Ruby: 40 Years of Cheap Trick

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Cheap Trick – Cheap Trick

Released February, 1977 on Epic Records

Sometime in February of 1977, one of the more interesting journeys in rock ‘n’ roll began.  Cheap Trick, a power pop band from Rockford, Illinois, released a self-titled debut with a black-and-white cover; unassuming as hell, and yet as vital as anything else released during that fabled year.  The band would go on to get big in Japan, want you to want them, and flame out in the Eighties on a power ballad, only to achieve a weird kind of undead half-life from the mid-Nineties onward.  Cheap Trick is where that starts, however, and their lasting power is directly evident from the start.

 

First of all, power pop is sort of a problematic term for them.  It’s a term used to dance around punk rock without having to hold your nose about it.  Punk rock is indelibly coded as requiring a certain look:  spiked hair, ripped clothing, blatantly anti-social imagery.  Also a necessary factor:  a certain speed of song, a certain tone of guitar, a certain snarled English accent.  Thanks Malcolm McLaren.  Thanks Rancid.  Thanks Exploited (sincerely).  Power pop, then, is what you call a punk band that doesn’t look like UK hardcore circa 1981.  You’ve got that loud guitar and that edgy lyrical outlook, but you don’t pound away at three chords and you might not be from Leeds.  Think of Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cars, and so on:  they were, in 1977 (or a year later for the Cars), just as cutting-edge and pointed as the stuff typically labelled “punk rock”.  With regard to the above definition, however, how can you call Blondie “punk rock”?  It’s half disco ferchrissakes.

 

This is a roundabout way of saying that Cheap Trick is just as punk rock as the Sex Pistols and the Clash.  In that strangely portentous year (birthing punk rock and hip hop in the same squalid atmosphere), it is highly reflective of the cynical, jaded themes being generated by Western culture as a whole.  “ELO Kiddies” is pure teenage degeneracy, delivered dripping with menace.  “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School” shows Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed And Confused to be a pure creep.  “Taxman, Mr. Thief” is anti-government; “Oh Candy” deals with the suicide of a close friend of the band.  “He’s A Whore” turns Robin Zander into a gigolo; “The Ballad Of TV Violence (I’m Not The Only Boy)” turns him into Richard Speck.  It’s not all edgy material and heavy guitar, of course; tracks like “Cry, Cry” and “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace” manage to get by with just the heavy guitar. The only reason that this album isn’t considered a punk rock classic is because Robin Zander sang a little too classic rock and the band’s lover of checker design and five-necked guitars made them seem perhaps a bit too nerdy and overindulgent.  Plus, Bun E. Carlos looks like an insurance salesman and Rick Nielsen goes out of his way to be as utterly corny as possible every given moment of the day.  Still, music is about music at the end of the day, regardless of how one’s perception of the makers colours and shapes the music for the listener.

 

Cheap Trick would be the start of an impressive five-album run that took them to 1979 and include the best live album ever recorded, At Budokan.  This debut is on the whole edgier than their later recordings, although of course “Auf Wiedersehen” would outsnarl anything here or elsewhere.  It’s a perfect match in tone, however, for 1977, a year that in retrospect seems as though it was dominated by menace and a sense that, under the modern sheen of the contemporary capitalist world-economy, there was serious turmoil bubbling under.

 

Black Tie, White Noise: A Guide To David Bowie, Part Two

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The Story So Far:

Having begun his career bumming around the early London rock ‘n’ roll scene and putting out a regrettable album of Edwardian dancehall cheese, David Bowie came into the public consciousness as a folk singer of sorts and rapidly mutated into the Big Thing of the early 1970s:  the glam rocker.  Having developed a ridiculous cocaine habit and, seeing the writing on the wall for glam as a musical form, Bowie fled artistically to America where he absorbed black American music and reinvented himself as the funkiest near-albino to ever grace the world.  While this brought him success, it was his move to Berlin and his reinvention into proto-ambient music and Krautrock that brought him to the high point of his artistic career.  Now one of the biggest stars in the rock world, Bowie skewed hard towards the world of more general pop and decided to take on the musical world…

 

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Let’s Dance

Released April 14th, 1983 on EMI Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Let’s Dance” (#1 UK, #1 US)

China Girl” (#2 UK, #10 US)

Modern Love” (#2 UK, #14 US)

Without You” (#73 US)

When the time came to record tracks for David Bowie’s 15th studio album, longtime producer Tony Visconti (who had produced every Bowie album since Low) set time aside in his calendar for the production, assuming he’d be on call again.  When he called Bowie’s people, however, he received a rude awakening:  Bowie was already in the studio with someone else, and Visconti’s services would not be necessary.  Visconti, incensed, would refuse to work with Bowie again for the rest of the 20th Century.

That “someone else” turned out to be Nile Rodgers, former Sesame Street touring guitarist and, more notably, the driving force behind Chic, one of the most successful bands of the disco era.  The reason Rodgers had been tapped to produce dates back to the outcome of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).  With the delivery of that album, Bowie’s contract with RCA Records was fulfilled and he was a free agent.  After negotiations, he was eventually signed by EMI Records for a then-staggering $17.5 million.  This was a cause for major celebration, of course, until the inevitable thought process occurred:  He would have to deliver music capable of paying back at least the amount EMI had spent on him, which meant that he needed guaranteed hits.  Nile Rodgers, with Chic, had been responsible for some of the biggest singles of the late 1970s, and so he was tapped to come in and work his magic.

Bowie left the instruments alone, relegating himself to the role of being merely the singer on the album.  He brought songwriting demos to the studio and Rodgers rearranged them to his own particular vision (which was typically not how Bowie had originally envisioned them).  Much of the guitar work was handled by then-relatively unknown Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was approached after Bowie caught his mind-bending performance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival.  Vaughan’s presence on the album makes for an oddly schizophrenic album, partly a dance-pop album of floor-fillers, and partly a cutting album of slippery blues guitar.  It was, for 1983, a weird sort of combination (unless you were ZZ Top, of course) but it worked exceedingly well.  The album sold scads, which did several things.  First, it launched the mainstream part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career; second, it got Nile Rodgers a great deal more production gigs; and third, it locked Bowie into a certain sound that he would maintain for the bulk of the Eighties, with diminishing returns.

Let’s Dance, taken on its own, is the bulls-eye of Bowie’s mercenary pop style.  The first half is wall-to-wall brilliance:  “Modern Love” has the sort of swing that pervaded Lodger, amped up and driven through the stratosphere; “China Girl” is slinky and exotic, with Bowie’s admonishment to “just you shut your mouth” being oddly exciting; “Let’s Dance” has found a home on every great alternative club-night playlist; “Without You” bounces along with an odd gait all it’s own.  The back half loses steam but remains deeply competent, bopping along with some of the best blues-dance tracks ever conceived.  It’s hard to consider it a Bowie album, per se, since a lot of the sound and strength of the album comes from other people, but vocally it’s not as though it weakens the man’s legend at all.  Far from it, in fact; his alien voice was at odds with what was considered commercially viable in the greater mainstream at the time, and it opened up the possibility of the weird becoming saleable.

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Tonight

Released September 1st, 1984 on EMI Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Blue Jean” (#6 UK, #8 US)

Tonight” (#53 UK, #53 US)

Loving The Alien” (#19 UK)

Immediately following the wrap of the tour behind Let’s Dance, Bowie hit the studio and began the recording process for the next album, hoping to maintain his new mainstream audience and keep himself relevant in the pop world.  Tonight, as the album came to be called, was the second album in a row where Bowie played no instruments.  Eight of the nine songs were again brought into the studio as demos and mutated into the songs as they are presented in final form.  Hugh Padgham (who would produce Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, The Human League, and Sting) was brought into produce, although Iggy Pop would end up helping extensively in the studio as well.

Tonight is an album that has received some very scattered reviews over the years.  It’s not anywhere near as bad as contemporary critics would have you believe, and it’s an album that brings to mind some lines critics have used about him in the past.  Robert Christgau once called him “a habitue of prematurely abandoned modernist spaces” and “post-middlebrow”.  Reviews of Let’s Dance referred to it in places as being “post-disco”.  All of these are true of Tonight, only with regards to the sounds that Padgham used on it, it can be said that it was Bowie that prematurely abandoned them; the gated-reverb effect on the drums would go on to be a staple of AOR hits, especially by Phil Collins (whose “In The Air Tonight” would use it as the primary musical delivery system).  It’s post-disco nature is more easily discernible from a contemporary standpoint; the drums and bass remain in the pocket, while the arrangements go beyond the nightclub shuffle and cobble together a sort of ramshackle reggae tone.  “Don’t Look Down” is the best example of this tendency towards reggae, but its jagged rhythms show up to a greater or lesser extent on many of the tracks here.

The key difference between Let’s Dance and Tonight is the return of Carlos Alomar to playing guitar; the lack of Stevie Ray Vaughan means that the strangely appealing dance-blues combination of the former is missing in the latter.  Tonight papers over the top-notch guitar work with plastic pop synthesizer work and dollops of soul; while it works, on the whole, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as Let’s Dance did.  In the end it comes across a fairly standard pop album for the mid-Eighties, albeit one where Bowie brings his own personality in to bring it up above the cut.

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Never Let Me Down

Released April 27th, 1987 on EMI Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #34 US

Singles:

Day-In Day-Out” (#17 UK, #21 US)

Time Will Crawl” (#33 UK)

Never Let Me Down” (#34 UK, #27 US)

After the middling commercial response and abysmal critical response to Tonight, Bowie returned the studio two years later to “return to the basics of rock ‘n’ roll” – small band, tight arrangements, and a more Scary Monsters set of experimentation.  He returned to playing instruments, laying down keyboards, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar as well as singing on everything.  He went in with songs that he felt strongly about, and a heady sense of experimentation that he’d really been lacking for seven years.

The result was incoherent and lackluster.  The songs did not come out the way they had been originally conceived in Bowie’s head.  By his own admission they were good songs that he “abused” in the studio.  Never Let Me Down tries to fire in every direction at once and misses the mark most of the time, allowing what are admittedly really good songs drown in indifferent production.  By 1993 Bowie admitted that this particular problem with Never Let Me Down was his fault; he’d tuned out of the recording process early on and left the production up to his assembled band, lending the affair a “session player” sort of vibe.  Thus, everything feels far more overproduced than is necessary.  The social justice cry of “Day In Day Out” and the topical intensity of “Time Will Crawl” are lost in the scars of dated Eighties instrumentation.  The epic nature of “Glass Spider” is muted due to the overdone drums, the sugary synths, and the ill-timed and oddly brief guitar solo.  A lot of the time, while listening to these songs, you can’t help but wonder what they’d sound like if the Bowie of Low or even Scary Monsters had recorded them.  The easiest way you can tell that Never Let Me Down is the nadir of his career, however, is that he let Mickey Rourke rap on it.

The (relatively) poor commercial showing of Never Let Me Down and the subsequent critical panning of the theatrical Glass Spider Tour nearly caused Bowie to give up on music for good.  By the end of 1987 he just wasn’t feeling it anymore.  It would take a return to loud, basic guitar rock dynamics (as he’d intended for Never Let Me Down) to bring him back into the artistic fold.

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Tin Machine

Released May 22nd, 1989 on EMI Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Under The God” (#51 UK, #4 US Alternative)

Heaven’s In Here” (#12 US Alternative)

Tin Machine” (#48 UK)

Prisoner Of Love

Following the Glass Spider tour (a critical bust), Bowie was at the low point of his career.  Lower than the first David Bowie, even.  Trying to find his way to his own vision again, he fell in with guitarist Reeves Gabrels after hearing a tape of Gabrels’ playing.  At a wrap party for the Glass Spider tour, Bowie ran into Tony Sales, whom he had played with in the 1970s, along with Tony’s brother Hunt and Iggy Pop.  Tony and Hunt – the sons of comedy legend Soupy Sales – were roped into a new musical project along with Reeves Gabrels, the intent being to help all of them (but especially Bowie) find a new way forward in music.

From the beginning the band was a band – democratic input, everyone writing songs, no one letting David Bowie overshadow the proceedings.  Tin Machine, the first album from the new band, is unlike anything Bowie had done before.  There are elements of the past on it – inspirations from the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton’s work with Cream, and Jimi Hendrix – but there is also more than a whiff of the present of 1989 in the sense that college rock (especially the legendary Pixies) were a big inspiration on the music.  The low-key, desert-night guitar notes in the chorus of “Prisoner Of Love” are a great example of a line that seems lifted wholesale from the brain of Joey Santiago.  The raw stomp of “Crack City” was inspired by the band’s recording sessions in Nassau, a city which was apparently awash in poverty and crack.

The real problem with Tin Machine is that it tries too hard to present a vision of “back-to-basics hard rock and roll”.  Part of this is the fact that it was made in 1989 and as such it suffers primarily from the overproduction of the time.  The guitars take up too much space in the mix, there’s too much time given to Bowie’s voice when it’s unnecessary, and the drums have that peculiar contemporary sound where they sound very loud and very flat at the same time.  The guitar solos that pop up are blues-riffs-by-number, like Gabrels decided to sketch out a regurgitated idea of what Stevie Ray Vaughan had been doing.  All of these problems come to a head on the ill-advised cover of “Working Class Hero”, which drags down the rest of the album sharply.  Still, “Bus Stop” and “Video Crimes” bring life back, saving the album from being a regrettable artifact of an earlier age.  Tin Machine is pretty hit-and-miss, but the important thing is that the band sounds like it’s having a lot of fun, and it put Bowie back on the right path as his career entered the 1990s.

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Tin Machine II

Released September 2nd, 1991 on Victory Music

Peaked at #23 UK, #126 US

Singles:

You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll” (#33 UK)

Baby Universal” (#21 US Modern Rock)

One Shot” (#3 US Modern Rock)

Immediately better than Tin MachineTin Machine II dials back on the blare and the clatter and focuses on the good parts of the Bowie-Sales-Gabrels combination.  Take “Baby Universal” as the indicator for the entire album:  those quick-wrist drum fills would have been overbearing in 1989; by 1991, they had been set back into the mix so that their impact is felt rather than avoided.  Gabrels had spent the time between albums getting into Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine, and the influence is felt in subtle ways throughout.  There is less rote-blues riffing going on, and more creativity with how the guitar is presented as an instrument.  While the album outdid its predecessor in an artistic sense, it was in a more important sense a commercial failure, barely cracking the US charts (although “One Shot” was a minor hit on modern rock radio).  Tin Machine II would be the last album by the band after contemporary critics unfairly savaged the album and the public reaction never rose above tepid.  Still, the band did it’s job; two years later Bowie would resume his solo career in much better form than when he’d put it on hiatus.

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Black Tie White Noise

Released April 5th, 1993 on Savage Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Jump They Say” (#9 UK)

Black Tie White Noise” (#36 UK)

Miracle Goodnight” (#40 UK)

David Bowie in 1987 was an artist who was spent.  Having released three albums that were wired to what he perceived the mainstream wanted, his artistic vision had taken a backseat to sales with increasingly poor results.  David Bowie in 1993 was a completely different animal.  Having spent some time bashing out hard rock basics with Tin Machine, and “retiring” his old hits on the 1990 Sound And Vision Tour, he was a clean slate ready to get back to what it meant to be “David Bowie”.  Black Tie White Noise is the first entry in that neo-Bowie canon, and its beginnings go back to 1991, when Bowie ran into Nile Rodgers after a Tin Machine show in New York.  Rodgers would be brought in to produce, but explicitly not to rehash Let’s Dance.  The idea they hatched was to take the ideas of house and R&B and reinject the melodicism of the 1960s into them.

This idea is more or less translated into reality.  “The Wedding”, kicking off the album, gives a mutated take on the machine-like relentlessness of the house beat, filtered through a wah-soaked saxophone-fueled Seventies haze.  “Black Tie White Noise” appropriates the syncopated beat and some of the instrumentation of New Jack Swing.  “Jump They Say” and “Nite Flights” have the clatter of classic rave drums, with squelching synthesizers and more of that saxophone.  Saxophone was actually the instrument Bowie chose to concentrate on for the album; despite the fact that he is not a “saxophonist” per se, his take on the instrument is interesting and fits well into the arrangements.  The jazz-fever bursts he spits out on “Jump They Say” is evidence of this:  it works very well in the context of the song despite the fact that he is untrained.  The sax is used as colour and texture, more so than as a display of technical virtuosity.  Also of note is the presence on guitar of Mick Ronson, who had been the guitarist for the Spiders From Mars; it would be the last album he would appear on, as he would die of cancer 19 days after the release of the album.

Much of the album is coloured by the fact that he had just been married; he and his wife (Somali supermodel Iman) were shopping for houses in Los Angeles on the day of the Rodney King verdict.  The experience of the subsequent riots gave rise to the title track, an examination of the difficulty in healing the wounds of the racial divides of America (a divide Bowie himself had noted as far back as Aladdin Sane).  Also like Aladdin Sane is the spiritual presence of his stepbrother Terry, who had been hospitalized for schizophrenia in the 1980s and had recently committed suicide.  The “divided nature of the mind” that had been Bowie’s philosophical impetus for Aladdin Sane had been inspired by Terry, and on Black Tie White Noise the songs “Jump They Say” and the cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” were inspired by him as well.  “Jump They Say” was semi-biographical; “I Feel Free” stems back to a Cream show that Bowie had taken Terry to where his stepbrother had suffered a freakout during the song.  The bookend tracks – “The Wedding” and “The Wedding Song” – as well as the sax-blasted English rave of “Pallas Athena” were written as part of the wedding music he’d penned for his marriage to Iman.  The latter became a club hit in America after an anonymous remix was released.

Black Tie White Noise was the first to get the tag of “His best since Scary Monsters!” although it would not be the last.  Oddly, however, Bowie chose to release the album on Savage Records, a startup label that went bankrupt almost immediately; consequently, the album would be quickly out of print despite its #1 peak in the UK, and would remain so until reissues in the late 1990s.

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The Buddha Of Suburbia

Released November 8th, 1993 on EMI Records

The Buddha Of Suburbia is a bit of a lost record in Bowie’s discography.  The problem is one of confusion.  In 1993 Bowie did the soundtrack to a four-episode BBC2 adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia.  After making the soundtrack, he decided to further explore the ideas he’d gotten into on the soundtrack on an album, which he decided he’d also call The Buddha Of Suburbia.  Despite the fact that the soundtrack and the album only share the title track in common, the album was categorized as a soundtrack and thus got no marketing or exposure.  Making matters even more confusing is the essentially soundtrack-like nature of the album.  There’s quite a few ambient moments that harken back to Bowie’s work with Brian Eno in the late 1970s.  Elsewhere there is a great deal of jazzy piano, electro-influenced drums, and strange, repetitive vocal filters (as on the excellent “Sex And The Church” or the rather dated “Bleed Like A Craze, Dad”).  “Strangers When We Meet” and “Dead Against It” are more pop-oriented tracks, the latter being an electronic-oriented dream pop song that would point the way towards where he would be heading for the rest of the decade.  Buddha isn’t an essential album by any means, but it is a neat bit of back catalog record-making, and it makes for a nice find when mining Bowie’s discography.

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Outside

Released September 26th, 1995 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #8 UK, #21 US

Singles:

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (#35 UK, #92 US)

Strangers When We Meet” (#39 UK)

Hallo Spaceboy” (#12 UK)

Outside marks the return of David Bowie to bizarre conceptual art-rock, as well as his return to working with Brian Eno.  Eno and Bowie reconnected at Bowie’s wedding when the two took turns playing their own music on the dancefloor.  After deciding to collaborate on an experimental album, they visited a mental institute in Austria and did some research on outsider art.  Using this as an inspiration, they dove into their own heads, utilized cut-up techniques a la what Bowie was doing in the late 1970s, and crafted a story about a dystopian 1999 where the latest fashionable craze in art was carefully arranged murder.  Nathan Adler, the protagonist of Outside, investigates the art-murder of 14 year old Baby Grace and delves into madness.

With the story as an anchor of sorts, it’s up to the music to keep things interesting, and in that Outside is sort of a mixed bag.  On one hand, Bowie melds his particular pop vision – something he’d been refining since the early 1980s – with the Berlin Trilogy ambient work and also with flourishes of electronic and industrial influences.  It’s no wonder that Trent Reznor remixed “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, as it seems tailor-made for him to do so.  The same could be said of the corrosive “Hallo Spaceboy”, but Pet Shop Boys beat him to it and remade it into a driven house epic.  The direction Bowie was heading in on Outside was one that seemed like a perfect fit for him; his odd nature, alien voice, and art-damaged sensibility made him a natural candidate for the acidic nature of industrial rock and the darker aspects of electronic dance music.  On the other hand, Outside is, at 75 minutes, far too long to be effective.  Bowie knew it at the time, stating after its release that he really should have made it two albums.  The segues and story-driving interludes become a slog after a while, and tracks like “The Motel” seem to be dragged out for too long in the ambient portions before the harder-hitting bits kick in.  So while it works as an interesting concept, and it contains a number of great songs that point to Bowie’s continuing comeback into critical good graces, it’s too long to be considered a truly great album.

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Earthling

Released February 3rd, 1997 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Telling Lies

Little Wonder” (#14 UK)

Dead Man Walking” (#32 UK)

Seven Years In Tibet

I’m Afraid Of Americans” (#66 US)

After Outside, Bowie had plans to make an album per year until the year 2000, talking about the unprecedented opportunity to document the end of the millennium.  Despite his initial enthusiasm for the idea, nothing of the sort ever emerged; the reality of having to carry the storyline of Outside for another five years perhaps relegated this idea to the bin of “Good, But Impractical”.  Instead, following a 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie followed it up with Earthling, a galvanizing record that found him ditching the contrived concepts and embracing both the industrial noise-pop he’d been interested in and the jungle and drum n bass sounds that were permeating the English dance scene by the latter half of the Nineties.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Earthling is that Bowie produced it himself, his first such effort since Diamond Dogs.  Unlike Diamond DogsEarthling is really quite good.  Bowie gets the textural possibilities behind clattering breakbeats in the same way that Black Tie White Noise showed he got the idea behind the saxophone, if not the technical virtuosity.  His adherence to the styles he was mining went beyond mere sampling, as well; drummer Zac Alford worked out all of the loops heard on the record, and his drum tracks were then sped up to DnB speeds and chopped.  His obvious fascination with the musical forms that he plays with here also led him to pen some of the strongest melodies he’d had in years (tellingly, Rolling Stone would refer to the album as “his best since Scary Monsters).  Unlike the atmospheric drudgery of OutsideEarthling is full of songs that sound like David Bowie, in a way that he hadn’t in nearly two decades.  Every song hits hard and sticks like the first half of Let’s Dance, but unlike that album the second half doesn’t flag.  Instead, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” waits near the end of the album to trip up the unwary listener who thinks they’ve got the album figured out.

As a fifteen year old in 1997 with more than a passing interest in Nine Inch Nails and groups like the Prodigy, the Lost Highway soundtrack was something that was in my collection.  The entry point was, of course, Trent Reznor’s “The Perfect Drug”, but the highlight was this stomping industrial number called “I’m Afraid Of Americans” by a guy we’d really only been aware of as a presence on the classic rock channels our parents glued the radio to in the car.  It was my first impression of Bowie as an artist, rather than as the guy who sang “Suffragette City”.

Also of note on Earthlings is Bowie’s embrace of the art of the remix; the extended version collects all of the disparate remixes of the singles, among them Junior Vasquez, Moby, and Trent Reznor.  The single “Telling Lies” was originally released to be remixed before the album came out; it was made available on Bowie’s website, a move that made history.  “Telling Lies” was the first single by a major mainstream artist that was made available for download on the internet, and Bowie would continue this pioneering spirit into his next album.

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‘hours…’

Released September 21st, 1999 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #47 US

Singles:

Thursday’s Child” (#16 UK)

The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell

Survive

Seven

‘hours…’ is the exact opposite of Earthling.  It suffers from the same problems that a lot of contemporary albums had:  the soggy, saccharine strings, the rote drum-machine patterns that everyone used, the sub-Matchbox 20 guitar work (seriously, check out the beginning of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” and tell me you don’t think Rob Thomas is going to come busting out of it).  Bowie sounds tired on it, his voice lagging and stretching out unnecessarily over a series of samey, adult-contemporary arrangements.  While it’s not “embarrassing”, as Ryan Schreiber put it (Ryan Schreiber, for whom anything that’s not hip in Brooklyn is embarrassing), it is distressingly boring, something that Bowie has never really been throughout the course of his career.

There are some highlights, of course.  “Seven” is a good ballad in the vein of early pre-Spiders Bowie – it would likely have fit comfortably on Hunky Dory.  It also smartly avoids the contemporary Robbie Williams pop tropes that mar a great deal of the record.  “What’s Really Happening” features a melodic tease and a throwback to something like what might have been a solid track on The Man Who Sold The World.  “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” almost reclaims the energy and excitement of Earthling, but Bowie’s voice comes across as too obscured and the squealing guitar lines seem more of an anachronism, something more Tin Machine than David Bowie at the end of the 20th Century.

In the end ‘hours…’ is really only notable for being the first album by a major artist available for purchase and download online.  It was released digitally on the date noted above, two weeks before the physical CD was available.

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Heathen

Released June 11th, 2002 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #14 US

Singles:

Slow Burn

Everyone Says Hi” (#20 UK)

I’ve Been Waiting For You

David Bowie’s first foray into the 21st Century found him accepting the process of aging and focusing more on the degradation of the human race than on the degradation of himself.  If ‘hours…’ interminable Millenium-scarred slog was an examination of the exhaustion that Bowie felt by the end of the Nineties, Heathen finds him waking up in the evening, somewhat refreshed but feeling a little spacey despite it.  “Sunday” and “Slip Away” deal with the fear of aging; “Slow Burn” and “A Better Future” draw inspiration from the events of 9/11.  Heathen, at the time of its release, was talked up as “Bowie’s response to 9/11”, but this is inaccurate in that most of the album was recorded before September of 2001.  “Afraid”, “I Would Be Your Slave”, “5.15 The Angels Have Gone”, and “Everyone Says Hi” are more about trying to find the threads of the past in the muddle of the present than they are about dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack on America.  The three covers are rather interesting:  “Cactus”, a Pixies song about obsession, “I’ve Been Waiting For You”, a Neil Young song from his self-titled debut that Bowie recorded with Dave Grohl playing guitar; and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship”, originally by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an outsider-art musician that had been a direct influence on the Ziggy Stardust character.

Musically, Heathen marks the return of Tony Visconti to producing, which he hadn’t done for Bowie since Scary Monsters.  As such, the backing tracks are elegant, subtle, and well-constructed, allowing the focus to be on Bowie’s songs rather than on any particular musical style.  AllMusic, naturally, called it “his best since Scary Monsters“.  It doesn’t sound like any particular Bowie album but it contains fragments of his older music.  The problem here is that the originals start to sound similar after a while:  strings, subtle guitar, understated drum work, and Bowie lingering over each line like a regretful European chanteuse (which is almost assuredly what he was going for).  Individually that makes for a fine listening experience; taken as a total it gets to be a bit much.

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Reality

Released September 16th, 2003 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #29 US

Singles:

New Killer Star

Pablo Picasso

Never Get Old

Work on Reality began as production for Heathen was being wrapped up, as he was once again in one of those periods where the writing was coming fast and furious.  It’s also immediately more energetic than the lingering death-dream of Heathen; “New Killer Star” kicks off with a relentless, elastic guitar figure and a slinky nature that Bowie had been missing since the Eighties.  “Never Get Old” flips the script on the obsession with mortality that Bowie had been labouring under since the end of the Nineties; “Looking For Water” has a serious stomp to it; “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” brings the calendar back to the late 1970s like something from Heroes.  To back up this newfound vigour, Bowie spins out themes of “post-philosophy”:  the recognition that the truths of the path are fading and that the new truths of the modern age have yet to be fully discovered and understood.  Politics is moving beyond rational grounding and knowledge is no longer the currency of the greater public discourse.  Reality manages to seem adventurous while being rooted deeply in Bowie’s past, and it makes the case that the Bowie/Visconti pairing was really the best of his many partnerships.

Predictably, the BBC referred to it as “his best since Scary Monsters“.

David Bowie's The Next Day

The Next Day

Released March 8th, 2013 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Where Are We Now?” (#6 UK)

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

The Next Day

Valentine’s Day

Love Is Lost

For ten years there was nothing, and in general it was thought that Bowie had quietly retired.  After all, he’d suffered a heart attack on stage during the Reality Tour and had been forced to cancel the remaining 14 dates.  Since then he’d spent his time recording vocals as backing for other people, performing short one-off dates, and keeping on the whole fairly quiet.  Some time around 2010, however, Bowie and Tony Visconti got back into the studio.  It was kept ultra-secret, to the point of requiring anyone coming into the studio to work with him to sign non-disclosure agreements.  During one recording session at NYC’s The Magic Shop in 2011, Emily Haines of Metric apparently showed up unannounced wanting to check out the studio and very nearly got in; she was turned away with no explanation.

Here’s the thing about The Next Day, though:  Bowie has always had a flair for the theatrical, but there haven’t been that many moments since 1980 that have warranted that theatricality.  Let’s Dance was a better album than it perhaps had a right to be, Earthling was a near-perfect amalgam of Bowie and the electronic underground, and Reality was really quite good, but it’s not until The Next Day that Bowie’s later career brings an album that matches the sort of quality that the end of the first half of his career gave us.  The Next Day feels like Bowie leapt from Heroes  straight to 2013, skipping the intervening years – musically, at any rate.  While it lacks the deeply unsettling edge that 1977 had, it feels as comfortable and familiar as that year does from the remote perspective of the first quarter of the 21st Century.  Even the album art seems to indicate this leap:  it’s the cover of Heroes, with “Heroes” crossed out and a big white square labeled “The Next Day” slapped over top.  If there’s a clearer sign that Bowie was looking to get back into the mindset of where he’d been in the late 1970s, I fail to understand what it could be.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  “Boss Of Me” feels too cutesy for words, despite it’s swirling arrangement; “Dancing Out In Space” tries for the same dramatic abandon that colours “Boys Keep Swinging” and largely fails.  Still, at least half of the album is excellent and the other half is strong; there are no truly bad moments on The Next Day unlike nearly every album since Let’s Dance. There is the ghost of the drag that mired parts of Heathen, but it’s dressed up in such stellar retro clothing that it’s more ghostly than insipid.  It’s the strongest record of Bowie’s late-career renaissance – combining the fervor of his old self with the more refined sensibilities of his new self.  The man may have turned 66 the day he announced the album, and he may have spent the fifteen years previous dreading growing old, but when it comes to The Next Day, age is nothing but a number and David Bowie is forever.

 

David Bowie’s 26th album, Blackstar, will be released January 8th, 2016 on ISO/RCA/Columbia

 

When We Hit The Twin Cities: A Guide To The Hold Steady

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There’s this band, you know?  They play downtown alot, and maybe they’ll change your life.  But you’ll only be into them for a little while before the scene will start getting dark, and druggy.  Kids will get stabbed at townie parties, those guys with the same tattoos as Gideon will start hanging around, and that guy who always shows up in sweatpants starts packing hard powders for the people that are looking for it.  This is pretty much the core tenet of Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady, a hard-drinking band of classic-rock afficionados who just recently passed the ten-year mark.  Anchored around Minneapolis transplant and former Lifter Puller leader Craig Finn’s densely woven tales of teenage sinning and repentance, the band embraces the power and theatricality of working class youth.  Kitchen work, hard drugs, nights at the bar that go on too long, Catholic confessions of love and lust:  these are the milieu that the songs operate in.  In the early days, their MySpace slogan was “For people who thought that New Wave was pretty lame, then and now”, which should of course be tempered by the fact of Lifter Puller’s existence.  The band came about from an idea that Finn and Lifter Puller / Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler had while watching The Last Waltz – an idea of a lost art of rock ‘n’ roll that would be blended with the searing punk rock that Finn and Kubler grew up on, like fellow Minnesota natives Husker Du.  Their work has classic touchstones (Zeppelin, the Stones, Seventies pop like Cheap Trick and ELO) and Kubler consistently proves himself to be one of the better guitarists of his generation (especially on jaw-dropping moments like Stay Positive‘s “Lord I’m Discouraged”) but they never stoop to slavish imitation of the past.  Instead, the Hold Steady uses them as a reference point to anchor much more recent memories of debauchery. Ten years on they’ve become a band that deals in mythology: the massive nights, the doomed affairs, the booze and the hangover. The bands and the scene.  Hold steady.

Almost Killed Me 

Released March 16th, 2004 on Frenchkiss Records

The album kicks off by telling us the backstory: we went from the Crash and the Depression to the Second World War, and from there into a glittering atomic future that got ugly and druggy by the time the Seventies were closing out and then the Eighties almost killed us, let’s not remember them quite so fondly. The resulting guitar pyrotechnics following the implosion of the dot-com bubble scrub away any trace of hip irony or awkwardly angular New-Wave possibilities, and leave the remaining nine tracks to carve out a peculiar sort of Midwest mythology. On “The Swish” Finn sings that “it was a bloodsucking summer, I spent half the time trying to get paid for my saviour” and throughout the album you can never quite tell if he’s talking about Jesus or Charlemagne the drug dealer. It’s an album of drunken swagger, a loud recollection of all the parties you got way too drunk or far too high at. You get blackout drunk and wake up with a straightedge band in Ybor City, FL. The ending track (the first in a series of epic closers the band would do) remains the greatest “last- song-of-the-festival-show” song you’ll ever here: it rides in on a bassline that pairs well with the setting sun, and reminisces about the good times that were had while simultaneously admitting that at one point you almost died and found out that maybe it wasn’t worth all the good times after all.

– “Positive Jam”

If you want to figure out where you are, the first thing you have to understand is where you come from. “The Eighties almost killed me, let’s not remember them quite so fondly”

– “The Swish”

“It was a bloodsucking summer, I spent half the time trying to get paid for my saviour. Swishin’ through the city centre, I did a couple favours for these guys that looked like Tusken raiders”

– “Most People Are DJs”

Hold steady Ybor City, you’re up to your neck in the sweat and wet confetti. Take off your beret, everyone’s a critic and most people are DJs. It’s a song that excellently conveys how tiring – and pretty sweet – the constant party scene can be.

– “Certain Songs”

I guess you’re old enough to know. Kids out on the west coast are taking off their clothes, screwing in the surf, and going out to shows. The confident piano chords here (courtesy of keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay) conjure up an idea of Billy Joel, but a Billy Joel where the kitchen workers and the bartenders are doing cocaine out of sight of the patrons and every night is redeemed by those certain songs – you know the ones. The ones that have been scratched into your soul.

– “Killer Parties”

The first place you’ll hear the line “if they ask about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague”, a topic that is revisited on the next album. The bassline rolls into this song like far off thunder and the feedback-guitar echoes like distant heat lightning. The entire album is summed up in one line here: “Ybor City is tres speedy but they throw such killer parties. Killer parties almost killed me.”

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Separation Sunday 

Released May 3rd, 2005 on Frenchkiss Records

A concept album, of sorts, the band’s best album follows four main characters: The Narrator, Charlemagne the dealer, Holly / Halleluiah the scenester/addict/party girl (and – spoiler – a hoodrat), and Gideon, a tattooed skinhead. They kick around the party cities of the United States and use the backstreets of Minneapolis as a home base of sorts. Holly admits at the very beginning of the album that “there’s going to come a time when I’m going to have to go with whoever’s going to get me the highest”, leaving the door open for drugs or religion. It is an album that is primarily concerned with the loss of innocence and the idea of repentance; Holly gets druggy, gets born again at a revival camp on the Mississippi River, gets druggy again, wakes up in a confession booth, and asks the priest if she can tell his congregation how a resurrection really feels. Charlemagne does a brisk business but ends up getting high too often on his own supply: “He asked what happened to Charlemagne. She just smiled all polite-like and said something vague. She said Charlemagne got caught up in some complicated things. She wiped at her nose and she winked.” There is a rough yearning implicit in the hard-scrabble tales of adolescent fuckery contained on Separation Sunday, a nostalgia for a bad time that didn’t seem so bad when you were in the midst of it. Holly finds religion in the end but you know it isn’t going to stick around long enough to make a difference, and this is fundamentally where Finn differs from Bruce Springsteen, another songwriter obsessed with youth and the possibility of salvation. Finn makes it clear that salvation, even when found, is never a permanent thing. Salvation is found in drugs, in friends, in music, and in God, and none of them will last forever.

– “Hornets! Hornets!”

“She said always remember never to trust me. She said that the first night that she met me. She said there’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest” – this lone voice is how the album starts, and it sets the scene for every bloody moment that is to come.

– “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”

The band’s “breakthrough single”, so to speak, is a deceptively straight-ahead palm-muted power chord song that hits like a switchblade in the ribs up in Penetration Park. “I hate all the things that she sticks into her skin, like ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings. She says it hurts but it’s worth it.”

– “Stevie Nix”

An exuberant riff-riot of late nights, and about how sometimes the ER seems like an after-bar. It’s also a treasure trove of some of Finn’s best lines. “When we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it. I knew Mary Tyler Moore, and I knew Profane Existence.” “You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young: you got passion and you think that you’re sexy, and all the punks think that you’re dumb.” Plus midway through is another one of those gorgeous, thrilling Franz Nicolay piano sections that seem to sum up all of the yearning emotions that run through Craig Finn’s songs. Lord, to be 17 forever.

– “Multitude of Casualties”

“She drove it like she stole it. She stole it fast, and with a multitude of casualties.” Also, “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.”

– “Don’t Let Me Explode”

Here’s where it all falls apart: Holly and the Narrator come back from their trip through America, wasted and exhausted. Charlemagne is gone, a victim of the habits he was peddling. “We didn’t go to Dallas because Jackie Onassis said it wasn’t safe for Catholics yet. Think about Kennedy, and then think about his security, and then think about what they might try to pull on you and me.”

– “How A Resurrection Really Feels”

Separation Sunday‘s Big Closing Moment is a swooning, staggering number where Holly wakes up in a confession booth after a bloody, druggy, ugly party. She’s wearing broken heels and a crown of broken glass. Is Holly a stand-in for Jesus? At the very least, she’s the titular hoodrat from earlier in the album. The coda is gorgeous, a mixture of guitar, horns, and that piano, and it carries the album off into its own uncertain future.

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Boys And Girls In America 

Released October 3rd, 2006 on Vagrant Records

Peaked at #124 US

It’s not a concept album like Separation Sunday, but it may as well be. Holly says that “words alone could never save us” on “First Night” and it’s practically the theme; the album kicks off with doomed poet John Berryman diving into the river after realizing this very thing. It also starts off by admitting that Sal Paradise was probably right: boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Throughout the rest of the album the band outlines exactly what they mean by this appropriation of Kerouac: the hookups, the drinking and drugs, the parties, the manipulations, the loneliness. The gang from Separation Sunday appear again in places, mostly on “Same Kooks” and “First Night”, but the stage is given mostly to
others. “Stuck Between Stations” gives us Kerouac and Berryman; “Chips Ahoy” features a psychic girl with a few problems of her own; “Party Pit” and “You Can Make Them Like You” posit the loneliness that lies at the heart of the party scene. “Chillout Tent” is perhaps the most ambitious of all of these remarkably ambitious numbers; we’re told of a rock festival in western MA and of two people who have bad trips on drugs and hook up in the chillout tent afterwards, amongst the OD’d and the medics. The album is immediately more massive-sounding than either of its predecessors; the guitars surge, the pianos soar, and every song sounds like the soundtrack to an epic night out that resulted in some uncomfortable tragedy. If Separation Sunday felt like Craig Finn’s novel about a little scene and its central characters, Boys And Girls In America feels like his Great American Novel about ALL of the little scenes and the wild characters contained within them. That the album ends on “Southtown Girls”, a song about finding salvation in loyalty instead of flash, is indicative of the
idea that the only way out is to settle down; the party pit may be lonely in the end, but you don’t have to be lonely forever.

– “Stuck Between Stations”

The piano that runs through this song really drives its power home. “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t really wasn’t that great of a girlfriend.”

– “Hot Soft Light”

It started off recreational, and it ended in a hospital. Finn claims to never be at the incident, on the advice of his attorney. “The band played Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, you said it was stormy and adorable.”

– “First Night”

An aching ballad about looking back and realizing that you can never get that high again. Features the return of Charlemagne, Gideon, and a hospitalized, newly religious Holly. Features the greatest lead-up and coda the band will likely every record.

– “You Can Make Him Like You”

A song about using people to get along in life. “You don’t have to deal with the dealers, let your boyfriend deal with the dealers. It only gets inconvenient when you want to get high alone.” It’s always on the boys, and you can make them like you.

– “Citrus”

A rare acoustic track. “Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other.” “I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.”

– “Chillout Tent”

A soaring number about finding love in the medic’s tent at a big festival. “It’s sexy…but kinda creepy,” Finn sings, probably while winking.

– “Southtown Girls”

The Epic Closer, a song about settling for loyalty and comfort. Features some soaring guitar work that carries the album off into the horizon and a vibe that approaches southern rock in its genial embrace of the interplay between guitars and padded keyboards.

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Stay Positive 

Released July 15th on Vagrant Records

Peaked at #30 US, #15 UK

Stay Positive found the band stepping even further into an embrace of an imagined limelight, building songs that sound gigantic and taking risks with added instrumentation – the harpsichord on “One For The Cutters”, the (gasp!) New-Waveish synth on “Navy Sheets”, the banjo that legendary indie rocker J. Mascis is plucking on “Both Crosses”. The band claimed, then and now, that the album is about “ageing gracefully” although the songs themselves don’t quite bear this out. The album is about ageing, certainly, but it never seems very graceful. The opening track, a slash-and-burn Husker Du-referencing number, is about waking up no longer young in a dead-end town and trying to make something of it before it’s too late. “Joke About Jamaica” is about a bar girl who wakes up one day to find that the “bands are getting louder” and she’s getting older and no one wants to take her home anymore. “Lord I’m Discouraged” revolves around a woman the narrator loves that has fallen into deep addiction with no real hope of ever getting out (it also features Tad Kubler’s best guitar work and indeed the best guitar solo of the entire 2000s.) Elsewhere there is a sort of a theme running through the songs – not to the extent of something like Separation Sunday, but close. “One For The Cutters” sketches the story of a college girl who gets bored of her freshman boyfriends and starts partying with townies instead. She has a better time with them right up until the point where one of the townie kids stabs another townie kid. Several other songs make reference to the incident, either overtly or using the metaphor of a crucifixion. Stay Positive is more subtle in some ways than earlier Hold Steady albums; there is more loving interplay between instruments, and Finn’s lyrics get to stretch out a bit and revel in the detail more than previously. Franz Nicolay claimed it as his favourite Hold Steady album and left in 2010, stating that he’d achieved everything he wanted to achieve with the band.

– “Constructive Summer”

The band always has stellar opening tracks but this might just be the best. “Let’s raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher”

– “Sequestered In Memphis”

Angry and scared, the narrator recounts to the police everything he knows about a girl he met at a bar. Rocks and swings like a vintage E-Street Band number

– “One For The Cutters”

A heavy story about druggy times – like most Hold Steady songs, but this time with more overt murder and cover-up.

– “Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Like “First Night” it’s a ballad, but it’s much heavier and hopeless, except of course for the pyrotechnics that result mid-way through when Kubler conjures up the ghost of Slash’s career.

– “Stay Positive”

A retrospective and a fan thank-you, of sorts. “The kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own, and the sing along songs will be their scriptures”.

– “Joke About Jamaica”

A song about growing older and no longer fitting into the scene you once did. “They used to laugh when she said ‘dyer maker’, all the boys knew it was a joke about Jamaica”.

– “Slapped Actress”

Man, we make our own movies.

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Heaven Is Whenever 

Released May 4th, 2010 on Vagrant Records

Peaked at #26 US, #48 UK

Heaven Is Whenever is a complicated sort of record. On one hand it’s very easy to hear the absence of departed keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay; there is very little piano on this album, and the atmospheric flourishes that he brought to tracks like “Stuck Between Stations” or “Stevie Nix” are sorely missing. On the other hand, Kubler steps in to fill the void admirably, largely by virtue of knowing when not to fill in the void. A lesser band would have attempted to fill the holes with noise, cramming riffs into every nook and cranny in the songs. Kubler shows restraint instead, choosing to forge ahead with a more straight-forward guitar-rock cribbed directly from the Boss and Thin Lizzy. Most of the songs are built around bouncy riff figures that breathe rather than oppress; a track like “Rock Problems” seems exuberant despite its troubled protagonists and his tasteful ghost-notes in the background of “We Can Get Together” add a sort of the atmosphere that Nicolay would typically have brought. Lyrically the album still deals with late-period American observations of wasted youth although there is a sweetness present, a hope that the doomed characters of previous albums never really had. Interviews for the upcoming album (Teeth Dreams, out March 25th) indicate that the album was rushed (which they were trying to avoid this time around) in order to provide an excuse to go back on tour; this likely explains the similar sheen surrounding several of the tracks and the simpler, more straightforward nature of Finn’s lyrics.

– “The Sweet Part Of The City”

The album’s lead-track strikes a deceptively laid-back Stones-esque country-rock vibe.

– “Soft In The Center”

You can’t get every girl – you’ll get the one you love the best. You’ll love the one you get the best.

– “Rock Problems”

A bouncy little number about first world problems of the young and drunk.

– “We Can Get Together”

A sweat-drenched ballad with a lot of musical touchstone. “Utopia is a band, they sang “Love Is The Answer”, and I think they’re probably right”

– “A Slight Discomfort”

Featuring some epic drumming and crashing guitar-and-keyboard to bring the whole thing home.

Teeth Dreams

Released March 25th, 2014 on Washington Square Records

Peaked at #28 US, #50 UK

When I did this guide originally, Teeth Dreams was a couple of months out from release. It was 2014, four years since Heaven Is Whenever, the longest gap between albums in the band’s career. They had been accused of rushing that album as an excuse to get back onto tour; for Teeth Dreams they went the opposite route, drawing it out and making sure they were getting the songs right. As most any critical fan can tell you, they didn’t. It’s an uneven album that tries to replicate their past successes without tinkering all too much with the basic framework. To be fair, it was their second album without their chief experimenter Franz Nicolay; his texture fills are sorely missed between the trad-rock guitar riffs that fill up the album instead. In many ways it’s the height of the Hold Steady as an arena-rock band: the arrangements are stripped back to provide as much room as possible for the guitar dramatics. The problem with that is that a lot of the album sounds like it’s been done before, and better. “The Ambassador”, for example, sounded more urgent when it was “First Night”, or “Lord I’m Discouraged.” “Spinners” has a great vibe but you can’t help but think “Chips Ahoy” covered the same sonic territory with a more interesting lyric. There are great, classic Hold Steady moments, to be sure: the opening song “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” created expectations that were perhaps too high, pre-release, and “On With The Business” has an all-time classic Hold Steady refrain. The biggest issue is that it’s a merely good album, and the second such in a row. In their review for 2021’s Open Door Policy, Paste Magazine refers to Heaven Is Whenever and Teeth Dreams as a “two-album stale patch a decade ago” and that’s an unfortunately accurate assessment of the two albums. “Stale” sums up a lot of it, and the long gap between albums didn’t help much in that regard. By 2014 it seemed like Franz Nicolay was right; when he quit the band he said that he’d accomplished everything he’d wanted to with them, and in retrospect it seemed like he knew how to leave a scene before it got druggy and ugly.

“I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”

A great addition to the overall story the band had been spinning for more than a decade. The narrator brings his unnamed romantic partner back to the Twin Cities and runs into some people from his past – Cityscape Skins he used to go to those all-ages hardcore matinee shows with that are now getting back together and doing some sinister and disturbing things (it’s never outright said, but there’s probably more than a fair whiff of the racist movement involved as well). His lover, clearly unused to the sketchier side of life, gets scared by their demeanor and their talk and wonders how their partner could have ever been an associate of theirs.

“The Ambassador”

I know what I said, some of it was true. This is the big ballad of the album and while I stand by the fact that it was done better on better Hold Steady records it’s still a banger of a track in the context of the record. Plus it obliquely talks about the Cityscape Skins and Gideon, a fixture from previous albums, during his time at a Michelin shop in Bay City, Michigan.

“On With The Business”

“Blood on the carpet, mud on the mattress / Waking up with that American sadness.”

Thrashing Through The Passion

Released August 16th, 2019 on Frenchkiss Records

Peaked at #22 US

Back on Frenchkiss after 14 years, and back with Franz Nicolay after 11, the Hold Steady circa 2019 seemed to show sparks of creative life again. The two year lead-up to the album’s release saw many of the songs – all of the best ones – released as a series of singles paired A/B. They showed a band once again firing on all cylinders, discovering that they have aged and running with it as a new muse. The album itself features seven of those songs, out of ten total. The three non-single tracks on the album – “Epaulets”, “Traditional Village”, and “Blackout Sam” – are all fine, but the fact that “A Snake In The Shower”, the B-side to the clear best track on the album (“Entitlement Crew”), was not included borders on criminality. Still, these were the most consistently great set of songs the band had written since Stay Positive; both of the albums of their ‘stale period’ had some standouts but on Thrashing Through The Passion they finally wrote an album where it was mostly standouts again. “Blackout Sam” threatens to drag a little but Finn manages to keep it afloat through sheer force of melodic will. The album proved to be their highest-charting effort yet, proving that the lost decade the band went on through the 2010s, with diminishing musical returns and Finn’s solo run, wasn’t a detriment to building their legend. Part of it is the keyboard gloss that Nicolay adds (especially in the coda of “Entitlement Crew”), but part of it is that they sound like they’re having fun again, cutting loose in that old way they had before the characters got old, and scarred, and ran up against the brick wall of their own dead-end lives. The Hold Steady of Teeth Dreams couldn’t have written “T-Shirt Tux”, but the band from Separation Sunday definitely could have.

“Entitlement Crew”

“Now here’s a church, here’s the steeple / I like the party favors but I hate the party people.” Seriously, the end of this song is such a rush of 2006-era nostalgia that it’s surprising that this isn’t a B-side from the “Stuck Between Stations” single.

“A Snake In The Shower”

I don’t care if this song isn’t actually on the album, it should have been.

“A boy and a girl were draining their beers / He said “Stalin was a weatherman to start his career /
And Johnny Cash was in the service when the news came through the wire /
And it’s weird how you feel when bad people die” /
She said “Yeah, I guess, whatever / All your fun little facts are never going to keep us together””

“Confusion In The Marketplace”

Hold Steady finales are always an event, some greater (“Southtown Girls”), some lesser (“Oaks”). “Confusion In The Marketplace” falls in the former. “Scoping out some dynamite and seeing if it detonates / People take advantage of confusion in the marketplace / You can turn the circles, yeah, and I can pull the parking brake / Princess on the payphone with an angle on some Western states.”

Open Door Policy

Released February 19th, 2021 on Positive Jam/Thirty Tigers

The band’s eighth album, Open Door Policy, was recorded in the last half of 2019 but a lot of the themes – the insidious creep of technology, the struggle with mental health, the trap of consumerism, and the potential of escape through fandom and the scene – just hit different now, in Year 2 of the Plague. In a way it’s quite difficult to listen to a Hold Steady record in lockdown; the band writes songs about the sacred and profane things that happen when we get together and when we can’t get together it gets difficult to remember what that feeling is like. “She said I’m glad to see you’re still in a bar band, baby / I said it’s great to see you’re still in the bars,” is a line Finn wrote scant years after 9/11 and it sometimes seems like the whole ethos of the band has been just that: glad to be surviving, glad to still be playing in a band, glad there are people who want to see them play. Open Door Policy finds them slowing down a little without sacrificing any of the cutting, working-class lyricism that underlined their older, more punk-inflected material. A track like “Heavy Covenant” would have, ten years ago, been a more fist-in-the-air type of song; in 2021 it’s more of a stomp, one that still has the core of youth embedded in it but simultaneously aware that dancing all night while soaking up liquor is a younger person’s game. Same goes for “Spices”, which would have been a “Chips Ahoy” type rocker in a past life but is now a moody, tense thriller of a track that bursts into life just as Finn shouts his protagonist’s drink order (“Vanilla vodka and a Diet Dr. Pepper”, itself a complicated tension between youth and the vagaries of age). A song like “Family Farm” drags out the ghosts of the past but now the past is a novelty in a band that has decided, finally, to evolve their sound out of the doldrums of the early 2010s. They’ve figured out how to use their six-piece lineup to their advantage, with the horns taking on a more important role at times and Nicolay bringing out some rather interesting synth pulses to complement his galloping piano runs. “Unpleasant Breakfast” shows off their willingness to experiment with their sound, adding some electronic influences into the mix; “The Feelers” and the closer “Hanover Camera” delve further into their roots, with the latter riding a breezy golden era Fleetwood Mac-type bassline into the sunset. The net effect of Open Door Policy is that the band is capable of aging gracefully; this is not something that was a sure thing, back in those heady scene days of Boys And Girls In America.

“Unpleasant Breakfast”

It is an admission of middle age when you can write a line like “That girl in last year’s picture / Is now haunting her own hallways / I no longer see the romance in these ghosts.”

“Heavy Covenant”

The way that Franz Nicolay’s keyboard layers play off of that pounding bass drum makes this song just as much of a life-affirming headbanger as those old Frenchkiss days, but with a bigger dollop of the wisdom that hard-won age brings.

“Lanyards”

The protagonist of “Lanyards” got lost in all those hot soft lights, trying to find his dreams in California; he talks about people trying to get all kinds of wristbands and then a girl he knows gets a bloody one.