Monday, December 1, 2008

2004 - tonight, i'm on my way.

On January 17, 2004, I became a vegetarian. I didn’t completely stop eating all meats on the spot, but I did begin pursuing the lifestyle. This was my first step towards building a new life. A huge hole opened up inside me after my grandmother died, which was agitated by some bad social experiences. My religious faith had been in steady decline for years, but it wasn’t until Mom-Mom’s funeral, in which I felt absolutely nothing the pastor said, that I realized I was no long a “real” Roman Catholic. I got depressed. I felt alone. And I felt really, really angry.

Then I went on Kairos.

Kairos is a religious retreat for high school seniors. I spent four days in a cabin in the woods talking and listening about feelings with my peers. I hate being vague about it, since it kinda sorta maybe saved my life and all, but that’s all I can say. Kairos gave me the strength to stop eating meat, distance myself from damaging relationships, and go to therapy. That last one didn’t last long, but I still walked away feeling better about myself as a whole. Oddly enough, this religious retreat also made me confident enough to tell my parents I didn’t believe in going to mass anymore. My mom now refers to this moment as “that stinkin’ Kairos.”

So there’s that.

I had a great summer, though, spent with the people in my life who were actually good for me. Then I moved to La Salle University in the fall, got scared by all the drunk jagoffs, made new friends, and proceeded to have a lot of fun. Freshman year is weird to remember, if only because I generally feel pretty good about it, even though my living situation really, really sucked. My roommates were always having parties and fucking up my stuff, and our RA was thoroughly useless. But everything else about my fall semester was great. I started hanging out with the kids who worked on the school paper, Collegian, and radio station, WEXP. I spent way too much time at the library (I certainly couldn’t study at home). I also spent way too much time at South Street, hunting for more albums. I made Dean’s List, which my parents were stoked on, and I finally found some people every bit as weird and silly as me, which I was stoked on.

I tend to view my life in two periods, before and after Mom-Mom’s death. My second life has been a lot more fulfilling so far. It hasn’t been perfect, but it has been glorious.

10. Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch

I was introduced to Regina Spektor when she opened for The Dresden Dolls at the TLA way back when. Listening to her then-new album, Soviet Kitsch, is about the same as seeing her live show from that period – endearingly haphazard, only live there’s way more crowd interaction. I’m of the opinion that lo-fi better suits the silly yet attractive meanderings Spektor’s work sometimes takes, like on “Poor Little Rich Boy” or “Your Honor” (and its accompanying intro track, come to think of it). My favorite piano-laced pop number is “Carbon Monoxide,” a slow cut time number about youths bumming around the city. “We’ll be oh so very much dead / But we’re still cool” goes the best line.

9. William Shatner – Has Been

William Shatner’s 1968 debut album, The Transformed Man, was an ironic gem, a so-bad-it’s-funny collection thanks to hammed up spoken word renditions of pieces by Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare. No one will ever call it legitimately good, unless they’re lying.

The belated follow-up, Has Been, however, is legitimately, incredibly good. Oddly enough, it also consists entirely of works co-written by Shatner, save for a rollicking cover of Pulp’s “Common People” and the Nick Horny-penned “That’s Me Trying.” With Ben Folds as his producer and co-writer, and additional help from Joe Jackson and Henry Rollins, Shatner crafted a record split between humorous anecdotes (“You’ll Have Time,” “I Can’t Get Behind That”) and gut-wrenching personal confessions (“What Have You Done,” the music-less retelling of his third wife’s death by drowning). Folds offers lush arrangements to support Shatner’s stories, effortlessly leaping from rock to pop to gospel to jazz. And as for Captain James T. Kirk himself, he’s in top form too. He’s intermittently fragile, bitter, paranoid, funny, loving, tender, angry. I love Shel Silverstein and Patti Smith, but this is by far my favorite spoken word album.

8. Ted Leo/The Pharmacists – Shake the Sheets

I feel a little weird writing about Shake the Sheets; it’s my third favorite Pharmacists albums (of four), yet it’s the only one on these lists. So it goes. I was initially let down by this album, as it stripped back the thick wall of instruments present on The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak. Gone are the Celtic trimmings. Gone are the friggin’ organs! This pairing down ended up freeing Leo’s creativity, though – Shake the Sheets is at times the best dance-punk could offer (“Me and Mia,” “The Angels’ Share”) while maintaining a sense of urgency. The album is still political (the title track), but not as dark as one might assume a Bush-era album would be – few songs are as reassuring as “Little Dawn,” with its constant assurance that “It’s alright.” This album came out in October 2004. I unquestionably hated my college roommates. I was going to class on four hours’ sleep or less, living in a space the size of a walk-in closet, and struggling to somehow find the time and energy to keep my grades up.

So yeah, it meant a lot to hear Ted’s words.

7. The Arcade Fire – Funeral

Man, remember when The Arcade Fire was totally underrated? This one might actually be the first album introduced to me by the Collegian staff. Maureen “Mo” McElaney wrote a great article about the album’s lush orchestration, haunting vocals, and raw passion. Imbued with a “eh, why the fuck not?” spirit, I picked up the album afterwards and promptly filled with a new kind of angst, both highly dramatic yet ever so refined. Funeral’s title came about after several band members’ lost family members during the recording period, and the album desperately attempts to finds solace after these events. Still reeling ever so slightly from Mom-Mom’s death, I found this outlet very uplifting.

Arcade Fire’s orchestral indie rock sound has been somewhat diluted by the surge of other Quebec bands, but Funeral remains a thrilling original. The energy coursing through songs like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies”) come with the same Big Statements™ that I get from early U2. The Arcade Fire’s follow-up, Neon Bible, let me down a little bit, but following this analogy, that would make it their October, an overeager attempt to make too many grand gestures at once. Which means that up next is their War

6. Ben Kweller – On My Way

While he skimped on the Weezer-ish nerd rock on LP #2, I was too stoked on Ben Kweller’s sunny guitar pop on On My Way to care much. Besides, Kweller kept a glimmer of the oddball lyrics fans craved (check the title track’s discussion of the merits of karate). I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to this record summer ’04, especially during the month or so that I lived at the Jersey shore. This was in the bulky, awkward Walkman days. I would wear big ol’ cargo shorts to the beach so as to make room for my CD player. Assuming I didn’t get too sandblasted, the subtle power of songs like “Believer” and “Different But the Same” would charm me. Ben Kweller relied a bit too much on piano, but On My Way finds a nice balance between keys and guitars, making for a delicious garage rock experience.

When I came back at the end of the summer, half of my stuff was on the curb. My parents dismantled my furniture in order to give my room to my brother. He eventually moved out, and now I sleep on a much shittier bed. This was one of several “you can never go back” moments that year. And no, I still haven’t gotten over it. Why do you ask?

5. Secret Machines – Now Here is Nowhere

Sometimes, peer pressure is a good thing. Three super-cool upperclassmen named Ryan P. Carey D.D.S., Nick Norlen, and Paul Tsikitas decided that they wanted me to come see one of their favorite bands, The Secret Machines, at the TLA. I only knew their single, “Nowhere Again,” which I kinda liked but didn’t love, and I had a major paper due the next day. Unphased, they then prepared – on the spot – an exact timeline for me to get all my work done and still make it to the show. And it worked. I saw the band and promptly had my mind blown.

The Secret Machines specialize in epic, soaring, atmospheric, psychedelic, catchy acid-prog-space-Kraut rock. Also, their live show is ridiculously awesome. I can still remember the exact moment I fell in love with them. I was already impressed by their live set before this point, but it was when they began the opening measures of “The Road Leads Where It’s Led” that I fell in love. A long, ominous pick slide segues into a rolling drum beat before lead singer Brandon Curtis hits the listener with a creepy post-Columbine lyric: “Blowing all the other kids away… with all your charm.” As the band hit these moments, flood lights kicked in from behind, bathing everything in the room in light and rendering them but shadows. It was fuckin’ cool.

4. Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous

Who knew Rilo Kiley’s mainstream bid would be their best album? More Adventurous took some time to grow on me – it lacks the quiet desperation of The Execution of All Things – but it truly is a stunning pseudo-country rock album. The album is full of “big moments,” like the electrifying, Janis Joplin-esque “Does He Love You?” or the sarcastic, anti-Bush anthem “It’s a Hit.” The record certainly has quieter, more intimate moments, like “Ripchord” or “The Absence of God,” but it’s the rockers like “Portions for Foxes” that hit the best. This marks the last time leading lady Jenny Lewis was able to be sassy and sad in the same breath, although I hear Acid Tongue is pretty good.

3. Say Anything - …Is a Real Boy

…Is a Real Boy was the last album I bought before going away to college, and it was a perfect kiss off record for the end of my high school days. Central brain Max Bemis crafted a perfect rock record that took emo to its logical conclusion – Queen-like, musical-esque melo-drama. The album’s vaudevillian style isn’t accidental either, as Bemis took advice from Hedwig and The Angry Inch creator Stephen Trask (as well as noted indie rock producer Tim O’Heir) to finish the record. It seems kind of obvious now, thanks to the success of similarly overstuffed acts like My Chemical Romance and Panic at the Disco, but the idea of combining big riffs with big emotions wasn’t quite a cliché just yet in 2004.

Loosely a concept album about the fictional success of a fictional band that also happens to be named Say Anything, the record hooked me right off the bat with its “song of rebellion,” “Belt.” The guitar is so damn crunchy here, aiding the disgust and chutzpah Bemis oozes as he describes the heavy trials he had to traverse to find both musical and personal satisfaction. The song ends in a West Side Story-style street fight. It’s awesome.

The rest of the record tears through the banal and anxiety-filled situations with equal piss and vinegar. The stoner aura of “Yellow Cat (slash) Red Cat” gets just as furious as the blue balled pining of “Every Man has a Molly.”

But while the romantic “I Want to Know Your Plans” is endearing, Bemis is at his best when he’s pissed – see album-ender “Admit It!!!” Over six minutes long, the song takes to task shallow kids who try too hard to feign coolness and intelligence (or, most of Say Anything’s fan base, including me). After he gives it to the “prototypical nonconformist,” Bemis turns the sword on himself, stating, “I am shamelessly self-involved / I spend hours in front of the mirror, making my hair elegantly disheveled / I worry about how this album will sell / Because I believe it will determine the amount of sex I will have in the future.” Fact: When I played it for my best friend, he thought it was a passive aggressive way of telling him I hated him. And while I did frienemy-hate him, I still just wanted him to hear this song I liked, ya know?

2. Big D and The Kids Table – How It Goes

How It Goes marks the moment Big D and The Kids Table went from pretty good to frickin’ amazing. Here is where the band got the recording budget to capture their music, not to mention some incredible hooks to commit to tape. Not just another post-Less Than Jake ska-punk band, How It Goes marks the D’s transition into an overall ragga-awareness. Reggae and 2-tone mix freely, although the record still skews towards the punk end of the spectrum. The topics stay the same – chicks, work, d-bags, and poverty suck while drinking is fun – but songwriting carries those ideas much farther. The standout is “LAX,” an angry diatribe against the sort of dumbfucks now highlight on The Hills, over-coddled, under-educated rich bastards that specialize in inane, petty pursuits. Juxtaposed against the band’s own low-income lifestyle, “LAX” becomes a searing class war song on par with anything The Clash (or Crass… or The Sex Pistols… or…) ever wrote.

Boasting 76 minutes o’ music, How It Goes is stuffed to the rafters with tunes. From the breezy opener “The Sounds of Allston Village” to the pounding, endearing entreaty of ender “Moment Without an End,” it’s a heck of a party. Politically minded song “President” aside, it’s a goofy, fun time with songs like “Girls Against Drunk Bitches” (it’s about cat fights!), “175” (it’s about ultimate disc!), and “Little Bitch” (it’s a kickass Specials cover!). The D bleeds great songs on their albums and, Rancid-like, they delivered 20 solid ones with How It Goes.

1. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed

If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you’ve probably realized by now that I strongly believe in The Mountain Goats. I’ve always been wary about naming a “favorite band,” but a quick glance at my charts reveals a clear leader:

It’s also hard naming my favorite Mountain Goats album. Right now, this year’s Heretic Pride is leading, but for a good two years, We Shall All Be Healed, based on John Darnielle's experiences with drugs addicts, was my top pick. The album doesn’t stray too far from Tallahassee’s formula: The best lyrics of all time + Darnielle’s nasal, emotional vocals + guitar strums + sorta rockin’, sorta folky backing band. But here’s the thing, while the music diversity is minimal compared to the widely oscillating Tallahassee, which was both louder and softer, it’s a still a brilliant collection of stories. The tweaker fantasies of “Palmcorder Yajna,” the hospital setting of the Get Lonely precursor “Mole,” and the please-let-this-be-literal “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of” all exist with their own individual identities while sounding sonically cohesive.

I have a hard time writing about The Mountain Goats because I will never be able to fully convey what they mean to me.

NEXT WEEK: I am going to make it through this year if it kills me, this modern love breaks me, these are the paranoias that have built your world, 2005.

1 comment:

Paul Tsikitas said...

Yay! I'm glad to see I was able to influence your life in some small way. Secret Machines are amazing and anyone without knowledge of their existence, just doesn't know how to live.