The 2019 Emmys: All of the best comedies are the best dramas now

A struggling entertainer pushing against societal and familial expectations. A washed up politician fighting clinging to electoral viability. A drug abusing software developer forced to constantly relive the day of her death while processing her mother’s death and a family history of mental illness. A reformed sex addict, who’s ALSO processing her mother’s death while she simultaneously falls in love with a priest. Ladies and gentleman, come Sunday, these four performances will be duking it out to take home the Emmy award for…Best Actress in a Comedy Series? 

We’ll have to wait a few days to find out which of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan, Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne, and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (in addition to dark horses Christina Applegate of Dead to Me and Catherine O’Hara of Schitt’s Creek) end up going home with a golden statuette, but it’s not too early to start declaring some winners and losers already. Winner number one: Streaming platforms, who, according to my cursory research, make up the majority of an acting ballot for the first time ever (Maisel and Fleabag are both on Amazon Prime, Russian Doll and Dead to Me on Netflix). Loser number one: The network channels, who failed to notch a nominee in this category for the first time since 2013. Winner number two: The female auteur, as both Waller-Bridge and Lyonne created, wrote most of, and in Lyonne’s case, directed some of their respective shows. Loser number two: the traditional multi-cam sitcom, a format that was completely shut out from the major comedy nominations this year. 

I wouldn’t necessarily call these superlatives shocking: network TV’s clout began to wane once cable channels started airing original content in the 90s, and the multi-cam format has been falling out of vogue since the at least the late 2000s. But the Best Actress in a Comedy Series category is a fascinating microcosm of the direction the TV comedy has moved in the past decade, and the way critics and audience members think about the genre as a whole. 

The old adage says that comedy is tragedy plus timing, and the comedians of today seem to have really taken that to heart. Search for a review or thinkpiece on Fleabag, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t mention “grief” somewhere in the headline or one of the first paragraphs. Similarly, Russian Doll’s finale has been described as a “gut punch,”  and a piece on Barry (Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s Emmy nominated HBO comedy about a hitman who catches the acting bug) launches into a discussion of the “banality of evil,” a term first coined by Hannah Arendt to explain the actions of Adolf Eichmann, one of the primary organizers of the Holocaust. Comedies aren’t designed to just make you laugh anymore — they’re designed to make you laugh, cry, gasp, and process your childhood trauma — and the Emmy nominations reflect that new expectation. 

Even Veep, arguably one of the most traditional comedies nominated this year and an Emmy-winning powerhouse, focuses on acid tongued politicos trying to keep the ego and career prospects of a self-involved has-been afloat. Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer is spoiled, selfish, and completely unsympathetic — she makes life a living hell for her staff and isn’t afraid to compromise on her principals to claw her way back to the Oval Office, even when it seems apparent that most of the country is sick of her. Nowadays, we’re either asked to share in our comedic leads’ pain, or mock them for their irreversible personal failings.

TV comedies have been exploring the darker side of the human condition since at least M*A*S*H, a beloved series that took place in the hi-larious setting of the Korean War and opened each episode with a song called “Suicide is Painless” — and a few 2000s series like Desperate Housewives, Weeds, and Nurse Jackie combined comedy and drama to general acclaim. But the story of the 2000s sitcom is more likely to be told in the context of the rise of mockumentary and single cam shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock,, as well as the resilience of traditional multi-cam series like Everybody Loves Raymond, The Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men. By my estimation, the rise of the modern dramedy can be marked as starting in 2010, the year Louie first aired on FX and gave the world a taste of a different kind of comedian-lead sitcom. Instead of a witty, detached observer of human foibles like Jerry Seinfeld or a beleaguered yet beloved everyman like Ray Romano, Louis CK cast himself as an unsatisfied, awkward schlub searching for meaning in a cruel and uncaring world, pushing the sitcom format to the darkest possible thematic corners. This kind of dark dramedy started to become a house style for FX, which launched downbeat sitcoms like You’re the Worst, Married, Better Things, and Atlanta in the preceding decade. These shows were and are funny, sure, but they also tackled heavy subject matter like mental illness and poverty and have aired episodes that, save for their runtime, have little in common with what most people would consider a “sitcom” to be. Pretty soon, this phenomenon spread out of FX: Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Master of None, Catastrophe, and even Rick & Morty would all go on to mine similar dark spots of the human experience for laughs and tears all within a 30 minute runtime, and eventually hour long shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Succession began blending comedy and drama in a manner that only further muddled genre conventions.

What facilitated the rise of the dramedy, and why have they been so rapturously received? There likely isn’t one single reason, but I think a one possible explanation is that a lot of beloved dramas concluded mid-decade and that their replacements failed to capture the popular imagination. Breaking Bad and Mad Men were both off the air by May of 2015, leaving Game of Thrones alone as the one drama with a considerable cultural footprint, while would be successors to the peak TV throne like Homeland, House of Cards, or The Handmaid’s Tale either ran out of creative steam or failed to catch on. Stranger Things would eventually emerge as a sensation, but its status as a nostalgia piece has kept it from attaining the “prestige” status of some of the aforementioned shows. Add to the equation how self-seriously dour some of these shows became, and it became clear that if critics and audiences wanted to find affecting storylines about realistic characters who weren’t overly dour “difficult men,” they’d have to turn to comedies to find them.

This of course raises some interesting questions not only about what separates comedy from drama, but how a body like the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences should judge dramedies and assess what the “best” comedy and comedic performances are. Take Barry, for instance. While certainly funny, the main thrust of the show concerns the title character — an Iraq War veteran turned contract killer — trying to carve out his own place in the world separate from the whims of others, which requires him to do some terrible, unforgivable things. The heavy moral questions Barry weighs — namely what it means to be “evil” and how long you can expect to outrun the consequences of your actions — lend themselves to creating some of the tensest, most explosive television moments since Breaking Bad, and as such most of the lead actors aren’t concerned with making the audiences laugh. The show’s Emmy nominated performers are one bummed out bunch: Bill Hader weighs the big questions questions as the lead, Henry Winkler mourns the loss of the woman he loves, Sarah Goldberg tries to keep the flames of her dream alive in a misogynistic environment, and Stephen Root is single-mindedly devoted to manipulating the main character for his personal gain. The one outlier is Anthony Carrigan, who provides most of the comic relief as NoHo Hank, a Chechyan mobster who’s probably more suited to host a show on HGTV than run an international crime ring. Does the fact that he gets more laughs than Root or Winkler make him more deserving of the Best Support Actor in a Comedy award, or should either Winkler or Root get the nod for doing more emotionally wrought work? In other words, should comedy awards award the best comedic performance, or do they award the best dramatic performances that happen to take place in a 30 minute comedy? 

Luckily I’m not tasked with making that decision, but I the rise of the dramedy has got me to thinking about the nature of comedy and its current state. After binging shows like Fleabag, Barry, Russian Doll, and You’re the Worst, I decided to try and start Better Things, the critically acclaimed Pamela Adlon vehicle about a divorced actress trying to raise three daughters by herself. And honestly? I couldn’t make it past the first episode. The pilot wasn’t bad, but it was just so damn bleak, and I really didn’t feel like spending ten or so hours of my life watching a “funny” take on a woman sloughing it through middle age. What I did do instead was rewatch Community, Dan Harmon’s reference heavy cult TV series about a group of misfits who come together at a community college, and it was incredibly refreshing to watch a comedy whose chief goal was to make the audience laugh as much as possible, instead of making them laugh a little bit and ponder their mortality and unhappiness. That’s not to say that Community doesn’t deal with heavy themes; like a lot of dramedies, it focuses on characters experiencing failure and disappointment and trying to come to terms with their unfulfilled dreams. But the show never let these concerns get in the way of a good gag, and no matter their flaws, the main cast usually ended up coming off as lovable and endearing. The show could tug at your heartstrings, but it did so to acknowledge life’s harsh realities and provide some form of comfort to its audience, not to pick at our collective existential scabs.

I think the recent predominance of dramedies is why I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, Netflix’s absurd, madcap sketch show, has found such an enthusiastic audience. The inspiration behind contentious listicles, countless memes, and a very active Twitter account, I Think You Should Leave runs only fifteen minutes per episode, and delivers its jokes at a rapid fire pace that barely leaves room for viewers to catch their breath between laughs. With Saturday Night Live and other late night show’s taking an almost myopic focus on the Trump Administration and the dramatic turn of most of TV’s best comedies, the market was scarce on straightforward, escapist humor, and an audience starved for silliness ate up Robinson’s songs about skeletons using bones for dollars and good car ideas. Maybe this is a sign of things to come — maybe audiences are becoming fed up with having to endure a bit of despair with their humor and a new era of pure comedy is upon us. 

But, of course, I Think You Should Leave wasn’t nominated for any Emmys, while more topical sketch shows like I Love You America with Sarah Silverman and Who is America? were. Maybe America is in the middle of one long, overdue collective therapy session and needs the dramedy to help us cope with and process the things that plague us and our societies. Given their quality, we sure could do a lot worse. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish we were less concerned with using comedy to address our many social and psychological ills, and more content to use them to unwind with a good laugh. What a concept!

What I Listened Too: Week of I’ve Already Screwed This Up

Remember when I said I was gonna write a column every Sunday about what I listened too during the week? Yeah, good times. Anyway, better late than never, I guess?

Camp Cope – Camp Cope

Took a stroll through this Australian indie/punk group’s catalogue since I got a ticket to see them, Petal, and Sidney Gish. I was really only interested in seeing Gish but I figured I’d give her tourmates a fair shake. This record is…fine. It’s a little too tragic-kid-singing-about-childhood-trauma for my tastes, but Camp Cope are a fine group of musicians who manage to make their instruments sound as raw as their lyrics.

Recommended Tracks: “Done,” “Stove Lighter”

How to Socialise and Make Friends – Camp Cope

God, am I gonna have to come out and say I don’t really like this band? I mean, that’s not exactly true. I don’t think they’re a bad band, they’re just very much not my kind of thing, and they definitely made me think about why they’re not my kind of thing. And I think it’s definitely the lyrics/vocals. While they don’t change things up musically a bunch, I like the cut of Camp Cope’s instrumental jibe — a solid, punchy bass that sometimes overpowers the guitar and drumbeats that’re more propulsive than not. But both of their albums end with songs about the deaths of father figures. And they’re completely devastating, which I suppose means their effective, but at the same time…like, I care, but I don’t care. The words Georgia MacDonald write to and about her family members in pain are touching, and I’m sure writing them was a cathartic experience. But I never get the sense that she really has anything to say about these experiences, I don’t find any insight in her words, and, in that sense, no real art, either. I feel like you can find real art in that sort of thing; Leah Carroll’s Down City is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it deals almost exclusively with her parents deaths, but in doing so it felt like she was trying to make us re-think our entire approach to early, crime and drug-related deaths as a whole. “Song for Charlie” and “I’ve Got You” just feel too specific to MacDonald’s experience to really make me feel anything more than sad — there’s emotional recognition, but no connection. That feels like kind of a shitty thing to say, but it’s how I feel.

Recommended Tracks: “The Opener,” “How to Socialise and Make Friends”

Magic Gone – Petal

Listening back to a couple of tracks just now, I’m a little disappointed I left after Sidney Gish’s set and didn’t get to see Petal. Nothing you haven’t heard before in the indie/alternative singer-songwriter realm, but pleasant none the less.

Recommended Tracks: “Magic Gone,” “Shine”

Ed Buys Houses – Sidney Gish

If No Dogs Allowed (which I also listened to a ton this week, but I listen to that every week) focuses more on Sidney Gish’s place in the world and some introspection, Ed Buys Houses is a little more observational, dealing with characters a little too weird and a little too high to satisfy and be satisfied in their suburban surroundings. It’s not as catchy or rhythmically engaging as No Dogs Allowed, but it features some nicely layered guitar work and, as always, fabulous lyrics. God, Sidney Gish is so good.

Recommended Tracks: “Buckets of Fun,” “Homecoming Serf,” “Vaudeville,” “Presumably Dead Arm”

Moon Safari – Air

I’ve been making my way through back episodes of Steven Hyden’s Celebration Rock Podcast, and ended up listening to this after hearing his episode on the music of 1998. The tracks featuring Beth Hirsch actually feel incredibly dated, but it’s hard to deny Air’s unabashed nostalgia and the road it paved for electronic albums both good (Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories) and bad (M83’s aptly titled Junk).

Recommended Tracks: “La femme d’argent,” “Kelly Watch the Stars,” “Talisman”

Music Has the Right to Children – Boards of Canada

From the same 1998 binge. I liked this album, but I feel like my problem with a lot of electronica is that it can just kind of feel like a bunch of people making cool sounds for the sake of making cool sounds. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just not entirely sure if that it earns this album the number 7 spot of Pitchfork’s Greatest Albums of 1998. 

Recommended Tracks: “An Eagle in Your Mind,” “Sixtyten,” “Happy Cycling” 

Kill for Love – Chromatics

Listened to this on a dark and stormy night on a pair of biggish speakers, which feels like the ideal setting for this album. That, or a back alley where I can hear this album coming through the back door of an underground club as I light a cigarette and bathe in red light. I feel like we as a society never got the slate of Drive-wave albums and bands we deserved. The whole “best soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist” thing gets thrown around a lot, but it definitely applies here, where the only real down points are the tracks with excessive auto-tune usage. Also, holy shit, the balls you must have to open a record like this with an “Into the Black” cover. I don’t know who that pisses off more, the rock purists or the electro-agitators. I just know that I love it.

Recommended Tracks: “Into the Black,” “Kill for Love,” “Lady,” “The River”

Ranking the Bang Bang Bar Performances from Least to Most Twin Peaks-y

As I sit here alone, on a dark and stormy Saturday night, I can’t help but think of Twin Peaks. That’s partly because of the weather, partly because my roommate’s cat keeps knocking shit over and scaring me, but I think mostly it’s because during nights like these often I wish I could sit down at a place like The Road House, aka The Bang Bang Bar, and drink my sorrows away to the angelic vocals of Julee Cruise. It would also mean I’d be surrounded by a bunch of bikers who are really into dream pop, and that’d be interesting because I don’t think I’ve ever met such a person. Like, imagine if every bearded, tattooed sumbitch you’ve seen zoom past you on the highway was really listening to Beach House instead of Steppenwolf? It’d blow your mind, right? If any of you end up taking the “Born to Be Wild” scene from Easy Rider and set it to “Zebra,” please send it my way.

Anyway, if you’ve watched almost any episode of last year’s perplexing, frustrating, and brilliant Twin Peaks: The Return, you know that booking guy at The Bang Bang Bar has really stepped up his game, getting critically acclaimed acts from across the country to appear at this little roadside joint in backwoods Washington. In fact, he did such a good job that David Lynch felt to make these performances an integral part of The Return either as a tidy image to roll the credits over or as something to set the theme. It’s good to see hard work rewarded. But as a music critic, I can’t let such work go un-critiqued.

So let’s rank the performances at The Bang Bang Bar, from most to least Twin Peaks-y. What makes a performance Twin Peaks-y, exactly? Will, it has to be a little spooky, a little sweet, and more ethereal than anything. Basically, it has to emulate the show, in all of its absurd wonder. Let’s dive in, shall we?

13. “Wild West” – Lissie

A pretty odd choice, if we’re being honest. I mean, yes, if I were an actual booker at a biker bar, I’d probably be more inclined to go with Lissie’s modern-pop tinged country rock, over, say, The Chromatics, but I’m surprised that the booker who lives in David Lynch’s mind followed that kind of logic, or really any logic at all. Although to be fair, a good portion of The Return‘s action takes place in states like South Dakota and Nevada, some of the last bastions of the American frontier and its lawless, pioneering spirit. And if we’re being honest, the one constant of Twin Peaks is its rampant unpredictability, which, now that I think about it, may make this particular performance the most Twin Peaksiest of all. Oh god, I’m gonna have to reorder this whole list, aren’t I…

12. “Out of Sand” – Eddie Vedder

I actually really like this song, but outside of being from Washington, I have no idea what beardy, acoustic surfer era Eddie Vedder has in common with Twin Peaks, like, at all.

11. “Axolotl” – The Veils

On the surface this is a very Twin Peaks-y song: its a glitchy industrial rock tune named after a freaky looking amphibian and about a baby that’s “got a belly full of black soot,” which is exactly the kind of horrible, scarring image and idea David Lynch likes to ponder in his free time and then bring to life for an audience of thousands to see, for whatever reason. But the structure of this song is a little too radio-friendly to really land, and it feels like a more corporate, polished version of Lynch’s beloved Nine Inch Nails (who we’ll get to later in the list). However, The performance itself does feature a girl crawling into the middle of the dance floor and screaming her lungs out for no apparent reason, so that’s very Twin Peaks-y, but also kind of compensation, when you think about it.

10. “A Violent Yet Flammable World” – Au Revoir Simone

The texture and timbre are on point, it’s just a touch too propulsive to really capture the ponderous nature of the series. The girl on the right and her blasé, disinterested attitude to everything will forever haunt my dreams, though.

9. “Tarifa” – Sharon Van Etten

I actually love this song, and I will always rush to defend Sharon Van Etten, my beautiful, alluring, perpetually stoned Jersey girl who’s ambiguous expressions put the Mona Lisa to shame, but it’s a little too “normal” to be full Twin Peaks-y. Still, it is a great song about mourning a love lost, and that dirge-like quality does make it a good fit for the episode where we see a little kid get plowed by a pick-up right in front of his terrified mother. Forget God, when is Slayer gonna write a song about David Lynch hating us all?

8. “Saturday” – Chromatics

We’re getting into “over 60% Twin Peaks-y” territory here. “Saturday” is a fine song, and its sort of “Sleepwalk”-like qualities mixed with the dreamy aura of Chromatics makes it perfect for the show, but it’s also a little too predictable and not nearly forboding enough, to get higher than it is here. Twin Peaks doesn’t do pleasant and satisfying, and that’s exactly what “Saturday” is.

7. “Shadow” – Chromatics

Yes, I know this was written specifically for Twin Peaks and yes, I know it emulates Julee Cruise pretty faithfully, but I tend to thank that’s also its biggest weakness. If David Lynch captures anything in his work, it’s that when something that appears innocent is discovered somewhere unexpected, it becomes creepy, eerie, and foreboding (that’s what makes his use of “My Prayer” in episodes 8 and 18 so effective). The effect of “Shadow” is undermined by our knowledge of its origin and intention, by knowing that it’s specifically tailored to have a certain effect on us. And, saw what you will about the show, but Twin Peaks is pretty original; no one quite makes films or tv shows like David Lynch. So having a song that’s so clearly an homage to the original show feels like the kind of nostalgic move that Lynch mostly avoided during the comeback series, which is why it doesn’t rank quite as highly as it maybe seems like it should.

6. “Snake Eyes” – Trouble

Following that “specifically made for the show” criteria that I laid out above, I’m compelled to put this track featuring David Lynch’s son lower than its sonic qualities would seem to warrant. But, it’s certainly worth pointing out that this neo-rumble anthem that invokes greasers taking it to each other in a bar lit parking lot is actually very Twin Peaks-y, as is the way its mid-20th-century rock beat is interrupted by some free jazz sax playing. Distorted nostalgia, man, no one does it better than the Lynch family.

5. “No Stars” – Rebekah Del Rio

This is a slow, 7-minute song that no one asked for, which makes it a perfect compliment to all of the other meandering bullshit in The Return that no one asked for. But would we all love the show as much if it left us so satisfied? Probably not, no.

4. “Mississippi” – The Cactus Blossoms

On the surface, this is another pure nostalgia play from Lynch. A close harmony duo in the vein of the Everly Brothers in a roadside bar? A great scene that feels out of time from when the show is supposed to take place. But the narrative The Cactus Blossoms weave, about a man fording towards a shore he may never reach and surrendering the seat reserved to him, mirrors in some ways Special Agent Dale Cooper’s odyssey back to the sleepy town of Twin Peaks, Washington. And its all brought home by an eery, low guitar solo that’s at once and sorrowful, and once at peace with what has happened, but unsure of what will happen next.

3. “Lark” – Au Revoir Simone

Formless. whispy, ethereal, yet lumpy, clanking, and undeniably synthetic, “Lark” is something of a shaggy dog story that feels like it’s building to some great coda but instead short-circuits a bit. That sort of denied gratification is at the heart of The Return, and whether you consider that an inspired artistic choice or pretentious failing is up to you. But that lack of resolution, lack of a bow on top to tie everything together, defines both this song and this show.

2. “She’s Gone Away” – Nine Inch Nails

Sneering and malevolent, this song is The Black Lodge incarnate. It’s one big bowling ball of violence and dread, endlessly mocking you for the truth that kicked off this series 25 years ago: she’s gone, and she’s never coming back.

1. “Just You” – James Hurley

Did I write this whole list to make a “Just You” joke? Kinda, sorta, yeah. But on some level, everything in Twin Peaks: The Return is a bit of a troll. Whether its fan-favorite Audrey Horne spending the entirety of her screentime discussing characters we’ve never even see, her uncle Jerry stumbling around stoned in the woods, or Dougie Jones wandering through life like a lobotomy patient, David Lynch did his damndest to undercut our expectations and gives exactly what we didn’t want. The show is much more fun when you get the chance to sit back and wonder aloud “is this really happening on my TV screen right now” than it is when you’re trying to unravel any of the never-to-be-resolved plot. And James Hurley taking the stage at The Bang Bang Bar and delivering a pitch-perfect version of “Just You,” 18-year old vocals and all, is one of those great “what the fuck is happening” scenes. Lynch took one of the most polarizing moments of the original series and reintroduced it to us, over the span of three and a half glorious minutes. It may not have been what we wanted, it may have not been what we needed, but it’s what we got. Now, sing it with me: JUST YOU….

What I Listened to This Week: 7/16/18

I listen to a lot of music during the week but only have so much time to write about it. As a result, I don’t end up writing about the majority of the stuff I do listen to. That might not necessarily be a bad thing (do you really need another Kanye take in your life?) but, in the interest of writing at least one post every week, I decided it would be a good idea to start writing this weekly column to give a quick rundown on what I listened during the week and, in the unlikely event I ever develop a community of readers and even *gasps* commentors, they could join in and talk about what they listened to as well.

In this column, I’m going to focus on records that I’ve ever heard for the first time or re-visited for the first time in a while since you don’t really need to know that I’ve been listening to the new Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Snail Mail on repeat for the past month (even though you kinda do, hit the streams and support those records, they’re great). The point is to highlight stuff I deliberately decided to listen to, and tell you what I think of it.

Anyway, here’s what I did at work this week:

Southern Accents – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

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I just finished Warren Zales’s Petty: The Biography, and whenever I read a bio about an artist I usually try and listen as I go; so if I read a chapter about one album, I listen to that album at some point not too far after to enhance both my listening AND reading experience’s. I started going through Petty’s discography a little later than I would have liked (and without the opportunity to listen to his early Mudcrutch records) but I’ve made a decent dent in his discography the past few weeks. Usually this kind of exercise helps me discover new favorites from a popular artist’s deep cuts (in this case, the Kings of Leon predicting “Rockin’ Around (With You)”), but it also means I get a pretty firm education in the low points of everyone’s career, and that’s exactly what Southern Accents is. It’s a record that has the reputation of sound like it came from a drained, burned-out hit machine on the fritz, and it lives up to it. Petty had originally intended Southern Accents to be a grand double album that explored the Southern identity and where he, a long hair who ditched Gainesville for L.A. in his early 20s, fell into it. While a lot of those songs, like the title track and the opener “Rebels,” certainly explore those themes, it’s through really shiny, clean, almost certainly coke-inspired production that makes the songs feel like Reagan-era dinosaurs. Even “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” a Beatles-freak’s swing at the kind of sitar-spangled psychedelia pioneered by the Fab Four and the record’s lone hit, is ever-so-slightly dragged down by imposing drum machines and a cheesy synth line. For a better idea of the kind of record Petty could have made if he had the energy and resources to do so, check out the swampy “Spike,” a swaggering, slide guitaring portrait of a too tough for his own good biker who may more may not actually be a dog. But otherwise, there’s not a lot here to get too excited about. Thank god Tom met Jeff Lynne.

Best Tracks: “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Spike” 

EP2 – Yaeji

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If you know Yaeji, it’s probably for her dreamy, warbly cover of Drake’s “Passionfruit.” Turns out she’s written a bunch of her own songs too, and they’re really good! Like her “Passionfruit” cover, the rest of the EP is a kind of bi-lingual fusion of house and hip-hop that ranges from the coolly banging (“raingurl”) to the big, misty electro that makes being a club going 20-something sound like the coolest, most transcendental thing in the world (“drink im sipping on”). A Korean-American who’s lived in Queens, Atlanta, and South Korea, Yaeji takes the distinctive sounds of each location and melts them into a sort of multi-cultural, multi-genre stew. And it’s best, it feels like she’s building musical and linguistic bridges and a new genre altogether. At it’s worst, it feels like pleasant restaurant house. Definitely my favorite “discovery” of the week.

Recommended tracks: “raingurl,” “drink i’m sipping on” 

 

Iron Butt – The Devils

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Yeah, so this was a weird one. I was driving around my hometown late and night when Reverend Beat-Man and The New Wave’s “I’m Not Gonna Tell You” came on Sirius XM’s Underground Garage channel, and immediately decided I had to find out more about this guy and this song. Turns out the album that song comes from (Blues Trash) is less exciting than that one song, but the website I was reading about him on (New Noise) seemed to cover a lot of the dark, bluesy, satanic sounding stuff I would’ve been really into in high school, which is perfect because I’ve been looking for a source for to discover more of that kind of thing because, well, it’s my kind of thing. Anyway, I ended up reading a review of this record from Italian garage punk duo The Devils and gave it a listen because I mean, wouldn’t you?

This record goes hard on the lo-fi production. All of the instruments are packed tightly together and most of the lyrics are borderline unintelligible and sound like they were recorded in a separate zip code from the rest of the tracks. That being said, the vocal performances reach a sort of possessed mania that I think a lot of bands with a similar image and affectation are a little afraid to tap into, so it’s good to hear a band that’s so willing to let themselves sound so unhinged. Unfortunately, the second half of this only 20 minute (!) album just kind of becomes a flurry of drums, guitar, and indecipherable yelling at some point, and, while listening, I begin to wonder if The Devils work better as a concept (male/female duo with a thing for BDSM and Lucifer-adjacent imagery) than as an actual band. I think this record is fun, and I wish more bands like The Devils got more attention from the mainstream music press, but strip away a lot of the production choices, and do you really have anything that compelling? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m also not entirely sure that pure shock and provocation isn’t the point, either.

Recommended Tracks: “Red Grave,“Pray You Parrots”

Freddie – Freddie Gibbs

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Freddie Gibbs kinda faked a lot of people out by revealing album artwork and promo materials that deliberately evoked Teddy Pendergrass, leading some people to wonder if he’d actually release a quiet storm album. He didn’t; instead he served up a pretty modern sounding crack rap record that puts a premium on deep, bassy synths and skittering 808s. There’s a monotony to the subject matter and Gibbs doesn’t have the most creative flow in the world, but Freddie is energetic, propulsive and acts as a grounded alternative to the hazier, more mumbly version of rap that’s beginning to dominate the genre.

Recommended Tracks: “Weight,” “Death Row” (feat. 03 Greedo)

The Switch – Body/Head

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The Switch and the rest of Body/Head’s catalogue tends to get tagged as noise rock because of Kim Gordon, but that designation is a tad deceptive. Using the word “rock” to describe what Gordon and Bill Nance do would imply that their music contains any semblance of rhythm or recognizable songcraft; inside, The Switch is 38 minutes of the experimental duo saying things in a vaguely poetic meter over feedback and droning, Lynchian soundscapes. I don’t find those things completely unappealing, but they can be tedious and difficult to do well. Despite its pedigree, The Switch is a tedious record.

Recommend Tracks: Uh…they all kinda sound the same to me, which kinda makes me feel basic as hell, but whatever.

Floating Features – La Luz

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I’ve been following this L.A. based surf troupe since I heard their debut Damp Face EP back in my college radio days (the far off, halcyon days of 2013, to be exact) and have always admired their knack for psychedelic, siren-like harmonies and wet, twangy guitars that put The Ventures to shame. I’m pleased to report that La Luz have maintained their strengths in those areas all these years later (5 years later, to be exact, practically an eon, I know) but have grown a bit, too. Floating Features is by far the most lucid record the band has put out. It relies a lot less on the reverb racked production that became their calling card and brings other elements of their sounds closer to the foreground, most notably a tastefully deployed organ and the occasional acoustic guitar. Their lyrics get some extra shine too, especially on depression/anxiety narrative “The Creature” and the exquisitely pining “Walking into the Sun,” the latter of which features one of my favorite couplets of the year so far: “What’s the use of being cool”/All alone inside my room”/What’s the use of being free”/”If you give your heart to me.” If there were any suspicions that La Luz were a gimmick band like a lot of their surf-y cohort from the 2010s was exposed as, they’ve been put to rest here.

Recommended Tracks: “The Creature,” “My Golden One,” “Greed Machine,” “Walking into the Sun”

 

 

Mitski is my favorite disco artist now

When Mitski dropped “Geyser” a couple of weeks ago, music critics fawned over it, praising it for its raw emotion and expressive, melodramatic music videoThe Ringer even called it one of the best songs of 2018 so far. “Geyser” is a fine song, but it’s not much different from the other music Mitski has released and, if I’m being honest, not as effective. The production and scope is all upped a notch, sure, but , in my eyes, that takes away from the intimacy of her earlier work. Maybe I’ll come around to it when I here it context with the rest of the upcoming Be the Cowboy, but it’s not something I feel compelled to play on repeat.

The recently released nobody, however, is a goddamn delight. Well, at least as much as a delight as a song that opens with “My God, I’m so lonely, so I open the window, to hear sounds of people” can be can be considered a delight. But that, of course, is the genius of the song. Entering with a velvet-rope high hat and piano chords, Mitski lays her broken hearted poetry over a track that sounds like something Niles Rodgers would write if he were a lovesick teenager. It’s an ultimately odd but successful marriage, and when Mitski finally delivers the “give me one good honest kiss” line, it begins to feel like a pop classic, simple hooky chorus and all. The slowly ascending second verse details all the ways Mitski has tried to make her self appealing to potential lovers, but it all turns out to be to no avail, allowing the song to take flight in a sort of goth ABBA coda before skipping like a broken, ominous record.

Most of Mitski’s music is confessional and sorrowful, stuff that sounds like it was written in a bedroom late at night when emotions are running high. What Mitski is smart enough to realize with “Nobody” is that that same kind of lonesome bedroom feeling can manifest itself in a dance you hope nobody else is watching, that sometimes the best way to exercise isolation is through releasing as much energy as possible, no matter how goofy it sounds, looks, or feels. The best artists know catharsis comes in many forms and Mitski, having already mastered one, is looking for new worlds to conquer. Godspeed, Ms. Miyawaki.

Be the Cowboy drops on August 17th.

A late Jack White live review

 

This picture isn’t from the show I was at, but I think it’s cool anyway

The first Jack White show I saw is forever burned into my brain. It was at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, and I went with my sister and two of my closest friends. Alabama Shakes — who at this point where just some cool Southern rock band who released a killer debut album — opened for Jack in a revelatory performance, and then the man himself ripped onto stage to the opening chords of “Sixteen Saltines,” and we were off to the races. I can only really recall his main set in bits and pieces: he played most of the acoustic tracks from Blunderbuss, a rollicking version of “Top Yourself” and an epic “Carolina Drama,” in which the light caught his shadow in such a way that it was cast in a massive form against the wall, adding to his already larger than life visage. After he ended the main set, we sat waiting, cheering for him to return. Then, we heard the opening chords of “Black Math,” seemingly from nowhere. The curtain from the side stage shot up to revel Jack and his band carrying on, and the entire crowd swarmed into place, just in time for savage versions of “Catch Hell Blues,” “I Cut Like a Buffalo,” and “Seven Nation Army.” After the show we floated out into a night that was beginning to fill with flurries, dazed by what we had seen.

I’ve been to many concerts since, but this one stands out as an Event. Maybe it’s because I was so young, maybe it’s because it was in New York, maybe it’s because I was just getting a taste of what it was like to see your heroes on stage, but there was something magical about that night. One of the negative effects of live performances is that it can make an artist seem too human; voices aren’t as strong as they are in the recording, tempos slowdown or speed up, the artists themselves have too much or too little personality. But that night at The Roseland Ballroom solidified the myth of Jack White for me. My iPod and Grooveshark playlists had cometo life, and he and his bands seemed like Gods. It was magic.

I bring up that show to say that, almost by default, Jack White’s show at The Anthem was a disappointment for me. That’s not a reflection on the quality of White’s performance, or the venue in which he performed. The Anthem is lovely, and perfect for artists like White, who are more famous than “indie famous” but aren’t ubiquitous pop radio fixtures. But the simple truth is that seeing your hero in a cramped, sweaty mini-arena isn’t going to be the same as seeing him in a historic New York club. In that sense, the show lacked a little bit of a personality. Even White’s much ballyhooed phone ban felt a little bit like a gimmick, and not the kind of overly quirky analog ones he’s become known for — it felt like corporate cross-promotion (even though Yondr, the company providing the cases that our phones were locked in, exists solely to create the electronics free spaces).

White’s stage craft, though technically more impressive, suffered from a similar sort of overproduction. Behind the stage stood three screens for projections, and before the show started, they displayed a CGI-generated studio with a clock, ticking down from ten minutes. Eventually Jack himself appeared on screen to mess with the clock, adding time, taking it away, and looking out into the crowd, before setting it back to five minutes. It was kind of cool, I guess, but it also felt like something you’d see at the lobby of the Rock N Rollercoaster. In away, Jack White has become self-aware, and is now conciosuly branding himself, and for someone like me, it’s a teensy bit unsettling. Weirdly enough, I think I preferred indulging Jack’s pretensions instead of his slouches towards relevance.

Look Mike, I get it, your a petty isolationist who hates sharing the things he loves with the rest of the world, but how did it sound? Pretty great, actually! White stormed onto stage with “Over and Over and Over,” a great song to storm on stage to, but, unfortunately, a song I’ve also never heard a good live performance of (it felt way to rushed and busy both at The Anthem and on SNL). He followed that up with the always menacing “High Ball Stepper” and Boarding House Reach standout “Corporation.” This laid a heavy, muscular foundation for a show that would be defined by feedback and solos, with acoustic refreshers and respites, like “Hotel Yorba” and “Humoresque” (and I cannot even begin to describe to you the supreme weirdness of seeing Jack White sing a Dvorak melody in between “Catch Hell Blues” and “Seven Nation Army,” it was perfect).

If I was surprised by anything, it was that Jack’s 19 song set only included 6 tracks from Boarding House Reach, and how good those songs sounded live (“Over and Over and Over” not withstanding). “Corporation” was a rollicking rally, “Everything You Ever Learned” turned into a thunderous multi-media experience, “Ice Station Zebra” quickly slipped into a funky jam that featured some flaming back and forth solos between White and keyboardist Neal Evans, and “Connected by Love,” a song I don’t love on record, made for a fitting closer. What this restraint with the new material did allow was some room for White Stripes deep cuts like “Hello Operator,” “Cannon,” and “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” and reliable live staples like “Catch Hell Blues” and “I’m Slowly Turning Into You.”

This made room for some White Stripes deep cuts like “Hello Operator” and “Cannon,” and while I loved seeing those played live, I was kind of wondering what both piano players/keyboardists were doing during those songs, and there was a sense that the show was a bit…overproduced, or at least that Jack was struggling to maintain his grip on the various music worlds he’s decided to inhabit. “Hypocritical Kiss” made a lot of sense when he was operating as an old Americana revivalist, it doesn’t feel as relevant to his re-birth as a modern, rap adjacent arena rocker. At the same time though, it was that inherent tension that made the show so interesting.

As Jack ended his encore, the lights turned on, and the PA began to play “What a Wonderful World.” It worked in a way that made me feel like no other song should be played as people walk out of a venue, and it added a touch of beauty to the sticky floor strewn with plastic cup and aluminum cans, being stepped on and shuffled over by a sweaty crowd. A lot’s been made about Jack White’s tour being “phone free,” specifically, how anyone entering the venue with a phone is forced to lock them into a carrying case designed by a company called Yondr. While I saw at least one person sneak in a phone by hiding it in a hat (and draw the ire of everyone around him in the process), people seemed to respect the edict, but it was at least somewhat frustrating. Not just because I was unable to satisfy the urge to check my buzzing phone, but because it made me realize how often I actually have the urge to check my phone, and that I was far more addicted to that process than I had previously thought. It also meant I couldn’t distract my self from the hot, sweaty, mass of humanity I found myself in. It was a bit of a testy night — a woman in front of me in line was kicked out for being to drunk (at 6:30, somehow), there was a brief scuffle, and I was situated near this incredibly annoying tall guy double fisted drinking wine and who wouldn’t stop swaying, even when no music was playing. But the goal of taking our phones away was to give us a “human experience.” As I began to leave, I saw two people embrace. “It’s been like ten years, but it was a great time man, so good to see you,” one man said to another. A phone probably helped make sure those two guys were in the same place at the same time. But taking it away probably helped them actually spend time together.

That Jack White man, he can do it all.

A quick Alvvays live review

 

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We, as a culture, tend to put musicians on pedestals, somewhere between heroes and Gods. They’re beings who articulate emotion and experiences in a way few of us can, and who’ve mastered the art of drawing sounds from tools in a way that’s pleasing to the ear. In creating this image of musicians, I think we tend to forget how much work performing takes. The hours of composition and practice, and then the weeks of touring and performing across oceans and continents that can almost surely take a toll on a person, and the skill it takes to put on a compelling show for hundreds of people every night.

I bring this up because on Tuesday night I saw Alvvays, one of the most effortless sounding indie pop groups of recent memory, at the 9:30 Club, and was completely floored by the effort and energy they poured into their set.

It all begins with frontwoman Molly Rankin — owner of the softest looking hair in music and a secretly devasting songwriter — the daughter of a well-respected fiddler and heir to a powerful Canadian folk music legacy. Despite her charming smile and demeanor, Rankin is among one of the most intense and focused performers I’ve ever seen in person. Her job is to bring sugary, crystalline pop ditties to life, but she approaches that task with take-no-prisoners attitude LeBron James shows when he’s driving to the basket. At a moments notice her smile becomes a glare that seems capable of cutting men in half. Playing guitar and singing wasn’t just a talent for her to display, it was a fight for her to win. “I think I’m pretty clearly losing my voice,” she said after sing “Your Type,” “but I think I’m gonna fight through it.” Throughout the rest of the set she’d roll her eyes, or shoot a knowing look at guitarist/boyfriend Alec O’Hanley as if to say “jeez, I’m really pushing it here.” “Thank you, for accepting me for who I am,” she offered apologetically to the crowd after a few more songs. Stop It. I almost want to shout back. Stop self-flagellating yourself like this. No one can tell what’s wrong with your voice. Your being ridiculous.  But as a person who’s struggled with their own bouts of perfectionism in the past, this mindset wasn’t something I was completely unfamiliar with. Not including the one I’m currently typing, I have 15 blogs saved as drafts from the last two years, saved and never to see the light of day because I decided that they weren’t any good. Mick Jagger said that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, but the addendum that I — and if I could be so bold as to conjecture, Molly Rankin — would probably add is that anything worth doing is worth doing right, first and foremost. That perfectionism is what I grasped on to for the rest of the show — I guess it made me feel closer to the lead singer in someway, almost like we had something in common. The difference between me and Rankin, of course, is that she’s living down a storied musical legacy, whereas I’m a dude typing this in his bed at 12:30 am. But, still, seeing the veil between an artist delivering pre-packaged emotional expressions and a human being becoming somewhat frustrated become pierced made me even more thankful for the spell shows usually put over me. It’s difficult to consider that at a moments notice, the magic we see on stage could all of a sudden come crashing down, that such music is dependent on a group of musicians being in lockstep with each other and maintaining their physical gifts for an hour long show. And that Alvvays cast such a layered and luminous spell, and don’t just rely on the brute force of their instruments, makes the delicate nature of a successful performance all that more apparent. Really, when you think about it, rock bands are asked to perform little miracles on stage every night.

Don’t let my pretension poison your image of the band, though. Maybe it has something to do with their national origin, but Alvvays substitute the aggressive hipness and cloying snark of American indie pop groups with a natural, affable quirkiness. Keyboardist Kerri MacLellan counteracts Rankin’s intensity with a smirking approach to juggling Farfisa, keys, and backing vocals, drummer Sheridan Riley packs the punch the group’s studio incarnation sometimes lacks, and O’Hanley is the Alvvays’s resident enfant terrible by virtue of his sizzling, distorted riffs that act as a counterweight to Rankin’s croon and jangle. But for me, the most entertaining member of the group is bassist Brian Murphy, who lays down a reliable low end while constantly looking like he’s playing these songs for the first time. There’s a relatability there — they just kind of look like kids you knew in college who got thrown onto the stage, and the visual elements (which included a projection that showed a reflection of Alvvays repeated in many mirrors) are simple but evocative enough to leave create a mystifying effect.

If the group’s energy and proletarian attitude did harm them in anyway, it was when they couldn’t cool down for the quite moments. Rankin seemed a little too amped up for the intimate “Forget About Life” and while introducing their last pre-encore song as “Party Police, let’s do it” had a sort of spunky appeal, it also killed a little bit of suspense taht comes with a group’s most popular song being played. But for the most part, it was an asset, “Archie, Marry Me” sparkled, shined, and Rankin’s calls for the crowd to help her sing along made it feel like we were all just in Times Square to watch the ball drop. It contained a kind of glitter and euphoria that Baz Luhrmann would be jealous of.

 

Somtimes professionalism is demonized. Entire sub cultures have been built around the DIY ethic and the proud amateurism of punk rock. So it’d be tempting to say that the workman like attitude on display by Molly Rankin and Alvvays was in someway soulless or cynical, a fine-tuned choreography that may betray some people’s definitions of authenticity. But it’s also a proven fact that all of us who had gathered at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night saw a woman sing herself hoarse. That sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me.

Random List: My Favorite Song from Every Year I’ve been alive

Over the past two years or so, I’ve become an avid user of film diary site Letterboxd, where users log what movies they watch and when, give them star ratings and reviews. One feature I’ve gotten a lot of use out of on Letterboxd is the ability to build lists, all kinds of lists, lists of my favorite movies of the year, lists of my least favorite movies of all time, lists of movies I want to watch. Unfortunately, no site like Letterboxd really exists for music (there’s RateMyMusic, I guess, but come one), but Spotify is good for making lists, and I found myself making one the other day: what is the best song from every year I was alive?

What follows is my attempt to answer that question, although “best” really just means “favorite” in this case. You’ll notice a lot of common themes, and maybe some surprises to. Anway, here’s the list:

 

1994: “Buddy Holly” – Weezer

A pretty easy choice for the year of my birth. Few early periods are as revered as Weezer’s, and you can figure out why in this song. The catchy, quirky chorus, the unapologetically rad riffage, and, of course the kind of puppy love narrative that Rivers Cuomo does best. It’s power pop at its finest.

Honorable Mentions: “Range Life” – Pavement | “No One Else” – Weezer

1995: “Game of Pricks” – Guided by Voices

I know part of Guided by Voices’ appeal is their ramshackle, reckless approach to recording and songwriting. Get a bunch of dudes with instruments, a couple of six packs, and a budget reel to reel and bam, instant classic album. But I must confess that my favorite version of “Game of Pricks” is the professionally recorded version off of Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, and it’s my go to “drinking in someone’s basement song.” Still, that such a fully formed and powerful song came out of the muddled, lo-fi version found on Alien Lanes is a testament to GBV’s appeal. With enough energy and a little bit of liquid inspiration, every room’s a stage, and every man can be a rock star.

Honorable Mentions: “Zero” – Smashing Pumpkins | “Common People” – Pulp

1996: “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” – Wilco

I know Wilco gets some crap for retreating to “dad rock” after their more experimental period in the early 2000s, but it’s hard to blame them when they wrote pure rock and roll songs this great in the 90s. “Outtasite” (Outta Mind)” was the kind of song written to soundtrack the title sequence of a USA show, invoking a carefree breeziness and love of music for music’s sake. One of the unfortunate side effects of grunge and post-grunge was that “rock music” became synonymous with dank, angry music. There are some great dank, angry rock songs, but early Wilco is proof that it’s ok to have a lot of fun, too.

Honorable Mentions: “El Scorcho” – Weezer | “Pink Triangle” – Weezer

1997: “No Surprises” – Radiohead

My mother once said that she didn’t feel “smart enough” to enjoy Radiohead’s music, and it’s hard to deny that they’ve gained a reputation as a kind of intellectual, “difficult” band that caters mostly to music critics and their already obsessed fans than a larger, broader audience. But it’s also hard to deny the simple. arresting beauty of a song like “No Surprises,” who’s lullaby-guitars may turn off some, but stop me in my tracks every time I hear them. Radiohead’s had a lot of imitator’s over the years, and they tend to swing heavily in either the paranoid and heavy direction (Muse) or goofily experimental (alt-j), but none of them have ever produced a melody as aching and transcendent as this. Alienation has never sounded so pretty.

Honorable Mentions: “Everlong” – Foo Fighters | “Between the Bars” – Elliott Smith

1998: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” – Neutral Milk Hotel

A lo-fi rock opera about Anne Frank, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has grown to be kind of infamous, partly because it spawned a lot of wannabes (*cough*The Decemberists*cough*), and partly because a certain segment of Gen Xers spin into a frenzy whenever the hear rumors that someone may have seen the famously reclusive Jeff Magnum at a Guitar Center. But it’s a record that turned overwrought hipster balladry into an art form, and the title track is a perfect example of why. A simple acoustic ballad at first, the song revels more and more layers as it goes on, first with a surprisingly fuzzy base, then with ghostly woodwinds, the best trumpet solo since “After the Gold Rush,” and pained, scratching strings. It’s a song about this world. but not of it, something that lives between the realm of the living and the dead.

Honorable Mentions: “Holland, 1945” – Neutral Milk Hotel | “SpottieOttieDopalicious” – Outkast

1999: “Wasting My Time” – The White Stripes

The White Stripes’s self-titled debut is a scrappy little thing that captures the band at their rawest. But “Wasting My Time” isn’t raw so much as it is pure, capturing the three elements of The White Stripes’s sound at their most precocious. Jack White finds a million uses for his guitar, playing melodic mini solos one moment, and banging for a bit of feedback the next. His voice is the most confident and assured it ever sounded in those early days and Meg White’s drumbeat, while typically spare keeps everything together. I wasn’t listening to The White Stripes in 1999 (mostly because I was 5), but I’ve gotta imagine that some intrepid crate digger must’ve found this album, gotten to track six, and went “huh, I think these guys may have something going here,”

Honorable Mentions: “A Shot in the Arm” – Wilco | “I’m Always in Love” – Wilco

2000: “B.O.B.” – Outkast

A lot of artists tried to sound futuristic at the turn of the 21st Century, but few artists predicted how to sound timeless like Outkast. Blending rap, funk, electronica and rock into one exhilarating mix, “B.O.B.” doesn’t just foresee the genre bending electro-rock of artists like Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem, but world events as well (the title stands for “Bombs Over Baghdad”). I’m still not sure what it means, but “power music/electric revival” is hell of a chant.

Honorable Mentions: “Ms. Jackson” – Outkast | “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” – Ryan Adams

2001: “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” – The White Stripes

Featuring the best opening guitar part of the 2000s, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” is the perfect blend of primal, crushing sounds Jack White is able to wring out of a guitar and the soft sweetness that’s defined some of the group’s best written songs. If The White Stripes are defined by their childlike approach to making music, then it’s the twin urge to destroy and to cherish that’s found in “Dead Leaves” and all of their best songs. White Blood Cells was the album that launched The White Stripes to international fame, and with fame came bigger budgets and slicker (but still analogue) production. Despite all of the hubub, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” is still the purest distillation of the band that was formed in an attic in Detroit.

Honorable Mentions: “Fell in Love With a Girl” – The White Stripes | “Last Nite” – The Strokes

2002: “Jesus, etc.” – Wilco

The most band-y part of being a band defintely takes a backseat to adventurous production and studio tricks on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so much so that it caused the famous rift between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett and probably lead to Wilco being dropped by their label. But Wilco pull of something rare on “Jesus, etc.,” where they keep things tight but gentle, almost smoldering. A strong bass drum and bass guitar contrast with a brushed snare, while guitar and keyboards take the melodic backseat to some disembodied strings and steel pedal. While it was recorded before 9/11, it’s tough to ignore the powerful imagery of tall buildings shaking, smoke, and skyscrapers, and “Jesus, etc.” ends up becoming a slowdance through pain and change, a reminder that amongst the chaos, there’ll always be time for tender moments.

Honorable Mentions: “PDA” – Interpol | “Empty Sky” – Bruce Springsteen

2003: “Hey Ya” – OutKast

Watching old performances of OutKast is revealing in that it highlights how straight up goofy Andre 3000 could be; his Grammy performance featured a flying saucer and spoken word intro from Jack Black, of all people. Combine that with “Hey Ya’s” popularity among my generation as a karaoke song and dance floor jam, and it’s hard to forget how skeptical, sour, and borderline despairing the song actually is: it questions not only the integrity of the singer’s relationship, but the permanence of love itself. It’s less hip-hop than it is searing folk rock placed on a danceable beat, the kind of thing Bob Dylan might write if he grew up in Atlanta in the 80s. Andre had no illusions about people remembering the songs darkness all those years later, of course. He said it best himself: “Ya’ll don’t want to hear me, ya just want to dance.”

Honorable Mentions: “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” – The White Stripes | “Man” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

2004: TIE: “The Rat” – The Walkmen, “Portions for Foxes” – Rilo Kiley

 

I said this about “The Rat” in my Hamilton Leithauser live review:

“Their’s nothing kind about “The Rat”; the guitars churn like your inner existential dread, the drums pound at you like your darkest fears, and Leithauser lashes at you, yes, you, like a cornered and starving version of the title animal, all because you had the nerve to ask him for a favor. Pitchfork’s Matt Solaraski went as far as to call “The Rat” “the ultimate emo anthem for an alternate dimension where girls don’t exist (sorry, ladies), music is a form of violence, and emo actually means raw, unbridled emotion, and nothing more.” It is, perhaps, the purest distillation of angst ever put to wax.”

That last sentence is a bold proclamation, but I stand buy it.

As far as “Portions for Foxes” goes, well, I don’t know what to say, other than that it may be one of the most underrated songs for guitar of the 2000s. Listen to how they weave together in the intro, the cool mandolin effect in the second verse, and that fat bass, and tell me you don’t want to dive in and swim around in all that distorted goodness.

Honorable Mentions: “Take Me Out” – Franz Ferdinand | “Romantic Rights” – Death from Above 1979

2005: “Banquet” – Bloc Party

If it’s the steady, unrelenting attack of  “The Rat” that make it such a successful conduit of inner rage, than it’s the wildness of “Banquet”‘s instrumentation that makes it an illustration of a desperate person  losing control. Like any number of Franz Ferdinand songs, “Banquet” features angular guitars over a dance beat. But instead of acting purely as hooks, these guitars ping pong back and forth with the beat, imitating a racing heart and a racing mind. Kele Okereke’s drawn out “yooooou”‘s add an air of eriness to the song, and his narrative about a girl who doesn’t think straight adds a sordid tint to the proceedings. A lot of songs these days try to be about young adulthood, “Banquet” is one of the few that captures its involuntary destructiveness and panicked decision making of such a mindset.

Honorable Mentions: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – The Hold Steady | “How a Resurrection Really Feels” – The Hold Steady

2006: “When You Were Young” – The Killers

Brandon Flowers got a lot of (well deserved) crap in 2006 when he promised that Sam’s Town would be one of the best records “of the last 20 years.” That in and of itself is an overstatment, but The Killers’s early hits have endured longer than most people probably anticipated, especially the guy at Entertainment Weekly who asked “isn’t it a little too early for a Strokes tribute band?” That’s probably because those people weren’t twelve in 2006, and weren’t as scared and excited as I was when they first realized what the sleazy lyrics of “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside” were actually about. And while those songs remain reliable party starters, they’re not “When You Were Young,” Flowers’s grand attempt to reach for a Springsteenian brass ring that has alluded many a band before. The Killers never quite got their, but they get pretty darn close somewhere in the coda.

Honorable Mentions: “Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady | “Wolf Like Me” – TV On The Radio

2007: “Icky Thump” – The White Stripes

From a pure sound perspective, few songs on this list thrilled me upon first listen the way “Icky Thump” did. I think it’s those splashy symbols — in a song that’s basically a guitar-centric heat check for Jack White, Meg White’s drums act as a kind of glue that lets all the weird trebly diversions succeed as a song. More than that, it’s just another example of how weird The White Stripes could get: it’s a song with three different great guitar riffs, a few passages of synthesized “bagpipes,” a seemingly random string of “la la las,” and a pretty aggressive (and oddly prescient) political statement.

Honorable Mentions: “Impossible Germany” – Wilco | “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” – LCD Soundsystem

2008: “Constructive Summer” – The Hold Steady

I first discovered this song in a best of 2008 list on the now defunct Spinner which, along with the similarly deceased Blender, was one of two introductions to music for me that wasn’t either featured in Guitar Hero, played on WPLJ, or in my parents’ record collection. Imagine my shock, then when it turned out that this song both ripped AND seemed like it’d fit right alongside “Thunder Road.” The Hold Steady have written an innumerable amount of great songs, but “Constructive Summer” stands a part in the way it unapologetically celebrates youthful exuberance, both in its lyrics and in its instrumentation.

Honorable Mentions: “Salute Your Solution” – The Raconteurs | “No Future” – Titus Andronicus

2009: “Treat Me Like Your Mother” – The Dead Weather

There’s a spooky, swampy element to The Dead Weather’s music that I wish more bands pursue, or at least I wish I knew of more bands who sound kind of like The Dead Weather. That’s not to say that their sound is easily replicated, of course. Dean Fertita’s bullfrog synths and Alison Mosshart’s idiosyncratic lyrics, the abrupt tempo switch and slide guitar solo at the halfway point, and Jack White’s swinging drumbeat are bold moves not a lot of other folks could pull off. And for anyone still shocked by White’s slouches towards hip hop on Boarding House Reach, where were you for his hype man interjections on this track? I’ll go to my grave believing Horehound is an underexposed and under-appreciated record.

Honorable Mentions: “Bone House” – The Dead Weather | “I Cut Like a Buffalo” – The Dead Weather

2010: “A More Perfect Union” – Titus Andronicus

“Cuz tramps like us, baby we were born to die!” With those few words, and a reference to the parkway, and the Pine Barrens, and the dearly departed Newark Bears, Patrick Stickles established himself as the voice of whole generation of New Jerseayeans. And sure, this song kicks off an album that reconciles Stickles’s depression, anxiety, misanthropy, and anomy with the Civil War, but at its core “A More Perfect Union” is all about leaving a place you call home while trying to make sure home never leaves you, and sentiment familiar to me and my fellow Garden State ex-pats everywhere.

Honorable Mentions: “Boyfriend” – Best Coast | “Dance Yrself Clean” – LCD Soundsystem

2011: “Abduction” – Cults

Cults are very much of an era and aesthetic that has passed us by. I always lump them in with groups like Sleigh Bells, Wavves, Best Coast, and even *shudder* Foster the People, partly because I was listening to those groups all at the same time, and partly because they were representative of a version of “indie pop” that emphasized idiosyncratic production and seemed to rise alongside other “indie” cultural products like Urban Outfitters and Zooey Deschanel’s bangs. A feel like a lot of early 2010s “indie” things are considered trite these days, which is a shame, because Cults’s first record always held a bit of a mystique for me, and no song felt more mysterious than “Abducted.” Indtroduced by an indecipherable PA recording and spritely guitar, Madeline Follin’s girl group verses about being abducted — whether she’s being literal or metaphorical, we never know — start out subdued before kicking into high gear with an impossibly driving baseline, hurtling us down a highway of sparkling, ambient production, surf guitar, and some serious percussion. It’s glassy eyed Phil Spector heartbreak for a more confusing, combustable era.

Honorable Mentions: “Queen of Hearts” – Fucked Up | “Monopoly” – Danny Brown

2012: “Weight of This World” – The Kingston Springs

Probably what I miss the most about being involved with college radio were the weird, barely exposed bands you’d stumble upon who’d have a song you’d end up loving. One of the first of those discoveries for me was The Kingston Springs, a White Stripes worshipping Nashville-based band who, if Spotify is to believed, have only released one album and one EP. Their one album is ok, but it falls into the nostalgia trap that of a lot of blues rock bands founded over the past 15 or so years also find themselves in. But they did manage to at least one truly unique and affecting song in their short life. Anchored by a sturdy, walking fuzz bass, “Weight of This World” is all about how the thought of another person can have such a debilitating, intoxicating effect on you. The girl addressed is a burden, she’s an escape, she’s a reason to drink, she’s a reason to dance. Whoever she is, and whatever she is at any given moment, she’s the only thing in the world that matters, and to the singer, the key to unlocking the rest of the world. I think we’ve all felt like that at some point, and “Weight of This World” captures that feeling — the feeling of being so small and so integral and the same time — the way only a perfect rock song can.

Honorable Mentions: “Halloween All Year” – The Orwells | “I’ve Seen Footage” – Death Grips

2013: “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams

Probably the least “me” song on this list, but what can I say, I love the silky smooth Niles Rodgers guitar, the even smoother Pharrell vocals, and, of course, the little electronic flourishes Daft Punk throw in to update the once dead and buried genre of disco. There’s an argument to be made that Random Access Memories hastened the critical reassessment of disco and brought it to the mainstream, but what I’ll always appreciate about “Get Lucky” is what I’m sure vexed a lot of people: it’s ubiquity. I distinctly remember the night “Get Lucky” dropped. I was a freshman in college, and it was like the entire school lit up and looked up to the heavens, waiting for these funky robots from space to beam us up to their mothership of endless good times.

Honorable Mentions: “My God Is the Sun” – Queens of the Stone Age | “Bound 2” – Kanye West

2014: “Lazaretto” – Jack White

I liked Blunderbuss, but any Jack White fan will tell you that it’s sub-sufficient in one very crucial area: we didn’t get to hear Jack shred enough. While Lazaretto the album was only a slight upgrade in that regard, “Lazaretto” the song acted as the perfect fusion of pre-Nashville Jack and post-Nashville Jack, melding a guitar based groove with the more country fried instrumentation of his previous album. It also provides a peak into the rap and funk sounds the would end up influencing this year’s Boarding House Reach. White’s never one to settle down, but every once and a while he strikes kinetic, exciting rock and roll gold that defies explanation.

Honorable Mentions: “Seasons (Waiting On You)” – Future Islands | “I’m Not Part of Me” – Cloud Nothings

2015: “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” – Natalie Prass

I went kind of deep on this song for WVAU back in the day, so I’ll try and keep it tight here. “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” is the rare modern ballad that doesn’t completely put me to sleep, and powerful, harrowing portrait of a relationship in decay but refuses to die, partially due to indifference, partially due to stubbornness. And it’s one the most lushly and ornately produced tracks of the decade, featuring a pocket symphony that would Berry Gordy jealous and put the best Stax singles to shame. It’s the perfect combination of sonic delight and emotional journey, which I guess is what a great song should be.

Honorable Mentions: “Depreston” – Courtney Barnett | “Gimme All Your Love” – Alabama Shakes

2016: “Sister” – Angel Olsen

For reasons I’ll never fully understand, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is considered by many be to superior to My Woman. With all due respect to the many their wrong, and part of the reason their wrong is that Burn Your Fire For No Witness doesn’t have “Sister” on its tracklist, and “Sister” sounds like Stevie Nicks backed by Crazy Horse at their most transcendent. Come for the “I want to die right/next to you” gut punch and the widescreen guitar solos, stay to get “All my life I’d thought I’d change” scratched into the back of your mind. Something about the timbre of this woman’s voice, it gives me chills, man.

Honorable Mentions: “Can’t Stop Fighting” – Sheer Mag | “Shut Up Kiss Me” – Angel Olsen

2017: “Judy French” – White Reaper

Hey! I already wrote about this in my 30 Best Songs of 2017 list:

“‘Judy French’ is by many measures the perfect rock and roll song. Featuring that aforementioned opening riff, a killer opening line (‘You know you crack my back little lady when you tease me like you do’), a swelling melody, a chorus with enough David Lee Roth style yelps to attract all the dogs in the neighborhood, and a tasteful, tuneful solo, this song was designed to make people dance, make out, or fantasize about dancing and making out. It’s a concentrated burst of teenage lust and romanticism turned into music, and it gives into those impulses without regard for embarrassment. Rock and roll isn’t about making your dreams come true so much as it’s about having the guts to let every know that you want your dreams to made true, that you see impossible, absurd brass rings in your future and you’ll reach for them, not matter how stupid it looks, because to do so is honest and liberating. And this three and a a half minute single from a Van Halen aping garage punk band that made a video featuring Alexandria Daddario lip synching their lyrics is kind of one of those moments. There’s no irony, no apologies. ‘Judy French’ is a rock and roll song, and it’s one that, when your in the right mindset, feels like it just might save the world.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Hey, wait a minute…
So, there you have it. The definitive musical history of the last 23 years. What songs would make your list? Sound off in the comments!

A Timeout, An Escape from Reality: A Titus Andronicus live review

 

Patrick_Stickled_2
I know, I know, I held my phone the wrong way

 

 

The first half Titus Adnronicus’s show at the Rock and Roll Hotel on Friday night was fine and all, but it was kind of just fine. Pianist Alex Mulaney took the stage first, playing the opening piano chords of “To Old Friends and New,” as frontman Patrick Stickles dramatically ascended to the stage, singing the first few verses before picking up his guitar. After that was a rendition of fan favorite “Albert Camus,” followed by a quick address from Stickles encouraging the crowd to buy Titus’s new album A Productive Cough before running through faithful versions of “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco),” “Number One (In New York),” and “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” and another fan favorite, “No Future.” It was between “Number One” and “Above the Bodega” that I went to the bathroom, which isn’t something I usually like to in the middle of shows, but the circumstances called for it. I was hot, uncomfortable, had to pee, and was almost questioning what I was doing there. I was alone, and I’d already seen Titus Andronicus before, and not in this depleted form. I’d seen them twice in a sort of “classic” lineup featuring Adam Reich, Jonah Maurer, and plenty of other of Stickles’s usual sidemen, and a third time with a sort of B-Team lineup. Those first two shows rank among the best I’ve ever seen from any group, feats of dexterity and sweat that featured the band tearing through most of their catalogue. At those shows, songs like “No Future” and “To Old Friends and New” acted as moments for rest and reflection among the fray. Here, they were just long, slow songs. They were still good, but hearing them for the umpteenth time, and in a subdued context, robbed them of some of their effect.

As I came back from the bathroom, I lacked both the will and brawn to weave my way back to where I was standing close to the stage. Instead, I camped out near the corner of the bar, where I arrived just in time to here one of my favorite Titus songs, “Theme from ‘Cheers.'” An ode to getting belligerently sloshed in suburban New Jersey, “Cheers” is one of those rare songs I know almost every word of, partly because I’ve listened to it so often, partly because details like hitting up Bottle King and getting drunk in a friend named Kevin’s basement uncannily parallel moments of my real life. Its anthemic and infinitely relatable nature had me working on a theory about how punk rock acts as a sort of suburban folk music, a chronicle and coping mechanism of the overprivileged and chronically bored searching for meaning in an environment stripped of all consequence and confrontation. And then Stickles segued into Gary Portnoy’s “Where Everybody Knows You Name,” the actual theme from Cheers, and such pretentious notions were temporarily put to bed.

 

“I could really use a drink,” Stickles said, and he descended the stage, made his way through an adoring, awe struck, amused, and confused crowd to a barstool at the corner of the bar, right in front of where I happened to be. The bartender reflexively poured him a shot of whiskey. “Aw man, I told myself today’d be the day I’d stop doing this,” Stickles said after he knocked it back. “It’s been a long day,” he continued, arched over the bar like George Wendt. “It’s a long life,” an audience member offered back. “You said it man, it’s a long day, but it’s a long life.” After receiving a glass plastic cup of wine, Stickles turned away from the bar and, in one of the more unexpected covers of my concert going career, sang Hope Foye’s “Lilac Wine” with all of the melodrama it demanded.

“It’s a long life,” Stickles said after he was done wailing about bootlegged booze. “But I’m pretty pleased with the way I lead it,” and then followed a rendition of Tom Waits’ celebration of eternal bacherlorhood “Better Off Without a Wife.” Stickles played up the camp for this one too, gesturing out to the crowd when he hit the line about “every Tom, Dick, and Harry” (I was gestured to as “Dick,” insert your jokes in the comments) and even leaping up on bar the as he was brining it on home.

While this bit of the show was clearly pre-planned, it provided the audience with the illusion and effect of spontaneity, and we ate it up. In those 10 or so minutes we believed that we were friends with Patrick Stickles, that our troubles were his own, and that we were the kind of people who could belt our pseudo-jazz standards from a barstool. At this point in the show, Stickles was no longer a rock god. He was our buddy Pat, someone we’d tell our children stories about, someone who we could use to make us feel like we lead lives as interesting as his. No matter that people in every city he and Mulaney will tour this year will probably be able to share the same story. As a child of the 21st Century, I’ve always felt sheltered, even in my adulthood. There’s no CBGB’s or Factory in my life; the danger and excitement experienced by past generations past has been either co-opted and corporatized or disappeared altogether. But for a few moments on Friday night Patrick Stickles gave us all a crazy story of our own, and he knew it, too.

“Make way, hot stuff comin’ through,” Stickles warned as he headed back to the stage. There he performed stirring renditions of “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming,” “Stable Boy,” and “Four Score and Seven,” the last song complete with the requisite harmonica solo. Finally, the show had reached the intensity of a traditional Titus Andronicus concert, even if the music was several BPM slower than usual. After those songs, Stickles shouted out his cousin, her husband, his aunt, his mother, and his step-dad-to-be, all of whom were in the back of the room. For a man who’s image and music is so reliant on his discontentedness and instability, it was a charming, almost comforting expression of love and gratitude. And his brief political statement (“This new president we’ve got? I don’t like him. Not a big fan.”) carried with it a brevity that was as galvanizing as it was understated.

Stickles and Mulaney closed with a slowed down version “Dimed Out,” an ironic choice, considering the song is literally about turning an amp up to ten and raising hell. But, then again, we’d seen Stickles turn it up to ten already tonight. He literally ordered a drink in the middle of his set, and then got a room full of mostly 25-35 dudes to roar at the mention of his family members. And then, to close the most recent date of his “acoustic” tour, he did everything in his power to draw the nastiest, nosiest feedback out of his guitar. One last middle finger for all of us who thought we’d figured him out.

 

Jack White re-discovers his youthful weirdness on Boarding House Reach

Jack White is an eccentric. Not necessarily because he behaves in a strange way, but because his tastes and preferences are not only outside of the mainstream, but atypical of his generation, as well. He’s obsessed with pre-war blues and folk, likes to play instruments that are hard to play, uses vintage recording equipment, and even makes his kids play mechanical, non-electronic games. While Jack White is my favorite artist of all time, even I have to admit that his predilection for old timey things is a little creepy. It’s almost as if he doesn’t just want to be like Son House and Blind Willie McTell, but that he wants to actually be them, as well. That’s not just an inference, by the way. In 2001, the year The White Stripes burst onto the scene, Jack White told NME’s James Oldham “I would much rather have lived in the Twenties or Thirties, but that will never be. My dream of being a black man in the Thirties is not going to happen.”

(Quick pause here: This quote is obviously in very poor taste, and I’m sure most readers’ immediate reaction is to ask, “my god, what kind of wood would Jack White be nailed to if he said this today?” I thought that same thing when I first read it in Nick Hasted’s just ok Jack White: How He Built an Empire from the Blues, but I don’t think that gives credit to how weird of a statement it is. Think about the people who claim Justin Timberlake aping Prince and Michael Jackson is a form of cultural appropriation. How would they react if JT came out and said “yeah, I really wish I were a black R&B singer in Eighties.” So much of the Internet outrage cycle revolves around trying to prove that people everyone likes are actually secretly racist. It’s built around reacting to subtly and subtext. But what would happen if people had to react to really weird text, instead?)

White lived out that fantasy to the fullest on Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, his first two solo records. Acting as the sole creative source of an album for the first time in his career, White got the chance to dive full force into his fetishes. And while it was fun to hear White’s take on country and Southern folk, and even though most of the songs on those albums seem to be at least partially inspired by his ex-wife, there was something about them that felt a little impersonal and, frankly, out of touch. Sometimes his peccadilloes felt more like a defense mechanism than anything — like he was trying to deflect from really saying anything by saying what had already been said. But these stylings felt familiar, as well. We knew the kind of things Jack White liked, so we weren’t surprised when he fully embraced his adopted home of Nashville by affecting more of a twang. Traditionalism is kind of his thing: he’s written or covered songs in genres as diverse as Scottish folk, mariachi, and even German cabaret. If it’s old and creaky, Jack tries to breath new life into, and evangelize its virtues to this generation he appears to have so much contempt for. It’s a welcome and familiar formula. But it’s also very safe.

Boarding House Reach is a record that sees White throw off most of his traditionalist tendencies and embrace new and different ways of making music. It uses ProTools and other none reel-to-reel forms of editing, samples, synths, and other decidedly modern tools and instruments. It’s the first time we’ve ever really heard Jack White this far out of his comfort zone, this far away from trying to sound like a black blues singer from the Thirties (or a Southern folk singer from the Forties, or a Midwestern garage rocker from the Sixties). He’s having fun. Letting his hair down. And while that might seem like a very nice way of saying “Jack White is going through a musical mid-life crisis,” the final result is something exciting, something rewarding, and a bold new chapter in the career of the world’s last rock star.

Boarding House Reach is a weird album, yes, but I think it’s important to remember that Jack White has always been a weird artist (the first song on The White Stripes’s first album is about a monkey that blows things up, for goodness sake). And instead of running away from his weirdness through puritanical country songs, Boarding House Reach explores and deconstructs it. Take “Corporation,” probably my favorite song in the record. Of all the zany sounds in “Corporation — the Stevie Wonder clavinets, the out of nowhere surf guitars — the one that stands out the most to me is Jack White’s high-pitched yelp, stretched out, shifted and manipulated the way Kanye West might contort a 60s soul sample. Second only perhaps to his scratchy guitar tone, White’s high-pitched vocals were one of the defining features of The White Stripes, and part of what drew so much attention to the duo in the first place. By isolating and messing around with that particular element of the song, White is viewing himself through his own de-constructive lens. Instead of waiting to be sampled by Kanye West, he’s remixing his sound for himself, and bringing it to his own attention, perhaps for the first time, like a cat deliberately licking and studying its own paw. Blunderbuss and Lazaretto were arguably about Jack White the man and all his gripes and hang ups. Boarding House Reach is about Jack White the artist, Jack White the musical icon, Jack White the sound. It’d be pretty self-indulgent if it weren’t so invigorating.

 

 

Such self-references abound. The first twenty seconds of “Ice Station Zebra” (apparently a left-over from the oft rumored but canceled Jack/Jay Z collaboration) feature a jaunty piano part that could have easily been found in a White Stripes song, but here, it’s chopped up and layered on top of funky, hip-hop inflected beat that serves as the bedrock for Jack White’s first ever rap track. Yes, it’s a little silly, and as Craig Jenkins pointed out, reminiscent the Red Hot Chili Peppers (a much mocked band I’ll defend, but that’s a topic for another post), but it’s reference to “The Air Near My Fingers” (“we’ll never have to hear the ring of school bells) suggest that White may know that he sounds like a 42 year old man trying to cling on to youth, making the song feel a little less ridiculous.

Boarding House Reach plays with White’s status as a boot-strapped rock star, too. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” — a spacey, psychedelic sermon that’s the most interesting of three tracks that could be considered spoken word pieces or interludes — offers some circular pieces of advice to his listeners:

Do you want everything?
Then, you can have everything
What is everything?
Do you wish for nothing?
Then, you will have nothing
Now, that is something
Do you wanna see it all?
Well, you can just open your eyes
The one who is prepared, is never surprised
Do you wanna question everything?
Then, think of a good question
Do you wanna start a fire?
Well, you can watch it burn
Do you wanna learn?
Then, shut up and learn

 

White was the tenth child in a working class Catholic household, and if his reputation as a joyless workman reveals anything, it’s that he’s taken the covenant of acts to heart. In 2015 his commitment to hard work and self-reliance manifested itself in “Entitlement,” a petulant screed against the slackers and whiners of the world that Jack thinks are holding him back, and arguably the worst song he’s ever written. There, White takes the role of one of those guys with a blue collar background who’s convinced that, just because he was able to climb the socio-economic latter without much help, everyone else can, too. But “Everything You Ever Learned” comes from a benevolent, New Testament Jack, one who not only believes you can accomplish your dreams, but who wants to harangue you about it until it actually happens. Jack White learned how to play the guitar, run a label, and press records without any formal training. “Shut up and learn” is his version of “just do it” — a blunt yet inspiring piece of encouragement. Given White’s curmudgeonly reputation, this feels like something of step forward.

At the risk of reacting to the reaction, I think this transformation is something that a lot of Boarding House Reach‘s critics don’t understand. As much as I enjoyed them, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto where indulgent. They indulged Jack White’s fetish for pre-war music, they indulged his ugly feelings about his ex-wife, they indulged in his self-serious self-portrait of a man beset on all sides by the impure and inauthentic. Boarding House Reach sees Jack White allowing himself to let go of what he thought music had to be and how it had to be made, and as a result, ends up being the funnest music he’s made in almost a decade. “Over and Over and Over” is as pure a White Stripes rocker as you’re liable to hear in 2018, “Respect Commander” is the most verile Jack White has sounded since “Ball and Biscuit,” and hidden within the bizarre, layered arrangement of “Hypermisophoniac” is some seriously satisfying fretwork. Jack White used to ask love to stick and knife in his back and murder his mother; now, love provides connection and serves as the inspiration for a seriously silly yet heartfelt ballad. Is this, the most energetic music of Jack White’s solo career, indulgent? Maybe, but so were Mark Kozolek’s mewlings and Kanye West’s endless do-overs, but the critical masses still loved them so,¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

 

Boarding House Reach isn’t a perfect, five star album. A lot like “Servings and Portions from my Boarding House Reach,” the sound collage that served as the first bit of the record’s promo, the sequencing can feel random and the transitions abrupt. The key to any good playlist is providing the listener with peaks and valleys. But with the two most “traditional” songs on the album — “What’s Done is Done” and the lovely “Humoresque” — tacked on to the end of this psychedelic miasma, Boarding House Reach gives the impression of dropping straight off of a cliff. The delicate closing track earns its deep, cool piano outro, but I’m not sure it ties the album together in any way, shape, or form. Elsewhere, the Random Access Memories-esque intro of the abhorrently titled “Get in the Mind Shaft” suggests something bigger and bolder than what we get, and what interludes “Abulia and Akrasia” and”Ezmerelda Steaks the Show” display in production, they waste in breath. But it’s better to fail grandly than succeed meekly, and each of this tracks is at least more interesting than, say, “Want and Able.”

I get it, it can be a little freaky watching your dad let loose. But The White Stripes were defined by their childlike sense of wonder and impulse, two qualities Jack seemed to have abandoned thus far in his solo career. And while it may not be perfect, and while it may not be what was expected, Boarding House Reach is at the very least, a return to that manic mindset. May we all be as curious and adventurous when we’re 42.