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.

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.

The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

Put Your Hands Together (But Don’t Say “Power Pop”)

What’s sad about Together, the new New Pornographers’ album, being so damn good is that idiots will continue to maintain that the New Pornos are a “power” pop band which will lead to two things I can’t abide: 1) these clowns will continue to deride 2007’s highly underrated Challengers as some kind of misstep in an otherwise stellar career, 2) they will probably talk about Together using phrases like “return to form”, which is always annoying because it assumes that the New Pornographers only ever did one thing that you liked (and who the fuck are you to determine a band’s “form” if you’re not in the band?), and 3) people will continue using the phrase “power pop” as if it means anything at all. Okay, that’s three things I can’t abide.

Let me talk about number 3 for a minute. I have been bashing genre tags for a long time here at Bollocks! because I think they’re pointless. In some cases (post-rock, anyone?) they are unnecessarily academic and in other cases they are downright idiotic (shoegaze and power pop come to mind). What I think people mean when they say “power pop” is probably just “really great pop” because there’s nothing that distinguishes so-called power pop from, say, the kind of pop the Beatles did. The only difference to my ears is that, nowadays, you can be a very good pop band and never be heard on pop radio (this may call for a distinction I’ve made before: pop music is often thought of as simply “any music that is popular” but it also exists as a distinct style, usually featuring strong, memorable melodies that build to catchy choruses. Who’s being overly academic now?). This is not the New Pornographers’ fault, it’s the radio’s fault or rather, it’s the fault of the two or three corporate giants that own most of the radio stations and major record labels. And those corporate giants are simply doing their job: spoon-feeding people dog shit because people will pay for dog shit which is what economists refer to as “increasing the demand” for the dog shit said corporate giants are all too happy to provide. Ask and ye shall receive, America.

Okay. “Return to form.” This phrase also has to be phased out, along with the people who use it. There is only one form to which people think a band must eventually return and that is “the form they had on the last album of theirs I liked.” This is enormously selfish. The New Pornographers do not exist just to please a fistful of people (no band does, except maybe Metallica. By their own admission, Metallica exists to please Metallica and absolutely no one else). Near as I can tell, they exist to make really excellent pop music. When you say a band has “returned to form” you’re lazily saying they tried something that you didn’t like and now your narrow-minded ass is oh-so-relieved because they’re doing stuff you like once again, you selfish bastard. The New Pornographers’ form has always been “kick-ass pop music” so it is most accurate to say that Together represents a “continued non-deviation from form.”

In their continued non-deviation from form, the New Pornographers have crafted an excellent summer pop album (just in time, too – we’re about to embark on our nine months of summer here in Los Angeles and it’ll be good to have a nice selection of albums to play with the windows down. Well, with the AC cranked. You get the idea) with some of their best melodies yet, not to mention their best lyrics since Mass Romantic (which is my favorite New Pornos record in large part because of “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” which is possibly the most underrated pop song ever). As a playwright, I particularly relish, “cruel plays/ but then they made you/ mine all mine” from the album’s almost-title track, “Your Hands (Together)”.

With four featured vocalists (Neko Case, who is easily the best female vocalist working today – I know what I said on April Fool’s Day, but your ears are clogged with stupid if you really think that I or any other thinking person really believes that Mariah Carey is a better singer than Neko Case; Dan Bejar, whose work as Destroyer actually bores me to tears; A.C. Newman, whose two solo records are pretty good; and Kathyrn Calder, whom I’ve never heard outside of the New Pornographers), there’s plenty of dynamic opportunities in the New Pornographers and they don’t waste any of them on Together. From a melody/harmony perspective, this album might just be their best (so there’s clearly no need for the strictly verboten Return-to-Form. Also, I should point out that for me, the spectrum of New Pornographers albums runs from “Good” to “Fucking Awesome,” with the bulk of their work clumped toward the “Fucking Awesome” end) – Case and Calder, when not singing exquisite leads (the ladies pretty much win Together – Case on “The Crash Years” and “My Shepherd”, Calder on “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” and “Valkyrie In the Roller Disco”), provide excellent background vocals for Bejar and Newman, who more than adequately uphold their end of the bargain (as little as I like Bejar’s non-New Pornographers work, he seems to always bring his pop A-Game to their albums).

At the end of the day, of course, it matters very little how you classify (or even if you classify) the New Pornographers. If you like good music with clever lyrics and memorable melodies, you will like Together. I could repeat my rant from the end of my review of LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, but why not attempt to initiate a proactive solution to the problem of massive, corporate radio suckitude? Let the less-discerning people you know hear albums like Together and This Is Happening and Heaven is Whenever and High Violet (wow, 2010 has been kind to me) and then let them use their dollars to demand that music. Will it bring the system to its knees, or at the very least make EMI close its doors forever out of pure shame? Of course not. Some people genuinely like the bullshit the radio pumps out at them and they might not like the aforementioned albums. But the world is already full of the noises they like. Why not even things out a bit by filling a little corner of the world with pop music the way the New Pornographers make it? Why not make “these things get  louder” (from Together‘s excellent opening track, “Moves” – featuring an electric fucking cello) a prophesy instead of just a catchy line? Who’s with me?

<sound of crickets chirping>

<sudden dawning of realization that not very many people read Bollocks! and that a revolution in which people just blast New Pornographers music from the rooftops is apt to be even more nebulous in execution than it was in conception>

<sound of beer being opened>

<opening notes of “Moves” from Together>

<happiness>