain leaped from eulogizing Jeff Buckley as a complete, unique singer and guitarist to doing the same thing for Chris Whitley. Grace doesn’t sound like your prototypical 1994 record and Dirt Floor damn sure doesn’t sound like your average 1998 release (though 1998 saw the release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it was also the year that Van Halen released their album with the dude from Extreme singing and the year that Everlast released Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, an album that probably had wet dreams about being Dirt Floor. Also in 1998, according to Wikipedia, a band called Anal Cunt released an album called Picnic of Love). This album could as easily have walked out of the 1930s (imagine Alan Lomax recording Leadbelly’s cellmate, Chris Whitley, doing a nickel for bootlegging whiskey and smacking a cop) as it could drift back to us from the vast wastelands of the future (why do I assume there will be vast wastelands in the future? Because we have people in our government who don’t believe in science).

That Alan Lomax reference is sticking in my brain all of a sudden, probably because Dirt Floor is recorded a lot like Lomax’s recordings of people like Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton; it’s just a dude in a room, playing his music like maybe he’ll never get another chance to get it all out. But Whitley certainly didn’t make this album with some inflated sense of musical history in mind (the way Eric Clapton made his ill-advised and iller-executed Me and Mr. Johnson). No, Dirt Floor isn’t a folk-blues book report – it’s a séance, one that channels the spirits of Huddie Ledbetter and Robert Johnson and basks in their light the way only a true pilgrim can. I imagine Johnson and Leadbelly looking over Whitley’s shoulder as he battered out “Wild Country” the way the ghosts of Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker approvingly viewed the celebration of the rebel victory at the end of Return of the Jedi. That’s because I’m a fucking nerd.

But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

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.

Best Albums of My Life #2: Mule Variations

There are a couple of things that even Pitchfork and I can agree on. #1: the Hold Steady is awesome. #2: you won’t “write a song as good as Tom Waits’ very worst song. Sorry, you just won’t.” They wrote that about the first Tom Waits album I ever heard, 1999’s Mule Variations. And, to this day, it’s the one sentence in all of Pitchfork’s history with which I agree word for word.

I first encountered Mr. Waits on an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and I was immediately struck by how awesome his stories were and how little they had to do with the songs he was performing. And the songs! Sweet Jesus, the first time I heard “House Where Nobody Lives”, I think I had an experience like the Mormon missionaries try to sell you about divine revelation. Here was a dude who was speaking the truth in a way I’d never heard anyone speak it before. I ran out and purchased Mule Variations immediately. That was ten years ago and my copy has seen better days, but it spins just fine and still resonates just as deeply.This album, like many Tom Waits albums, is the real shit – the deep down, bloody, muddy, messy, broken, gospel of sinners, whores, bums, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells, and basically everyone else.

What is it about Waits that’s so goddamn impressive? His songs are journeys, for starters. And, though they are full of specificity (including street names and weather, things Waits views as essential to good songs), they strike a universal chord. Take “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, for example: you don’t have to have actually been somewhere where no one speaks English and everything’s broken to understand exactly how he feels. Right? Waits intuitively understands broken-hearted, busted-ass loneliness and the anguish he howls from the rooftops is our anguish – a friend of mine in college said that Waits is crying so that you don’t have to. You couldn’t do it that well anyway. And that’s due in large part to his voice. I know, I know, a lot of people are all “Tom Waits can’t sing” or “his voice sounds funny” or “he sounds like Cookie Monster” but what they don’t understand is that for what Tom Waits is trying to tell you (about you, about us, about nasty, brutish, and short fucking life), ordinary voices are useless. I’d go so far as to say that they are insultingly inadequate. For the heartache and, yes, the joy that Waits is bringing on his tunes, you need a voice that’s a still-beating heart being tossed into a wood chipper in the middle of a nuclear war. You need a voice that took a stiff shot of whiskey and chewed up the glass. You need exactly the voice that only Tom Waits has. Do you really wanna hear Josh Groban inviting you to come on up to the house when “the only thing that you can see/ is all that you lack”? No. No, you don’t.

Mule Variations is full of some of Waits’s best busted-ass moments, too. On “Get Behind the Mule” (this is how Waits encourages perseverance – he’s not gonna tell you you’re beautiful no matter what they say and that words can’t bring you down; there’s no time for that in the Tom Waits universe. You’ve gotta get up and get to work, just like the rest of us), he gave me a line that resonated through pretty much every failed romance of my life since I first heard it: “Big Jack Earl was 8 foot one/ and he stood in the road and he cried/ he couldn’t make her love him/ couldn’t make her stay/ but tell the good lord he tried.” Again, a lot of people have probably stood in poor Jack Earl’s giant shoes. On “Cold Water”, Waits feels the pain of “pregnant women and Vietnam vets/ out there beggin’ on the freeway/ ’bout as hard as it gets”. That’s a line Bruce Springsteen would’ve sold (and/or had sex with) his mother to write.

But Mule Variations isn’t all gritty, bone-tired heartache, either. It also features a fair amount of that magical Tom Waits weirdness. “What’s He Building?” reads like a list of rumors Waits’s neighbors might cook up about him. “Eyeball Kid” is a circus-freak anthem complete with a telling autobiographical element: the Eyeball Kid was born on December 7, 1949, the same day as Thomas Alan Waits. Like the Eyeball Kid, Waits came here to show us how to really see. And “Filipino Box-Spring Hog” is a recipe for awesome disaster and possibly also a terrible dinner.

The thing (if there is indeed only one thing, which I kinda doubt) that makes Mule Variations a masterpiece (in a career full of them) is how easily the oddball tunes sit along side some of Waits’s finest ballads: “Picture in a Frame” features a line that I find so honest and so simply romantic that it has caused me, upon reflection, to give up writing love songs myself: “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off.” Maybe that doesn’t grab y’all the same way it grabs me, but when the radio is crowded with people singing about how someone is their whole life or their everything or whatever, Waits’s lyric cuts me to the quick. I want to love someone till the wheels come off and, luckily, I get to. Sorry, Portugal. The Man fans, someone out there really loves terrible ol’ me. No one said life is fair.

And then there’s “Georgia Lee”, a piano ballad about a girl who was murdered. I love that Waits doesn’t just make a tug for your heart strings here. He does nothing less than call God out for dropping the ball: “Why wasn’t God watching?/ Why wasn’t God listening?/ Why wasn’t God there/ for Georgia Lee?”  It’s clear, then, that Tom Waits doesn’t just understand romantic loss. He understands the feeling of being massively, cosmically fucked over, and he can howl that pain for you too. Is it overstating it to suggest that Waits is out there, strolling the universe, absorbing some of the hits for all of us? Maybe; but when I listen to his stuff, I’m not so sure. This is my gospel music, kids – and Mule Variations closes with a kick-drum stomping spoonful of raw spirituality called “Come On Up to the House,” where Pastor Tom tells us to “come down off the cross/ we can use the wood” and reminds us “the world is not my home/ I’m just passing through.” Is that corny? So be it; after my sister died last year, this was one of the songs that picked me back up, that let me laugh and cry at the same time. So for me, Tom Waits’s music has real healing power, the kinda stuff some people find in church and other people find in a bottle.

If a major criterion for being the voice of your generation (or any generation) is being able to tap into the hopes, joys, loves, and fears of that generation with a profound understanding (is that a major criterion? I should hope so), then it might be time to consider that Tom Waits is the true voice of at least one generation and probably of many generations. Sure, he’s not as glamorous as Kanye West and he doesn’t want the job nearly as bad as Kanye does, but his music is 9000 times more honest. In my lifetime, Tom Waits has made some of the most heart-wrenchingly meaningful music I have heard and Mule Variations is my favorite of his albums not just because it’s amazing, but also because it was my gateway into the man’s entire body of work. It has shown me the way to songs that have seen me through pretty much every high and low point of my life for the last ten years.

Welcome to My World

lee_fields-my-world

If you listened to Naturally, the 2005 release from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, you heard Lee Fields on “Stranded in Your Love.” And if you didn’t listen to that album, what the hell is wrong with you? In an era of computer-generated pseudo-soul, Sharon Jones is bringing back the old school with a vengeance, picking up a ball that was dropped when Marvin Gaye died (perhaps this ball was buried with him and Ms. Jones dug it up and ran with it. This metaphor is getting icky – moving on). And Lee Fields is running right along with her, which is fitting since she was discovered while singing back-up for Fields in the 1990s.

Fields has been doing this funk/soul thing for a long time (he cut his first record in 1969. He was pretty inactive throughout the 1980s, and I’d like to think it was out of disgust), which may be why his new album, My World, sounds so deliciously old school.  And being a member in good standing of the old school lends a lot of credibility to this album. I mean, it would be preposterous if someone like Justin Timberlake tried to put out something like My World (yet I do not think it would be preposterous if Cee-Lo tried to); this is grown-up soul, and there’s no gimmicks. No one is gonna mistake My World for the kitschy throwback stuff of, say, the Brian Setzer orchestra. Lee Fields is the real shit, and he’s simply making the only music he knows how to make. For those of us who have been dying for a slice of real soul here in the 21st century, Lee Fields is also providing us with a hot, buttered mug of awesome with a side order of hash browns (sorry; I haven’t had breakfast yet). As far as I’m concerned, he and Sharon Jones could tour the country forever, holding old-timey revivals but with less religion and more ass-shaking music. Or they could both make an album with Danger Mouse – it’ll be a brilliant disc and, somehow, EMI will keep it from coming out. Just you wait.

My World would be right at home between your Otis Redding and Sam Cooke records, but it rides a heavier, funkier rhythm – which you can credit to drummer Homer Steinweiss and bassist Quincy Bright who, along with their fellow Expressions, provide a solid instrumental groove over which Fields deftly struts and wails. In other words, My World can be summed up in three words: “The. Real. Shit.” Every single teenage r&b diva you see on American Idol owes a considerable debt to the music of people like Lee Fields and the only way they can ever possibly repay it is to stop what they’re doing right now, go home, and get jobs more suited to their talents. Like maybe clerking the night shift at the 7-11.

Granted, Fields’s stuff will come off as a bit cheesy to some (for instance, on “Ladies,” he actually mentions “sugar and spice/ and everything nice), but good funk and soul has always been a bit cheesy. “Try a Little Tenderness” is cheesy as hell, but it is also phenomenally badass. If you don’t think so, Zombie Otis Redding and I would like a word with you.  (Zombie Otis Redding only knows one word: “Braaaaaiiiiins.” But even undead, he’s still got one of the all-time great voices.) Fields and the Expressions are on a mission to get heads nodding and possibly also to get bras unhooked. That’s what this music has always been about and I’d be hard-pressed indeed to object to that. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon (that’s never happened before, certainly not here at Bollocks!), I’ll say this: maybe today’s kids can conjure up that lovin’ feeling while Rihanna prattles on about her umbrella (ella ella ella ella – seriously, that’s really fucking annoying. But that doesn’t mean you had to hit her, Chris Brown. That’s dirty pool no matter what), but I’ll take Lee Fields and Sharon Jones and that old school stuff every time. Even the instrumental tracks on My World (there are two and they are excellent) have an organically sensual vibe to them that I just don’t find in the drum-machine propelled pop/soul that’s so popular today. Not that I’m trying to get these over-produced kids to round up some session musicians and attempt something like My World; they would fall flat on their faces if they did that. The fact is, Lee Fields (and this is true of all the great soul singers) possesses the right mixture of sorrow, joy, lust, faith, and plain ol’ grit to carry an album like My World. You forgive the cheesier moments because the album is pretty much a wall-to-wall groove.

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine someone disliking this record. Soul may not be your cup of tea or whatever, but if you’ve ever liked chill-ass music, you’d do well to check out My World. Some people might dislike how old it sounds or how cheesy some of the lyrics are, but anyone who puts it on, pumps up the volume, and lets the beat roll is in for a good time. After wallowing in mediocre indie for the last week, My World has provided me a refreshing blast of funk and soul to haul my ass up out of that rut. Stephen Malkmus once observed (I’m paraphrasing here) that he tries never to spend more time reading about music than he spends listening to it and I’ve worked hard to listen to more music than I read or write about (not bragging, but it’s no mean feat). It’s albums like My World that make that effort worth it and remind me why I love music to begin with.