Archive for July, 2010
Sorry for the long hiatus Kill Rock Music has taken, dear reader. The man, as always, has been trying to keep me down. On with the show…
Let’s talk about nostalgia. It’s something we all do, usually alone and behind closed doors. Catholics are likely guilty about it. It can make you go blind. Nostalgia is not a singular thing, and I have recently noticed that most of my favourite bands often dwell on some form of nostalgia or another. While I don’t think this is an inherently negative thing, it’s fascinating (for me, at least) to contemplate the different kinds – and different takes – of nostalgia that crop up in the average rock song.
The National are probably my favourite band, and they continue their winning streak with their recently-released album High Violet. As with all previous National albums (save maybe Boxer, which hit me right away) it took me a while to get into it. I started out thinking it was okay, but by this stage I think it’s another stone-cold classic. While they were never exactly Guns ‘n’ Roses when it came to histrionic rock-outs, the National have become even more austere in recent years, and High Violet contains little that breaks a sweat beyond mid-tempo. This might turn some people off, but I think it’s pretty remarkable the variety these boys can pull off given their limited sonic palette. In interviews for the album, the Dessner brothers proclaimed their love for minimalism, and it shows through. Some might find minimalism boring, but what I find fascinating about it (and this album) is how they can make something so complex sound so simple. On High Violet, little guitar flourishes and drum fills flit in and out of the mix, often barely registering, except maybe after the twentieth listen. These are dense tracks that sound like very straightforward songs and I still hear new things when I listen, even in songs that sound quite simple. Matt Berninger’s lyrics remain brilliant, striking a tough balance between ambiguity and evocation with imagery both poignant and humourous (a vital part of the National that is often neglected when people talk about them, I find). ‘Terrible Love’, ‘Little Faith’, ‘Afraid of Everyone’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘England’ all capture many of the feelings of love, anxiety and brief rushes of contentment that confront many in their thirties. In my eyes, the absolute masterpiece of the album is ‘Sorrow’, which perfectly encapsulates the allure and comfort of fleeting nostalgia, even when it springs from a place that’s not entirely happy. ‘Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited and sorrow won…cover me in rag and bones, cause I don’t want to get over you.’ Memories – even bad ones – are a complex thing, and the music and lyrics of the National perfectly encapsulate that woozy feeling one gets when contemplating something painful, but something they can’t leave behind.
The Hold Steady released their new album, Heaven is Whenever, on 4 May 2010. The band specialises in reminiscing about the debauchery of youth in a way that is both cautionary and yearning. They misspent their youths, but that doesn’t exactly mean they don’t want to return to them. It is a testament to Craig Finn’s excellent lyrics, insightful in both their snark and sentiment, that they’ve managed to sustain this relatively limited narrative over five studio albums now. However, I felt the first cracks beginning to appear on 2008’s Stay Positive, which was a good record but beginning to feel a slight bit same-y. In my mind, the departure of live-wire keyboardist Franz Nicolai earlier this year could have forced the band to go one of two ways – either recalibration and a reinterpretation of what made them great in the first place, or a simple retreat to the familiar. Unfortunately, the results lean more towards the latter. There are a few new flourishes, such as a clarinet(!) solo on ‘Barely Breathing’ and some arena rock guitar work by Tad Kubler, but there is no doubt that this is (just) another Hold Steady record. Kubler even replaces Nicolai on keyboards in a limited capacity on some songs. Again, like Stay Positive this is a decent record, but it just doesn’t take my breath away as 2006’s Boys and Girls in America did. Their whole modus operandi is starting to feel a bit familiar (for an excellent blog post on the subject, see Steven Hyden’s entry on the AV Club http://www.avclub.com/milwaukee/articles/how-the-hold-steady-can-make-a-better-album-than-h,42718/). Musically, this is fine, as the Hold Steady were never exactly Radiohead in the experimental department, but lyrically it’s a bit disappointing. Finn still has the propensity for witty insight (‘The theme of this party’s the industrial age, and you came in dressed like a train wreck’) but they’re still aimed firmly at the debauchery of his early twenties instead of an honest reflection of where he likely is now as he enters his late thirties. It must be said, though, that this album presents a bit more wistfulness and self-aware reflection that one’s best days are behind you – and that they may not have been that great in the first place. ‘The Weekenders’, by far the best track on the album (even if it smells faintly of past classics like ‘You Can Make Him Like You’ and ‘Chips Ahoy’) practically begs for a temporary return to the places that, rightly or wrongly, the narrator misses and that have come to define his existence. I’ll never get tired of the Hold Steady. They’re an important band to me and every album is still better than most stuff that passes my way. Still, I don’t want Craig Finn to turn into that old guy you might find at the end of the bar at 4 in the afternoon, the one who’s always telling you the same story about how crazy he was when he was your age and how those times were somehow purer than that which we experience now.
While the Gaslight Anthem are another one of my favourite bands, I think that the type of nostalgia they have traded in in the past is as dangerous as the Hold Steady’s in its own way. Their last album, The ’59 Sound, was all about viewing times you’d never been part of through rose-coloured glasses. It was imagining that your grandfather and his times were noble and true, rather than slightly misogynistic and depressed, and thinking that blue collar is an honourable choice rather than something that, quite frankly, most people are trying to escape. Nostalgia is one thing when it’s for a time you’ve left behind, but it seems much more problematic when it’s trying to reach for some sort of collective and historic truth that likely was never there in the first place.
On first listen, their new CD, to be honest, sounds like more of the same. I liked it alright, but only with time have I started to contemplate it more and think that it’s quite a step forward for them. Throughout the album, they’re still living in the grips of the false ice-cream-and-apple-pie America of their parents, but it’s quickly dawning on them that this is a dangerous road to travel down. Some of it’s still aimed at the noble blue collar, but in a way that has a bit more of a bitterly truthful undercurrent to it. I’ve noticed in record reviews that Brian Fallon can get some criticism for his sometimes clichéd, or seemingly trite exposition, but I think that’s a bit harsh. He definitely paints with a broader (and, admittedly, sometimes obvious) brush than Craig Finn, but his words are still evocative and – what’s important for me – he can wring the emotion out of any event. To be honest, for music to work on me it HAS to be a bit vague and plain. If you get too specific or too poetic, it doesn’t speak to me. If a band gets overly literate with their lyrics it becomes a bit like reading a well-written story – satisfying, but it doesn’t get you in the gut. The Gaslight Anthem, in contrast, aims nowhere BUT the gut, and are better for it. Like Finn, Fallon weaves old characters through the music, with less deftness but still a nice feeling of inter-connectedness. Unlike Finn these days though, Fallon’s characters feel like they’re growing up a bit with their nostalgia, more self aware of the pitfalls that can occur by looking back on the past a little too fondly. Songs like ‘Old Haunts’ offer a bitter riposte to Craig Finn’s (often fallacious) belief that things were actually better when we were young and dumb. ‘Memories are sinking ships, that never would be saved. Don’t sing me your songs about the good times, those days are gone and you should just let them go/And god help the man who says “If you’d have known me when”…Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts.”’ It’s the sound of a man all too aware of the problems of both living in the past and forgetting everything that got you to this point. On this point, doubt creeps in in the end, through a subtle shift in lyrics: ‘God help this man who says “My baby, if you’d have known me when”…Old haunts are all we’ve ever known.’ On closer ‘We Did It When We Were Young’, Fallon sounds almost like he’s ready to strangle on these memories, and not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Musically, this album is their most diverse. The Gaslight Anthem get a lot of comparisons to Springsteen, and it’s earned, but people seem to often overlook the intricate and un-Springsteen-like guitar-playing of Alex Rosamilia. More indebted to the Cure than the Boss, he weaves chiming little runs around Fallon’s punk growl, which makes for a more satisfying listen than the simple bar-punk label these boys sometimes get stuck with. The guitars are up in the mix a bit on this record, which is more than welcome, and really brings out the more diverse approach of this album.
Finally, in our little pass down memory’s lane, we come to another of my favourite bands (only 55% of the way through, and 2010 is shaping up to be a VERY good year in music). Perhaps the healthiest approach to nostalgia is that taken by Cloud Cult on their new CD. Craig Minowa, a man who has known more than his share of sorrow after the death of his infant son in 2002, does not shy away from dealing with the past but neither does he wallow in times that are long gone. Instead, he uses his memories and experiences as the building blocks and jumping off point for where he plans to go NOW. It might seem trite to brush the past off as a learning experience, and it is. We all bring baggage wherever we go, and learning from the past is both a simplistic answer and easier said than done. That being said, Cloud Cult’s music makes it seem like an easier proposition, and it’s music like theirs – songs that make you feel like the world is, despite all claims otherwise, an okay place – that still inspires passion in me. To be truthful, I find the new Cloud Cult album (Light Chasers by the way, available now digitally at http://www.cloudcult.com, and available elsewhere in September) a little less memorable than their (brilliant) two previous albums – 2007’s The Meaning of Eight and 2008’s Feel Good Ghosts (Tea Partying Through Tornadoes) – but it’s still more than worth the purchase and growing on me with each listen. As with all Cloud Cult albums, it should be taken as a whole, as the songs take you on a journey from an unsettled beginning, through catharsis towards some sort of resolution and contentment at the end. Minowa said they spent more effort on this album than on any other in the past, and it sounds like it. The instrumentation is lush (and that’s saying something for a band that’s famous for going over the top (in a good way) and throwing everything they have at every single track) and the songs are complex. It works great as a whole, probably more so than their past two albums, but lacks any real standout tracks, like TMOE’s Take Your Medicine or FGG’s Everybody Here is a Cloud, but I still feel very satisfied when I come to the end of its near hour-long runtime. Minowa and his wife Connie sound like they’re in a better place now, after recently giving birth to another child, and I wish them the best. The thing is, I don’t think they need my wishes, as they sound like they’ve come to a complex but satisfying contentment that both moves on and derives from their past sorrows. As they say, over numerous songs:
‘Let come what may come and let go of what goes…
All the things you’ll love,
All the things that may hurt you,
All the things you shouldn’t do,
And all the things you want to…
They’re calling your name…travel safely…
‘If for just a moment, you had to be responsible
For all the things you’ve said and done.
Would you sit back and relax or fasten all your safety belts?
On the journey to the center,
I asked what I was looking for.
They said, “It’s far too easy too explain:
It is what it is. You are what you are. Just try to enjoy your day”’
This turned out to be an over-serious return to the written music world, and for that I apologise. Next week I promise to return to my usual crass and ill-humoured self. See you next week!