Notes From The Flip Side: 12.29.2002
"It was Christmas Eve, babe / In the drunk tank / An old man said to me / 'Won't see another one' / And then he sang a song / 'The Rare Old Mountain Dew' / I turned my face away / And dreamed about you / Got on a lucky one / Came in eighteen to one / I've got a feeling / This year's for me and you / So happy Christmas / I love you baby / I can see a better time / When all our dreams come true"
The Pogues, "Fairytale Of New York"
I read J.P. Donleavy's "Fairytale Of New York" some months ago. I had read "The Ginger Man" in college at the suggestion of Tom Donahue, an old linguistics professor of mine and decided Donleavy wasn't for me; the title of that book made me give him a second chance. The book was worth it. And together with Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale," there's a story of initial hope and subsequent loss and eventual redemption that weaves between the brawlers and drunks and thieves and inveterate liars who populate those yarns. And it seems that I find it hard to get past the loss part of these stories.
The holidays are usually difficult for me. This year, I resolved that the holidays would be as painless as possible. Since I couldn't leave the country, I decided to take leave of my senses and settled in with a large bottle of bourbon and about a case and a half of beer. I got home from work on Monday night and took the edge off with a shot and a bottle of Rolling Rock. Based on the number of bottles I found in the trash can the next morning, I repeated that process almost a dozen times before I passed out. And did the same the next day. And finally began tapering off around mid-day on the 25th.
For once, these days didn't really hurt much. I remember singing many drunken versions of the above song to a girl in upstate New York. I remember telling someone in my hometown that I should have kissed her when I had the chance. And in between, I called a lot of friends and tried to let them know how much they mean to me. And, I might add, a fair number of people called me just to say hey - including people whose voices I never would have expected to hear.
I remember thinking about Peter Lake and Cornelius Christian, about their stories of loss and their struggles to be redeemed. And I remember listening to The Pogues on my way home Monday night, singing along and trying to keep it together until I got home. And it seems like the only stories that mean anything to me these days are ones in which tragedy strikes early and hard ... and recurs.
With that in mind, here are my Top 5 Worst Years Ever:
Merely making the Top 5 means unseating a bad year. In this case, 1994 slipped down to #6. In 1994, I nearly died during surgery for the conditions that made 1993 such a waste of a year and spent six months recuperating. And this year debuted at #2. That should tell you something about how shitty a year it really was.
Fuck this year.
For me, "Fairytale Of New York" resonates with bitter, dehydrated, broken-down dreams. It's a song which describes those initial hopes and best intentions and the road to hell that they mapped. It's true that the song seems to contain a silver lining, but it strikes me as more accurate to say that it was just the way that the dim light in the bar glinted off the empty glass as it left another drunkard's lips.
And even so, I hope.
I hope that we all get on a lucky one. I hope that this year's for me and you. I hope that we all make it through intact and in good spirits. And I hope that all our dreams come true.
It almost seems too soon to get back to trivial things like debating the virtues and merits of albums. This year has been cruel; it seems more appropriate to remember how cold the winds that it brought have been. But that would mean that it won. And while I may not have been able to win for losing for most of this year, I'm sure as shit going to come out ahead this time.
Thus, it's time to talk music. I don't claim that these are the best albums of the year - I think if anyone claims to have heard every album that came out this year, they're lying or extremely ignorant and, without having heard everything, I think it's impossible to qualitatively declare that any album is the best. I merely note that these are the ones that profoundly affected me or that I listened to most.
- Against Me! "Reinventing Axl Rose" (No Idea)
These are my folk songs. If I were to reimagine my life as Woody Guthrie might have lived out my days, these are the songs that I would learn and play on a broken-down, out-of-tune box guitar. These songs describe both of my countries - the first being the one that I see every day in shattered dreams and hopes thrown into a burlap sack and tossed into a lake to drown, the lust for products and entertainment; the second being the country which, as Camus once wrote, contains only the people I love. Yet it must also be the case that others who feel as I do about these songs must necessarily be part of that country because, even though we may not know each other, we see eye to eye on this. And in the end, I can sum up my love for this record in one line: "Fight every fight like you can win."
- A.M. Vibe "A.M. Vibe" (Silver Girl / Tone Vendor)
What am I supposed to say about a record which reminds me of everything I loved about The Jesus And Mary Chain with none of the stuff I hated? What am I supposed to say about a band that brought a smile to my face every time I saw them play? What am I supposed to say about Mark, Lisah and Porter, people who started off as relative strangers (with the notable exception of Porter) who made great music and turned into great friends? When I started my label last year, all I wanted to do was help bands put out great records. I never wanted to be part of a record that wasn't one of my favorites for the year. Although I got laid off before I could put it out, I'm happy to say that this lilting, indie-pop record made me two for two.
- Azure Ray "Burn And Shiver" (Warm)
Achingly tender and poignant, breathtakingly beautiful. My introduction to Azure Ray, although I didn't know it at the time, was driving home from work on a rainy day. The song stunned me - a vocal cadence like Suzanne Vega, strings, acoustic guitars. It sounded like little else I had heard in years and certainly nothing I had heard recently. Naturally, the DJ never said what it was. I picked this disc up about a month ago and knew from the first song that I had found the mystery band. This album breaks my heart in all the right ways - the songs are nearly pregnant with longing and memories that only seem to be spoken of in the most general terms, lest they return to the present and make themselves known again as if they were summoned. However, these songs also rise like a single swallow against a storm-darkened sky, making good its escape before the rain begins. They're frequently hopeful in guarded ways, optimistic about the possibility of something wonderful and true while also anticipating the next hurt ... and preparing for it.
- Belle And Sebastian "Storytelling" (Matador)
I almost feel guilty calling this a record since it's largely the expanded version of the incidental music from Todd Solondz's "Storytelling." However, the songs on here are frequently some of Belle And Sebastian's most satisfying moments. Musical themes emerge, then morph into something else, then return several tracks later as a variation. It's simple - it reminds me of Burt Bacharach's uncomplicated melodies at times - and sounds joyous. I am completely loving it.
- Coheed And Cambria "The Second Stage Turbine Blade" (Equal Vision)
I've been wrestling with this album since it showed up in the mail. I can't put my finger on it ... in some ways, it seems less like a contemporary rock record and more like an old concept album - "Quadrophenia" or "Zen Arcade" for starters. It reminds me of a post-core / emo Rush / Tool tribute band but there's more going on here - high-pitched, soaring, innocent vocals (think Hankshaw or Thursday) which also seem to transcend some secret, unspoken tragedy; melodic songs transitioning into crunchy hardcore whenever they can, swiftly striking at frustration in their chords. The lyrics are opaque; difficult to decipher, almost impossible to understand. This album is one hell of a cipher; there's a lot to puzzle over and even more to enjoy.
- Dillinger Four "Situationist Comedy" (Fat Wreck)
Duh. As if you needed to be told that this is fucking brilliant, godlike, awesome and shreds in every way in which it is possible to be fucking brilliant, godlike, awesome and shred. If you don't already own this, turn off your fucking computer and go get it. Now.
- Fairweather "Alaska" (Equal Vision)
I think I would have been surprised if this EP didn't sound like this, if it didn't have so much going on, buried in the mix. You may be able to listen to this album on a regular stereo system but, much like Fairweather's last record, you have to hear it on headphones. The music? Epic. Incredibly melodic, shoegazing, effects pedal-driven barnstorming hardcore. And I'm not even sure hardcore is the right word to use anymore. Sure, there are plenty of stop-and-go tempos. Sure, there are plenty of breakdowns and it's plenty fast and it's loaded with youthful, hopeful sentiments, but these four songs seem to be pointing at something bigger than another limiting genre. "Alaska" is great as a stand-alone work, but when looked at in context, the progression from "If They Move" to this is utterly astounding. And frankly, I'm a little frightened of what they're going to come up with next.
- Kyle Fischer "Open Ground" (Polyvinyl)
The first song alone did it, all cello and acoustic guitar, a hymn to the temple that indie record shops represent and a musical tip of the hat to guys like me who buy albums like Fischer's on Sundays because we've got fuck all else to do and nowhere else to go (and, for the record, I bought this disc on a Sunday, oddly enough) - "Oh moonlight and music don't forget us / I know we don't deserve it now / But for the next few minutes / Let love come easy anyhow." That's it. That's all I needed. Rest assured, the rest of it is great too, but that moment alone does it for me.
- Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man "Out Of Season" (Go Beat)
Bittersweet and plaintive music from Portishead's singer. Gibbons might as well have covered "I'll Be Your Mirror" because Nico haunts this melancholy album like Muley Graves, a damned old graveyard ghost, fit only to wander and roam and wail. It's a languid, sensual album, like modern torch songs voiced by Eartha Kitt (or Billie Holiday at the end of her life) and tinged with a Motown soul flair. How many more ways do I need to say it's brilliant?
- Hot Water Music "Caution" (Epitaph)
If you were one of the haters who talked shit about "A Flight And A Crash," you might want to stay pissed and bitter because you probably won't like this one any better. And with that said, if this album doesn't completely tear your head off, you probably don't have ears. It's an absolute behemoth, start to finish (and there are little things for us headphone freaks that you'll never hear any other way). Perhaps the best thing I can say about this record is that it took all of 30 seconds for "Trusty Chords" to become my favorite Hot Water Music song and 60 seconds to become my favorite song of the year. Taken as a whole, "Caution" gave me an understanding voice and a huge kick in the ass when I needed both of them most.
- Interpol "Turn On The Bright Lights" (Matador)
Ghostly and ethereal, shifting to angular and edgy with a slight tinge of melancholy paranoia. This album suggests what might have happened if Ian Curtis had fronted a backing band which consisted of Slowdive and Pavement members or if Tanner had recorded every record while flat out fucked on Codeine.
- Jets To Brazil "Perfecting Loneliness" (Jade Tree)
This album opens with a claustrophobic sense of oppression, an ominous, foreboding, pervasive feeling. It opens with dread. Medicine, drugs and jaded people populate "The Frequency"; they linger and hover like terrible omens until dispelled by glam rock riffs and Blake boldly stating that "In the winter of my night I found a desperate kind of light / And nothing comes without a fight." And more than dread, that sentiment seems to provide the key to this record. This album seems to focus on solitude, loss and trying to regain what was once present. Musically, it strikes me as the sound of someone climbing back into life with bloody hands and broken fingers. Better than both of JTB's other albums combined.
- Lucero "Tennessee" (Madjack)
This album is best accompanied by, in order, a bottle of whiskey, a carton of smokes and a broken heart. Dog optional. Tremendously poignant and affecting, drenched in loose-lipped drunken desperation and the feeling that everything desired is either just out of reach or bound to disappear in short order, this album provides the perfect soundtrack to 2002's romantic disappointments and outright failures. Perfect for those late nights spent realizing that crushes carry that name for a reason.
- Radio 4 "Gotham!" (Gern Blandsten)
Edgy, angular, sounding like time lapse photography with incidental music provided by The Jam and Soft Cell. Sure, maybe that sounds like The Faint fighting Ted Leo in a bar where the jukebox only holds Joy Division, Paul Weller, Roxy Music and Kate Bush albums, but that's pretty close - provided they were all paranoid and bristling with uncertainty. This is a brilliant, funky, disgustingly danceable record that makes me shake my skinny white ass.
- Rilo Kiley "The Execution Of All Things" (Saddle Creek)
I knew that Rilo Kiley was the It band on the West Coast - it seemed like I couldn't throw a rock without bouncing it off the empty fucking skulls of half a dozen Weezer fans who were simultaneously raving about this band. Based on the people who liked them, I had automatically dismissed Rilo Kiley as not even being worth listening to - music for the no self-esteem ear plug set, next! I was wrong. While I freely admit that this isn't my typical fare (no anthems here, nothing to really sing along with), I must also acknowledge that it's a phenomenal record. It's a deceptively simple pop record, deceptively because it sounds like pop music but it's created with pedal steel guitar, glockenspiels and the like, deceptively because - just when I think I have this record sussed out, have its pitches timed and I'm ready to put one in the upper deck - it throws curveballs. And when I finally come to grips with the music, I have to contend with the lyrics. This album features lyrics as chilling as Kate Bush's "Experiment IV," especially in "The Good That Won't Come Out" when Jenny Lewis sings "I do this thing where I think I'm real sick / But I won't go to the doctor to find out about it / Cause they make you stay real still / In a real small space / As they chart up your insides / And put them on display." It's a gripping image, hinging on the notion of having the body mapped and presented as though it were merely an object, divorced from blood and dreams and life. And it's made all the more compelling by how simply and matter-of-factly Lewis expresses it. The entire album is like that - lilting pop melodies supporting lines which are as shocking as being hit in the head by a brick, as jolting as touching the wrong wire while working on a live outlet. And suddenly, I'm a huge fan. Go figure.
- The Rocking Horse Winner "Horizon" (Equal Vision)
Looking at the sheer number of Equal Vision releases on this list, you might wonder if the label bought ad space or something - the simple fact of the matter is that, for the second year running, EVR has put out a gang of records that I immediately loved. Yes, this album is the punk rock equivalent of a Christopher Cross record, which is to say that it's light, well-crafted pop music which probably wouldn't offend your mom (so what good is it, right?) but it also carries echoes of the poppier side of the early 90's shoegazing scene - bands like Revolver and, to a lesser extent, the Pale Saints. This album is drenched in lilting melodies and every last song seems to be about having a crush on someone or a disintegrating relationship. While it doesn't cleave as closely to my year as "The Californian" does, this album is still about the only thing I listened to in August.
- Sunday's Best "The Californian" (Polyvinyl)
I've always loved Sunday's Best, but this album affects me far more than anything else they've ever done. Perhaps it's because it loosely describes my circumstances in 2002 ("The Try" features lines like "They remembered when it went south / One instance when you were down / Dust had settled / You moved out of town"). Perhaps it's because the album captures moments of a place I remember yet now find myself distanced from ... perhaps it's because it seems to know me as well as I know myself. "The Californian" seems a bit slower, a bit more reflective. It tosses off lines which almost seem written for me and this situation. I realize that isn't true, that it can't be true, but the album eerily mirrors my year. And the sound? Pure California. Glossy, breezy, cosmopolitan, laconic. It's perfect pop - almost too perfect. It sounds like driving past San Onofre in November with the top down, Wayfarers dulling the glare from the freeway and ocean. It sounds like home.
- Tori Cobras "Running With The Red Light" (Pure Noise Forever)
This album is as subtle as a steel-toed boot in the teeth when you're already face-down on the sidewalk and bleeding. What else would you expect from a band that includes former members of Heroin, tiltWheel, Tit Wrench, Mach 5 Overdrive, The Kidz and Run For Your Fucking Life? The Tori Cobras have a ridiculous pedigree and that doesn't even include the guys who sat in on the recording sessions or filled in at shows. This album is a menacing, bristling, powerhouse. Squire and Weedon are constantly singing over each other, their guitar lines weaving in and out of each other like illegal street racers hopped up on cheap bathtub meth from California's Central Valley. The rhythm section just bludgeons everything. Don't look for mercy - you ain't gonna find it ... but you will get a sound beating. Much like the A.M. Vibe album noted above, I got involved with these guys as a fan. And this album made my track record three for three. Utterly outstanding. Especially when played loud.
- Trial By Fire "Ringing In The Dawn" (Jade Tree)
I knew that this album would make this list from the first time I listened to it. It's a glorious burst of old-fashioned political punk with plenty of shouting and anthemic choruses. In my original notes, I wrote that it reminded me of Paw covering Strawman songs. It still does. And yes, it really is that good. This is a better album than we deserve this year. It's political enough to recharge dead batteries and get me geared up for the next fight, it's powerful enough to make me hope.
- Watch It Burn / tiltWheel "Twice The Dose" (Attention Deficit Disorder)
I've been struggling to write about this release. I loved it before I left San Diego, but that's not enough. Not now. Not since I rerouted my trip to see Watch It Burn in Vegas before I headed east. Not after all the shots of Beam that Led and I have downed. Not after all the talks I've had with Trav and Dave and Adam. Not after all the hours I've spent with Davey and Bob. Not after Jarrod, tiltWheel's bass player on this disc, died. After all that, I realized that I couldn't do this disc justice if I tried. I went to the shows and wound up becoming friends with these people because I love their bands so much that it practically hurts. I'm not sure I can articulate it any better than that. I'll just say that it contains the best work - to date - of both bands and provides a fitting memorial to a friend.
Guiltiest Pleasure Of The Year:
Andrew W.K. "I Get Wet" (Island)
When I first heard this record, I immediately hated it. It was the most mindless album I had heard in a long time, probably since Buckner and Garcia. It ripped off Meatloaf and replaced the pomp and bluster with dumb and dumber. It was tops in the stupid department, overdrawn at the intelligence bank, several IQ points shy of a shoe size. You get the idea. He was a goof, a kook, a nut, a loon, a certifiable nutcase who seemed to believe that he was a Blues Brother for pop-metal - a crackpot on a mission from God to remind everyone that we really needed to have a party. Like, right now. And we needed to get wet in the process - beer, blood, jumping in the pool with our clothes on ... it didn't matter. Just have a party. And get wet. So I hated it. I hated its huge, anthemic hooks. I hated its simple lyrics. I hated just about everything that I could hate about this record. However, the thing that I missed about it is that it's ridiculously fun. I missed the disco beats supporting "I Love NYC" while Andrew bellows "Oh yeah! / New York City!" Sure, this rips off Slade, Night Ranger and pretty much every other cheese metal band found in pub jukeboxes, but it doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Dumb record, dumb fun. What more can I say?
I'm opting not to include collections or reissues in the above list, but I'll note that you really should grab Jawbreaker's "Etc." and Pavement's "Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe And Reduxe."
I don't believe you'll go wrong with any of the following records either. Consider this the honorable mention list:
- Ryan Adams "Demolition" (UMG)
- Avail "Front Porch Stories" (Fat Wreck)
- Beth Orton "Daybreaker" (EMI)
- Cadillac Blindside "These Liquid Lungs" (Fueled By Ramen)
- Chemical Brothers "Come With Us" (Astralwerks)
- The Hope Conspiracy "Endnote" (Equal Vision)
- Matt Pond PA "The Green Fury" / "The Nature Of Maps" (Polyvinyl)
- Small Brown Bike And The Casket Lottery "Self-titled" (Second Nature)
- Wilco "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (Nonesuch)
As a final note, the following were my most frequently played songs this year - on average about 500 listens each.
Alkaline Trio - "Jaked On Green Beers"
Hot Water Music - "Trusty Chords"
tiltWheel - "Hold My Hand To Make Them Go Away"
Raise your glasses to my friends Cranford, Jarrod and Paulette. Hoist a pint for the dearly departed Waylon Jennings, Jam Master Jay, John Entwhistle, Dee Dee Ramone, George Harrison, Joe Strummer, Mary Hansen of Stereolab and all of the other people who made music so personal that they seemed like our best friends.
Good riddance to this year. Next year will be a better one.
Added two essays - some random musings about soul and Guided By Voices and a screed about alternative culture that I wrote many years ago. They were both originally published in Finley Breeze, one of the finest e-zines to ever grace an inbox.
Sunday Drive. The Malakas. Watch It Burn. Tori Cobras. tiltWheel. A.M. Vibe. Fairweather. Sunday's Best. Jets To Brazil. Lucero. Beth Orton. Rilo Kiley. Jedi Five.
Greil Marcus, "The Old, Weird America"
Thomas Wolfe, "You Can't Go Home Again"; Andrew Feenberg, "Questioning Technology" and "Alternative Modernity"; Steven Heller, "Graphic Design History" (edited with Georgette Ballance); Gunnar Swanson, ed., "Graphic Design And Reading"; Italo Calvino, "t zero"; Naomi Klein, "No Logo"