Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Lazaretto, by Jack White (Album of the Week)

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

This album is like having a serious talk with an old friend who has eaten a pound bag of skittles and slammed a pint of espresso. Touching and meaningful, but out of control and a bit deranged. It’s brilliant, fun stuff, and it gets better each time you listen to it. Robin likes it, too, but that’s partially because she’s fascinated by Lazarettos, which were quarantine areas for people with communicable diseases. She’s a Public Health nerd who appreciates great music, so this is right up her alley.

Everything I have to say about this album ought to come with an asterisk, because as much as I loved it, I only listened to the MP3 version. It wasn’t till this morning that I found out about the Ultra Vinyl edition, which sounds like a complete mind-blower, with one side playing from the inside out, 3 different speeds, dual grooves that give you different intros to a song, tracks on the label, a hologram and more.

Jack White is obsessive about his music, as in, just this side of the nuthouse passionate about what he’s doing. It doesn’t surprise me that some are calling the album unhinged and messy, but they’re saying more about their unwillingness to go there than they are about the album itself. This album throws everything at you, and if you’re not able or willing to catch it all, I wouldn’t blame the pitcher.

The album starts off in classic style with “Three Women”, a funky and fun tribute to infidelity with three (red, blonde hair, and brunette) women, and closes with a bit of common-sense braggadocio –

“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking
What gives you the right?

Well, these women must be getting something
Cause they come and see me every night”

It’s a joyful romp with exuberant guitar work throughout. In the next song, “Lazaretto”, the title track justifies his unwillingness to settle into one groove for the album – “And even God herself has fewer plans than me/But she never helps me out with my scams for free, though/She grabs a stick and then she pokes it at me.” This guy is clearly driven to create. If you’re keeping score, this one goes from rap to rock via a great guitar solo and strains of violin.

The most wonderfully insane song on the album is “Black Bat Licorice”, which starts out with a female vocalist telling him to “Behave yourself”, but he shakes loose from that advice and goes nuts with grinding guitars and jumpy bass work. His lyrics deal with the line of insanity, and he yearns for a more peaceful existence away from the voices in his head – “Don’t you want to lose the part of the brain that has opinions?/To not even know what you are doing, or care about yourself or your species in the billions.”

This album is not pure adrenaline – it has its slower songs, such as the closer, “Want and Able”, a folksy parable that addresses desire and ability as two characters, and ends with an awful lyric that makes you go back and listen again to this manic album of loss and pain:

Now, Want and Able are two different things
One is desire, and the other is the means
Like I wanna hold you, and see you, and feel you in my dreams
But that’s not possible, something simply will not let me

At only 39 minutes, this is a short album, but it’s probably the biggest album I’ve listened to all year. Musically, it features an absoute virtuoso working his hardest at a creative peak. Lyrically, it’s serious but not self-serious, and there’s a lot of fun in it. I know after spending one week with this album that it is going to stay with me as one of the best albums in my collection.

Up next: Put Your Needle Down, by The Secret Sisters

Stockholm, by Chrissie Hynde (Album of the Week)

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

First, sorry for the extended unexcused absence. Visiting children, insane work schedules, business travel and sheer distraction knocked us off our weekly schedule. But we’re back, and Chrissie Hynde takes us way back.

In reviewing this album, you can go one of two ways. First I should point out that this is simply a dose of Chrissie Hynde as herself. Unlike George Michael calling in a symphony, or Snoop becoming a Lion, or Band of Horses going acoustic, this is Chrissie Hynde sounding a lot like she did when I kind of fell in love with her in the early 80s.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s bad because there’s no progress – no growth – no freshness.

It’s good because it’s music that sounds great and feels even better.

Either view has its merits, but I’m sticking with the good side. It’s Chrissie freaking Hynde, for Pete’s sake, and her voice still has that velvety touch of aching and that snarling toughness. Nobody can argue that this album is anything less than a solid rock and roll effort. It could be argued that there isn’t anything on it that will become a classic like “Back on the Chain Gang” or “Brass in Pocket”, but I’m not so sure that’s true. A few of these songs have stuck with me for the past several weeks, and if you listen to this album, you’ll probably have a few stick in your brain. “Dark Sunglasses”, “Adding the Blue” or “You’re the One” are worthy of prime placement on anyone’s playlist.

This is billed as a solo album, but it’s not one of those self-indulgent “artiste” things where Hynde went off and played hermit alone with a bunch of instruments. This is a collaboration, including excellent instrumentalists and even a cameo from Neil Young in “Down the Wrong Way”.

Even better than bringing in Neil Young was the appearance of John McEnroe. Yes, that John McEnroe! And, if you’re a longtime lover of Hynde and the Pretenders, you’ll remember when she blasted off “Pack it Up” with “You’re the pits of the world!” – a quotation of bad-boy tennis star John McEnroe from Wimbledon in 1981. McEnroe does a creditable job working the guitar in “A Plan to Far”.

Go ahead and point out that John McEnroe is washed up as a tennis player, if you want to be a jerk about it. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy the music and be happy that Chrissie Hynde is still having fun with her bass-driven rock songs. I liked her sound in 1980, and I still do.

Maybe Chrissie Hynde could show some growth by taking up the piano and singing about arteriosclerosis, but I’m glad she’s 62 and still rocking. She’s still “special”, if you ask me.

Robin didn’t enjoy this album nearly as much as I did, and she questions the sincerity of a hooky, bouncy Chrissie Hynde. Honestly, she makes some good points, but Robin was always too nice to fully embrace the black leather snarl of someone like Chrissie. Some things never change, and I’m okay with that. (PS: Robin says this makes her sound like a wimp. It’s not a fair characterization, if so. She was listening to Frank Zappa when I was listening to Billy Joel.)

Up next: Lazaretto, by Jack White

Vari-Colored Songs, by Leyla McCalla (Album of the Week)

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Vari-Colored Songs is the best example of why I LOVE the fact that half the albums of our weekly series are chosen by Robin. I would never have chosen this album. Even if I had stumbled across it and listened to a few songs, I’m pretty sure I would not have given it a chance to win me over the way it has. Robin has great taste, though, and it is different enough from mine that it brings me places I would never go otherwise. I count myself lucky to have a partner in this project and in all others who helps me see and react to a broader world.

Why would I have been close-minded to this album if left to my own devices? Perhaps because the cynic in me struggles with the earnestness of a project like this. Leyla McCalla is a classically-trained cello player who tours with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This album comes from a Kickstarter project in which she wrote: “What began several years ago as an inspired idea to set a Langston Hughes poem to music, has since flowered into a very personal exploration of African-American and Haitian history through song. Vari-Colored Songs is an album that has been waiting at least 5 years to be made! The moment is ripe and the momentum is strong!!!”

You’ve got to admit the cynical me has a point. Langston Hughes tends to bring out the worst in people, and a middle-aged white male Irish-Polish-American might not find much flowering in a “very personal exploration of African-American and Haitian history through song.” I mean, the cynical me has no problem at all with Leyla McCalla, born in New York to Haitian parents, doing personal exploration, but I’ll be just fine sticking to my own personal exploration through the Elders and maybe some Flogging Molly. I think there’s a bit of cultural segregationist in each of us at some level. Perhaps not, in which case there’s my confessional.

But Robin signed me up for this “very personal exploration,” like it or not, and sure enough, I wound up enthusiastic about stuff way outside my normal zone. This is a great album with arrangements that are so naked that it feels voyeuristic to listen in on them. She has a tremendous warm voice that she trusts to engage naturally – no histrionics or bogus vibrato. It is personal, as promised, but welcoming.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the album is how well the poetry of Langston Hughes adapts to song form. I have an almost unlistenable CD of WB Yeats’ poetry performed by the Waterboys (see, I told you about that Irish side of me!) where they approach the poems as something separate from themselves. They treat them reverently and, as a result, the album is not much more fun that a dusty seminar. In songs like Songs for a Dark Girl and Too Blue, though, Leyla McCalla just flat out inhabits the poems and makes them her own. Too Blue is downright funny – and McCalla was wise to perceive the humor in the poem and bring it out front and center.

TS Eliot, a fellow Missourian to Langston Hughes, wrote that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” (Go read the article if you like that quotation – the author was annoyed by the frequent misquotation attributed to Picasso, and tracked down the truth.) I’m not sure that McCalla really makes Hughes different – I think she enhances him and makes us love his words on a different level.

There’s much more than Langston Hughes on this album – several Haitian folk songs and some great string music. They’re so enjoyable that my mind doesn’t even struggle to decipher the foreign language – I wind up just shutting that part of my brain down and enjoying the sound.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is as pleased as I am with her choice, which she admits was a bit of a lark.

Next up: Stockholm, by Chrissie Hynde (We have a lot going on in the real world this week, and this album won’t be released till Tuesday, so we might wind up taking a week off. Or not. We’ll see!)

Transgender Dysphoria Blues, by Against Me!

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

In this series of reviews, I’ve often liked an album and bluntly stated to everyone out there that they should go buy it. This isn’t one of those albums, even though I enjoyed it a lot. If punk is not your cup of tea musically or if you’re going to struggle with the subject of transgender life, you’re probably not going to like this album. I enjoyed it a lot, but I won’t be handing it out for Christmas gifts the way I did A Charlie Brown Christmas one year.

The lead singer of Against Me! is Laura Jane Grace, though she used to be Tom Gabel until she began the medical journey necessary to become a woman. Tom Gabel and Against Me! were already a successful punk band – I was confused when I heard tracks off this album, because the only album I knew from this album was The Original Cowboy, from when the lead singer sounded more male.

This music is not for everyone, but if you give it a try, there’s a decent chance you’ll find yourself sing-shouting “They just see a faggot” or crooning “You don’t worry about tomorrow anymore/Because you’re dead”. That’s one of the funny things about punk or hip-hop music – they lead middle-aged, balding, middle-class chubby guys to forget all that for 3 or 4 minutes, and inhabit a completely different space.

The completely different space of Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not a “nice” place to visit, so don’t buy the album if you’re not willing to listen to tales of death-focus, gender-struggle, anger and suicide. I’d be hard-pressed to say why I enjoy the album so much – is it morbid curiosity, empathy, or vague remembrance of the darker thoughts of teenaged years? While shifting from male to female is not something universal, being pissed off at the world to the extent of “I want to piss on the walls of your house” expressed an emotion even this “gone mild” personality can recall.

For me, the most upsetting song is “Two Coffins” – also the prettiest acoustic number on the album. In it, Laura Jane Grace tenderly sings of her little daughter, and how they will both eventually die: “In the dark of our graves/ our bodies will decay/ I wish you’d never change.” Damn! I certainly know the bittersweet feeling of watching my children grow and wishing they could stay young and sheltered longer, but this song takes that universal parental emotion to a much creepier place. I wish the joyous lyric “How lucky I ever was to see/The way that you smiled at me/Your little moon face shining bright at me” weren’t immediately followed by “One day soon there’ll be nothing left of you and me”. This is unsparing music, to say the least.

And that has always been part of the weird attraction of punk rock for me. It smacks you upside the head with your own boundaries of what can be said. That’s a shared trait with good hip-hop, but whereas hip-hop tends to shock you with violence and misogyny, punk tackles politics, death, existence and, in this particular album, gender.

Sometimes the attitude is downright perversely funny. There’s something kind of funny about “Drinking with the Jocks”, even though the song is about alienation. “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” is dark, dark humor with its in-your-face shock value.

Yikes, I’m at 550+ words, and I haven’t really talked about the sound, which I love. My recollection of punk is that the musicianship tended to be more energetic than competent, but Against Me! is a tight band with a catchy sound. I mentioned the prettiness of “Two Coffins” – you could rewrite that song with gentle lyrics and have an acoustic alt-country hit. Other songs feature drums that are exuberant, and some really enjoyable guitar work. This may be the best sounding punk album that I’ve ever listened to. Faint praise, indeed, but the music on this album ranks up there as really good rock music. I’m looking forward to seeing them live later this summer.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is happy that she gave this band a listen, and her first paragraph is a delightful self-critique of her typographical blinders in the world of music.

Next up: Vari-Colored Songs: Tribute to Langston Hughes, by Leyla McCalla

St. Vincent, by St. Vincent (Album of the Week)

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

I read somewhere that an interviewer asked St. Vincent why she named her album eponymously, and she explained that MIles Davis wrote in his biography that the hardest thing in music is to sound like yourself. She feels like this album sounds like her, so she named it St. Vincent.

That’s a fine notion, and a good explanation, but it morphs into something a little more weird when you recall that St. Vincent’s real name is Annie Clark. Without pushing the point too hard, I think it could be argued that the album St. Vincent is one step away from truly personal, but it’s a damned good invention. I think it’s another instance of St. Vincent being just a touch more subtle and clever than most people recognize.

My suggestion that she’s kind of playing with us is borne out, I think, by the many references to her stage life in the album. In Severed Crossed Fingers, there’s “When your calling ain’t calling back to you/I’ll be side-stage mouthing lines for you.” In Prince Johnny, “We’re all sons of someone’s/I wanna mean more than I mean to you/I wanna mean more than I meant to him/So I pray to all to make me a real girl.” In Digital Witness she complains, “Digital witnesses/What’s the point of even sleeping/If I can’t show if you can’t see me.” I could pull more examples from the lyrics, but she explains what she’s getting at in an interview I found: “Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behaviour. We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll . . . ”

Enough of the talk of self-awareness – this is a great album. So great that it’s hard to choose a favorite song, or even a least-favorite song. They’re all kind of brilliant, and they cover a wide range of style from a touching soft homage to her mother (“I Prefer Your Love”) to jaunty dance tunes and ethereal sound splashes.

Robin seems pretty enthralled with this album – and, who knows, it might lead her to pick up her own guitar and imitate some of St. Vincent’s work?

I want to be cautious about tossing comparisons around, because I think it’s insulting to artists to say that they sound like someone else when they are trying to communicate in their own fashion. How many male singer/songwriters get referred to as Dylan or Young or Petty if they sound a bit nasally, even if they’re dishing out reasonably fresh treatments to different themes?

That said, I want to give you an idea of what you’ll hear when you buy this album, as you really should. “Huey Newton” shares sonic similarities with “”You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, but it’s a lot more fun. “Rattlesnake” sounds like Annie Lennox in a cathedral. “Digital Witness” has Blondie in its bloodline. But, truly, St. Vincent puts her own spin on these masters – she’s not imitating anyone, and why would she?

One other aspect of this album that I found refreshing and encouraging is her use of sexuality. The very first words you hear on the album are, “Follow the power-lines back from the road/No one around so I take off my clothes/Am I the only one in the only world?” The great thing is, though, that she doesn’t go that way with the song – the nakedness is merely a factual element of her sense of fear and vulnerability in nature. She’s not singing about being naked so that she will come off as some sexy vixen – she felt like communing with nature and got scared by the sound of a rattlesnake. You might be able to do some Freudian analysis on that song, but it is proudly NOT coquettishly sexy. It’s great to see a contemporary pop singer flat out refuse to play sexy for us. Then, she follows it up by starting the next song with “Oh, what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate/I’m still holding for the laugh.” She’s daring us to try to box her into some sexy starlet pigeonhole, because that’s not who she is.

Annie Clark is profoundly self-aware and wildly intelligent, so, yeah, I think she’s jerking our chains when she says “I sound like myself on this record.” She knows she sounds like St. Vincent.

Next up: Transgender Dysphoria Blues, by Against Me!

EBT will help you understand your parent’s and grandparent’s vision of high-class cuisine

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

EBT is simply one of the best restaurants in Kansas City, with no qualifications necessary. It achieves its preeminence with nary a nod toward culinary fashion or glance at what they are doing on the coasts. If everything old is new again, then EBT deserves a fresh wave of admiration for daring to remain steadfastly focused on serving outstanding food with spot-on service.

It’s too easy to write EBT off as a museum piece – a relic of the slightly post Mad-Men era. The conclusion is a short hop, not even a jump, given that the space includes actual relics from the long-gone Emery Bird and Thayer downtown department store, and the restaurant is located in the lobby of Kansas City’s most old school banking institution, UMB. Yes, there is a museum-like quality to the space, and the space only enhances a classic menu.

Some could look at this menu and conclude that EBT has fallen behind the times, but that would be a mistake. Instead, the menu should be admired for its display of discipline in focusing on the elegant classics that have withstood the test of time. It would be a simple thing to jazz up the Pepper Steak by substituting something trendier like venison or at least bison, and the chef might earn hipster points if he used to rye whiskey instead of brandy, but that’s not what EBT is about. It’s great to show creativity and to riff off the classics, but EBT is dedicated to actually doing the classics.

When I say that your grandparents would love EBT, I’m not implying that the fresh-baked rolls and exquisitely crisp buttered garlic toast points are dull or old-fashioned; I am saying that your grandparents will recognize a sense of composure and dignity not often found in a hype-driven restaurant world. When they wheel up the cart to make the Caesar salad tableside, it’s not an homage, it is a well-presented freshly dressed salad with meticulously dried lettuce so that the pungent anchovy-laced dressing will cling to every leaf. Bone-dry lettuce is a detail that gets overlooked in 99% of restaurants where salads are pre-chilled and gather condensation on the way to your table. EBT does it right, and is one of the very few in KC who even know there’s a difference.

As you can see from the menu, this classicism doesn’t come cheap, but it does come with outstanding service. Paul took great care of us, and the hostess kept our water glasses and bread plate full. (I forgot to mention the whipped butter – so good for spreading! Why do other restaurants slap a chunk of stiff cold butter in front of you and expect you to figure out a way to consume it without shredding your bread?) It was half-price wine night, and we relied on Paul’s recommendation of a hearty red which turned out to be Simi’s “Landslide”, a tannic counterpoint to my rich, rich, rich Osso Bucco. Robin had the appetizer portion of vegetable risotto with diver’s scallops as her entree, and the scallops were caramelized on the outside with a perfectly cooked interior. She proclaimed them among the best she’s ever had.

We walked in joking about lime jello and meatloaf. We walked out “wowed” by a fantastic meal from an overlooked gem of a restaurant. Rye, Julia(n), Story, the American, Bluestem and Justus Drugstore will continue to capture attention and ink with their great razzle-dazzle meals, but if you want to sit down to the classic Kansas City restaurant experience without a micro-green or piece of artisanal offal in sight, head down to 435 and State Line. And bring your parents or grandparents, too.

Songwriter, by Kristie Stremel (Album of the Week)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

I bought this CD from the artist on a Saturday evening a couple weeks ago at the Record Bar. It didn’t get reviewed in Rolling Stone, and Metacritic doesn’t have an entry for Kristie Stemel. There’s no big marketing machine behind this, no slick production, no focus groups to tweak the lyrics and no billboards to let us know her concert dates. Just a determined musician stubborn enough to think she can make something out of a home studio, a few friends, and a willingness to play venues before it’s even dark out.

Let me talk about the live show before I tackle the album. I’d never heard of Kristie Stremel, and we only went because a friend/musician from Springfield told us he was going to be there, and we wanted to hang out with him. A 7:00 show, it always feels a bit weird to be drinking beer and watching a band while the bright sun still shines whenever people part the curtains.

Live music is transporting. You can’t help but get wrapped up in it when a singer is having a blast, the guitarists are wringing notes out of a simple guitar, and the bass player stands there backing up the whole thing like a stoic god. “Why don’t I do this more often?” bugs the back of my mind. (The only reason I can think of is the just-barely-controllable desire to do something mean to the inconsiderate idiots who shout conversations over the music.)

If you get the chance to see Kristie Stemel live, just do it. She rocks on her low-slung guitar and makes it all fun. It’s worth venturing out of your living room for the evening, I promise.

On to the album, which I’ve probably delayed because it’s hard to get this exactly right. I like this album a lot – it has some infectious pop songs and some plain beautiful numbers. That said, it has a few songs that kind of land with a thump, but they don’t ruin the album at all. They just make it human and, in a way, even more inspiring, when you think about the lack of a safety net. This woman wrote the music, recruited friends to play with her, recorded and produced the CD in her home studio, chose the cover art, booked the dates of her tour, and showed up to rock the house. If “String Theory” kind of lapses into three minutes of formulaic rock, well, too bad – she’s mixing up sounds on this album, and someone else might love it.

One of Kristie Stemel’s real strengths is her range, both in her voice and her music. I sometimes get bored with artists who can sing three pretty notes and that’s it, but Kristie covers the range from a growl to a clear high note expressively and dead on. One of my favorites on the album is “Friendville”, a quiet number with some great guitar work that shows off her vocal range. “Breaking up with Dreams” is a majestic anthem, and “Sun Sky and the Moon” is just a beautiful song.

At this stage of her career, Kristie Stemel won’t be the fresh-faced phenom like Kacey Musgraves is, but if you like female troubadours like Karla Bonoff or Tracy Chapman you ought to find one of her shows, listen to the music (if you’re going to shout over it, stay home, please!), have a great time and hand over $10 for a CD after the show. That’s how you support artists who are working hard and deserve it.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin notices similarities to other female rockers, like Lucinda Williams, Pat Benatar, and Amy Rigby, and agrees with me that this is some really nice home-grown rock and roll.

I just noticed that Kristie Stemel will be performing an acoustic show with Holmes Street and Adriana Nikole at Californo’s in Westport on June 21. Yeah, you should be there, unless you talk too much. (If you can’t make it to a show, you can buy her music on iTunes here or from her own website.)

Next Up: St. Vincent, by St. Vincent

Morning Phase, by Beck (Album of the Week)

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

It’s hard to believe that this Beck is the same guy who burst on the scene with the catchy “Loser” (“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) 20 years ago. Morning Phase is a mature, thoughtful album by a completely different guy.

Robin and I both have struggled a bit to come up with something to say about this album, except that it’s really good and we both enjoy it. It’s funny – almost everyone we mention it to hear’s something else that they really like in it. Robin hears old Elton John. I hear the powerfully surging vocals of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” – one of my favorite albums of all time. Robin ultimately just tells you to listen for yourself – which is great advice.

A friend last night described Beck as a “shape-shifter“, in the tradition of David Bowie and Neil Young. There’s some truth to that – Beck has changed his sound in major ways, but always comes out with interesting, well-worked music.

Unfortunately, that talent at drawing from different sources to produce something uniquely Beck makes him a target for some awful writing. I almost blew coffee through my nose when I read this sentence in the Rolling Stones’ review of the album – “Beck remains a master of pastiche, and trainspotters can have a field day mapping reference points: ‘Blue Moon’ shares a name with the Rodgers-Hart and Alex Chilton songs, but more closely resembles Bob Seger’s ‘Mainstreet’ getting abstracted by Brian Eno in a Laurel Canyon time share.

If that’s the kind of crap that professionals write about this album, what chance do two middle-aged Kansas Citians have to capture its essence?

One of the interesting facets of this album are two brief instrumental pieces – “Cycle”, which serves as the first 40 seconds of the album and then bleeds into “Morning”, and “Phase”, which provides an aural breath of relaxation about 2/3 of the way through the album.

In the hands of 99% of musicians, these simple but beautiful pieces would have come across as gimmicky and overblown, but Beck makes them work. You know that you’re in the hands of a serious artist when you’re listening to Beck. Not a note is out of place – the sounds are pure and well-engineered. Even the buzzing guitar string on “Heart is a Drum” sounds like it belongs there – a personal reminder that there’s a human behind this slickly produced album.

It’s wonderful to hear this album. It’s absolutely serious, thoughtful music without being ponderous or self-indulgent. It’s polished, but there’s human emotion abounding in it. I liked “Loser” and “Two Turntables and a Microphone”, but this is way better. Beck is an artist, not just a clever musician.

Next up: Songwriter, by Kristie Stremel

Teeth Dreams, by The Hold Steady (Album of the Week)

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

This album is another in a series of The Hold Steady albums exploring a drug-fueled, violence-prone dystopia with human touches that keep everything just barely this side of despair. The music is solid bar-room rock with plenty of guitars and drums. The thoughtful lyrics are snarled with a mix of anger. contempt and wise-ass swagger.

This is what The Hold Steady does. Real aficionados can discuss major differences among the albums put out by Craig Finn and the band, but the essence of The Hold Steady – bar rock with evocative lyrics spat out with Finn’s distinctive style – doesn’t change a bit. Unless you’re a real student of the group, this is more of the same, but you will like it because it is a truly excellent “same”.

My reference to students of the group is worth emphasizing. The Hold Steady has, over its 6 albums, created a fictional world with recurring characters, plot lines, and references. The annotations over at Rock Genius can help you figure out some of the references, if you’re interested. If you want to dive deep, you can plunge into the 785 entries at The Hold Steady Wiki.

The good news is that you don’t have to be interested in probing the references to enjoy the music. Even if you don’t know who Charlemagne is or that the Cityscape Skins are an imaginary Minneapolis gang, you will catch clever lyrics and solid rock music when you play this CD. Everyone knows the people described in “I Hope this Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”:

They never care if it’s true
As long as they got something to prove
And they always got something to prove

And you can probably recall that youthful feeling of being slightly out of control like this girl from “Spinners” at some point in our lives:

Once you’re out there every things possible
Even the bad nights aren’t that terrible
Loosen your grip it feels so incredible
Let the city live your life for you tonight

And here’s some good advice for a young woman whose vulnerability after a heartbreak makes her an easy target for the next insincere relationship:

I’m sure they’ll come up in the parking lots and at parties
You know you don’t have to accept
Collecting boyfriends isn’t such a healthy hobby
I’m sorry, but there’s other words than yes

Craig Finn is a sharp-eyed observer of human behavior, and his tales of life on the edge of drugs and violence are approachable because they are so human. It’s not a freak show – it’s more of a voyeuristic look at what humans who are just like you and me might do in harsher circumstances. It’s relevant and relatable, unlike some other albums that require you to learn a whole iconography to make heads or tails of the work.

Robin, over at Deliberate Obfuscation, gets swept away by the poetry, and expresses a real appreciation of the album. She’s right – it’s a darned good album.

Next up: Morning Phase, by Beck.

Acoustic at the Ryman, by Band of Horses (Album of the Week)

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

This album is a limp handshake from a future friend.

This week, Robin chose to have us listen to Acoustic at the Ryman, as an introduction to a band neither of us know knew, but will be seeing live later in the summer. This is not a band that should be met on an acoustic stage, stripped of the muscle and energy that make them compelling. It’s kind of like watching someone play whiffle ball and learning later that it was Albert Pujols swinging the light plastic imitation of his power.

Now, having gone back and listened to some of the Band of Horses catalog, I can see how this could be a fine addition to a fan’s collection of their work. If you see this album as a fresh version of some old faves, then, yeah, you might rave over it. But I’m here to tell you that it’s a terrible first exposure.

If you saw Mick Jagger plucking away at a banjo and wistfully singing “Miss You”, you’d think it’s awesome, because it contrasts with the “real” version you already know. But if you didn’t know Mick Jagger, and had never heard him do it right, you’d think “Why would anybody listen to that, and that wooooo-hoooo-hoooo-hoooo crap has got to go!”

Take, for example, “Slow Cruel Hands of Time“. On first listen of this album, it is so awful that you will start to snicker at it. The harmonies are slap-your-knee funny, as the two singers awkwardly botch their starts and stops like someone had just handed them a sheet of music for the first time and smashed their metronome. “No, you first . . .,” you can almost hear them muttering. Maybe it’s endearing if you love these guys, but if you’re giving it an honest listen, it is hilariously bad, and the over-wrought lyrics just make it funny. But when you go and listen to the original studio version, it’s actually a pretty good song.

Another song that suffers from the translation to an acoustic version is the kind of dickishly named “No One’s Gonna Love You”. The album version uses a great bass line, crisp drums and electric guitars to suck you into bouncing along with the bitter loss of the song. Slowed down and stripped of the wattage, it’s a pathetic emo psycho piece of crap that would be marked as Exhibit A in proceedings for a restraining order.

It says something major about the album that my favorite parts were the “Thank yous” and the cheering. They are heart-warming. The audience LOVES this band – you can sense that everyone there knows every word to every song, and they respond lovingly. In turn, Ben Bridwell thanks them with absolutely charming “Thank yous” that are so genuine that you have to like the guy. He just seems like a really great guy.

Objectively, though, as a piece of music, this album is kind of awful. Really awkward. Embarrassing, even. But I accept that if you bring enough baggage to the performance, you could have a great time with it.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin misconstrues entirely what I’m saying about this album, and offers a completely different appreciation of the work. Robin agrees with me that the audience loved it, though she imagines that I thought they giggled at it (I wrote “they respond lovingly”). She takes a kinder approach to this album, by going back, listening to the studio versions of the songs, and then appreciating these acoustic knock-offs as fun variants. In a sense, she went back, picked up the baggage of a fan of the band, and returned to the Ryman ready to appreciate Mick Jagger crooning an acoustic “Miss You”. That’s great and generous, but if you’re not already a fan, and you listen to this album as an independent work of art, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me, not her.

Next up: Teeth Dreams, by The Hold Steady