Unknown and Beautiful (The Virtues of Broken-Ass Music)

There’s a kind of music that I love, that is sometimes rock and sometimes blues and sometimes both. I call it Broken-Ass Music. Tom Waits is probably the current reigning king of Broken-Ass Music, but it has its roots in stuff like “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by Robert Johnson. Johnny Cash was also a master of Broken-Assness, and you can hear a more rock ‘n’ roll side of Broken-Ass Music on the first Hold Steady album and tracks like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” from 2008’s best album, Stay Positive. I heard a band called the Gaslight Anthem that I think deals in diet Broken-Ass Music, for kids who want to ache a little but don’t want to get any dirt on their new H&M shirts (I just made up that stereotype, so let’s not read too much into it. Also, I have purchased at least two shirts from H&M in my life. But I got them dirty).

And then there’s Lucero.

There is no better phrase I can think of to describe Lucero’s music: if any music is Broken-Ass Music, Lucero’s music is Broken-Ass Music. Their 2005 album, Nobody’s Darlings, was a nearly perfect slice of Broken-Assitude and last year, they reached new heights with 1372 Overton Park, an album that occurs at the collision point of southern rock, Memphis soul, and incredibly Broken-Ass Music. Lucero wanted to pay tribute to the Memphis music scene (a scene which just lost Jay Reatard, whose music I didn’t really enjoy, but the dude died at 29 and, having just turned 30, that shit freaks me right out) including the titular loft where, at one time or another, all of the band lived. Singer Ben Nichols was the last band member to occupy the space, which he vacated upon finding out it was slated for the wrecking ball. Such is the life of a Broken-Ass musician – if they can’t break your heart anymore, I guess they tear down your house.

1372 Overton Park is lyrically not that different from other Lucero albums – there’s drinking, gambling, women, and all of the above in random order (“Sixes and Sevens” features the line, “Drinking women/ chasing whiskey”, showing that even Nichols can’t keep it all straight sometimes). But the album is helped – nay, it is elevated – by the sumptuous horn arrangements of Memphis legend (and saxophone ninja) Jim Spake, who has played with a wide range of awesome people, including Levon Helm, Toots Hibbert, and Buddy Guy. The horns infuse every song with a soulful warmth that perfectly contrasts Ben Nichols’s shredded vocals.

About that voice: having a gravelly voice does not necessarily mean you are capable of performing Broken-Ass Music, but, if you do have a facility for BAM, a mangled voice doesn’t really hurt either. Ben Nichols can still carry a tune, but his voice has the sound of years on the road, drinking too much, smoking too much, and sleeping too little. But it fits Lucero’s songs like a velvet glove wrapped in barbed wire. He clearly pushes himself to the limit on album opener “Smoke”, but the rewards are well worth it. Even at it’s crooniest (“Hey Darlin, Do You Gamble?”), Nichols’s voice is still somewhere between Rolf the dog and Tom Waits. If you read that sentence and thought, “Awesome!”, you will probably love Lucero (or you probably already do). If you read that sentence and thought, “Who would want to hear that?,” you are probably someone’s girlfriend/wife/mother and possibly my fiancee, my stepmother, or pretty much every other woman I know. That’s not a sexist thing, it just happens to be true. I will bet you every dime I make from writing this blog that more women own albums by Coldplay, Norah Jones, and the Dave Matthews Band (admit it, folks – you know at least one girl who refers to Dave Matthews on a first-name basis, despite the fact that they’ve never met him). I’ll bet you the same amount that more guys own albums by the Clash, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and Lucero (and if you know a guy who refers to Tom Waits as simply “Tom” despite having never met the man, you are legally allowed to kick him in the balls until his eyes change color).

Getting back to 1372 Overton Park, Jim Spake certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on musicianship here. Keyboardist Rick Steff (who co-arranged the horn parts with Spake and Marc Franklin, who is credited with trumpet, trombone and flugelhorn duties) contributes some badass organ work and more than his share of honky-tonk piano (see the afore-mentioned “Sixes and Sevens”) and Brian Venable supplies some literally gnarly guitar work. Overall, Lucero sounds tighter as a band than they’ve ever sounded (no mean feat, as they’ve always struck me as a somehow simultaneously shambolic and tightly wound group) and I can only hope Spake and Franklin come out on the road with them for some live hornage (also, I can hope they come to Los Angeles. Please?)

Earlier in 2009, I discussed Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight album as having the mood of a night on the town: starting with all the promise that brings and ending with drunken half-disaster. If that’s the case for Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight, Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park is the feeling of several nights on the road, in clubs with no dress code (look at the cover of the Franz Ferdinand album – those guys are going to much better clubs than you and I are), starting with waking up in a strange town sometime after noon, and ending after a raucous rock ‘n’ roll show and a night of drinking with a band that, though vastly underrated in this reporter’s opinion, is one of America’s finest.

My Favorite Albums of 2009 5-1

I know we’re a few days in already, but I have a couple New Year’s resolutions I’d like to share with you, both of which pertain to language you find in abundance on the internet. The words “douche” (or “douchebag” or “douchetard” or “douchefuck” or et cetera) and “hipster” are used far too much on the internet. This year, I will not use the D-word (or any of its various permutations) on this blog. At all. Ever. It’s done. Don’t worry about me coming up with alternatives, either. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding new ways to hurl invective. As for the word “hipster,” when it comes to music, everyone thinks they know what a hipster is and everyone thinks it’s not them. It’s become a completely meaningless – and therefore useless – word. I don’t use that word a lot myself, but it is hereby banished from Bollocks! in the hopes that I can inspire other people on the internet to stop using it.

So let’s get on with the continuation of my meaningless – and therefore useless (but entertaining, one hopes) – list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. Here’s the score so far:

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man, Happy Man.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!

10. Brother Ali, Us

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast

And now here’s the top 5:

5. Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, Dark Night of the Soul. I know, this album wasn’t technically released this year, but it damn well should have been. It’s still streaming on NPR’s website and the Wikipedia suggests that you can fire up your favorite torrent software and obtain a copy of the album for yourself at an exceedingly reasonable price. Sad thing is, Dark Night of the Soul is well worth the price of admission that EMI is so unwilling to charge. Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Wayne Coyne, Frank Black, and Iggy Pop (to name but a few), the album is pure beauty from start to finish. Danger Mouse has asserted himself as the preeminent collaborator of the last few years (perhaps of the decade, if you’re into that sort of declaration) and he and Mark Linkous (who collaborated on some of Sparklehorse’s underrated Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain) create gorgeous sonic landscapes upon which their friends (including David Lynch!) freely frolic. The highlights are numerous, but “The Man Who Played God” (featuring Suzanne Vega), “Insane Lullaby” (featuring the Shins’ James Mercer, who is partnering with Danger Mouse to release an album as Broken Bells later this year – I’m sure EMI will find some way to fuck it up, if at all possible), and “Star Eyes (I Can Catch It)” are my top 3. If you like music at all, find a way to hear this album, legality be damned!

4. Metric, Fantasies. I think 2009 was a pretty good year for the kind of pop music that I like to listen to. My favorite pop record of the year – no contest – is Fantasies by Metric. Emily Haines has an amazing, versatile voice and Fantasies is infused with loud guitars and pounding drums. This is the album you put on at top volume while flying down a freeway in the summer. And this is one band that understands brevity – the album is but ten tracks, but every single one is a killer. A different one gets stuck in my head on just about a daily basis, although “Sick Muse” and “Front Row” are the most frequent visitors. “Sick Muse” deserves special credit because, as the song builds to the chorus (where Haines sings “I’ll write you/ harmony in C”), it gives  me the feeling of going down a particularly awesome water slide or cannonballing into cool water from some dizzying height. That feeling is exactly the feeling you should get from pop music and it’s why Metric currently tops the list of bands I really need to see live.

3. TIE: Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next and Lucero, 1372 Overton Park. I know this is supposed to be some sort of exercise in perfectly ranking the albums I loved from last year, but there’s no escaping the fact that Modest Mouse and Lucero both made albums that I think are precisely the third best things I heard all year. No One’s First and You’re Next is technically an EP of songs recorded during sessions for Good News for People Who Like Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the songs make it clear that they weren’t omitted for a lack of quality. “Satellite Skin” and “History Sticks to Your Feet” are instant classic Modest Mouse tunes, to say nothing of “Autumn Beds” and “King Rat.” Rather than being a miniature pile of odds ‘n’ sods, No One’s First is a potent reminder of the fact (indisputable!) that Isaac Brock is a brilliant lyricist and that Modest Mouse has become a formidable musical force for awesome.

I know I haven’t reviewed Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park, but that’s because I just got it in the last month and haven’t stopped listening to it long enough to write about it. Yeah, Ben Nichols’s voice is shredded (it has been said of Tom Waits that he sounds like he gargled whiskey and broken glass. In that spirit, you could say Ben Nichols was gargling whiskey and broken glass when he accidentally swallowed), but he still tells a great story, (mostly) carries a tune, and manages to wax anthemic as fuck on album opener “Smoke.” There’s a badass horn section on nearly every song, but rather than coming off as gimmicky, the horns perfectly augment Lucero’s busted-ass country rock and aid the band in making their best album since 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings, if it’s not their best album ever. You can have your Airborne Toxic Events and your Gaslight Anthems, but neither of those bands are fit to clear the (numerous) empty bottles from Ben Nichols’s table.

2. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. If you watch the Grammys, it might be easy to forget that the word “artist” used to apply to a select group of people. On the Grammys, everyone’s an artist (for instance, Maroon 5 were named the best new artists of 2005. I’ll give you a minute if you need to go throw up), but in the really real world, the true musical artist is a dying breed. Or maybe not. Wayne Coyne, the Flamingest Lip, is a true musical artist, a guy who lives his art because it’s who he is. And in 2009, the Flaming Lips returned triumphantly with Embryonic, a spaced-out, bass-heavy, fuzzy hippie nightmare. Not nearly as experimental as Pitchfork would have you believe, Embryonic is nonetheless a powerful rock record featuring the Lips’ usual meditations on life, love, good, evil, ego, and death. And it all ends with the cosmic dance party “Watching the Planets,” the video for which features naked adults being born out of a giant vagina ball. No, really.

MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

1. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. If we learned anything last year, I think we learned that Neko Case is a goddess. Three years after releasing the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Ms. Case topped herself with Middle Cyclone. Such beauty! Such violence: “Their broken necks will line the ditch until you stop it/ stop this madness” (from “This Tornado Loves You”); “The next time you say ‘forever’/ I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say Forever”); people are “filleted” on the stairs (“Polar Nettles”), and, of course, surprised when they’re eaten by man-eaters (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”). I could discuss at length, as other have, the obvious metaphors for romance as a force of nature (sometimes beautiful, sometimes deadly), but beyond all that academic shit, what the music of Middle Cyclone is – above all else – is almost profoundly gorgeous. Of the fourteen songs here, there are probably eight that give me chills every time I hear them. Listening to the album again (for the billionth time – if I ever get sick of this record, you can stick bamboo splinters soaked in lemon juice under my fingernails), the dreamlike “Prison Girls” is the one that really has a hold on me. For a while it was “Magpie to the Morning.” And so on. Neko Case is among the best singers in music right now, bar none, and Middle Cyclone is a stunning achievement. If you haven’t heard this album, there is a hole in your life that can, I suspect, be easily filled. Also, it bears repeating that Middle Cyclone‘s cover is among the most badass things I’ve ever seen.

My 13 Favorite Albums of 2009 13-6

Well, here we are in 2010, the year we make contact. For those of you who don’t know, a new federal law went into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day: if you hear any of your fellow citizens call this year “oh-ten”, it is legal to punch them in the face exactly one time.

Having safely seen 2009 out the door, I think it’s time to start talking shit about it. Everyone loves a list, especially one that doesn’t include Animal Collective or Phoenix, so I compiled a list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. I don’t know if they’re the best albums of the year or not and I don’t care. They’re the ones I like the best and, honestly, I think that’s all anyone can say. Also, my list contains 14 albums (well, technically, 13 albums and an EP) because there was a tie. Anyway, feast yer eyes on this here list (helpfully rendered in a distinctly non-slide-show format):

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass. I’ll just assume everyone knows that Lord Cut-Glass is really former Delgado Alun Woodward. And I know that my review of this record spent a good deal of time bitching about how the Delgados ought to just reunite, come to the U.S. and play shows in the courtyard of my apartment complex. But the fact remains that Lord Cut-Glass is a really beautiful record; Woodward lilts over plucked acoustic guitars and low brass, quietly issuing some of the best melodies of his career. Highlights include “Picasso,” “Even Jesus Couldn’t Love You,” “Holy Fuck,” “A Pulse” and “Big Time Teddy.”

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man. Last year, Doughty put out an album called Golden Delicious that I liked well enough at first. And then it kinda grew off of me with a stunning quickness. Just wasn’t feeling it, I guess. However, because I love Mike Doughty, I’m always willing to listen to his stuff. This year, he put out the superb Sad Man Happy Man, which I nabbed from Amazon’s digital store for five freaking bucks (gargle my balls, I-Tunes). SMHM is driven by Doughty’s chunky guitar strumming and absurd humor, and it’s my favorite album of his since Skittish (which has to be one of the most underrated albums I’ve ever heard). It opens with one of its best moments, “Nectarine (Part Two)” and also includes the coolest prayer ever (“Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”) and “Year of the Dog,” which might be Doughty’s best tune since “Sweet Lord in Heaven.”

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz. 2009 was a great year for some of my favorite female vocalists, not least of whom is Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only did I get to delight in an affordable deluxe edition of It’s Blitz! (Amazon’s mp3 store has not yet let me down in the cheap goodies department), but I got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a kickass set at Coachella (one of the best sets I saw at that festival). The album is filled with awesome turbo-pop (starting with a pair of aces in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”) and a few pretty ballads (“Hysteric” splits the difference between the two types of song and is, in two words, fucking awesome). It’s Blitz! firmly established the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the best bands in America and their live shows will back that claim up for the doubters.

10. Brother Ali, Us. I could make a joke about how Brother Ali is the king of white rap (ha ha, because he’s an albino, ha ha), but, taking Us as exhibit A for the prosecution, it’s more accurate to place Ali near the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of skin pigment. Jay-Z has never, in my estimation, done anything to rival  “Tightrope” or “The Travelers.” To my knowledge, he’s never even tried. With Us, Ali threw down a gauntlet of new rules for the hip-hop community, chief among them: no skits and fewer songs about how badass you are (Us has ’em, but they’re matched pound for pound by songs of real substance and at least one tune wherein Ali shows gratitude for his good fortune, saying, “I’m the luckiest sonofabitch that ever lived”). Us is a truly refreshing album, and it stays fresh with every listen.

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Speaking of refreshing, Camera Obscura released one hell of an orchestral pop album last year. My Maudlin Career, despite its potentially emo-sounding name, starts and ends with a bang (“French Navy” and “Honey in the Sun”, respectively) – in between, Tracyanne Campbell drops lines like “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” and “drinking has never been the same again”, the latter from the stellar, mournful ballad “Other Towns and Cities”. My Maudlin Career is so good that I think almost anyone who likes music will like it. But some people who like music like Wavves, so I could be wrong.

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth. Killingsworth is the album that elevated Scott McCaughey from Person of Interest to Folk Hero in my estimation. It’s basically a dark country rock album, but it’s so fully realized and wittily rendered (“your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation”) that it cannot be denied. Backed by an excellent chorus of women, McCaughey sings of lurking barristers, broken love, and crowded urban apartment life (“Big Beat Up Moon”) with a drunken weariness that is deeply appealing to young curmudgeons like myself. He also takes the time to satirize fundamentalist Christianity on “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, a song that never fails to but a big smile on my face.

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another. I have said many times that, all appearances to the contrary, I like more music than I dislike. A small subsection of music that I like is nasty, noisy stuff that almost no one else I know likes. Titus Andronicus comes to mind here, as does the Future of the Left, whose Travels with Myself and Another beat its way into my skull and won my heart last year with its pounding drums and Andy Falkous’s snarling vocals. Subjects range from girls who get off on hitting people (“Chin Music” will only be appropriate at a very small number of weddings:  “I only hit him ’cause he made me crazy/ I only hit him ’cause he made me mad/ she only hit him ’cause it gets her wet/ yeah, she’s one of a kind/ she’s got chin music”) to the practical concerns of Satanism (“You Need Satan More than He Needs You”). Travels with Myself and Another pretty much kicks ass, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the humorless.

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. I guess #7 and #6 on my list are a study in contrast. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is an understated, mellow, and completely lovely work – his finest to date, if I may be so bold. It blends Bird’s myriad musical talents (no one on earth – no one – can whistle like this motherfucker) into quirky pop (“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”), old school folk (“Effigy,” which is nothing short of stunning), and whatever you’d classify “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” as. Some of the songs have unique movements, but they never seem to wander, even on the seven minute “Souverian.” Bird is a musician’s musician, a guy you can study as well as enjoy, and Noble Beast is the textbook for aspiring musical ninjas.

I know. It’s taken me four days into the new year to even start counting down my favorite albums of the old year and now I’m doing it in two parts. Pitchfork took a week to do their list and they still fucked it up, so maybe it’s better that I’m taking my time. I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse every choice I’ve made so far. Tune in tomorrow or Wednesday for albums 5 through 1, which are bound to include demure rodents, plenty of references to whiskey, a rant about shitty record labels, the best pop album of the year, the word vagina, and plenty of weather.