The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America (Vagrant)

The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America The Hold Steady
Boys And Girls In America
By: Eric Greenwood

Lyrics can often make or break a band. Even an otherwise rocking song can be destroyed by a few clumsy clich├ęs. And since most bands have jumped right into emo's pandering, self-pitying cesspool of over-used lamentations, it's refreshing to listen to a band whose lyrics eschew all of that sensitive dreck in favor of the drunken ramblings of a music-obsessed fanboy. It's Craig Finn's conversational wordplay and observational deconstruction that keeps The Hold Steady from sounding like heartland music for rednecks.

Finn's not much of a singer. He's mostly a talker with little to no regard for traditional meter or orthodox phrasing, but he makes it work with his bizarrely nagging and persistent flow. If you closed your eyes and could block out Finn's stream of conscious brain scrambles, you'd swear you were listening to a Bob Segar "Like a Rock" commercial. Ok, maybe not quite that extreme, but The Hold Steady's music certainly mixes generic bar rock with pop punk flair, like Bruce Springsteen channeling The Replacements. And I swear I can hear some Bruce Hornsby thrown in there, too. I realize that this seems like the worst amalgamation of sounds imaginable, but Finn's dense stories unfurl out of your speakers so quickly, you can't help but need another take.

Finn's delivery is sloppy yet distinct, and it sounds completely off the cuff, often evoking Shane MacGowan's guttural rants, only twice as literate. Finn looks like a bloated Buddy Holly, and he speaks his mind so effortlessly and effectively. This is music utterly devoid of pretension, and by the same turn it makes so many bands look silly for trying to be so weird. It's not going to blow away any music theory geeks with its tinkering piano, power chords, and predictable changes, but that is because this music succeeds on a different level. It's gutsy and honest and hard to swallow, and every time I listen to **Boys and Girls in America**, I am blown away by its lyrical daring.

Admittedly, it took me more listens then I typically have the patience to allow not only to get into The Hold Steady but just to get it at all. Something kept me coming back- a curiosity I couldn't quite figure out. The band's second record, **Separation Sunday** was my introduction. I was instantly put off by Finn's ragged voice, incessantly firing idiomatic narratives as though he were catching his last breath, but so many lines intrigued me enough to keep trying. I'm still not even sure if I like the music, but I'm positive Finn's a lyrical genius. And that's more than I could say for some of my favorite bands.

Quoting lyrics often falls flat, unless you can quote a full verse or even an entire song. But Finn tosses off so many golden one-liners, he's almost daring you not to write them down: "She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian" ("Stuck Between Stations"). "How am I supposed to know that you’re high if you won't let me touch you?" ("Chips Ahoy!"). "We started recreational. It ended kinda medical. It came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles" ("Hot Soft Light"). "I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers. I feel Judas in the long odds of the rackets on the corners. I feel Jesus in the tenderness of honest nervous lovers. I feel Judas in the pistols and the pagers that come with all the powders" ("Citrus"). It's endless. Finn's lyrical acumen knows no bounds.

Lily Allen, Alright, Still (Regal)

Lily Allen - Alright, Still Lily Allen
Alright, Still
By: Eric Greenwood

I was a fan of Lily Allen's long before I even heard a note of her music. Her reputation for trashing her peers and calling bullshit on the hypocrisy of the rock star lifestyle preceded her. On Pete Doherty: "I do think he needs to be exterminated." On Madonna: "She might have meant something once, but I don’t know anyone my age who cares." She can mouth off because she has the musical prowess to get away with it. And she's ridiculously cute.

Allen may be the daughter of a famous comedian (Keith Allen), but she feels no sense of entitlement for success of any kind. Her street-level wit and unforgiving observational skills pepper her eclectic music with a strange mix of worldly authenticity and girlish charm. I approached her album with trepidation, though, because I didn't want to be let down.

Just like every other aspiring musician on the planet, Allen started a Myspace page, which unpredictably catapulted her to stardom in England in late 2005. Posting her demos and blogs filled with biting rants started a frenzy of friend requests, and, although she says her record deal happened prior to her Myspace phenomenon, her success has been married to it ever since.

I bought her album based solely on her trash-talking skills. I knew going in that it was pop music, but I figured she must do something right to be able to call out the crap so consistently. And she does. Her voice is infectiously charming. Her thick British accent wraps around each syllable so effortlessly. She sounds like a female version of The Streets, except that she can sing as well as rap. It's ironic that such acerbic wit comes with such a little-girl voice.

The production couldn't be more saccharine, but what sets Allen apart from the dregs of auto-tuned pop is her knack for lyrical revenge, which she floats over sunny choruses, ska-tinged pop, and street-beat grime. It's endlessly entertaining to listen to such an effortlessly charismatic girl talk so much smack, while making it so catchy you can't stop thinking about it.

The Slits, Return Of The Giant Slits!: History And Conversation (Saf)

The Slits - Return Of The Giant Slits!: History And Conversation The Slits
Return Of The Giant Slits!: History And Conversation
By: Eric Greenwood

As much as I hate the idea of reunions, I must admit I can't resist certain regroupings. It's just as easily a case of morbid curiosity as it is genuine excitement that forces me to go see bands decades past their prime on the off chance that somehow they will recapture what once made them great. Barring the rare exception (like Mission of Burma), it's typically a letdown. Being an art form inextricably bound to the recklessness of youth, punk rock doesn't age well.

We last heard from The Slits in 1981. With only two albums to its name, The Slits gained notoriety for two reasons: it was the first all-female punk band; and it opened for The Clash on its 1977 European tour. When the original four Slits started playing together, musical prowess was obviously not high on the list. But this group took the DIY aesthetic to a new level of incompetence. By today's standards The Slits' early bootleg recordings sound horribly generic and uninteresting. Luckily, the band waited several years before cutting its first record with veteran reggae producer Dennis Bovell.

Bovell cracked The Slit's world wide open with his sound effects, oddly syncopated rhythms, and fascination with dub beats. And by 1979 The Slits had carved an unique niche out of its early punk ramblings on its debut, Cut. Vocalist Ari Up's sputtering melodies mingled well with the dub effects and stilted rhythms to form a sound that no other post-punk band could claim. To this day the music sounds spooky, assertive, and subversive. How these proudly non-musical instrumentalists transformed into envelope-pushing idea-makers is still a mystery, but Cut remains one of the most important post-punk records ever recorded.

Delving even deeper into world beats and ethnic verisimilitude, Return of the Giant Slits marked an even more extreme sense of ambitiousness. At this point in 1981, The Slits showed little to no interest in any adherence to the Puritanism of punk, instead opting for the destruction of pre-conceived notions of punk's boundaries and women's place in music.

Such extremism was eventually the band's undoing, and, ironically, The Slits lived up to punk's inevitable, self-fulfilling implosion, disbanding before the year's end. Up joined the avant-pop New Age Steppers before disappearing to Jamaica.

I recently spoke with The Slits en masse and newly reunited on speakerphone, as they were traveling to a show during their first week of touring in twenty-five years. It was a difficult interview to say the least- not because the band wasn't eager to talk (it was). But all of them would speak at once, their accents thick and rough. I quickly learned my questions were far too wordy and detailed for such a jovial, haphazard interview, so I tried to simplify them on the spot.

I started off with the obvious in what prompted The Slits' reformation after so many years, to which they snarkily replied, "Cuz we missed each other so much." Clearly. When I pressed for a more substantive answer, I managed to get them to eke out "we have unfinished business." Fair enough. Up claims she never left music at all, even though she left the public eye. She says she "didn't want to know about European existence anymore", thus the move to Jamaica, where she "lived in music every day."

I tried to explore the first women in punk angle, but they weren't taking the bait, although they did say that, if anything, The Slits "gave girls an alternative to standing in the audience." I brought up the band's legacy, asking if there were any bands in which the influence of The Slits were audible, which prompted the most emphatic response of the interview, "THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BAND LIKE THE SLITS AND THERE NEVER WILL BE!"

And with that, you should probably do whatever you can to see them live because, even though it's a silly, cop-out answer, there's a kernel of truth to it. 2006 tour dates:

Wed 11/08/06 Atlanta, GA Drunken Unicorn
Thu 11/09/06 Birmingham, AL Bottletree
Fri 11/10/06 Baton Rouge, LA Spanish Moon
Sat 11/11/06 Austin, TX Emo’s Austin
Tue 11/14/06 Tucson, AZ Club Congress
Thu 11/16/06 San Diego, CA The Casbah
Fri 11/17/06 West Hollywood, CA The Troubadour
Sat 11/18/06 San Francisco, CA Mezzanine
Sun 11/19/06 Oakland, CA Uptown Night Club
Tue 11/21/06 Portland, OR Dante’s
Wed 11/22/06 Seattle, WA El Corazon
Sun 11/26/06 Chicago, IL Logan Square

The Mars Volta, Amputechture (GSL/Universal)

The Mars Volta - Amputechture The Mars Volta
By: Eric Greenwood

Despite its post-punk pedigree, it's hard to imagine The Mars Volta sharing many fans with today's typical indie kid. You know the type cuddled up with his Sufjan Stevens records, wearing a nondescript striped sweater, faux frames, and spotty facial hair. That kid hates The Mars Volta and all of its pretentious, prog-rock ambitions.

The Mars Volta appeals more to that guy who defends Faith No More because Mike Patton was in it, declaring Patton's ability to turn scatological humor into experimental nightmares without using anything but his voice exempts him from judgment for his embarrassing rap-funk beginnings. And because he was in Bungle, dude. Yeah, that guy worships The Mars Volta.

If you don't fall into either ridiculously narrow or caricatured camp, that doesn't mean you're out of the loop. It's just one way of demonstrating how polarizing The Mars Volta's music is. Not too many people are on the fence- you either love this stuff or you hate it.

I'll admit to being intrigued to the point of being impressed by the band's debut, the Tremulant EP, and even most of De-Loused in the Comatorium for its pummeling fits of Led Zeppelin progged-out in space. The Santana-style solos were forgivable because they were far outnumbered by hooks and impossibly technical aggression. The same can't be said for Frances The Mute, a sprawling, stream of conscious set of heavy-lidded space rock, world-fusion eccentricity, and jazzy discombobulation.

The band's third full length, Amputechture, continues on a fans-be-damned journey to the center of nonsense, with layers upon layers of harmonized, processed vocals, scaling guitar wankery, and lush, atmospheric passages interrupted by extreme jolts of pistol-fire percussion. Cedric Bixler-Zavala's voice can knock you on your ass just as easily as Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's solos can numb your face.

Musically, it's mind-blowing in both execution and creativity, but it's a masturbatory nightmare to sit through in one listen.

The Lemonheads, The Lemonheads (Vagrant)

The Lemonheads - The Lemonheads The Lemonheads
The Lemonheads
By: Eric Greenwood

Mastering slacker ennui just before Pavement made it trendy, Evan Dando forged a career out of backhanded compliments and unabashed, dopey sincerity. While the name The Lemonheads denotes a band, it's been Dando's show from the beginning. With a revolving cast of part-time members, Dando swindled his way onto a major label via too-clever-by-half covers of Suzanne Vega's "Luka" and Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum", which served as tongue in cheek diversions from his punk-ish roots.

With his teenybopper good looks and his knack for cheap melodies, Dando embodied the part of a MTV darling by the time yet another cover made him famous- the atrocious misappropriation of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson", which even Dando himself despises to this day. But the album that preceded that commercial faux pas remains the finest achievement of his strikingly uneven career.

At the time, It's A Shame About Ray sounded like more heart-on-your-sleeve folk-punk from a guy you'd just as soon beat up as listen to, but, putting aside any knee-jerk reaction to Dando's fame-whore tendencies, the album boasted an impressive arsenal of hooks and undeniably memorable songs, making it a hands-down classic. Dando's bored and detached voice slipped seamlessly into Elvis Costello-style brashness on perfect pop gems like "Rudderless" and "Ceiling Fan in My Spoon."

It's that sense of brashness that Dando is trying recapture on this self-titled return from obscurity. With two former Descendents as his bandmates this go round, Dando leans more towards his poppier-punk side. Though the songs lack the immediacy and built-in nostalgia of anything off It's A Shame About Ray, they do showcase the fact that Dando's unfettered sense of melody is still intact. At times endearing but also hokey and indulgent with way too many misplaced lead guitar squawks (courtesy of J. Mascis), The Lemonheads actually sounds like The Lemonheads just before they got good