Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Playlist of the Week: The Hold Steady--A 12 Step Program

Raise your glass.  Raise your fist.  Raise hell.  Amen.

The first time I heard The Hold Steady, I nearly shed a tear.  Okay, maybe I actually did shed a tear.  I don't really know what it was.  I mean, 2006 had been a tough year that had followed another tough year.  "Boys and girls in America--they have such a sad time together."  Some things are just the straw that broke the camel's back, ya know?  And some things are the spark that set the fire.  I suppose The Hold Steady are sorta both to me.

Minneapolis' (even though they're living in Brooklyn like every other damned band these days) The Hold Steady rock.  They roll.  They sing anthems.  They sing stories.  There are recurring characters and places in their songs that you don't know but have known all your sorry-assed life.  They are the dealers, the waiters, waitresses, bartenders, skeezy friends who crashed on your couch, girls you were ashamed of but kept calling--they are the most relevant of all the irrelevant characters in your life who you're done with but are not done with you.  The music reminds you of why you're still going out, still boozing hard, still hanging out with the wrong crowd even though it's killing you.  And yet somehow, it's all about how all that misery and pain and distraction and short-sightedness is the most beautiful fucking part of life.  This is rock music that bleeds and sweats and pushes.  What "got" me and still "gets" to me about The Hold Steady is the passion of the music.  Whereas so much lyrical work sounds like another disconnected third person narrative, every snarling word of front man Craig Finn has you believing he has lived and continues to live these words.  Yeah, it's heartbreak and redemption and so much of what rock is about.  But The Hold Steady carry a sincerity that's extremely rare.

This week's playlist was hard to whittle down to only twelve songs.  They have four excellent records you can read more about and I strongly encourage you to check them out.  The playlist includes tracks from all four of these albums, including a live combined version of "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" and "Killer Parties".  The Hold Steady are, without question, a band whose live act matches the power of their studio recordings.  This final live track on the playlist is just a taste of it and I think you need to get your lame ass out to see them if you can!   My favorite of their studio albums is still the nearly perfect Boys and Girls in America--a gorgeous collection of Born to Run-esque anthems that tell stories that hit closer to home regarding times in my life I don't always care to confront.  The album was my first tear-jerking exposure to the rock 'n' roll brilliance of The Hold Steady and I'd say it's a great place to start if you're interested.  So if you are looking for a little bit of rock power salvation, visit the Church of The Hold Steady.  You'll walk away feeling reborn.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Playlist of the Week: Joy Division--A 12 Step Program

How much do they look like an indie rock band of today?  How much do the bands of today look like them?  How many owe them?

I've always found it somewhat odd--yet strangely appropriate--that nearly every picture of Joy Division you ever find is in black and white.  Seriously, do a Google image search of Joy Division and check.  Here.  I mean, it's not like this was a band from the '50s.  The band was born in 1977 and was done by 1980.  I expect to see Buddy Holly and British Invasion-era Beatles and Rolling Stones in black and white.  But by the late 70's everything was in color--arguably too much so.

And maybe that's where the "strangely appropriate" part comes in.  There is something distinctly black, white, and gray about Joy Division--from their image, to their roots (Machester, England), to their sound.  Whereas a Daft Punk or a Flaming Lips or a Yeasayer or a Vampire Weekend or even a Lady Gaga evokes a sonic mental pallet of Skittles storm-inducing colors, Joy Division embraced black and white and gray.  But they did so while squeezing every bit of dark, emotional power out of those colors.  Set against the contrasting American backdrop of disco cliche and raw punk rock angst, Joy Division were pioneers of post-punk in Britain.  Punk rock energy turned inward with added layers and complexity--all while never losing the raw power that makes punk rock great.

The legendary, albeit tragic story of Joy Division has been told countless times.  The band was around long enough to complete several brilliant singles and two groundbreaking albums--1979's Unknown Pleasures (which still has my favorite album cover of all time) and 1980's Closer--a tortured, eloquent, and striking farewell to the world by young lead singer and songwriter Ian Curtis.  Two posthumus albums exist that are extremely relevant--1981's Still (which contains a haunting--if ultimately poorly documented--recording of their final concert as well as a handful of their more hard to find singles) and 1988's absolutely essential Substance which collects some of Joy Division's best work that didn't make it on to either of their two proper albums (including classics like "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "Dead Souls" and "No Love Lost" to name a few).

Ian Curtis counted Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie as major influences (which with repeated listens become apparent to varying degrees in his work) though he probably never have imagined how far reaching his work would be.  Though his was a tortured, ill-fated soul like Morrison's, his natural ability, ambition, and raw power far exceeded The Doors frontman, in my opinion.  The lasting legacy of Joy Division is in some ways impossible to quantify--due both to their obvious influence on so many bands coupled with the relative brevity of their career and output. Their sound and style was truly before its time and laid the foundation for bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and more contemporary artists like Interpol, The Horrors, and The National to name just a few.   As a fan who only discovered them a few years ago, I can only relate the power found in their music and will not attempt to create another tired, academic analysis of their legacy.  I only know that for me, they're the kind of band that sounds tremendous on vinyl, at night, with all the lights turned out and a drink in hand.  The music simultaneously haunts and thrills, poetically stimulates and rocks.  There are some bands out there that for all of you are the "beginning"--the top of a family tree of influence for so much of what you listen to.  Joy Division almost surely wear that mantle--even if it was unwanted and unexpected by them some three decades ago.

So in lieu of so many of you newcomers attempting to digest all this work at once, this week's playlist is my favorite dozen Joy Division songs to get you started.  The accompanying audio playlist contains samples from their two proper albums as well as their recently released "best of" compilation.  Enjoy these previously unknown pleasures.  Yeah, I know that wasn't clever.  Don't care.  Do it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Sunday Record: "Parklife" by Blur

Vicious racing dogs have no relation to rock as far as I know, but do make a hell of an album cover.

Album: Parklife
Artist: Blur
Year of Release: 1994

I've sometimes had the very un-American sounding, non-troop/bald eagle supporting view that while our country invented rock music, the British have perfected it and are historically just better at it than we are.  You could even take away the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and I'd still just ask you to look at the 1970's alone.  Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, The Who, David Bowie, Queen, Elton John, The Clash, etc.  So much of what we consider to be the foundation for what we listen to today has been forged by those damned awesome Brits--probably in the same way that Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Elvis Presley did for many of them.  Americans laid the foundation.  The British built the gigantic skyscraper on top of it.

Now of course this isn't to say there isn't great American music.  The British just appear to have a body of work that's hard--if not impossible to match--when it comes to rock 'n' roll.  We still have them on soul and R&B and pop music in general, but I digress.  While Nirvana's Nevermind forged a huge shift in my little music brain in the early 90's and Radiohead's first couple of albums were really great (and much more appreciated by me now than they were then), it was Blur's Parklife that started my love affair with British music.

Parklife is a stylish, complex, and always entertaining mix of rock and disco and synth pop and probably more influences than I can even describe fifteen years on.  But the one pervasive element of this album that made it so different for me was that it was BRITISH, through and through.  It has been written ad nauseam about how Blur frontman Damon Albarn wrote the songs contained herein with the specific intention of focusing on the British way of life.  But for a young teenage American whose entire exposure to British music up to that point had been to bands that I either didn't know where British or didn't think sounded any different than an American artist, Parklife was a jolt to my system.  Blur sound British.  They talk about their life in their country without the slightest hint that their stories could be more interesting if told in an American setting (a la many Rolling Stones tunes).  In fact, they openly mocked the "American stepchild" complex that many Brits at that time had in the hilarious "Magic America".  The songs on the album range from classically dance-driven ("Boys and Girls") to absurdly funny ("Parklife") to heartbreakingly beautiful ("Badhead" and "This is a Low").  Parklife is a collection of genres, ideas, and emotions collected in a manner that reflected an entirely new point of view at the time for many of my age who had never really conceived of life standing on another country's soil.  And while I assign importance and nostalgia to this album for a variety of reasons, what truly makes Parklife great is how enjoyable and catchy it is on top of all that.  Take a flier and get in touch with your inner pop rock BBC.

The Non-Rob Review: All Music Guide