Friday, October 30, 2009

The Monthly Mailbag Returns! (Part 2)

The Super-Giant, Mega-Blowout, Resurgent, Triumphant, Two-Part Mailbag Continues!

For Part 1, go here.

Let's get back to your questions!

Hey Chris, in a recent Fan of the Month, you asked an interesting question: what album would you pick as your morning alarm for a year? I thought the FOM's answer was great (The Ultimate Otis Redding). Mine would be either be Led Zeppelin II or Pearl Jam Vs. What's yours? --Rob, Washington, D.C.
I was afraid of this. As soon as FOM Sarah picked The Ultimate Otis Redding, I knew that: 1) someone would turn the question on me and 2) I'd have no answer. Her choice was perfect, and probably one I wouldn't have come up with on my own. Now, I'm reeling.

As a refresher, the question is this: You wake up to an alarm every morning. You have to pick one album that will serve as your wake-up call for exactly a year. Which song plays--and which 30-second snippet it chooses--is completely randomized. You can't control it. All you know is that you'll wake up to 30 seconds of something off that record for 365 days. Now...

Let's break this thing down. To me, there are four things to consider:

1) Mood. This one, obviously, is huge. Because one randomly chosen moment from this album will start every day, I need something that offers plenty of positive, fun, uptempo moments. It needs to have energy (Green Day), but it doesn't need to be heavy (Metallica). Angry albums are avoided (sorry, Rage Against the Machine). Some days might deserve a sad/slow/uneasy beginning, but I can't afford to pick a sad/slow/uneasy album. As much as I love Cory Branan, one week of The Hell You Say alarms would leave me bed-ridden for months.
Excludes: Most singer/songwriter fare. All of the classical music and jazz that I own. All metal. Most old blues and country. Most rap. Practically everything by R.E.M., Radiohead, and Wilco. A few things by the Beatles. Pearl Jam' No Code.

2) Variation. Within the range of that overarching mood, I still need variation. Every day doesn't feel the same, and every alarm shouldn't sound the same. I'm looking for the album that has the right percentage of upbeat rockers (57%), mid-tempo groovers (31%), and take-it-down-a-notch-and-reflect ballads (12%). And if you're wondering if that's the approximate breakdown for how I feel every morning when I wake up--yes, yes it is.
Excludes: Early Beach Boys. Most punk. A lot of Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Clash. Some alt-country. A few things by the Beatles. Pearl Jam's Vs.

3) Durability. There are only so many 30-second snippets to choose from, and 365 days in a year. I'm no mathematician, but you'll repeat alarms. A lot. I need an album that's long enough to curb repetition, and durable enough to survive it. I need something I've heard a thousand times already and continue to enjoy. I need something I have a chance at still loving after the year's over, which means fresh, new favorites are less desirable. As much as I love the new Avett Brothers' I And Love And You, I can't vouch for its durability--I like it right now largely because it's happening right now. For this question, I need something I've lived with for several years, something always enjoyable and occasionally surprising. For me, older, "classic" albums get the nod.
Excludes: All short albums and most contemporary albums (Kings of Leon, Band of Horses, Avett Brothers, some My Morning Jacket). Anything I own that you might find in Pitchfork. Some early Beatles. Pearl Jam's Backspacer.

4) Seasonality. It's one of music's greatest and most mysterious joys: some things just sound like a season. Most of my favorite albums entrench themselves (lyrically, sonically, even thematically) in one season and invite you to spend those months with them. But for this question, I need something that's beyond versatile. I need something beyond season-neutral. I need an album that's season-specific, but for an entire year. Because this album will be my alarm for 365 days, I need something that gives me a decent chance of matching that morning's weather and mood. This album needs to have "fall" songs and "spring" songs, and everything in between.
Excludes: Everything by the Counting Crows. Most Lucero. A lot of the White Stripes. Some Beatles. Pearl Jam's Yield.

So, what's left?

Motown and Stax artists have great options (mood-wise, most of the sad songs still sound happy), but I'm limited to my albums. I only have their anthologies, and I'm arbitrarily deciding that those don't count. Big Star's in play, but their penchant for the depressing ("Try Again") and/or bizarre ("India Song") scares me off. If I heard "India Song" at 6AM on a February morning, I might have a seizure.

Of course, there are always the Beatles. If you made the case for Help or Abbey Road, I probably wouldn't fight you. Still, the Beatles' catalog is almost too good for this question: the things that make their best albums great (multi-dimensionality, song variation, etc.), make them problematic for a daily wake-up call. Revolver might be the greatest pop record of all-time, but if the shuffle sent me "Eleanor Rigby" four days in a row, I might not recover.

You see where I'm headed, don't you?

My choice: The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.

The key quality that prompted this post is what makes it my choice now: amazing sonic consistency. The "mood" breakdown is perfect: tons of upbeat rockers that may-or-may not literally be cheerful (from "Rocks Off," to "Happy"), plenty of mid-tempo groovers that can start the day off and get you moving ("Casino Boogie," "Ventilator Blues"), and the occasional time-to-reflect ballad ("Sweet Virginia," "Shine a Light"). While the ballads are slower and wistful and--yes--sad, they don't sound spine-crushingly depressing. There's a difference between "Stones sad" and "Radiohead sad," and the difference is whether I'm getting up with some nostalgia, making some coffee, and forming a resolution, or whether I'm moving to a cabin in Denmark and never taking another phone call.

Exile even has an innocuously trippy tune ("I Just Want to See His Face") to meet you halfway when you've woken up from a bizarre dream. In terms of mood and variation, it has everything, and I don't think anyone's arguing its durability. I've lived with this album for years, and I always come back to it, regardless of season, time of day, or my given mood; its remarkable consistency and makes it one of the most-listenable albums I own.

As for seasonality, it runs the spectrum. As a brassy rock record, it lends itself naturally to any sunny months; you can make a case for all of it fitting in with summer. Still, some songs have the renewed energy of spring ("Rocks Off," "Turd On the Run"); some have that beautiful, wistful quality of autumn ("Loving Cup," "Torn and Frayed"); some fit in with the subdued stoicism of winter ("Sweet Black Angel," "Let It Loose").

Ultimately, Exile's the pick because it has to be: no other album I own does so much by doing one thing. It's not the best album of all-time, but it is a classic. They're not the greatest band in history (perhaps a debate for another post), but they're in the Pantheon. They might not have a song for every moment of every day, but they've got a whole album to wake up to. Maybe that's always been the Stones' appeal: I'm never in love with them, but I'm always infatuated.

I want to settle down with Revolver, but I want to wake up next to Exile on Main Street.

You've been promising reviews of new music since the New Green Day came out. Enough already! Give me something. --Ben, Little Rock
Ask, and ask again, and ask repeatedly, and ye shall receive!

Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown
When American Idiot came out, I thought, "this is an inspired, relevant album by the right band at the right's one of the best of the decade, but it's also probably Green Day's swan song. They probably can't do this again."

In theory, I was right: even the greatest bands don't bat 1.000. For every Vitalogy, there's a Riot Act. For every Kid A/Amnesiac, there's a Hail to the Thief (I know, I know, it's still a good album). Point is, we judge bands relative to other bands, but also relative to themselves. In a way, they define their own greatness.

So when 21st Century Breakdown came out, I didn't expect much. I wanted to be fair to Green Day. I wanted to hear the record on its own merits, and not against the unreasonably high standard of American Idiot. And now I feel like a perfect moron for expecting anything less than brilliance.

21st Century Breakdown doesn't rival American Idiot; 21st Century Breakdown trumps it in every respect. Subjectively, I prefer the new "rock" singles ("Know Your Enemy" and "21st Century Breakdown") to "American Idiot." I think they're smarter, and more inclusive, and more fun as listens. Its featured ballad "21 Guns" is a more complete song--and a more daring vocal--than the admittedly great "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Melodically, it could be "Boulevard's" sequel.

For all the Clash comparisons Green Day's earned, invited, and rejected over the years, the last two albums sound more musically influenced by earnest, operatic pop bands (Queen) than political punk outfits. In fact, those disparate influences form one of the most rewarding aspects of the record: 21CB is somehow aesthetically consistent as a record while varying wildly song-to-song. For example, a string of songs at the album's center seem to be songwriting exercises. There's the Hives-esque garage rocker ("Horseshoes and Handgrenades"); a Jack White-style campy, baroque melody ("Little Girl"); a stutter-stepping emo anthem, complete with My Chemical Romance-style cheers and pointed descriptions of "white boys and fat girls" ("East Jesus Nowhere"); several falsetto melodies ("21 Guns," "Before the Lobotomy") that sound more conventionally akin to Switchfoot or even The Fray than Green Day. It's as if Billy Joe is taking on every challenger to the throne, one at a time, and pummeling them into submission. The achievement isn't that Green Day can out-perform other bands with their own tricks; it's that they can put all of these songs together on a wide-ranging concept album, and still make the whole thing sound like a Green Day record first.

American Idiot held a stance, loaded for bear, took aim, and beautifully, mercilessly mowed down all opposition; 21CB does more by letting everyone, including the opposition, in. It aims as high, and it achieves more. And if I wrote my March Madness now, I'd have to reconsider the winner.

It's that good.

The Avett Brothers, I And Love And You
There's a lesson to be learned here: great pop music can take any form. While Green Day openly wants to be the biggest band in the world, the Avetts seem perfectly comfortable maximizing their niche. They have no Billboard hits--and may never--but they'll always increase their audience with their brand of smart-yet-accessible, rootsy-yet-contemporary pop. This isn't just their finest collection of songs (something that shouldn't surprise any fan of Rick Rubin), or their most mature production (see the last parenthesis); it's their most generous. It strikes the same tone (strength-through-vulnerability, earnest, selfless, proudly optimistic) that characterizes the best of Big Star, Counting Crows, Elliot Smith, Wilco, and, most of all, REM. This is a record that wants to give a lot to the listener, and it has a lot to give.

Pearl Jam, Backspacer
For a Pantheon pop-rock band, Pearl Jam sure does take a lot of listens. It's hard to fathom--and easy to forget--but Pearl Jam's best work has always taken some time to sink in. Retrospectively, how could anyone not hear the obvious, effortless brilliance of "Alive" upon Ten's release? The album languished for a year until Nevermind kickstarted the Seattle explosion. Why, when I began buying records for myself, did I not realize that so many of my favorite 90's singles were made by the same band in the same three-year span? How did I, a young and very casual pop fan hear "Glorified G" in 1993 and "Not For You" in 1995 but not know which band they belonged to? Yield might be my favorite album on the planet to listen to, but my first listen yielded no returns (pun fun!). I can't imagine ignoring "Save You" now, but I did at first. Pearl Jam's deeper cuts seemed unremarkable in 2006, and essential in 2009.

You get the picture: something about this band (Eddie's melodies, Stone's riffs, something else, everything else) sneaks up on you. Your first impression--even if it's good--will not be your sixth impression. Pearl Jam records are a fluid thing.

They're also a deeply personal thing. As I've written before, no band will probably mean more to me than Pearl Jam, because they're the band that mattered the most at the age where music mattered the most. While I can hotly anticipate and subjectively appreciate a new Green Day record, I don't feel invested in it. I receive, and I react. With Pearl Jam, their development as a band is somehow inextricable from my development as a fan. When they take an artistic turn, I explore new territory as a listener. They shape what type of fan I will be to other bands, and future records.

So I avoided the sneak-peeks of Backspacer as they appeared across the internet. I dodged the single downloads and the talk show appearances. I wanted to hear it all at once. Then, I wanted to hear it five times before I reacted. And now that I've lived with this album for almost six weeks, I can say that it's very good. It's a record Pearl Jam fans will be proud of. It's a record Pearl Jam fans will in no way be disappointed by (except for the lunatics who object to Target). It stands on its own, and it stands tall. If this was their first album, Pearl Jam would be catapulted on its singular merits. If this was their last album, I think I'd be satisfied with their swan song.

Because of its smaller scope, quirky moments, dark rockers, and casual confidence, a friend initially compared it to No Code. Citing its thematic and lyrical departure (deeply introspective, interpersonal, and narrative) and meditative tone, another friend considered it a "new Yield." I think they're both right: the album's tone, casual production, and mid-level consistency are sonically reminiscent of the tough-loving No Code. In terms of thematic departures, it's the first major shift since the spiritual awakening of Yield.

I'd ultimately rank Backspacer above No Code (the songs are stronger) and below Yield (the songs are weaker). Which puts it in in my Top 5 Pearl Jam records. Which makes it better than practically everything else.

One more note: in the spring of 2008, I greatly anticipated the new Black Crowes, Counting Crows, and My Morning Jacket releases. All disappointed me to varying degrees. The Black Crowes didn't have their fastball anymore, and MMJ seeemed to only have their fastball. Most depressing, by far, was the unmitigated failure of CC's Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings. Of the three billion things that went wrong on that record, the first (and biggest) was this: they experimented in a way that ignored all of their strengths.

And what I'm trying to say is this: Pearl Jam knows their strengths (lovable rock riffs, rock solid rhythm section, soaring choruses, song-serving musicality, and EDDIE), and they're still smart enough to use them. Even when they want to try something new, they use their strengths as the starting point for experimentation. If Eddie wants to tell a new type of story and experiment with a string-arrangement ("The End"), they let his voice and the band's talent for nuanced performance lead the way.

might not be their greatest record. It might not match the renaissance of Yield. But it's really, really, really good. And as long as they're together, and playing to their strengths, they have more greatness in them.

Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk
Given my unrelenting mancrush on all things My Morning Jacket and Jim James, you'd think I sought Monsters of Folk the second it was on the market. Somehow, I didn't. It passed me right by. Maybe it was the timing, mixed with my move and temporary internet shortages. Maybe it was my distaste for most of the Conor Oberst catalog. Maybe it was my extreme apathy toward every M. Ward song I've heard. Maybe I just forgot.

When my brother was kind enough to send a copy, I expected:
--A spare, acoustic neo-folk record
--Something that sounded sunny and vintage and autumnal
--To truly love one song and like a few more
--That all of those would be sung by Jim James
--To ignore pretty much everything else

The lesson, as always: I'm an idiot.

Monsters of Folk is nothing I expected, which is totally rewarding. While some melodies and arrangements are familiar, and some arrangements are more acoustic and spare, and some songs are vaguely "rootsy," the message is sent in the first second of the first song: this is not a folk record. It's not even a "folk record" in the modern, revised, deconstructed, and polished vein of Mermaid Avenue. It's really just a collection of songs, most of which are good, and a few of which are very good.

Beyond the collection of songs, it's a collection of talent--talent that collaborates in ways I didn't expect. My favorite melodies--always my gateway to song infatuation--on this record are sung by Conor Oberst. My favorite lyrics are sung by M. Ward. Oddly, my favorite Jim James vocal moments appear in the background ("Losin' Yo Head" being the romping exception). Maybe the most impacting song on the album is its least "folky," the surreal and haunting "His Master's Voice."

Monsters of Folk is practically nothing I expected it to be, and almost everything I want it to be. It's a great reminder that some of the best listening experiences are unexpected.

It still feels good to be wrong.

Lucero, 1372 Overton Park
The time between the pre-order for this record (mid-summer) and its actual release (October 6) seemed to last years. The time between the actual release (October 6) and its arrival in my mailbox (October 16) seemed to last decades. In the interim, I hid from friends. I hid from reviews. I refused discussion of the record. I wanted to sit in silence and wait in the dark. And I waited forever.

1372 Overton Park was worth the wait.

When Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers came out in 2006, I reviewed it in this space. It was a breakthrough for the band. Sonically, Rebels expanded their sound by adding keys' legend Rick Steff and a more polished production. In terms of songwriting, Ben Nichols made another leap; the lyrics were sharper, more structured, the hooks catchier, the scope bigger, the tone more epic. It leaned on the best of their influences (Springsteen, the Replacements) while staying true to their own unique vision. It was such a strong, exuberant, inspired record, I worried that it would be their best. I worried they might've exhausted their magic.

I shouldn't have worried. If you liked anything about Rebels, you will love everything about 1372 Overton Park. I don't like this record because it's very good, and I don't like it because I'm a long-time fan and I feel invested at this point (I think you know by now I'm hardest on my favorite bands). I love this record because it's truly, legitimately, unbelievably great.

Two aspects of this album have dominated its press:
1) This is Lucero's true major label debut. What's that mean for "nobody's darling" underground rock heroes? Will the weight of expectation crush them?!? Oh no, oh my!
2) There are horns. Wait, what? Horns? Christ! What will the fanboys think?!? Oh no, oh my!

Of course, the critical consensus is that:
--This is Lucero's best album.
--The horns work and the album wouldn't be the same without them.
--This will be on every critical short list for "Album of the Year."

And what to make of those two points, anyway?

1) This is Lucero's major label debut. Yeah. They're ready. They could've gone one of two ways. They could've shrunk, reverted back, played the "lovable loser, star-crossed ne'er-do-well" angle and cut a bunch of Attic Tapes sequels. Or, they could've continued their evolution as a big, bad, popular rock band, seized the opportunity, owned it, and taken what they've rightfully earned on the road for a decade: real success.

They chose the latter. And after seeing this last week in New York--touring with a horn section, keys player, and lap steel guitarist--they're not looking back. At all. They were exceptional live, simultaneously polished and thrilling, sharp and spontaneous, epic and intimate. They're the best they've ever been, and they're the biggest they've ever been, and while that's somewhat surprising for Lucero fans, it's also great.

2) Horns. Aside from my personal love affair with all horn-related things and all music therein (including Memphis's legacy there), why would anyone object to an instrument outright? Would anyone? While there are certainly "superfans" out there who are put-off by the idea of Lucero with an expanded (read: poppy) sound (more on that in a second), I'd love to meet the music fan who read a press release that said "Lucero, now with horns" and said, "screw THAT." I don't think they exist. Ultimately, the horns work because the songs support them; in turn, the horns serve the songs. They're not just supplemental; they're essential.

Here's the section where I'd love to gush about each song individually, and perhaps I will at another time. Suffice it to say that half of my favorite Lucero songs of all-time are on this album, and that I have a new favorite every day, and that there isn't even a relative weakness, and that I can't stop listening to it. If you're reading this blog, you're probably inclined to like Lucero anyway. I doubt I need to sell it, and it certainly sells itself.

I will say that one strength of the songwriting is that it should only expand the band's audience. These songs are so pitch-perfect, so perfectly tuned into their audience while becoming more accessible to a broader audience, that there's something for fanboys and sorority girls alike. Sure, the horn line's a far cry from the dueling acoustics of the Attic Tapes. But "Mom" isn't a far cry from "It Gets the Worst At Night." It's the same band--just exponentially better. There are albums that have one song for everyone, and there are albums in which every song has something for everyone. 1372 is the latter. It's the best kind of populism.

I re-read Nick Hornby's Songbook last week. In one essay, he struggles with the idea of his new favorite song becoming everyone's favorite. What once belonged to him--his own musical secret--suddenly belonged to everyone. "How is it possible to love or connect to music that is as omnipresent as carbon monoxide?"

My friends have struggled with the same issue regarding Lucero, their most recent success, and their ever-expanding fanbase. "What would you do if you saw a thirteen year-old twerp at a strip mall tomorrow wearing a Lucero t-shirt?"

This question is asked and answered by music fans from a specific time and place (Memphis, this decade, watching Lucero come through the ranks), but could be asked by anyone, anywhere who has ever loved a local band. We follow them. We root for them. We chart their successes, we note their failures, we gobble up every release, and we anticipate every concert. We argue and agree with each other about their prospects and their achievements. We sing along.

Beyond that, we invest. The band's story becomes inextricably linked to our own. In the same way all music criticism can be read as autobiography, the band's success or failure can run parallel to our own successes and failures. And when the band reaches a level of success where a kid can show up in their t-shirt and overlook the life before it, we take it as an insult to us, our investment, and our life. These people skipped the process and went straight to the payoff.

Well, here's my story: I happened to hear a Memphis band named Lucero in 2002. My brother recommended them to me; his friend recommended them to him. Relative to Memphis scenesters, I was late to the game.

I heard Tennessee, then heard the two releases before it. I thought they were making some smart, gorgeous, sleepy, accessible alt-country. I loved their songs. I went to shows. I went to shows where I was 10% of the audience. I went to shows that were drunken farces. I watched as the fanboy contingent formed. I watched as they continued to put out records, as they developed a bigger sound and scope. I watched as the crowds grew. I watched as they created a trainwreck stage schtick, almost a piece of self-destructive performance art. I worried it would compromise their development, that they were creating their own ceiling. I heard "Sixteen" and thought they'd broken new ground. I saw them being better musicians live, and I saw the crowds double. I read the press. I rooted like hell for a major label deal and some real promotional backing. I wondered how big their audience would get if they actually had some business behind it. I waited for them to get their live act together, and their partying under control. I watched as the fanboys got rowdier. I listened when Rebels came out, and I worried that would be it. I heard the rumors about SXSW, about the Black Keys supporting shows, about every opportunity seized or slipping by. I wrote about their struggle with the underdog persona, and what it means to be a failure in the face of success. I watched all of it from the front row of bigger and bigger venues, all while they kept making music and that music kept getting better. And what I'm trying to say is this:

I hope to God I see that thirteen year-old twerp at the strip mall. I want to see a million of him. I've had my time with Lucero, and it ain't going anywhere. Let that kid have his time. And let Lucero have theirs.

They've earned it.


P.S. Next Week: Songs for November!

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