Monday, November 17, 2008

2002 - HAIL SATAN!

2002 is when my music consumption exploded. I was like a junky, and the money I made from working at Duke’s car wash was only partially covering the habit. Pop punk and emo were quickly becoming my best friends, fed by introductions to the Victory, Vagrant, and Saddle Creek record labels. Drive-Thru Records was in its prime, with New Found Glory, Midtown, Rx Bandits, and Allister touring. Christen turned me on to Bright Eyes, which led me to Saddle Creek 50, which in turn took me to Cursive and Rilo Kiley. MTV2, in a final fit of influence, taught me about Ben Kweller. And all the while, I kept a little secret in my back pocket: The Mountain Goats. Internet-punk-dilettante Mitch Clem included a few lo-fi TMG cuts in his Liquid Paper online compilation series. After an e-mail exchange with the guy, I opted to check out All Hail West Texas, and man what a good decision that turned out to be.

I say The Mountain Goats were in my back pocket because, no matter how hard I tried, none of my friends could get into them. It sounds weird now, especially since like 95% of the friends I’ve made since then are down with the Darnielle sound, but in 2002 everyone around me seemed completely dumbfounded by my love of a dude who wrote and recorded with a guitar, an old keyboard, and an even older boom box.

So there I was, about to throw that football 300 yards over them mountains. I busted out of the got-damn Matrix and never looked back. Feeling the schism before it ever broke free, I beat it. The radio is dead and I am alive.

10. Desaperacidos – Read Music, Speak Spanish

If I’d made this series five years ago, I guarantee there would be been way more Conor Oberst entries. At the advanced age of 22, though, I rarely find myself with the exact levels of angst needed to savor Bright Eyes. But I can still hold on to the punk fervor of Oberst’s side project, Desaperacidos. The band recorded one LP, but it’s so good that in a way I’m glad they never got the chance to foul up their legacy. Read Music, Speak Spanish deals with lady troubles like Bright Eyes, but through a socio-eco-politi-crazy perspective. This is a “burn it all down” record that’s much more eloquent than the phrase “burn it all down.”

9. Taking Back Sunday – Tell All Your Friends

“For this simple reason I / just need to keep you in mind / as something larger than life.”

The fabled “Summer of Screamo” was still a year away, but the genre was already well on its way to mainstream appeal thanks to two albums: Thursday’s Full Collapse and Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends, both released by the ethically questionable Victory Records. It’s funny; the label didn’t give a shit about Thursday until Full Collapse started moving units and effectively established the genre/business model which Victory still uses today. Thursday’s success allowed for at least one positive release from the label: TBS. Tell All Your Friends exists like a flipside to Thursday, so much so that some might debate the record’s association with the genre.

Where Full Collapse is a brutal hardcore record, artsy and feeling and concerned with more than just its dick, Tell All Your Friends is much coyer. The record is obsessed with losing lovers and friends. The shtick got old by LP #2, but man was it glorious the first time around. At his best, frontman Adam Lazzara could be as sexy and beguiling as Morrissey himself, with co-vocalist John Nolan as his tortured Robert Smith. Fact: “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team)” once meant as much to me as “I Know It’s Over,” and I still kind of love it.

8. Rilo Kiley – The Execution of All Things

Intrigued by “With Arms Outstretched,” I took a gander at The Execution of All Things’ deeee-lite-ful collection of lady-laden, despair-shaking, indie rock pop tunes. Like Oberst, Jenny Lewis has lived to disappoint me. But on Rilo Kiley’s second full-length, she was perfect, an emotive chick who knew how to kick ass on guitar. I’ve spent hours upon hours obsessing over pretty much every single track on this album at one point or another – opener “The Good That Won’t Come Out” stayed with me for a long time, thanks to its downplayed depression. The way the lyrics count off all the “friends who lost the war / and the novels that have yet to be written about them” hits me every time. “A Better Son/Daughter” is a right rabble-rouser. In this moment, though, I have to give it to epic album ender “Spectacular Views.” The feedback-spewing guitar solo. The propulsive bass line. Those synth flourishes and driving drums. The way Lewis sums up every image ever as “so fucking beautiful,” that desperate shift in her voice, like she needs to scream it but also needs to keep it together for the sake of the song’s pop leanings… Do you know why I don’t like Feist? Because she can’t let herself go, like Patti Smith or Tori Amos or PJ Harvey or Courtney Love or Jenny gosh-dang Lewis.

7. The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee

Hold on to your shit, you motherfucking damn assholes! This list has two Mountain Goats records on it, not just one!

2002 marked a major shift in John Darnielle’s recording style. He bid adieu (to you and you and you-oo) with his last uber-lo-fi release, All Hail West Texas, and then set about recording a real hi-fi album in a real hi-fi studio with a real hi-fi band. The change wasn’t as drastic as you’d think, though. Instead of imagining additional instruments buried beneath tape hiss, I hear actual additional instruments. And the lyrics, well, they stayed jawesome.

My first live Mountain Goats experience was during their 2005 tour to promote The Sunset Tree, at Swarthmore College. Oddly enough, they didn’t play many songs off of that album or its predecessor, We Shall All Be Healed. The show opened with “Tallahassee,” the first track off of the album of the same name. My friends, some Swarthmore students, and I were packed into a log cabin, fizzing with anticipation, when Darnielle busted out this subtle little number (“What did I come down here for? / You / You”). It’s an old trick of his, in which he always manages to invert a rambunctious crowd with a subdued ditty. Backed by the opening act, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, the Goats also slipped in some more energetic songs, like “First Few Desperate Hours” and “Oceanographer’s Choice.” The songs rock pretty dang hard live, lemme tell ya. And in the middle of it all was John, tipsy and silly and alive. No one talks to a crowd like him; he’s like a master of ceremonies hosting a party. Which, in a lot ways, the show was.

6. Minus the Bear – Highly Refined Pirates

Freshman year of college was a scary time, what with the whole “complete lifestyle change” thing going on. I spent the summer before moving into La Salle buying as many albums with my Sam Goody employee discount as possible (40% off!!). One of the last purchases was an EP AP hyped; They Make Beer Commercials Like This by Minus the Bear. I was hooked on its fine blend of synthy surfy prog-rock. Later, on one of approximately 12,000 South St. trips with Eric Crack and Nick Elmer, I picked up Highly Refined Pirates, MtB’s first full-length. It’s remarkable how much the band had already figured out its airy yet rockin’ sound right off the bat. Highly Refined Pirates is an album I can pretty much listen to regardless of setting – on the beach, while driving, in bed right before sleep, or at 10:25 a.m. on a Monday morning (as of this writing) whilst perusing the Internets. Songs like “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twisters” and “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” are lovely lil gems about good times with good friends – partying, dancing, drinking, swimming – bathed in the warm glow of Dave Knudson’s guitar-tapping wonders.

5. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising

Although most of the songs had been written prior, Bruce Springsteen’s reunion with The E Street Band on The Rising became for many a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. A slew of pro-American songs came out after 9/11, many of them banal (Paul McCartney’s “Freedom") and some of them even embarrassingly offensive (Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”). Bruce went the opposite route; The Rising isn’t about retaliation, it’s about figuring out how to move on. Last week, I wrote about Joe Strummer’s “wilderness years,” the period where he didn’t quite know what to write. Well, Bruce had a pretty big dry period. He’s never made a truly awful record, but every studio album that came out in between Nebraska and The Rising – two decades – was spotty.

The Rising is the sort of effortless, grand Americana statement Bruce used to make effortlessly. It’s dated in some spots thanks to an overabundance of keyboards, and it would be a golden past sort of album if it weren’t for all the lyrics about moving on and living. The whole E Street gang returns with their classic sound. There’s tons of piano and guitars, but everybody knows it’s Clarence Clemmons’ sax that really gives the songs drive.

Ultimately, the record is really about Bruce trying (and occasionally failing, like on “Nothing Man”) to believe in himself again. The timing just meant that the rest of us had the same problem. But even if The Rising wasn’t tied to the terrorist attacks, it would still be a resonant record. I’ve found myself listening to it a lot in the last year or so. I always turn to music when times get tough, but The Rising is one of the few albums to make me take a proactive approach to my problems. When I didn’t get the job at the Inquirer, when I bombed a separate interview, when I’ve felt powerless, The Rising brings me back to life with its repeated messages about hope, faith, and rising up. Not that all my memories of the album are tied to bad events – I made it a point to spin The Rising after Barack Obama clinched the presidency. The album is a little overstuffed in the middle, but when I hit that last third – “Mary’s Place” into “You’re Missing” into “The Rising” into “Paradise” into “My City of Ruins” – I truly believe everything is going to be alright. C’mon, rise up.

4. Jets to BrazilPerfecting Loneliness

Jets to Brazil came into their own right before they broke up. As much as I love Orange Rhyming Dictionary, it really is just an extension of Dear You. Four-Cornered Night showed a lot more growth, adding piano and strings to the mix, thanks to the addition of guitarist Brian Maryansky. That album opted for arrangements that strayed further from punk into a more indie rock sound. And while Night is pretty dang good, Perfecting Loneliness develops that approach further. It’s a fitting swan song. While JtB was totally separate from Jawbreaker musically, it’s clear the band existed lyrically, to a certain extent, as a coping mechanism for Dear You’s failure. The title could not be more literal.

The record dips a toe or two into country/bluegrass (“Wish List”), and it’s clear that Maryansky’s presence was put to much better use this time around. The melodies are richer too. At six minutes long and without a chorus to be found, “The Frequency” is a ballsy opening track. But it’s actually one of the best Jets to Brazil songs of all time, as frontman Blake Schwarzenbach tries to find an appropriate way to explain why he writes. My favorite line has always been “When the measure of your work / is the measure of your worth / then you’d better make it work.” From there, things get a little more traditional (i.e. – choruses) on “You’re the One I Want” and “Cat Heaven.” The record has an overall arc – poppy then introspective then poppy again and then really introspective on closer “Rocket Boy” – and it works pretty darn well.

3. The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

“The best ever death metal band out of Denton…” I think the best way to sum up my high school years vs. my college years goes like this: I spent a lot of time in high school feeling like no one else liked The Mountain Goats, or Jawbreaker, or Jets to Brazil, or even the freaking Smiths. Then I went to college and met a lot of people who did know what was up. My God, how many times have I heard people strum “The Best Ever Death in Denton” at parties? How many times have I danced a fit to “Jenny?” My most vivid pre-college memory of All Hail West Texas is a being begged to turn off “Blues in Dallas” because the keyboard line was “stupid.”

But enough with the baggage. All Hail West Texas feels like the culmination of Darnielle’s boom box aesthetic. Arguably his best album since Zopilote Machine, this concept album “about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” is rife with vivid imagery and bombastic acoustic guitar. This album isn’t just symbolic of the last six years of my life, it’s symbolic of the lo-fi sound – lurking in the murky depths is a phantom orchestra, unleashing the most complex constructions you’ve literally ever imagined. I can hear drums buried in the mix, even though I know they’re not really there.

2. Ben Kweller – Sha Sha

Choosing between Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha and Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose has been a tough call, as they’ve both been with me through shit and not-shit. The original list that spawned this series went for Sha Sha, but today I’m feeling Rose a little bit more. Which I suppose reveals how arbitrary this whole process is. Hell, I’ve heard albums since starting this series that should’ve made it in (Fact: If I ever redo this, Ride’s Nowhere will dominate 1990). My experiences and feelings are constantly in flux, like the weather. Which is probably why I loved Sha Sha so much.

Picking up where Weezer’s “Blue Album” left off, Ben Kweller tapped into both my dorky and angsty veins. The result, Sha Sha, was about love and loss and yearning, but it was also about Planet of the Apes and pizza and goofy similes such as “I’m maxed out like a credit card.” It was about family trees, remembering where you came from. Where you want to get to. Feeling like you’ve found the one (“Falling”), but remembering your momma (“Lizzy”). And like any good Weezer-esque album, it’s got some ridonkulous guitar solos (“Harriet’s Got a Song,” which I played for my Art of Listening class, thank you very much).

1. Against Me! – Reinventing Axl Rose

I have a hard time writing about some albums. There’s always that desire to say something new, something you’ve never said before. But what else could I possibly tell you about Reinventing Axl Rose? That it’s one of the most passionate punk albums of the new millennium? That I’ve drunkenly played and sang at least half of the songs with friends? That this shit makes me want to live?

I’ll tell ya what, howsabout you just watch this live video of “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)?” This song still sends me into a rage. I have to clean the inside of my windshield if I play this while driving, because the spit flies high when I call out Mary.

NEXT WEEK: I am written on the subway walls, I was crawling through a festival way out West, I need you so much closer, I am hell bent, 2003.

1 comment:

Paul Tsikitas said...

Is that Bruce Springsteen album about getting a boner?