Almost Killed Me

From the suburbs to the cities to the streets, there’s kids whose heads are overstuffed with broken bogus dreams. They sold us all on success and put a price upon our prime so high that most of us don’t even try. We recede into the backrooms of bars and clubs with anyone just to score up some commotion to divert our minds away from all our failures.

It’s there in that backroom that I find myself hanging with The Hold Steady. Upon our introduction it was clear just where the name came from. They swagger on their heels and slur their speech but just a bit as they balance at the brink of a full-blown binging bender. They hold it steady, alright. But just barely.

They’re plenty agreeable though. Nice guys who keep the drinks and drugs at close disposal. But I could have scored that shit anywhere. What I’m here for is that The Hold Steady shit that only they provide.

Pleasantries aside, I make my intention known. The guys look at each other and then back at me. One smirks. Another smiles. And another slides a shiny shrink-wrapped copy of Almost Killed Me across the table. Someone snarks, “If you can handle it,” but the money’s on the table and I’m already out the door.

Back at home with the lights down low, the stereo, it glows. Things start out quiet but they have to; I know just what’s in store and that shit has got to be brought in slow. You can’t just drop it all at once. It’s not supposed to be a suicide. Not intentionally.

Single coils burn hot under a soft strum as The Hold Steady cover 80 years of youth-targeted consumer culture and the casualties induced. It’s a hell of a history lesson and brings me all the way up to our new millennium miasma.

And that’s when shit lets loose. Drums. Bass. Guitar. Guitar. And that voice that sounds like an American Mark E Smith. It’s not an entirely fair comparison, cause this guy’s actually making sense, but the conviction is right there. And so it the rest of the band. Everything up front. Everything in the red. All right on the edge. But keeping it all held steady. But just barely.

This keeps up for three more tracks. Thick sheets of granite guitars rain down like scary shrapnel. The drums keep punching with inhuman relentlessness. And the bass keeps the whole thing true to their namesake.

Then a change. Piano? What the fuck? This sounds like Billy Joel. Hell, it’s even about Billy Joel. But it’s still there: that deep dark wound that haunts their words and drives their debauchery. Getting high isn’t just about getting high; it’s about getting so low you’ve got no where else to go.

But best dry my eye or else miss the kick in the head that’s coming next. The rock is back and it’s more desperate than ever. Seething. Stomping. Raging. Restless. This is the shit we take when we don’t want to sleep anymore.

And still there’s more to come. More rock. More sadness. More piano. Even a saxophone solo right off the set of Saturday Night Live that inexplicably incites a “Fuck yeah!” where it should have earned a “Fuck you!” They bring me right to the brink and then lay off just enough to take me even further with the next rush.

These guys are experts, man. They do this shit for a living. So they know they can’t just leave me all amped up and aching. No, there’s a resolution here to bring me back down to a functionable level. No worse for wear but worn out just the same.

So may be now I can finally sleep. There’s sure to be a hangover tomorrow and a headache that hangs on. But there’s still half a case of Coors in the cooler and that The Hold Steady disc is still sitting in the stereo just waiting for when I need it most.

Get high on "The Swish"

Come down with "Sketchy Metal"

Read the best lyrics I heard all year

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A New White

Remember back before Anticon fell off? Back when they swore they wouldn't? Back when that whole backpack shit really felt like a movement? Those were good days.
Fuck that. No they weren’t. Shit’s the same now as it was then: I’m still just broke, lonely, and loving a woman who doesn’t want me. About the only thing that’s changed is the boy genius behind this whole thing has gone expatriate on us.
Still, I refuse to give up on Anticon. Despite a series of lackluster and redundant releases, despite loosing big names to greener pastures, and despite having fallen short of every expectation, I still believe in these guys. We’re all older now, but the energy that drew us to this clique is still there. In fits of brilliance the individual members of the Anticon collective continue to do their nation proud with their fearless pursuit of their muses. This is American Art at its finest: bold, restless, and searching.
Still, not every step can be made without stumble. Odd Nosdam looses himself in his medium; his impulse to do all he can overrides any sense to do only what he should. Why? loses his art to himself, his navel-gazing giving way to emo embarrassment. And Doseone looses himself in his art.
By what standard should art be judged? By intent? By impact? Or by the intersection of the two? Somewhere between those measures, Dose holds his own as an idiosyncratically insular yet entirely essential artist.
Dose has skills. And Dose has vision. Yet that vision remains so defiantly his own that impact is often obscured by intent. He moves you, your head and hands, but he never has your heart.
That same tendency prevails over the new Subtle LP. This is a good record. It will engage you and you will enjoy it. Yet its passing will leave you with nothing. Except perhaps the urge to hit the play button again.
How does this happen? How can a record be simultaneously intriguing yet entirely inconsequential? Perhaps it is the natural progression of a group that first introduced itself with a dull drone of uninspired ambient dreck. Over the course of four dreary drudgefests dedicated to the cycle of seasons, Subtle proved itself to be the first Doseone effort that failed to distinguish itself as his own. What began as a means of liberating him from the constraints of his strongest medium, his voice and words, eventually stifled and doomed the project to an utter lack of any identity or purpose. Furthermore, it prevented Jel from dropping the kind of head-nodding thud-thwack that only he can conjure, which is a damnedly criminal act.
Their growing pains behind them, Subtle has now reemerged as the confident and natural extension of Doseone’s previous work with cLOUDDEAD and Themsleves. The willfully dense lyrical wordplay is back as is the scattershot delivery and the ass-shattering beats that hold the whole thing down.
Yet the effort still retains some characteristics of the group’s initial work. Each song moves in segments yet lacks any transition enough to give the impression of movement. The album as a whole is a series of great moments that fail to be unified into a directed effort.
Still, each moment is thoroughly satisfying. From the handclap/shout/stomp breakdown of “silence…” to the dub-metal and clarinet crescendo of “She,” no single instant will fail to captivate. Then, once the last whispering organ shrinks away from the last seconds of the last track, you’re right back where you started. No better and no worse, you’re only forty minutes full on entertainment and fifteen dollars poorer. Not that it wasn’t worth it. It was. You just can’t say why.
Ultimately that failure to establish a more meaningful connection with the listener falls on Dose himself. It’s his insistence on the obscure and intangible that renders truly emotional engagement a regrettable impossibility.
But that which damns him also defines him. It is this same proclivity for wrapping his own words so tightly around his soul that drives Dose to create such compelling art; the same ambiguity that keeps us at a distance also keeps us coming back.
So buy this record. Or even better, go see Dose and the boys live. Cause this backpack shit ain’t fully faded out yet. And there’s still a compass and a calculator up in here for anyone who dares test otherwise. Believe it.

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The Late Great Daniel Johnston

I refuse to relinquish this relationship to Paula Abdul. Our love thus far has been defined by great songs and exemplary artists. At the onset we were swooning to the swelling hush of “New Slang.” With the all the giddy joy of new love came “Such Great Heights.” And as our love matured into something even more fulfilling there was Iron and Wine’s cover of that same song. We were scoring Garden State back when Zach Braff was still in his nurses uniform. So now that our relationship has come to its regrettable and unwelcome end I just cannot allow some washed-up pop star to lay claim to our break-up.

Yet she is inescapable. I go to the gym to try and get my mind off things and there she is with “Forever Your Girl.” Suddenly the song resonates with a deeper emotional impact than it ever had a right to.

Wasn’t it just a month ago we were still planning out our future together? What happened to the security of knowing you were indeed forever my girl?

I keep going to the gym more often just to stay busy but I’m also too sick too eat most days. So I’m loosing wait and need to get new jeans. There in the department store changing room is Paula waiting to wound me with “Opposites Attract.”

Isn’t that what we always said about each other? Wasn’t it my gravity that balanced out your levity? Didn’t my steadfastness temper your capriciousness? When did those differences start to tear us apart?

I cannot abide by this. I will not let that bitch Paula lay claim to this experience. I need empathetic compassion. I need large hearted sincerity. I need The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered.

Divided between one disc of Daniel Johnston covers by prominent indie artists and a companion disc that showcases the original versions by Daniel himself, the two disc set is the finest showcase for Johnston’s work that has ever seen commercial release. It is also the first comforting experience I’ve had with music in this whole painful process.

Already familiar with his work, I was drawn to the collection by both the hunger for more of Daniel’s idiosyncratically passionate songwriting and my curiosity about how other artists would handle those same songs. Upon my very first listen both of these impulses were more than gratified.

Daniel is a peerless songwriter whose songs are so stark and honest that they teeter on the edge of hilarity and embarrassment. Yet the guy is just so damned heartfelt that his work is instantaneously arresting. His words may look trite on paper and his sound may be rough by nature, but his delivery uplifts the both of them well beyond their limitations. It is this impact, coupled with a rudimentary understanding of his struggles with mental illness that make his work so inspiring. Even at their most heartbreaking, his songs simultaneously proclaim a boundless optimism.

Nearly all the cover artists successfully capture these feelings of hope, joy, and despair. The exceptions are few: newcomers The Rabbit reduce “Good Morning You” to bland, formulaic alterna-rock circa 1995 while The Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano lets his ego run rampant over “Impossible Love” for two entirely unnecessary minutes beyond the original length. Yet even these missteps are easily overlooked within the context of such strong interpretations by the likes of Jad Fair, TV On The Radio, and Vic Chesnutt.

The approaches vary. Calvin Johnston and Beck manage to capture the intimacy of Daniel’s unaccompanied early work while The Starlight Mints and Mercury Rev transform the lo-fi hiss of those recording into spacey new-prog soundscapes. Although he holds onto it for a bit too long, Gano makes his choice of cover entirely his own and somehow Tom Waits manages to sound crazier than Daniel ever was with his broken beat-box hacking and guttural falsetto. Other highlights include Bright Eyes’ moving dust-bowl ballad arrangement for a previously accapella number and M Wards codeine covered version of “Story of An Artist.”

The selections from Daniel himself range from early self-recorded tracks that are barely audible over the rumble of the boom box that captured them to more intentionally rollicking or atmospheric pieces midwifed along by collaborators like Paul Leary of The Butthole Surfers and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. The discrepancy in fidelity is severe, but Daniel’s directed emotiveness and ardently indelible melodies give his disc a cohesive identity.

Never so much about setting as sentiment, these songs provided the necessary touchstone for my tattered heart. All the pain, hope, and despair of these past few weeks is right here. The nightmares I keep having that she’s gone and the subsequent agony when I wake up and realize she really is are depicted in “Dream Scream.” The maddening futility with which I continue to love her is explored in “Impossible Love.” And when I finally do move on I’ll have “My Life Is Starting Over Again” to help me along the way.

There are even songs for her here too. In “Living Life” a verse bemoans “I can’t help being restless, when everything’s so tasteless, and all the colors seem to have faded away.”

I know, babe. And I’m so sorry I let that happen to us.

There’s still so much I regret and so much more I wish I could change. I may never get her back and even if I do it may never be the same. But I’ll sleep a little more soundly tonight knowing I’ve preserved the indie rock credibility of this relationship, even unto the awful and untimely end.

Death Cab For Cutie play "Dream Scream"

Daniel Johnston plays "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievience"

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