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.

This Is Happening (You Cannot Change the Channel)

I think, in part because our national attention span is so short (know who won American Idol the other night? In a year, you won’t give a shit. I’ve saved an entire year by not giving a shit today) and in part because it’s so easy to consume a lot of different styles of music these days, there will probably never again be Big Years in Music like 1977 when the Clash and the Ramones and the Sex Pistols all blasted into the collective consciousness with something fresh and new and exciting. You can mourn that if you want, but from where I’m sitting, 2010 is shaping up to be My Favorite Year in Music for A Good Long While. Sure, it’s not going to spawn any movements as vital as punk (but look what “punk” is  in 2010! People think Green Day is punk, for Christ’s sake. Although we do have the Future of the Left and, therefore, hope), but nearly every album that I’ve looked forward to this year has easily met (She & Him Volume Two) or massively exceeded (the National’s High Violet and the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever) my expectations. It’s not quite June and I’m literally drowning in music that I love.

So let’s let the lovefest continue for LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, shall we? I know it’s funnier to hate albums and there are albums that I have in the stack that I’m reasonably sure I won’t like (please prove me wrong, Sage Francis. Please?), but honesty trumps humor in my book. So I’d be doing us both a disservice if I told you that This Is Happening was something less than stellar, ass-shaking good times. Also, I’d be lying to you if I said that. This Is Happening is 100% certified Ass-Shaking Good Times.

The genius of James Murphy (he probably wouldn’t use that word, but – clearly – I would) is that he seems to intuitively understand what is great about myriad styles of music and he routinely spins that knowledge into gold. In a lot of ways, This Is Happening is the poppiest LCD Soundsystem album yet (lead single “Drunk Girls,” “I Can Change,” and album highlight “All I Want”) and it’s still freaky, funky, and weird (“Dance Yrself Clean,” “You Wanted a Hit,” and “Pow Pow”). In other words, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from a guy whose debut album featured the blissful pop of “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and the angry punk of “Movement” (which is, by the way, one of the best songs to run to when you need a little extra inspiration) before ending with “Great Release,” which is one of this young century’s totally overlooked Beautiful Songs.

This has nothing to do with my review of this album per se, but I want to tell you before I forget: I heard a person at the National show last week say he wasn’t really into LCD Soundsystem and then he said he couldn’t wait to see Matisyahu live. Now, I realize that Matisyahu strokes the musical G-spot of all five of you Hasidic frat guys out there, but he is to reggae what John Mayer is to the blues (and if you took that as some kind of endorsement of Matisyahu’s often out-of-tune, banal ramblings, let’s face it: you’re probably John Mayer). All I’m saying is, if you don’t really get LCD Soundsystem but are exalting the musical prowess of Matisyahu, I’m going to have a hard time taking you seriously.

Well, maybe it does have something to do with this review. See, James Murphy kinda does well what Matisyahu does so poorly. Matisyahu’s synthesis of Judaism and reggae is clunky at best* and gimmicky at worst. Murphy, on the other hand, respects his record collection enough to practice the musical alchemy a little more carefully. This Is Happening‘s nods to 1970s David Bowie (to whom we should all nod, if we enjoy, you know, good music) are neither accidental nor clumsily handled. James Murphy is able to make something new out of what came before whereas Matisyahu is only able to make me angry out of what came before.

Let’s take, for example, This Is Happening’s “All I Want.” While the lead guitar line is designed to recall Bowie’s “Heroes,” James Murphy sings, “All I want/ is your pity/ all I want/ is your bitter tears.” In Murphy’s song, we can’t even be heroes for a day because, let’s be honest here, we’re not that selfless. Even for one day. Murphy gets away with this kind of biting honesty all over This Is Happening because he couches it in a healthy dose of self-deprecation: “love is an open book/ to a verse of your bad poetry” has teeth, but they bite Murphy as well when he adds, “and this is coming from me.” In the same song, he promises he can change “if it makes you fall in love.” These aren’t starstruck love songs, they’re the more pragmatic words of weary experience – I can give you something if you give me something. Makes This Is Happening sound like a downer, doesn’t it? Well, if you set those themes to indelible beats (more of the genius of James Murphy – I do not own another album where seven out of nine tracks exceed six minutes in length. Murphy routinely eclipses that mark on This Is Happening but he never bores me), you end up with another excellent, honest, funny, LCD Soundsystem record.

In fact, James Murphy really only lies to you once on This Is Happening, but it’s a doozy. On “You Wanted a Hit,” he sings, “You wanted it smart/ but honestly, we’re not smart/ we fake it all the time.” Bullshit, Mr. Murphy. You know exactly what you’re doing and, while you may honestly lack the ego to know that it’s awesome, I can assure you that it is. I didn’t really want a hit and I don’t know if I got one by any traditional metric**, but this album is fucking stupendous and that’s really all I wanted.

*Before people get all “You’re an Anti-Semite” on me, I would like to emphatically point out that I don’t doubt for a minute that Matisyahu is sincere in his religious beliefs. But, like many Christian rock bands, his faith does not necessarily translate into good  music, which matters a whole lot more to me than which Sky-Dad he believes in (or even if he believes in a Sky-Dad. I really don’t care). Who honestly gives a shit about Bob Marley’s religion (he was Rastafarian. They worship marijuana) when they listen to “One Love”? The music is amazing. But for the record, a God who would create pigs and not want you to eat bacon is unfit to govern the universe.

**Fuck Sound-Scan. If you think that the only good albums are the ones everyone’s buying, you’re the kind of person who might’ve embraced Nazism to keep up with the Goebbelses. A lot of people bought Frampton Comes Alive! and that album is a crime against truth, beauty, and humanity. Also, Adolf Hitler invented the “talk-box” effect in the late 1930s to torture the Jews. So every time you listen to “Show Me the Way,” it’s like killing Anne Frank all over again.