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.

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.

Sad Man Happy Man Makes Me a Happy Man

Here’s what I’ve decided (just now): everyone gets to pick one strummy-hummy acousti-troubadour to like for free. You don’t have to justify it to anyone (not that you have to justify what you like to anyone anyway), you can pick any one you want – and we all know the kinda guys I’m talking about here. Anyway, you pick your guy and then you root like hell for that guy until he’s the last guy standing in the coffee house (you can also root for a female acousti-troubadour, but they seem harder to come by. I think the equivalent is the twenty-something street corner chanteuse). You buy his albums, go to his shows, and basically support the dude with your whole heart. Share his music with others, but don’t be a missionary prick about it – if people don’t like your guy, that’s their business and their right. They’re probably just rooting for a different guy.

I chose Mike Doughty a long time ago. Like the first time I heard Skittish. I think Doughty is the best at what he used to call “small rock” (although he upgraded to “medium rock” around the time he made Haughty Melodic, I still like describing his stuff as “small rock.” If you are Mike Doughty and you’re reading this, I’ll buy you a beer next time you’re in Los Angeles, and we can discuss) because, as he showed on Skittish, he has an earnestness about him that dovetails nicely with his innate weirdness and produces more interesting small rock than that of, for example, Jason Mraz (yeah, I’m gonna pick on Jason Mraz. You know why? The thing I hear underlying every Jason Mraz song I’ve ever heard – and I’ve sat through more than one of his albums – is a sense that Jason Mraz thinks that Jason Mraz is really fucking clever and he needs you to know that he knows he’s clever. And he’s not. He’s insipid. Sorry, Mraz, but I’m definitely not yours).

Two albums separate Skittish from Doughty’s brand spanking new Sad Man Happy Man and the early buzz is that Sad Man Happy Man is some kind of long overdue trip back to the Skittish well. I guess I can see that, but I’m not one of these people who has been sweating every Doughty release since Skittish waiting for another “Sweet Lord in Heaven” (although that will forever remain my favorite Doughty tune. It’s just too fucking beautiful). I liked Haughty Melodic a lot; I didn’t like Golden Delicious a lot, but I gave Doughty a pass on that one because I want him to keep making music and, as I said, he’s my guy. I’m rooting for him. I figure that I’ll love about 90% of his stuff and Sad Man Happy Man probably bumps that up to 96% (it’s a complicated formula I used to determine that Golden Delicious is equal to precisely four percent of Mike Doughty’s solo output and I won’t bore you with the details. Just trust that the numbers don’t lie).  It’s really awesome, really basic, and occasionally silly – everything I want a Doughty album to be.

I often get the feeling that Doughty records all his stuff in a small apartment, and the cover of Sad Man Happy Man does nothing to convince me otherwise. It suits the feel of the album, which opens with the Doughty-folkish “Nectarine (Part Two)”, a great little ditty that should hopefully shut up the “Make another Skittish” crowd. The truth of the matter is that Sad Man Happy Man synthesizes all the stuff Doughty’s done right since Skittish with the brevity-is-the-soul-of-awesome aesthetic that dominated that record. There are drums and weird cello bits on many of the songs and Doughty even gets his scream on at the end of “Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”, which is something I’ve never heard him do before.

Doughty has always been one of the best phrase makers in music and he’s not lacking in that department here: on “Lorna Zauberberg”, he says, “At breakfast, we get by on charm alone.” Later, he has a girl who “treats me like a parole officer” (“I Want to Burn You Down”) and later points out that “time tells butter-fat lies/ sweet lousy cupcakes of lies.” (“Year of the Dog”). Butter fat lies, I surmise, are like normal lies but they give you heart attacks. The other thing I love about Mike Doughty is the way he plays freely and fearlessly with word pronunciation and vowel sounds – his prowess here is best exemplified on “Pleasure On Credit” (where he pronounces “persuasion” to rhyme with “smart girl/ not the crazy one”), “Diane” (where the name that is the chorus sometimes sounds like “Diane” and sometimes sounds like “dyin'”) and “(He’s Got the) Whole World (in His Hands)”.

“Pleasure On Credit” (also features “John Paul Jones/ bustlin’ the hedges”) and “Whole World” (Sorry, Mr. Doughty – I already overuse parentheses on this blog and I can’t have you cramping my style) are two great examples of something that I will only let Mike Doughty get away with: half-assed speak/rapping. It’s too rhythmic to be simply talking but also not facile enough to rival, say, Atmosphere. Doughty has done this off and on since back in his Soul Coughing days and I guess I have to chalk it up to how much I like the wordplay because I know if, say, Jack Johnson did it, I’d fucking hate him (more).

Of course “Pleasure” and “Whole World” are a couple bits of comic relief on an album that has plenty of beauty to offer. “Year of the Dog” is one of Doughty’s finest moments, and “Diane” is also a steaming hot cup of lovely. I don’t know if Sad Man Happy Man will win Doughty any new fans because I feel like you either like him immediately when you hear him or you’re not going to like him. His style is singular and won’t appeal to the broadest audience, but that’s part of his charm (to me, anyway). Doughty is a treasure that will be found and adored by a lucky few and I’m just happy to be one of ’em.