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.

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Titus Andronicus Forever

Pitchfork is so rarely right these days that the event becomes somewhat analogous to a total solar eclipse. People gather in fields and point in awe, knowing this is something that may never occur again in their lifetime. There are few bands about which Pitchfork is usually correct and they are, in no particular order: The Hold Steady, Jet, LCD Soundsystem, and Titus Andronicus (in case you’re wondering, Pitchfork correctly despises Jet, as most thinking people do).

Titus Andronicus, named for Shakespeare’s most Michael Bay-ish play (Bay doesn’t direct Shakespeare, thank goodness, but Julie Taymor put together a pretty good film version of Titus featuring Anthony Hopkins), is a band of literary punks from New Jersey who won all my affection for their bruising debut, The Airing of Grievances. That album was a lovely slice of existential outrage that came into my life right when I needed it. And now, Titus Andronicus is back with The Monitor, named not for an episode of Seinfeld but for a Civil War ship.

Though The Monitor has been reported as a “loose concept album” or something similar, I suggest you drop that expectation right away. The Monitor contains myriad references to the Civil War (including quotes from Honest Abe Lincoln) but what this album is really about, when you get down to it, is breaking up. Vocalist Patrick Stickles moved to Massachusetts for a girl, they broke up, and the result is The Monitor. But, because Stickles is intelligent (sorry, Blink-182, real punks read books), the album ends up being a perfect reflection of the current American political climate – The Monitor is as much about Stickles’s recent break up as it is about a country breaking up with itself, much like it did during the Civil War (of course, the South doesn’t seem to be inclined to secede from the union these days, although the Texas State Board of Education has been seceding from reason at an alarming rate). Standout track “Four Score and Seven” puts it as succinctly as anyone can: “After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them.” And “Titus Andronicus Forever,” repeats, in bouncing sing-along fashion, “The enemy is everywhere.”

And musically, The Monitor is a big, angry rock record, every bit as satisfying as its predecessor and then some. There are more honky-tonk pianos on this album (especially on “A Pot in Which to Piss”, which also ends with the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn reading some Walt Whitman), some bagpipes (including on the overlong album closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”), and even a ballady duet with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner (I still have some hopes that Wye Oak will end up being a good band. Titus Andronicus’s “To Old Friends and New” is one reason) that celebrates human contradiction with Stickles’s usual humor: “It’s all right, the way you piss and moan” gives way to “It’s all right, the way that you live.” But that’s not what I came to Titus Andronicus for; no, I want Stickles spitting venom and he doesn’t disappoint. On the second half of  “Four Score and Seven,” he howls, “I struggle and stammer until I’m up to my ears/ in miserable quote-unquote art” and then mentions that “humans treat humans like humans treat hogs.” The song ends with a chorus of “It’s still us against them” before ending on “and they’re winning.” The Monitor is nothing if not a battle cry of “Fuck Them,” whoever they are (we all choose our Them, though, don’t we?); it even calls on us to “rally ’round the flag” on album opener “A More Perfect Union”, a song which scores points for a winning Billy Bragg reference (“I never wanted to change the world/ but I’m looking for a New New Jersey”) and paraphrases fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen with the less hopeful, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die.”

The reason The Monitor works as a breakup record is that, in a way that only Titus Andronicus can really do, it seems to sort of celebrate the disintegration of the relationship as a completely expected outcome. Stickles closes “Theme from Cheers”  by asking, “What the fuck was it for anyway?” Of course, Patrick Stickles isn’t pleased that his relationship ended, but he seems to find some affirmation in the destruction. If he can’t have true love, he can have some whiskey and a beer and yell out his anger with equal parts fury and humor (he makes a reference about “pissing into the void” at one point, which puts a smile on my face. If you piss long into an abyss, will the abyss piss into you?).

“The Battle of Hampton Roads,” though about seven minutes too long, is still a fitting closer for The Monitor. The titular boat was involved in the first ever battle between ironclad warships, but the battle was a messy stalemate, which seems to reflect Stickles’s worldview at the end of the album. If you want to live by some sense of values, Stickles warns, “Prepare to be told/ ‘That shit’s gay, dude'” and, if love is a battlefield, that battle is the Battle of Hampton Roads and no one wins. At at the end of the day, Stickles is “as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been” and to his enemy (presumably this recent ex, who might be perversely honored to have partially inspired such an epic album) he says, “I’ve done to you what you’ve done to me.”

Is The Monitor a bit pretentious, and doesn’t it run a dire risk of falling into melodrama? Yes and yes. How does it overcome those two not-insignificant obstacles? From what I can tell, Titus Andronicus does it by keeping their sense of  humor (Stickles claims every one of the rest of his days will be “a fart in the face of your idea of success”) and by rocking out with an impressively shambolic competence. The pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and swelling horns on The Monitor make it a triumphant rock record first and everything else it may or may not be second. Sometimes, you just need a beer and an excuse to yell and curse – for the second album in a row, Titus Andronicus has provided me with my preferred soundtrack for those times.