Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

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The (Siamese) Dream of the 90s is Alive and Well in the Joy Formidable

If you’re around my age, you were probably in or nearly in or just barely out of junior high when Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream. I still remember the way it felt listening to that band tear into “Cherub Rock” (easily among the best opening tracks of the 1990s) – it was a grandiose, endearingly pretentious song which was totally okay because I was a grandiose, possibly not-endearingly pretentious teenager. I still love Siamese Dream, even if it was probably a symptom of the egotistical excess that would later lead Billy Corgan completely over the edge into Batshit Crazytown.

Siamese Dream is on my mind at the moment because The Big Roar, the debut album by Welsh trio The Joy Formidable, reminds me so much of it. It’s a Big Rock Record at a time when Big Rock Records honestly aren’t that good. When I think of “Big Rock” nowadays, I think of Nickelback and have the sudden desire to stick pins in my ears. But The Big Roar (let me just say this about that title, by the way: to me, it strikes exactly the right balance of audacity and pretension) desperately wants – nay, it longs – to be a Big Rock Record in the way that Siamese Dream wanted to be a Big Rock Record (which is kind of the way Ten wanted to be a Big Rock Record and an Indie Grunge Record).

Given the scope of its ambition, The Big Roar is inevitably flawed. Album opener “The Ever-Changing Spectrum of a Lie” is probably four minutes too long and stuffed with so much stuff that you almost come away thinking that The Joy Formidable were worried they wouldn’t get to record another song and, in a simultaneous fit of pique and bravado, they just put every musical idea ever into seven minutes and forty-four seconds. The song itself has some great melodic moments and foreshadows an album full of a whole lot more noise than you might think three people could make. They only really overindulge like “The Ever-Changing Spectrum of a Lie” a couple more times on the album (at the end of the otherwise sublime “Whirring,” the instrumental meandering becomes almost hilarious), which is why I find myself consistently willing to forgive The Big Roar for its worst behavior.

Before we go much further, I feel like I should point out that I kind of love pretentious bands, so long as they’re the right kind of pretentious. I realize that seems like an arbitrary distinction, but bear with me a minute and I’ll see if I can clarify it a little. For me, the bad kind of pretentious is “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance. The song, apart from being a blatant Queen pastiche, tries to create a false sense of sorrow so that it can then anoint itself the anthem that helps the listener transcend said fictional sorrow. On the other hand, I think Yo La Tengo is a good kind of pretentious. Yes, some of their songs are indulgent (some are even awful; more than one of my friends has dismissed Yo La Tengo as “indie for indie’s sake,” a charge I can’t entirely dismiss), but they have a broad musical knowledge that they have channeled into a varied and often beautiful musical oeuvre. Bands that are the good kind of pretentious are bound to fail at times, but their good moments are often fucking brilliant (I guess the Flaming Lips are also a good pretentious band).

The good moments on The Big Roar are great – “Whirring” (its end notwithstanding), “I Don’t Want to See You Like This,” and closer “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” are worth the price of admission on their own. And even the bad moments are more unnecessary than outright awful (like “Maruyama”), thanks largely to Ritzy Bryan’s zealous delivery of every line she sings. The Big Roar doesn’t just remind me of Siamese Dream because of its pretension – the sonics on this album are straight out of 1994 and I mean that in the best possible way. The vocal melodies are strong (a less forgiving critic might say “un-fucking-subtle,” but one critic’s crippling lack of subtlety is another critic’s favorite Bikini Kill record), the guitars are pretty much always distorted and generously slathered over every single song, and the drums are straight out of the Big Rock Drummer Handbook (originally written by John Bonham and then edited in later editions by Dave Grohl. For drummers of a slightly different bent, the Kickass Punk Drummer Handbook was begun by Topper Headon in the late 70s. Heroin addiction prevented him from finishing the tome so Tobi Vail and Janet Weiss completed it with authority in the 1990s. Further revision has not been required). The Joy Formidable’s sound is built to fill stadiums and I have no doubt that it will in the very near future.

So you might have guessed by now that there isn’t much original about The Joy Formidable, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. A guy fucking a microphone while shitting in a bass drum and shouting random words in a made-up language would be an original album for sure, but it almost definitely (almost – we must keep open minds here) would not be good. Plenty of good bands work within familiar tropes (the Grammy-winning Black Keys, anyone?) and I think it’s enough that The Joy Formidable does a lot to redeem the idea of arena rock.

One of my biggest problems (and I have many) with Big Rock Records is that not very many of them feature strong female vocalists (don’t say Evanescence, okay? Just don’t). The Joy Formidable has Ritzy Bryan, who is not only a great singer but also a talented guitar player (there’s nothing too flashy about her playing, but there’s some incredible textures on The Big Roar); she’s almost like a Big Rock Marissa Paternoster. I’m not saying, by the way, that the Screaming Females’ sound couldn’t fill stadiums. But I think their stuff is actually better for tearing stadiums down.

For the most part, The Joy Formidable manages to make a heady elixir out of audacity, pretension, and good, old-fashioned volume. The Big Roar is by no means a perfect album – the song titles (“Llaw = Wall,” “The Ever-Changing Spectrum of a Lie,” and so on) stretch the boundaries of tolerable pretension – but I think people who have any fond memories of 1990s alternative rock radio (I grew up with Portland’s 94.7 FM and they might be the only radio station I listen to when I make my return to the gorgeous, soggy northwest) will find a lot to love here.

Cee Lo Green and the Futile Attempt to Protect Kids from Words They Already Know

Let’s face it: the only reason you’re scanning this review is to find out if I think that Cee Lo Green’s The Ladykiller album is as good as its deliciously naughty lead single, “Fuck You.” The only question the album really has to answer is whether or not it can reach the admittedly high bar that “Fuck You” set for it. So if you’re in a hurry, the short answer is yes, The Ladykiller has plenty of non-“Fuck You” delights to offer, although none of the other songs are as overwhelmingly awesome (they range from “merely good” to “really awesome”) . The Ladykiller is a spectacular pop album and Cee Lo is a gifted vocalist, despite – nay, because of – the fact that he sounds like some sort of Muppet from the future. Put it this way: if more pop music sounded like The Ladykiller, I would listen to more pop music.

So here’s what I wanna talk about with regards to The Ladykiller: I want to talk about the total public neutering of “Fuck You” as a single. Cee Lo smartly released it on the internet first, where people won’t recoil in horror at every little utterance of the F-word. The hype that justifiably built up behind the song led to the radio wanting to play it but, like the radio is wont to do, it had to suck out all the fun parts first. “Fuck You” had to become “Forget You” for the radio and, if you have the self-loathing required to actually watch the Grammys, you will more than likely see it performed as “Forget You” during that show as well.

Is “Forget You” really so much worse than “Fuck You” as a song? Unequivocally yes! And that’s because the magic of “Fuck You” isn’t all in the dirty word itself – it’s in the fact that Cee Lo crafted one helluva catchy pop/soul melody and juxtaposed it with a wonderfully visceral word in an undeniably bouncy, upbeat song. “Forget You” doesn’t have the same punch, and this should make intuitive sense – most of us would rather fuck than forget, wouldn’t we? Changing the word changed the meaning – “fuck you” is an aggressive, active phrase. “Forget you” is almost petulant and passive-aggressive. You don’t tell off your ex by saying “Forget you!” unless you have some kind of humiliation fetish, in which case it might be prudent to wet yourself as you’re saying, “forget you” in order to get the full effect.

I know some people are gonna start stammering, “B-b-but… the children.” Well, as George Carlin once said, “Fuck the children!” (I’m actually, suddenly, not one hundred percent sure George actually ever said this, but it seems like something he would say, doesn’t it?) Seriously, though, if your kids go to public school and listen to top 40 radio or have ever been within one hundred feet of the internet, they know what the word “fuck” is. Censoring Cee Lo Green isn’t gonna keep your little monsters from learning the dirty word he’s saying. In fact, if hiding bad words from kids worked, shouldn’t there be some 19-year-olds out there who don’t know how to cuss? I’m guessing hiding foul language from kids is about as effective as abstinence pledges.

Here’s something we’ve never, to my knowledge, tried in this country: instead of hiding words from kids, let’s maybe explain to them why those words aren’t often appropriate to use. The counterargument I’ve heard to this is that it can be really tiring explaining stuff to children and they might not get it and blah blah blah. That’s weak tea, friends. If you think it’s tiring explaining to a kid why they shouldn’t say “fuck,” maybe you shouldn’t have had a kid in the first place. Last I checked (and I have an ever-increasing number of reliable sources on this subject), having kids is fucking exhausting. That’s literally what it is. If you can’t handle that, you better take the right precautions the next time you’re forgetting your mate.

And anyway, how hard can it be to explain to a kid that they shouldn’t swear? “Look, Junior, there are certain words that pack a certain kind of punch and if you use ’em too often, they lose their power. They’re like power-ups in a video game – you wanna save ’em for when you really need to use ’em. And the good news is, when you’re a kid, you never need to use those words. Trust me, when you’re an adult, the world will give you all kinds of reasons to use those words over and over again until you’re kind of ashamed of how frequently you use them. But now, when you’re a kid, you don’t need those words. So if I catch you using them, you can’t go to the Miley Cyrus concert.” Parents, that’s a dynamite explanation and as my little holiday gift to you, I’ll let you use it the next time your kid gets in trouble for telling the school lunch lady to go fuck herself.

Frankly, if I ever have a kid, my goal will be to teach them not to misuse any language, whether it’s curse words or just your standard, every day communication. I would rather hear a kid say “fuck” than “drownded” any day of the week (and if you’re an adult and you say “drownded”, it should be legal to drown you). It’s sad, at least to me, that people in this country don’t teach their kids to grasp nuance. Kids who aren’t taught to handle nuance turn into adults who can’t handle it either. Look at the goddamn Tea Party and tell me I’m wrong. Is it such a stretch to raise your kids to be intelligent, reasoning beings from day one? And if it is, maybe we should just throw in the towel as a species. We had a good(ish) run.

And while I’m bitching about meaningless attempts to shield people from language, can we abandon the use of stupid substitute characters in our printed swear words? Who in their right mind sees “f**k” and thinks it’s anything but “fuck”? The asterisks very clearly imply that “fuck” is the intended word but somehow everyone acts like it’s okay because we don’t see the “u” and the “c”. And who decided that the “u” and the “c” are the offending letters in the word “fuck” anyway? And does that mean that you can hide the word “cunt” simply by printing it “**nt”? I had no idea that “u” and “c” were such offensive letters. Maybe it’s only when they appear right next to each other.

I know I’ve spent this whole time swearing about swearing, but trust me: The Ladykiller is worth listening to for more than just its most notorious song. It might even be the best pop album of the year, if you care about such (Oops. I mean “s**h”) things. In fact, if I could, I’d make a sticker to place on every copy of The Ladykiller at my local Target and that sticker would read: “The best fucking pop album of 2010.”

LCD Soundsystem’s Finest Hour

If, well, pretty much every internet music news source (reliable or not) is to be believed, James Murphy is pulling the plug on his band, LCD Soundsystem, at the end of this year. Which is basically four weeks from right now. While I’ve read that Murphy may still continue doing music, it’s still a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, LCD Soundsystem released three pretty excellent albums, one of which contains one of the best songs of the 21st century so far – in other words, the world needs LCD Soundsystem’s music, or music very much like it. On the other hand, Murphy is disbanding LCD Soundsystem at the height of their powers. If he makes good on his promise, there will be no disappointing falloff in the quality of LCD albums and they will always be rightly remembered as an amazing early 21st century band that was better than all of their peers at making rock music dance-able and/or dance music rock-able, depending on where you’re coming from.

So I thought it might be nice to send James Murphy and friends off with a proper salute: I’ve compiled a list of some great LCD Soundsystem songs totaling sixty minutes of listening bliss. It’s LCD Soundsystem’s Finest Hour, in no particular order. Read on:

“Daft Punk is Playing At My House.” Any discussion of this band is apt to include this song, which opens LCD’s eponymous debut album. This might still be LCD Soundsystem’s biggest hit and, though it’s not their best song, it’s still fucking awesome. James Murphy might be the only white guy who can pull off the “ow-ow” that he so jubilantly yelps at the outset of this tune.

“No Love Lost.” This Joy Division cover appears on a split tour single LCD Soundsystem did with the Arcade Fire. I saw them for the first time on this tour. At the Hollywood Bowl. While you’re busy envying me (I also have a hot wife, if that stokes the fires of your jealousy), I just want to point out that this version of “No Love Lost” is why James Murphy is one of only two people who should be legally allowed to cover Joy Division (the other is Trent Reznor, which may seem kind of obvious. But Nine Inch Nails’ version of “Dead Souls” is badass).

“North American Scum.” The first single from Sound of Silver, “North American Scum” was the 2007 party anthem for people who felt like they had to apologize for the lameness of their nation when traveling abroad (so, “Americans”). In further testament to LCD’s awesomeness, the video for this song features an awesome magic laser fight on the fucking moon. What else do you need to know?

“All My Friends.” This is the song I was talking about earlier when I said LCD Soundsystem wrote one of the best songs of the 21st century so far. This song, also from Sound of Silver, is perfect pop and it makes a superb soundtrack to all your best memories, assuming, of course, that you have friends (sorry, Dick Cheney).

“Disco Infiltrator.” Murphy has always been able to get away with being a bit ridiculous in his songs, mostly because the music still sounds good.  Case in point: “Disco Infiltrator,” from LCD Soundsystem.

“You Wanted a Hit.” Murphy thumbs his nose at the record industry, his fans, and himself, taking us past the nine minute mark before we even know what’s hit us. LCD Soundsystem had a special gift for creating long songs that didn’t piss me off. This song, from this year’s This Is Happening, is easily the best nine minute track of the year. In fact, This Is Happening probably contains the only good nine minute songs of the year.

“Movement.” LCD Soundsystem does punk. “It’s a like a culture without the effort of all of the culture,” Murphy sneers before working himself up to a shout on “You’re pillaging and I’m tapped.” One of my favorite LCD tunes, from their first record.

“Someone Great.” James Murphy does his best 80s Bowie on this track from Sound of Silver, a great tune about loss and the passage of time. What we’re losing with the end of LCD Soundsystem is a band that seamlessly blurred the lines between pop, dance, and rock.

“All I Want.” Another This Is Happening cut, the one that apes the e-bowed guitar part from David Bowie’s “Heroes.” I read a snarky review of This Is Happening that mislabeled this as “slide guitar.” But it’s an e-bow, the same as was used on Bowie’s tune. To quote DOOM, “If you’re gonna hate/ might at least get your facts straight.” Anyway, the Bowie homage isn’t really the meat of the song; “All I Want” perfectly captures the contradictory behavior people can get up to in relationships. Murphy sings  about coming home to “the girl who has put up with all of your shit” and then sings, “All I want is your pity/ all I want/ is your bitter tears.” The song’s a bit of a cry for help, but it’s an awesome one.

“The Great Release” officially closes LCD Soundsystem (there’s a bonus disc with some other great tracks, including “Losing My Edge,” which some people would argue should be included in my little list here. It’s a good song and, if I were going over sixty minutes with this list, I would include it) and it’s a very slow building song that ambles toward a climax on the line, “Something dying/ will be a great release.” This song also happens to be, in my estimation, the most unabashedly beautiful song in the LCD Soundsystem canon. I’ve heard that, if you live a good life, as  you die and go toward the light or whatever, you hear “The Great Release.” That may not be true, but that’s what I heard.

So that’s an hour’s worth of my favorite LCD Soundsystem tunes, although you’d be hard pressed to find bad tracks on any of their three albums. As I said before, LCD Soundsystem is stopping in their prime. If you have a minute on New Year’s Eve this year, maybe use it to raise your glass to James Murphy and his excellent band – I hope more than anything that, whatever he does next, Murphy tackles it with the humor and intelligence he brought to LCD Soundsystem. So long, Mr. Murphy, and thanks for all the fish the great music!

“Fifty Percent Dumb and Fifty Percent Lofty Pretension”

Was it really only a year ago that the Manic Street Preachers released Journal for Plague Lovers? Damn. Time flies. That was the first Manic Street Preachers album I’d ever heard and it walked such a fine line between hair metal, punk, and pop, that I just  had to love it. The album featured some of the last lyrics Richey Edwards (vanished in 1995, presumed dead in 2008) ever wrote, which left some critics to wonder where James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore would go next.

Probably nobody predicted that they’d make the best Queen album recorded since Freddie Mercury’s death. But that is indeed what Postcards from a Young Man is – like its predecessor (and a lot of their music, from what I’ve heard), the new Manic Street Preachers record dances gingerly along the fine line between Awesome in a 1970s Way and Shitty in an 1980s Way. That’s due in part to the lyrics – even when they’re backed by a gospel choir, they replace “Don’t Stop Me Now” with the more defiant (and, maybe, a little more butch) “This world will not impose its will on us.”  You also have to credit the Manic Street Preachers for the wonderful way they embody the first word of their name. They rock out so unabashedly that it’s hard to dismiss them, even when they’re tag-teaming you with a gospel choir and an orchestra. Or, as singer/guitarist Bradfield (one of the finest vocalists in rock at the moment) puts it, “We’re at our best when we’re fifty percent dumb and fifty percent lofty pretension.” Young musicians, pay attention: that’s a good formula for awesome rock music.

Somehow, the dumb pretension of having an orchestra on nearly every track and a gospel choir on a fistful of them (plus a duet! It would be more fitting if the duet was with Elton John, but it’s with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch) is balanced perfectly with the soaring melodies that made Journal For Plague Lovers so catchy. By embracing all the stuff that usually signifies bloated creative stagnation in a rock band, the Manic Street Preachers have made a record that is almost certainly calculated to dominate rock radio; the miracle is that it pretty much deserves to do so. It’s certainly the poppiest Manics record I’ve heard (I’m no expert, though. I’ve only got the three albums: The Holy Bible, Journal for Plague Lovers, and Postcards from a Young Man) and even its dark lyrical moments (which are many – they’re still the Manic Street Preachers) are presented over a glam rock sheen. It’s a very positive record too, despite songs about death (“Some Kind of Nothingness”, according to the band, is about “the importance of grief” but it’s hard for me not to hear it as a farewell to Richey Edwards), disillusionment with one’s chosen political party (“Golden Platitudes,” which was written about New Labour in the U.K. but could also serve American Democrats who are ashamed of their party for, say, totally wussing out over closing Guantanamo), and permanent wage slavery (“Auto-Intoxication”).

Given a song like the fucking incredible “All We Make is Entertainment”, it might be easy to assume the string arrangements and gospel choirs are an ironic comment on rock ‘n’ roll excess. But that assumption would misread the entire, beautiful mission of the Manic Street Preachers. They mean everything they say. Everything. Even if – no, especially if – they contradict themselves. Some people want to immediately dismiss a person who contradicts him-or-herself, but I think that’s a dishonest move. People are contradictory creatures – I hate pretty much everything about commercial cattle farms but I love cheeseburgers. On “Hazelton Avenue,” the Manic Street Preachers imagine (and furtively embrace) a consumerist Heaven. What’s so great about that? Record stores. Book stores. Pubs. You can be as anti-corporate and “fuck-the-man” as you want, but if you’ve ever purchased…um…anything, you’ve bought into the system (unless you’ve never ever even remotely enjoyed anything you’ve purchased, in which case you’re a fucking liar). That doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) oppose its worst habits. Every time you drive on a highway or check a book out from the library, you’re benefiting from government – but that doesn’t mean you should let the TSA grab your genitals just so you can fly home for the holidays. The Manics spend a lot of time contradicting and explicitly condemning (see “Don’t Be Evil” for examples of this) the position they take on “Hazelton Avenue” and it’s not because of some rhetorical weakness – it’s because they both love record shops and hate consumer culture in general. The Clash contradicted themselves constantly, but that doesn’t invalidate a single word they wrote (and I would argue that Joe Strummer worked very hard not to contradict his edict that “punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.” I’m not saying the dude was perfect – no one is – but he seemed to bust his ass to be a good person, and that matters a whole lot more to me than… well, just about anything else). I guess what I’m really saying is that if you try to actually say something with your art, you run a greater risk of contradicting yourself because substance is a fickle mistress. But the alternative is on American Idol every season and if you’re anything approaching a loyal Bollocks! reader, I think it’s safe to assume you’ll join me in saying, “Fuck that noise.”

Lyrical content aside (I realize that lyrics are more important to me than they are to other people – I’ve been accused of liking them more than I like melody but that’s the sort of untrue thing you can’t ever disprove to people once they’ve made up their mind about you), Postcards from a Young Man is still impressive. The fact that the orchestral arrangements mostly compliment (as opposed to “overpower”) the songs is no mean feat – the cellos that open “Hazelton Avenue” actually rock, which is something that cellos, fine instruments that they are, don’t get to do much. The strings don’t feel all that indulgent (The choir does though. Any time you have a gospel choir in a rock song it is indulgent. However, this does not exclude it from being awesome) and there’s still plenty of the fiery guitars and pounding drums you expect from the Manic Street Preachers. It’s just that, this time, they went with about seventy percent “lofty pretension” and still came up with some kickass tunes.

 

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>