House Of Heroes: The End Is Not The End

Sometimes I’m a little slow to catch on.

Despite having been told by numerous good-eared friends that I should buy this, and despite the fact the I’ve seen them live and know first-hand that they’ve got the stuff to really rip it up, it still took me a year or so to grab my own copy of The End Is Not The End, the latest album by the Columbus-based, and God-fearing, House Of Heroes.

Maybe my reluctance had to do with those last two qualities.  It’s hard to have any critical distance from music released by those within your milieu.   And I’ve always been biased to quick-skip tunes writ for the safely cordoned-off, closed market of the CCM crowd.  Preaching to the choir creates mediocre music like Trekkies breed Tribbles.

Please forgive me, Listening Public, for I have sinned.  I should have tried this disc a long time ago.  It is, as one buddy of mine sez, “all killer and no filler.”  Each Sing-A-Long (indeed, Radio-Ready) chorus is sandwiched in angular, proggy guitar hooks that launch the 3-chords-and-a-hunch Power-Pop template into sonic bliss.

And they’re funny!  My favorite track (at this point)  is “Baby’s A Red” about crushing hard on a lil’ commie cutey.  It splits the difference between The Beach Boy’s Surfer Girl and The Dead Milkmen classic, Punk Rock Girl.  Listen to it for the “Hammer & Sickle” backing vocals alone.  “I’m not ashamed to be your comrade.”  Indeed!

Not that it’s all fun-n-games.   You can’t pretend to be Muse on every bridge and breakdown without taking your craft pretty seriously.  And you can’t sample preacher extraordinaire Rich Nathan pontificating on capital-“g” Grace (as they do on “Voices”) without a dose of divine conviction.

So why now?  House of Heroes is playing Sioux Falls this weekend.  I thought I’d check it out for kicks, but after spinning this record all week, I’m really looking forward to the show.  Though I was once a skeptic, I am now going as a fan.

The Gaslight Anthem & The ’59 Sound

I’m pretty sure that this is the album that The Killers hoped to hit when they took a swing at Sam’s Town.  As a fan of most things Killers, I enjoyed Sam’s Town just fine for what it was, but the Gaslight Anthem seems to have found the missing link between the current indie rock of the aughties and the swaggering grandeur that once drove the E-Street’s shuffle.

That link is the moment that the Grammy’s did the unfathomable and for once made Rock ‘n Roll History.   It’s the moment when Bruce told everyone who’s really The Boss when he took the stage with Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl and other Famous Friends to pay a four-minute tribute to Joe Strummer and the Almighty Clash.

The Gaslight Anthem gets this.   Sure, they love that Jersey sound and knowingly reference Mr. Springsteen in the lyrics pinned to their hearts and stapled to their rolled-up working-class sleeves.  But they also sold their soul to rock and roll, paying a toll of lost loves, broken vows, estrangement, and decline in hopes that 3 chords and a little truth might someday take them all a little farther down the line.

Listen to the chop-chop-chop-chop guitars in Film Noir and you’ll see what I mean.

The Black Kids Are Alright

Listening again to an album I’ve been enjoying for the last few seasons of the year, one of the few reliable happy pills in a long dark winter of the South Dakotan soul, some sunshine from Jacksonville reved up through heart-on-the sleeve 80s cheese.

A lot of critics panned this album, including my usually spot-on heroes over at Sound Opinions.  They were bugged by the trying-too-hard awkward adolescence of the thing.  They’ve all got a point.  The album is soaked in the sexy,  but it’s like a 13-year old trying on her older sister’s makeup and fishnets for the first time.    Kinda icky.

Sure, they’ve got a lot of growing up to do, but the innocence and honesty won me over.  As a kid who first ingested these sorts of Cure-pop grooves while sitting alone in his room imagining the kicks he wasn’t getting, I understand the rock ‘n roll fantasies of a bunch of nice young people who met up in Sunday School, hoping for the opportunity to be naughty, but you know, not like too much.

Wolfmother

Oh, how hip am I!  This album, the self-titled debut by Australia’s Wolfmother, came out a few years ago, but by the time I got around to it the combo had already dis-banded and then re-grouped with a new line up ala Axl’s GnR.  Keepin’ up ain’t in the cards any more kids, but the trees are still falling in the woods even if I’m not there to hear the sound.

Speaking of which, this album dropped just in time to ride the tide of the Guitar-Hero’d fascination with propper (and oft progger) rock from the halcyon days of the hard-livin’ ’70s.  It’s nothing more than a mash-up of the top-rock tropes that once swirled off of the nanny’s hi-fi and slipped into the bassinets and under the bonnets of these wee little lads from way down under.

One need not crate-dig past Blue Cheer to catch every trick that’s been recycled on this disc.  And that’s ok.  It’s just kinda funny.  Especially when they decided it’s time to rock the flute on “Witchcraft.”  Yes, they rock the flute in that same goofy/sputtery/spitty way that a certain band did back in the day.  And that’s after they play the Doors keys and the Deep Purple keys and get all sensitive with the pre-glam Tyrannosaurus Rex freak-folk warble and enlightened us with lyrics like: “She’s a woman, you know what I mean.  You better listen, listen to me.”

Of course, it’s the guitar that really sealed the deal for me.  The fret-born hooks and big and barbed and right as rain on a hot summer’s day.  Original?  Not a bit.  You can can picture these guys in-fighting in the studio:

“No, play the Zeppelin thing and then go straight into the Sabbath riff!”

“No way!  We gotta play the Sabbath riff twice, then I scream like a one-eyed pirate, and then we play the Zeppelin thing like we did last night.”

“You were drunk last night.”

“Wait, did you guys rehearse without me again last night?”

But when the licks are as good as this, everything turns out ok.  At least until the band breaks up.

Woody’s World: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Last night I spent a few pleasant hours rolling about in the late-life alternate reality that Woody’s been creating for himself and kindly sharing with others.  Every time you go it’s a little bit different, but there are a few things that one can count on:  It’s somewhere in Europe.  Americans will show up and feel a little sad about themselves.  And Scarlett Johansson will be there too.

Last night, we went to Barcelona.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody lets us travel along with two 20-something American girls who get to taste a few new things before the tarred-and-chipped road of life sets the world in stone.  Although the inner-feared voice interfered with a full embrace of the choices our heroines chanced, there was a serenity at work in Barcelona that gave comfort.  In Barcelona the moment must be embraced, and life must be lived.  And in the end, in Barcelona, family will be loved, commitments will be honored, and conflicts will be forgiven, forgotten, and few.

Woody’s World sounds ok by me, although I’m still scratching my head a little (just a little) over the fascination with Scarlett Johansson.

Les Paul: Chasing Sound!

As guitar pickers go, ol’ Lester has most of ’em licked.  But that’s not why I love him.  I love him because nearly every piece of musical equipment that I embrace to lift met up when the times are tough, and the days are rough, and the sun just don’t seem to shine, was designed a little bit by him.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, a film crew followed him around New York and put together the documentary Les Paul:  Chasing Sound! If you like popular music (defined anyway you will) between the years of 1930 and 2010 you will find something to love about this film.   Quite literally, nothing would sound the same without him.  And he’s still got the chops, swinging that old ax every Monday night, taking another whack at life while he’s still around to chase his sound.

Magic Music: U2 / No Line On The Horizon

As you might have heard, U2 put out their latest long-player, No Line On The Horizon, to mixed reviews.  After reading a few dozen of these, I did some head-scratching, soul-searching, and critical listening and I think I’ve figured out the common tie that binds the minds of the pen-wielding pundits:  Magic!

Big fans of big music love it like a drug.  It’s gets ’em high, takes them to the next level.  Opens the eyes, breaks open the head, transcends the temporal, touches the immortal.  You know, it’s a trip.  It’s Magic!  We love it, and we bow down before it and the shaman that provides it.

The bands we love set expectations to provide this ecstatic experience with every taste of something new:  The new single is the prophet’s latest epistle, the show is the ceremony where the rockstar is broken before you, collapsing on stage as one who has given his all for his art, for his fans.  Amen brother.  And if they let you down, it hurts.

U2 have tapped into that mystical magic as much or more than anyone else over the last 30 years.  As Bono once said at the Grammy’s:  “It is a gift, much more than it is a craft in our case. We depend on God walking through the room more than most. And God has walked through the room for us.” Their connection to the divine has always been there in the music, whether on the tip of Bono’s tongue or lurking in the back of Larry’s mind.  Sometimes it comes out in a way that everyone can relate to (Pride In The Name Of Love!  I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For!  We’re One, But We’re Not The Same!), and sometimes it’s a little more personal.

And that’s what we’ve got on No Line:  These songs grab your heart if your heart’s singing the same tune.  They fall flat if it’s not.  This last batch of tracks is a more focused thing, and it’s left some on the outside looking in, wondering what happened.  For those on the inside, the magic is as real as it’s ever been.

Not to sound like I’ve got the world figured out, but those critics who love it are pretty comfortable when the focus is on God, and the reviewers left cold have their doubts about the whole thing.  It seems that if you’re willing to listen with the Almighty on your heart, No Line On The Horizon is a beautiful thing.

Hey folks:  The door’s always open.  Come on in.

Ah, That Was Nice: Starter For 10

You might like this film if:  a) You grew up under the influence of The Cure & The Smiths.  b) You pursued a liberal arts degree without a fleeting thought of its practicality, or c) You’re British.

As I scored a solid two out of three (and secretly hoped that I’d awake some day to find that “c” had come true), Starter For 10 was an easy pill to swallow.  It’s a simple story of a kid who goes to college and finds himself in over his head with new ideas, new places, new possibilities, and new girls.  Although the date is never given, it takes place sometime in the mid 80s — Thatcher’s in power, mixtapes hold the key to understanding the soul, and no one’s got caller ID.

It won’t change your life, but if any of the above sounds familiar, it might make you smile.    And it’s got the best soundtrack this side of Grosse Point Blank.

Since We’re On The Subject: The Ting Tings

Finally I’ve found the label for this nonsense I’ve been spinning obsessively for the last few weeks. (Picture the little rat in the cage, tongue lashing the coke-spiked water-bottle foaming away at his little lips. twitch twitCH! TWITCH!!… ) Anyway here ’tis: INDIE-POP. Post-Pop’s already taken (damn you, Peaches!) And this is more of a return to form, like your third-wave feminism: It ain’t afraid to be what it was born to be. More Carrie Bradshaw, less Murphy Brown.

So here’s The Ting Tings: Big in the UK, and (I predict) without a future in the states. We can’t handle ambiguity (see: the Darkness). You’re either in or your out. Hanging with the in-crowd or slumming with the freaks, take a pick and don’t cross the line. These kids have played both sides of the fence and can’t seem to sit still. Picture the White Stripes playing a round of Dance Dance Revolution and you’ll get the idea.

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addendum: I just googled indie-pop and it’s been taken too. drat! suggestions anyone?

Santogold: The Highway to My Danger Zone

Like a Big Mac, I’ve been loving it. But I must confess: I’m afeared. I’m quaking in my creative boots. I’m weak in my musical knees. Atrophy, dust, rust, and disease. The problem is this: Do I only like things that remind me of the music of my youth? Is there a future left for me? Or am I on a slow slump to a Sarasota double-wide pining for the way it used to be?

First of all, the album: It starts off with (and gets back to every 3 tracks or so) a nice bit of retro-80’s pop-balladry. That’s the hook. The barb is the dub, the punky-reggae party that slips into the groove like a track off of Sandinista and lights up this little corner of the dance floor of my heart. Throw in some sonic experiments that wouldn’t be out of place as a later Massive Attack track and you’ve got yourself an album. You’ve got yourself an album that sounds a lot like something I can relate to. Yes me: a 30-something, formerly hip, trying to keep up with the day job and the kids and the wife and the rest of life. Is this really a market to target?

There’s more to Santogold than that, but there’s something purposeful about the way she snips melody from the Smiths, screams like one of Siouxie’s banshees and has a Peter Murphy impersonator guest on the track “I’m a Lady”. Or maybe she just has good taste. Maybe I do too.

Here’s to hope, and here’s to the future.