Lately, I’ve been driving with the windows down, the sunroof open. Needless to say, those conditions—and the conditions that inspire them—demand music be played at an advanced volume, demand music that is loud and colorful and rhythmic, music that will be heard above the roar of the road, music that will match the sun and the breeze. That is what is here, in this month’s “Pirate Guide”—the “Sonic Boom” feature wherein I offer brief reviews of a host of new records—and that is what has owned my ears this month. There is much more, too, than what I have written about here, and that deserves to be written about, too—next week maybe, or next month, or maybe those records will stay between me and my speakers and the wind, everything rushing by at 65, 70, 75, speeding past like spring into summer.
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant Records)
I read this thing a few years ago—I can’t remember where I read it—but the gist was, like, the reason rock critics are so fond of The Hold Steady is because they (we) recognize Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn as one of their (our) own: He’s a bespectacled nebbish, a writer (more so than a singer), who listens to Thin Lizzy and Fugazi, who drinks and makes literary allusions, who basks in nostalgia and believes in the power of rock ’n’ roll. And I think that’s an accurate read—in fact, when I think about it, it almost seems a little obvious. As such, you can’t really trust a rock critic to give you an honest appraisal of The Hold Steady: We can’t be objective, because we can’t help but see ourselves in him, on that stage, leading these awesome sing-alongs and fronting this kickass band and rocking the heck out. “I can sing as well as this guy,” we think to ourselves, “and I might even be in better shape than him, too.” Of course, we’re dead wrong, about everything, all of it. But that doesn’t change anything. Me, I think they’re one of the best bands walking the Earth, and have been for years, but I also think they hit a peak with 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, and they’ve now been on a slow but inexorable decline for two albums. This too seems to be the official rock-crit party line, so even here I’m not straying too far from the pack. To be clear: 2008’s Stay Positive was a step down from Boys and Girls, and Heaven Is Whenever is a step down from Stay Positive. This is cause for some disappointment, sure, but The Hold Steady have yet to release an album not worth owning, and Heaven Is Whenever continues that trend. The highlights here (“Soft in the Center,” “The Weekenders,” “Hurricane J”) don’t stray far from the sound of Hold Steady highlights past (“Chips Ahoy,” “Banging Camp,” “Slapped Actress”) and when the band tries on new textures, it sometimes works (“The Sweet Part of the City”) and sometimes doesn’t (“A Slight Discomfort”). Most frustrating, I guess, is that these highlights just don’t get you (me) as high as the old ones did. (Which sounds kind of like a Craig Finn lyric, come to think of it, which does nothing to disprove my earlier point.) [7/10]
Speaking of out-of-shape old guys with whom rock critics identify a little too closely, LCD Soundsystem has a new one out, too! (To further drive home that comparison, as the venerable Charles Aaron said in a recent tweet: “Craig Finn and James Murphy steady riffin’ on ‘the kids’ like they’re getting a shvitz at the Friars. #indiecatskills.”) And just like Finn & Associates, Murphy’s new music is slightly less compelling than his old music, but still pretty effectively compelling, and pretty definitely essential. No shame in the falloff to be found here: You could make an argument that LCD’s last one, Sound of Silver, was the best record of the aughts, and the two that preceded it (his self-titled debut LP and his Nike-sponsored 45:33 project) were almost equally exhilarating, exciting and unique. This Is Happening is Murphy at his most Bowie-esque (specifically thinking the Berlin trilogy here, not Ziggy Stardust), though Murphy’s self-awareness and sense of humor make him seem a bit more human, more approachable, than Bowie—or even New Order or the Talking Heads, whose influences can also be heard here. The great moments on This Is Happening (“All I Want,” “You Wanted a Hit,” “Pow Pow”) are as good as any of the man’s best, and that’s saying something, considering his best (“Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” “All My Friends,” “Someone Great”) have approached the realm of the timeless. Kinda off topic: I don’t know how Charles Aaron really feels, but me, I like it when Murphy (or Finn) riffs on the kids—which, again, says more about rock critics than it does about the music being criticized. [8/10]
There’s this T-shirt produced by the great heavy metal magazine Decibel, the design on which features about 20 different acronyms lined up to look like an upside-down cross. The acronyms include things like NWOAHM (New Wave Of American Heavy Metal) and NWOTNBM (New Wave Of True Norwegian Black Metal), and all those acronyms lumped together (even the obviously fake ones, like NWOB-GYN) serve to make one realize just how compartmentalized and genre-specific heavy metal has become. Hour of 13 are from North Carolina, and they play doom metal—a genre wholly derived from Black Sabbath—though some of their influences seem to come from the NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) and Scandanavian proto-black metal. I mention all these sub-subgenres here because: (A) Maybe that will give you some idea what Hour of 13 sound like; (B) Maybe that will give you some idea how absurd and frustrating it can be to be a heavy metal fan in 2010; and (C) I must express to you that, where heavy metal is concerned, this kind of stuff really isn’t my bag. On the whole, I don’t like retro metal bands, don’t like American metal bands that sound European, and don’t like singers who sound like Ozzy. This is mostly because all these bands sound, to me, like they’re joking, like they’re playing at being a heavy metal band, like they’ve embraced the clichés, not the culture, when for my money, clichés are an occasional byproduct of heavy metal, not its essence. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t love This Is Spinal Tap, either.) And I’m telling you all this so you know that my recommendation of Hour of 13 does not come lightly. The roots of The Ritualist are deep in the 1970s, and I can’t locate any influence here more recent than 1986, but the conviction here is undeniable. For all its occult postures and smoke-machine imagery, this is not pastiche. The songwriting is so sharp, the performances so striking, and the sound so rich that none of my biases can counteract the amazing power of the music. [8/10]