Monthly Archives: January 2015

1984 by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is a super-talented artist whose music always feels a bit like homework to me. I recognize that Adams is super-talented, probably a genius even…but listening to most of his albums always feels like work. And just like that dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest I keep trying to read, I never throw the towel in completely with Adams because intellectually I know I should love his music. He’s ferocious, highly literate, and sincere to a fault–all qualities I respect in an artist. So what’s my problem with him? I think the problem might be tempo. I love when Adams gets loud.

In 2003, Ryan Adams knocked my socks off with him solo album ROCK ‘N ROLL. A joyous, unabashed love letter to the gritty rock albums that Adams (and me) grew up listening to, ROCK ‘N ROLL was largely ignored by the press and music fans in general. But I connected with this record in a big, big way. This is the album that convinced me that I had something in common with Adams, whom I’d otherwise considered to be a bit on the stuffy side. It seems as though with Adams the less he tries, the more I dig his music.

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ROCK ‘N ROLL always felt as though it was a bit of a “goof” and not something Adams would repeat. Apparently the album was recorded after his label rejected his album LOVE IS HELL for not being commercial enough. ROCK ‘N ROLL was recorded to fulfill contractual obligation, a blatant attempt to create something modern rock fans would approve of but ended up biting Adams in the ass. ROCK ‘N ROLL wasn’t a smash success.  But when LOVE IS HELL eventually came out, it’s darker more indie-rock focus garnered Adams immense critical praise. I’ve always thought that this rejection of ROCK ‘N ROLL and the praise LOVE IS HELL received served as a watershed moment for Adams. This was the moment when his fate was sealed and a his status as an indie rock troubadour was cemented for good.  I never thought he’d put out another dirty and gritty rock album. And for the most part, I was correct…however last August he did release a very fine 11 song EP titled simply 1984.

1984. The title tips Adams hand, this (very short) collection of songs is an even bigger homage to the hard edge rock bands of yesterday. Clocking in at 14 minutes, the songs fly by and bleed together in an angry torrent of slightly fuzzy guitars and reverbed soaked vocals. This is 100% nostalgia, pure and simple. Anyone expecting a thoughtful, contemplative indie rock album should look elsewhere. 1984 is hard charging and visceral. All the tracks seem hurriedly dashed off, never quite lazy but with a sort of “fuck it” vibe. The snarly vocals and primal guitars reminded me of very early Replacements, a band who always got to the point simply and quickly.

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1884 is wall-to-wall badassery. That old cliché “don’t bore us/get to the chorus” is in full effect here, with nearly all the song existing as fast guitars and million dollar choruses. “When The Summer Ends” has an almost Ramones-esque level of beautiful, brutal simplicity. Essentially the song is a just a vocal hook and sloppy guitar riff repeated over and over. This sort of thing should be annoying or stupid or come across as sloppy, but Adams is clearly putting his heart into this music and it shows. The tracks minute and forty-eight second run time also prevents the song from overstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome.

In fact, all of the songs on 1984 tumble out quickly, as though Adams is afraid he won’t remember them or he’ll run out of tape. This gives the EP a kinetic, some might even say exhausting quality. The best song, the true diamond in the rough is “Change Your Mind.” Full of both angst and yearning, the song is a quick minute and a half that captures the beautiful futility of a love that cannot be: “If I could change it, I’d change your mind.” Sometimes an aggressive power chord and a clever line shouted over the noise says more than a thousand carefully crafted lines. That’s 1984.

I also really love the loopy guitar that opens “Wolves” a song that sounds like something The Strokes would have recorded circa 2001. And the somewhat quieter ballad “Look in the Mirror” closes 1984 in a surprisingly restrained note.

Finishing up the EP, one gets the distinct feeling they’ve just finished hearing a bunch of really kickass demos.  Like flipping through a painters sketch book, you get the feeling Adams could really flesh these songs out and make an incredible album. Instead, these songs exist as brief glimpses of the past where Adams was young and angry. There’s a time to think and there’s a time to damn the torpedoes and charge ahead—1984 is very much a head-down, ballsy charge. Take fifteen minutes out of your day and listen to 1984. Enjoy the nostalgia.

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METAL MONDAY: I drank The Trooper while listening to “The Trooper”

Over the past few years I’ve become something of a beer connoisseur. I became interested in beer after relocating to St. Louis, Missouri a city that’s a major player in the beer industry. Besides nasty, corporate swill (St. Louis is home of the world-famous Budweiser) the city is home to some of this country’s greatest microbreweries. When it came time to move once again, I’d be lying if I said that Colorado’s fantastic brewing culture didn’t play a role in my moving decision.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I love beer. Beer is something I have a great deal of passion and interest in. In fact, if I’d been a better chemistry student in school I’d probably give brewing a try. But enough about me, let’s get to the beer.

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I’d seen the Iron Maiden-themed beer The Trooper at various liquor stores for the past few years but had never picked it up until last week. Does Iron Maiden need their own beer? I’m only a casual fan of the band, so perhaps I’m not the best one to answer that question. My gut tells me “no,” however. Don’t get me wrong, I get the mindless merchandising of classic bands…but why a beer? Most rock bands project an image of reckless debauchery, Iron Maiden is no different, but I don’t think of them as a drinking band. And “The Trooper” is not a song about drinking, so what gives? Mindless merchandising…

Anyway, I finally took the bait and bought a bottle of The Trooper. I took it home and got it chilled, but not super-cold, because that’s how they drink beer in England. Also, I’d had a particularly shitty day and just wanted to drink and write about Iron Maiden.

Upon opening the bottle I took a sniff, the beer smelled predominantly malty with a touch of sweetness. The beer poured clear and golden, with a nice frothy head. While I waited for the foam to subside, I started up “The Trooper.” It’s interesting to note that the song, off the band’s album PIECE OF MIND, is exactly three days older than me. Yes, The Trooper is a beer based on a 31 ½ year old metal song. The song is famously inspired by the Lord Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” That poem, like the song, is about a famous battle of the Crimean War in which a colossal screw up in communication resulted in a bunch of British soldiers bravely (stupidly?) charging when their commanders actually wanted them to retreat. The symbolism weighed heavily on my mind when exactly two minutes into the song, I took a sip.

I was surprised at how the beer tasted more subdued than I thought based on the smell. Rather than a sweet, candy-like flavor the beer has an immediate undercurrent of hops giving The Trooper a tangy, somewhat bitter after-taste. The alcohol content is surprisingly low, only 4.7% alcohol by volume (ABV). Here in the U.S.A., we tend to value higher alcohol content, but in Britain session beers (read: ones that don’t get you fucked up) are quite common. The Trooper is an ESB, which stands for Extra Special Bitter; this is a style that has a malty flavor with a nice hop kick.

I won’t lie to you, this is not a style that is very common in this country.  Nor is it one that I have much experience drinking. Is the Trooper a good ESB? I honestly don’t know. I’m guessing it’s not because it’s an Iron Maiden-themed beer and again mindless merchandising. Is The Trooper a good beer in general? It’s okay. I bought this beer specifically to write about it for this post, now that I’ve done that I don’t plan on buying it again. Would I turn this down if someone offered it to me for free? Hell-to-the-no.

"Some drinking implied."

“Some drinking implied.”

“The Trooper” is a great song, but I don’t need to tell you that do I? It’s Iron Maiden’s most well known song and with good reason. The song has a fantastic, highly memorable guitar hook and it’s based on a famous poem about a famous battle. I’m sure if I were British all of this would make my heart swell and mean even more. The truth is: Maiden’s a classic band, the song is fantastic, and this beer is just okay.

I get that they went with a traditional British beer style, but I’m deducting points for the low ABV. Truly the marketing geniuses at Robinsons Brewery missed the boat on this one. The Trooper should have had an ABV of 6.66% (the most metal of all ABV’s). I mean, come on how did no one think of this? I’m a shut-in music blogger and even I have the sense and savvy to know that would have made more sense. I can forgive the band for selling out because it is pretty metal to have your own beer. But having that beer come in below 5%? Well that’s just weak.

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Everybody Drowns Sad And Lonely: I *Heart* Beulah

Other than Nirvana, I can’t think of another band besides Beulah that makes being depressed sound like so much fun. The sunny, wistful sound Beulah made in their very short life as a band still haunts me to this day. I discovered Beulah back in early 2002 while on a lunch break. The band had released their album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR in September 2001 (yes, it came out on 9/11) and the music magazine I was reading had the album prominently placed on several of the staff’s best of the year lists.

At the time, I was really into The Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, bands who had formed this weird collective called The Elephant 6 Recording Company. This collective was really just a group of music nerds that revered pop music of the 1960s, specifically The Beach Boys. The whole thing was out of Denver, Colorado, which I find a bit amusing, as this is where I now live.

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Anyway, The Elephant 6 Recording Company had a lot of mystical sway with my early 20-something mind. When I saw Beulah’s album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR show up on a bunch of “Best of 2001” lists I was mildly curious. When a more than one review mentioned the Beatles/Beach Boys-like quality to their songs, I was intrigued. But when I found out that they were part of the Elephant 6 I knew I had no choice but to get their album.

It wasn’t just me that took notice of the band, THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is/was the band’s biggest album. This is thanks to the album’s slicker, more refined production and an abnormal (for modern indie pop) use of horns. Ah, the horns. The horns add an extra layer of sweet icing to songs laced with bile and bitterness.

Beulah, at first blush, lulls the listener with golden harmonies and the sunny melodies. But all that sweet sound belies the dark, murky complexity of singer-songwriter Mike Kurosky’s lyrics. Rife with Brian Wilsonian-angst and anxiety, Kuroksy always seems to be on the verge of cutting the poetic bullshit and telling us how he really feels. But he never really does. Instead, we get gorgeous hook-filled pop gems. Gorgeous pop gems that raise an eyebrow and give the listener pause as they wonder: is this song really about…that? Holy shit, that’s kinda fucked up. The best part is that these bright, shining songs with such dark undertones also stick inside your head for weeks upon end.

When I get to California  Gonna write my name in the sand  I'm gonna lay this body down  And watch the waves roll in

When I get to California
Gonna write my name in the sand
I’m gonna lay this body down
And watch the waves roll in

Of course THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR’S most well known song is the most straightforward: “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.” You’ve heard it, even if you’re not aware that you’ve heard it. About a year after THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR was released the song was ubiquitous, appearing on the soundtracks of many sappy TV shows and in at least one car commercial. I often wonder how many of those ad/TV executives took the time to really listen to the lyrics. There is a lot of dark shit in “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.”

Such as:

 “Just because he loves you too

He would never take a bullet for you

Don’t believe a word he says

He would never cut his heart out for you”

 THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR can only be described as a sublime musical experience. I still get goose bumps when listening to “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” The song compares a slide into inevitable depression to the end of summer vacation. All the drugs, all the women, all the smiles don’t mean anything once the darkness comes. Kurosky is telling this to someone but the uncomfortable reality is that he’s telling this to himself. He’s telling this to us:

“Will you be alright when you’re in the shade?

Tell me tell me you’ll be alright

When you start to fade

Have you heard?

The days are getting shorter

And what will you do when your suntan is fading and the summer’s gone?

Do you feel afraid?”

My favorite track on the album is the staggeringly awesome “Gene Autry.” An epic, rambling song, “Gene Autry” is both about the legendary singing cowboy and also about the ugly beauty and promise that is California. A land of milk and honey, but also one full of loneliness and hopelessness. The chorus of this song is: “That the city spreads out, just like a cut vein, everybody drowns, sad and lonely.” Every time I hear “Gene Autry” the song punches me in the guts. I’m amazed that something so unbearably sad can make me feel so exhilaratingly happy.

I like to think that my feelings of despair are driven away by the fact that I recognize a lot of my own personal hang-ups and sorrow in Beulah’s music. The band doesn’t sing about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they are Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! But the more likely source of my euphoria is really just the result of the band’s upbeat delivery and extreme musical craftsmanship. Oppressive sadness extends into Beulah’s other albums, but it’s never quite as bright and shiny as it is on THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR. And while it’s not my favorite album of theirs (that would be YOKO, the 2003 album that broke them up), THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is my favorite Beulah album to be sad with.

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