White Reaper’s The World’s Greatest American Band is Not Just a Clever Title

You’d think that a band that titled their album The World’s Greatest American Band may be getting ahead of themselves. But not every band is White Reaper. They might have just done it.

The second album from the Louisville, Kentucky natives somehow takes elements of ear-pleasing 70’s hard rock a-la Van Halen and a very coked-up Aerosmith, but imbues a punk immediacy that basically says ‘we can’t fuck with these theatrics if we can’t get out of this jam in 3 minutes or less’ – only two songs pass four minutes – one of those just barely does it.

The album’s best song is “Judy French,” a simple love song full of compressed guitars and keyboards that dance together with vocalist/guitarist Tony Esposito’s wild wail. Just as it sounds like the main riff is about to end, another grows in its place like some sonic hydra before launching into a blistering solo. It is one of 2017’s best songs, no matter what else is released this year.

“Little Silver Cross” slows things down a bit on a bed of synth keys, but the pace picks up quickly edging toward the chorus, as Esposito seems to almost command singing ‘too slow’ – the chorus bursts into something sounding a little euphoric – the message going from ‘too slow’ to ‘you gotta be good to yourself’. It’s a great catch your breath moment on a record with serious power riffage.

Songs like “The Stack” disarm with its glam stomp – the rhythm section on this album is VICIOUS – before it launches into some serious barroom piano shit. Sure, the lyrics indicate this is song about boys and girls in America – just like so many others on this record, but it doesn’t matter. They all just rule.

If I’m being honest, it really doesn’t matter where you start on The World’s Greatest American Band. Any point is fine, and that is not a usual recommendation. I’ve spent the past few weeks playing it start to finish, finish to start, and even shuffled it for shits and giggles. It’s a rock and roll prism that refracts its light in any direction. Sometimes the most revelatory things you come back to don’t really to teach you anything. Just like Esposito says on “Tell Me” – sometimes you just need to hear about “the mean kids crashing the bars and the good kids torching their cars”. Depth is for the birds.

The World’s Greatest American Band is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

Japandroids Return with the Right Album at the Right Time

It’s a weird feeling to be in transition: constantly thinking about where to go next, the thrill of excitement just out of reach, and possibility feeling so endless that it’s overwhelming. What do you do?

With Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids first album in almost five years, that feeling of being flux is everywhere – literally. Song titles contain words like “near” “to” and one song is simply named “North East South West”. It’s a record about growing up, moving on, and exploding the tiny moments in life that feel so much bigger in retrospect than they do in the moment.

Both 2009’s Post-Nothing and 2012’s Celebration Rock faced some criticism for sounding somewhat piecemeal in their sequencing. The latest album represents the first time the band feels like they’ve done something deliberate – and it works. As two guys from Vancouver bashing out some of the most euphoric jams that could be made two people at a time. By slowing down and looking a little more inward, they have made something that really feels like an album, as they’ve detailed in notes for the release. “Side A and side B each follow their own loose narrative. Taken together as one, they form an even looser narrative, with the final song on side B acting as an epilogue.” While they’ve succeeded, they may have done it at the cost of throwing off any fans who were expecting Celebration Rock II.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. Make no mistake, this record still has plenty of the fiery romanticism and the hooks that made the band so irresistible, but there is simple separation in the sounds to take that all in. There’s prominent synthesizers – the warped 7-minute “Arc of Bar” is a great example– and then another sound not found on previous Japandroids releases – acoustic guitar strums on the gorgeous “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”. Just these small touches alone show that the band is taking small steps to distance themselves the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums.

Like every Japandroids record, this one feels kind of like a small miracle. They are a band who feels like they’re just on the verge of disappearing at any time. They make some of the most immediate and visceral sounding rock and roll and really seem to take that role seriously. Perhaps that’s why they take long gaps between albums with nary a hint of when they’ll resurface.

In a sense, Near to the Wild Heart of Life reminds us of some truths that we all eventually face. Everything is constantly changing. Right now is the youngest you’ll ever be. Eventually, we have to all take chances if we want evolve. Sure, the album is not perfect, and some experiments don’t work. That sounds like life. It won’t bring us back to the time where we felt infinite. But when it’s over, it’s a small reminder to keep going in hope that next day will be better than the last. That in itself is a victory – at this moment in time, that is exactly what we need.

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is due out January 27, 2017 on Anti- Records, with a special early release for vinyl on January 24.

Every Song Was Right: 10 Years of Boys and Girls in America

dc69676781d3af88-holdsteadycoverToday marks the tenth anniversary of Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady. Even the casual acquaintance has heard me stump for this album pretty much any occasion I get. But it’s the most meaningful and impactful musical document I know, and quite literally changed the trajectory of my life. I went from mopey college kid to someone who found a sense of purpose and community along the way. Of course that’s not without speed bumps, but that’s a different story.

I have so many thoughts about the record itself that are best said loudly and in person, preferably while playing the songs. This is still a common practice. Simply put, it’s a marvel of rock and roll construction: “Stuck Between Stations,” is quite possibly THE best leadoff rock song in history – the opening lyrics reveal the thesis: “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right…Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.” Crashing guitars, dancing pianos, a tight-as-hell rhythm section and Craig Finn’s lyrics and BOOM, we’re in to the thick of one of the most essential albums ever.

What I loved about this record as a 20-year old has morphed over time. While I loved the songs and the lyrics that made great Facebook statuses (I’m learning this daily thanks to the ‘On This Day’ feature) it’s been so much less about the music and more about the people. That’s continued for a decade.

My college friends sort of tapered off in the months after the album’s release, so I joined the band’s message board in 2007. There, I found a bunch of like-minded individuals and families filing scene reports from all over the states and Canada, sometimes Europe, or proselytizing for bands I’d never heard of – Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, some group called the Mountain Goats. It became a place of community and education. These were lawyers, students, photographers, people with insisted on being called by their pen names instead of their real names, a lady who talked about how much she liked a group called the “Ass Ponys”, bible salesmen and self-described “rabble rousers”. I’d never met anyone like these people before. But they welcomed me in, for better or worse.

The next year, I started traveling to see the band. I’d crash in strangers hotels when our car would get locked in a garage overnight, get rained on all day in an abandoned pool and meet my best friend in the process, end up in parts of North America I’d otherwise have no business being in. Friends of friends I’d met through the band would help me move to New York. I’d forget to close my mouth more than once when throwing confetti and gambled for the first time in a casino in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. There are so many other stories, but they’re just not fit for public consumption.

I’d get to know the group, slowly, some of the members better than the others, and be able to call them friends or temporary roommates. For someone who has seen them at such an exaggerated clip, their good-naturedness and trust that I was not completely insane was always appreciated. That extends to their crew, an extremely patient bunch that went out of their way countless times to be kind to us in whatever city we were in. Eventually, we’d all work together, which still is a total dream come true.

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-8-21-11-pmAs with time, I’m grateful for all the people that have come in and out of my life. So many of these are true friends I’ve been able to lean on when things did not look that sunny. Some I’ve met in person once or twice, or not at all, but we maintain that closeness. You know who you are. Growing older along with a band and its fans doesn’t really happen a lot, especially when you’re just starting your 20’s. I know many times and for many years I was not the best version of myself. So, if you’re reading this and knowing what I’m talking about, thanks for sticking around.

Ultimately, Boys and Girls in America is the story of the people that The Hold Steady brought together through their music, who built a community and changed the lives of a lot of people. As I look back on the past ten years, I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but through the totality of the experience of just playing some songs, I’ve grown into someone that I like being. It’s given me so many people important to my everyday life, incredible experiences and stories that no one else will ever have, and mostly, a freedom to just be who I am and love what I love. When we eventually dry up and crumble into dust, hopefully it will inspire a new group of people to do the same.

On new album, The Hold Steady bare their “Teeth”

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams (Positive Jams/Washington Square)

Teeth Dreams Album CoverI thought about how to best collect my thoughts on Teeth Dreams, the sixth album by The Hold Steady, for several weeks after I first heard it. I’m intrinsically tied to the band in more ways than I can articulate, so giving anything less than my feelings surrounding this release would feel totally inauthentic. It’s probably best to start with some context.

Heaven is Whenever was the sound of transition. A lot was happening with the band in 2010. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay had left, taking with him the barroom drama that permeated their first four records. Sonically, they took many chances with instrumentation and production that took the focus away from the trademark guitar element and focused more on atmospherics. The result was admirable, but came away feeling a lot less like a Hold Steady record than anything that preceded it. Less celebration, more darkness. The scene seemed a little less sunny.

That wasn’t the only change. The album’s first tour showed the band trying out a six-piece three-guitar, bass and keys lineup. It didn’t quite gel as much as it powered through each show with sheer force. By winter, they’d pared down to a five-piece. Steve Selvidge was installed as a full time member, bringing with him guitar texturization and muscle that wasn’t present with Tad Kubler and Craig Finn’s previous interplay. Just like that, the band pivoted from ‘bar band’ to ‘guitar band’.

You wouldn’t have picked up on the change if you didn’t see them live in the interim. For many, Heaven felt like an abdication, going from one knockout record after another to something that felt less full and more like it was compensating for a missing element. Perhaps that was the case, but it could also be said it was also the product of trying to do too much in too little time in the face of major change.

But here we are four years later with Teeth Dreams. To put how long that is into context: in that time, their contemporaries Guided By Voices got back together and released five new albums while singer Robert Pollard put out SEVEN of his own. Sure, it’s an extreme example, but it’s not entirely far off. These guys made their name trying to keep up with Uncle Bob in more ways than one at some point in their career.

The album begins with the propulsive rocker, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, which quickly gives way to the shimmering “Spinners”. Here Finn sings “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off,” Full of bright guitars and a propane-fueled solo, it’s the closest thing The Hold Steady has ever written as a crossover hit.

Next up is “The Only Thing”, a slice of jangle pop infused with organ by studio musician Al Gamble that’s both a wink to their past as well as a distillation of present. It’s a dexterous move by the band, a song only accomplished by a few years away from recording, and in turn it is one of the album’s best.

Speaking of highlights, “On With The Business” comes at the album’s midpoint. Here, Finn reaches “maximum Craig”, spitting a dizzying array of lyrics (“Blood on the carpet/mud on the mattress/waking up with that American sadness”) over anxious guitars, building towards a vocal delay bit that replicates his lyrical repetition off mic at their live show. Finally, it segues into an absolutely face-melting guitar solo.

The Hold Steady in 2014Overall, the album showcases another layer of depth that was not apparent in previous Hold Steady recordings. This is for a few reasons. Producer Nick Raskulinecz, who admittedly did not know much about the band prior to recording, seemed to instinctively know how to handle the band’s lineup and play best to their strengths. The guitar duo of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge provide stunning guitar textures, while bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake (who has never sounded better) re-establish themselves as one of rock’s best rhythm sections.

While this collection of songs mostly focuses on loud, immediate rock and roll, the emotional one-two punch of “Almost Everything” and album closer “Oaks” cannot be understated. “Almost Everything” is a quiet ballad that is a sonic cousin with earlier songs like “First Night” and “Lord I’m Discouraged”. While it doesn’t crest quite like those songs, it’s just as beautiful.

There is nothing The Hold Steady has ever created like “Oaks”. Clocking in at over nine minutes, it’s a sprawling masterwork that kneads and twists through peaks and valleys, with Finn conjuring dreamlike images as the song turns the corner with a gorgeous melodic solo carrying the song through its final minutes. Kubler stated that at one point he felt that this would be the last record he’d make with Finn. If this were goodbye, it’s a hell of a way to go. While there has always been sentimentality in Hold Steady songs, this one feels like it has real stakes. It’s just heavier.

For a band that looked like they may not make another record, Teeth Dreams is an album that pulls off an impressive magic trick. It’s a return to form for a group that looked like they lost their way, while alternately showcasing who they are now. Ultimately, it’s a portrait of a band that has the gift of hindsight and the confidence to make changes when they’re most critical. We benefit from it, and they’re better for it.

Top Albums and Songs of 2013

Without further adieu, here’s my top ten favorite albums of this year (in order), and then my favorite songs of the year (in no particular order).

Top Albums of 2013:

1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

The story goes like this: Former Drive-By Trucker who regularly outshines his peers with his contributions leaves the band amidst a variety of personal issues. Spends the next few years cutting good-not-great solo records. Finally sobers up and puts out this collection of crystalline beauties that are not just a stone-cold classic this year, but in ANY year.

Check out: “Cover Me Up”, “Flying Over Water”, “Relatively Easy”

2. HAIM – Days Are Gone

Hearing “The Wire” for the first time was one of those fulcrum listens. Either it was going to be the best thing HAIM ever did, or it was just a taste of what the band was capable of.

Luckily, it was the latter – the sisters beat the hype and wrote a record of sun-kissed classics. Make no mistake, this is pure pop appropriated for an indie audience. You know that’s true. “I know, I know, I know, I know” that too.

Check out: “The Wire”, “Falling”, “Running If You Call My Name”

3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

El-P and Killer Mike took the hip-hop world by storm last year with their solo releases – El’s “Cancer For Cure” and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” (which El-P produced in its entirety). Both guested on each other’s records. Both also landed on many year-end lists.

So what to do for a victory lap? Join forces, obviously. The eponymous debut from Run the Jewels was released for free on the internet this June. What could have been phoned in with the cut-and-paste feel of a mixtape is instead a tight collection of straight-up bangers with monster beats. El-P and Killer Mike seamlessly flow into each other’s rhymes with bravado. No – scratch that. Gusto.

Check out: “Run the Jewels”, “36” Chain”, “Sea Legs”

4. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National – at least from “Alligator” and forward, have brilliantly constructed top to bottom classic records that give the air that they were furniture, they’d be refined from the most skilled of woodworkers. Every sound is considered before the final product. Allegedly, on an earlier release, they recorded the same drum sound an exhaustive number of times until it ‘sounded right’.

If anything, “Trouble Will Find Me” is a surprise. It’s the sound of a band loosening the reigns for the first time. The songs feel more organic. They have a sense of space that’s not part of any of the earlier releases. If there’s any knock on it, is that it sort of feels like a band in transition. What you get here is a band pushing the boundaries out just a little more. It’s exhilarating for them, and it’s exhilarating for the listener. But you can’t help but think what they’ll do next time.

Check out: “I Should Live In Salt”, “Sea Of Love”, “I Need My Girl”

5. John Moreland – In The Throes

Admittedly, this is a late addition to this year’s list, but a well-deserved one. Oklahoma-based Moreland delivers a thirty-eight minute gut punch. It’s intimate. It’s vulnerable. It’s big-hearted. It’s an album full of simply great songs delivered simply. No bullshit.

Check out: “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am”, “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore”, “Break My Heart Sweetly”

6. Kanye West – Yeezus

At this point, even giving a brief rundown of Kanye’s album-by-album trajectory is pointless. His public persona and his role of an artist are now so diametrically opposed that the thought he’s actually a working musician is an afterthought. Everyone has an opinion about Kanye West. He has many about himself. The amount of noise between the artist and the public is overwhelming, from fans to non-fans. That’s the best thing that ever happened to him – it freed him to do whatever he wants in the studio.

So, he does.

For as spontaneous as some of his other career moves seem, “Yeezus” is quite the opposite. It’s a carefully crafted, reductionist masterwork, laying waste the grandeur of much of his previous work. The beats are brutal, guest spots as brilliant as they are puzzling (Justin Vernon and Chief Keef on the same track?), and the message unfettered: he’s taking no prisoners.

We’re far past the point where a Kanye West album is a showcase of peerless production and top-notch talent. It’s art for art’s sake. He might even agree with that. Everyone else might too, if they stopped talking and listened for a change.

Check out: “On Sight”, “I Can’t Hold My Liquor”, “Bound 2”

7. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

The sense of insularity and delicate nature of Laura Marling’s fourth album leaves me fighting myself to compare it to the great early records of Joni Mitchell. Obviously by typing that sentence, I’ve failed. Perhaps the best way to put it is to suggest “Once I Was An Eagle” is its spiritual cousin. The four-song opening suite is startling and effortless, delivered with the maturity of a person far beyond her 23 years. From there it ebbs and flows, (“Master Hunter” is a definite highlight) one beautiful melody and texture after another. It’s an album best experienced in one sitting. You’ll know that as soon as it begins.

Check out: “Take The Night Off”, “I Was An Eagle”, “Master Hunter”

8. Deafheaven – Sunbather

We live in the time of the egregious usage of the word ‘epic’. Here’s an album worthy of the phrase. On “Sunbather” walls of whatever-brand-of-metal you call it and sweeping melodic passages combined with bridge effortlessly with vocalist George Clarke’s screams to create a whole that is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. I may not understand a damn word he’s saying, but the sheer ferocity of his vocals seize your attention. It’s metal for non-metalheads – beauty in a genre where you expect something ugly.

Check out: “Dream House”, “Irresistable”, “Vertigo”

9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

In the summer of 2008 I watched Vampire Weekend perform selections from their debut album to a crowd of thousands at Pitchfork Music Festival. Then, they were a relatively unseasoned live act, a fine listen, but not quite capable of that knockout punch of the others that played the stage the same day. My feelings of their debut album and it’s follow up were similar to this – songs that were okay for the moment, but didn’t hold a whole lot of resonance. I figured they’d be fun to bring up for a laugh a few years down the road or to recapture that moment when we were just a little bit younger and thought we were a little bit hipper.

Instead, they grew up with us. “Modern Vampires of the City” is a headfirst plunge into uncharted territory. It’s a series of calculated risks for a group that treaded dangerous waters as a very (popular) one trick pony. Here, the band deals with heavier themes such as life and death. Look no further than the pitch-shifting prowess of “Diane Young” (Get it?) for example. The differences are also textural – the wispy “Step” and soothing synths of “Everlasting Arms” are obvious departures. The big takeaway though – there’s plenty of nuance here when none was ever really expected.

Check out: “Unbelievers”, “Step”, “Everlasting Arms”

10. Disclosure – Settle

The debut by English brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence kind of passed me by on first listen. I didn’t think much of it and shuffled it away pretty quickly.

Then I heard “Latch”, a perfect piece of elastic electro-pop. It turns out that’s just the gateway into the many gifts that this record holds. Jessie Ware drops in for the robot slink of “Confess To Me”, and “F For You” competes with London Grammar on “Help Me Lose My Mind” for the second best hook on the album. I’m going to stop now – play this album and get ready to dance.

Check out: “Latch”, “F For You”, “Confess To Me”

——

Top Songs of 2013:

HAIM – “The Wire”
Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Disclosure – “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Superchunk – “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”
The National – “I Should Live In Salt”
Jason Isbell – “Cover Me Up”
Run the Jewels – “Run The Jewels”
CHVRCHES – “Gun”
John Moreland – “Break My Heart Sweetly”
Laura Marling – “Take The Night Off/I Was An Eagle/You Know/Breathe” (Opening suite)
Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
Zedd – “Clarity (feat. Foxes)”
Jai Paul – “Crush” (Jennifer Paige cover)
Kanye West – “On Sight”
Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
HAIM – “Forever”
Jason Isbell – “Relatively Easy”
Deafheaven – “Dream House”
Arcade Fire – “Afterlife”
Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
Jay-Z feat. Justin Timberlake – “Holy Grail”
The Replacements – “I’m Not Sayin” (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
The National – “Sea of Love”
CHVRCHES – “Recover”
Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
HAIM – “Don’t Save Me”
Neko Case – “Man”
Paul McCartney – “New”
CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
Jason Isbell – “Flying Over Water”
The Dismemberment Plan – “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”

Scouring the bins

A few days ago I downloaded an app called The Vinyl District that uses GPS to find your nearest record stores. Thats when I was directed to Rediscover Records in Elgin, Illinois. It’s a store within another store located in the downtown area. It’s a nice little space, with plenty of new vinyl from a variety of genres (ie: the new Tom Waits next to a mint copy of “Master Of Puppets”).

What really got me though was their used selection. For $10.75, I scored the following:

Elvis Costello – “Trust”
Jackson Browne – S/T aka “Saturate Before Using”
Joni Mitchell – “Blue”
Billy Joel – “The Stranger”

That’s a pretty satisfying haul. I’m very impressed that albums of that quality were that affordable. I don’t think I would have even come close to a deal like today’s somewhere in the city.