Favorite 2000s Albums – #10 – Mclusky – “Mclusky Do Dallas”

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In my last list, I looked at my favorite albums from the 90s, my favorite decade of music. Now, since I’m bored over spring break, I’ve decided to take on 2000-2009 (I refuse to call this decade “the oughts” or whatever horrible name people came up with for it). I wasn’t originally going to, because the 2000s is probably my least favorite of music despite the fact that I grew up during it. But I just can’t resist a good list, and even in the bucket of crap that was this decade there were a handful of great albums that I treasure, each of which provided something that was missing in the general lameness that I associate strongly with the period they came from. My hope with this list is to study why I love these albums and to see where things went horribly, horribly wrong in these ten years.

The most obvious way the 2000s sucked is the decline of rock music, or at least the kind of rock music I enjoy. At some point in this decade, rock music seemed to lose what made it great in the first place. Bands like Arcade Fire, Wilco, Modest Mouse, The National, and The Strokes reign supreme among “rock” bands on the top of most end-of-decade lists, but they all feel lacking compared to how alive and essential it felt in the 90s when outspoken, aggressive rock ruled the landscape . Most rock stopped being exciting and freeing like it was in the years before and started being stodgy and limp, lacking in personality and energy.

Which finally gets me to Mclusky, and their 2002 album Mclusky Do Dallas, a rock album that in many ways is the antithesis of the decade it came from. It’s loud, aggressive, and overflowing with charisma thanks to lead singer Andy Falkous and his howling vocals. It’s also hilarious, with some of the best misanthropic one liners ever committed to song. Mclusky rock at a higher volume and with more swagger than just about anyone else did at the time and sound like they’re having a party doing it.

Sonically, Mclusky don’t do anything too groundbreaking. Their dedication to abrasive noise (along with the album being engineered by Steve Albini) created obvious comparisons to 90s noise rock bands like The Jesus Lizard, while their darkly humorous lyrics and big hooks brought to mind the Pixies. Mclusky breaks out of the shadow of those bands through sheer force of personality, as Falkous and the band seem to have a whale of a time making an unholy racket and singing ridiculous non-sequitur lyrics like “All your friends are cunts. Your mother is a ballpoint pen thief.”

Mclusky Do Dallas is so relentlessly cacophonous that at times it feels like a satire of rock music one-upsmanship, with each song trying to top the previous one in terms of insanity. It’s most evident on album highlight “To Hell With Good Intentions”, where Falkous howls out increasingly silly, hyperbolic boasts about the band (“my band is better than your band, we’ve got more songs than a song convention”) with each punctuated by the band chanting “sing it!” as if urging other rock bands to come up to their level of badassery. Based on the output this decade provided, it seems that few bands took them up on the challenge.

The band’s songs never stray too far from their formula, but they find ways to mix it up to prevent the album from becoming too repetitive. “The World Loves Us and is Our Bitch” has a funky guitar lead while keeping up the band’s hyperbolic sense of humor, while lead track “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” has a call-and-response between Falkous and noisy guitar to go with its lyrics of paranoia and sex that are handled in typical Mclusky fashion. The closest the band comes to a ballad is “Fuck This Band”, which has lyrics that sound like what a parent whose kid listens to Mclusky might think about the band: “fuck this band because they swear too much, it’s an obvious ploy and irresponsible.”

Above all, Mclusky Do Dallas is a fun album, in a way that most acclaimed albums of the 2000s aren’t. It never takes itself too seriously, but also never has fun at the expense of providing the vital rush of excitement that only great rock music can provide. The fact that the music around them was so dull and serious made Mclusky’s back-to-basics rock feel that much more important. While I personally think rock declined in this decade and hasn’t really recovered, Mclusky Do Dallas shows that there is still always a home for it, even if it’s a smaller niche than it should be.

The Noise Made By People Playlist #1

Welcome to the blog’s inaugural playlist. Using the magic of 8tracks, this seemed like a convenient way for me to write about and share the music I’ve been listening to lately. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new music (partly to be trendy and partly because I’m bored of a lot of the old music I have), but I also am always digging around in the past to find stuff that I haven’t heard before. The playlist reflects that, with an eclectic mix of songs old and new.

Listen to the playlist on 8tracks: http://8tracks.com/joshe2424/the-noise-made-by-people-playlist-1

1. Frankie Rose – “Interstellar” (2012)

Frankie Rose made a name for herself playing the type of lo-fi noisy pop that has been extremely popular the last few years as a member of Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and finally as a frontwoman with a backing band in Frankie Rose and the Outs. This year she released her first album under her solo name, Interstellar, where she ditches that aesthetic in favor of glossy, chillwave style synth pop. The new Frankie Rose is slicker, but on the title and lead track she shows she hasn’t completely changed, as the song’s first minute of plaintive synths explodes into a loud, sugary chorus.

2. Flown – “Almost Human” (2012)

Meanwhile, Frankie’s former backing band, The Outs, has changed their style in a much more extreme way, playing tunes inspired by classic heavy metal like Black Sabbath with some riot grrrl undertones. “Almost Human” (which you can download at their bandcamp page) is only the second song they’ve released, but already shows them settling into a comfortable groove with an immediate thunderous guitar riff and some excellent vocal harmonies. This band is playing a style I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time and I’m hoping to hear a lot more from them in the future.

3. The Fall – “The Classical” (1982)

The lead track from The Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour, “The Classical” is pretty much a perfect rock song. The first thing that jumps out is the incredible rhythm the song has thanks to a great bass line played by Steve Hanley and the band’s two-drum set-up on the song. Then comes frontman Mark E. Smith and his free-form, misanthropic lyrics that tear down pop culture and society in hilariously quotable fashion, giving the song that crucial rock element of anger that I always think fuels a band to greater heights. With 29 studio albums and a ton of singles, The Fall have one of the most immense discographies of any band, so given how much I love this song I have a feeling they’ll be keeping me busy for awhile.

4. Julia Holter – “Für Felix” (2012)

Julia Holter’s latest album Ekstasis is full of well-crafted songs that aren’t quite ambient but aren’t quite folk or pop either. “Für Felix”, written for her dog on his last days, starts with some strings but she gradually adds on the instrumentation as the song grows before settling into a lovely 90 second instrumental outro.

5. Nite Jewel – “In the Dark” (2012)

Ramona Gonzalez, aka Nite Jewel, generally lives up to her artist name, playing r&b influenced synth-pop that’s suitable for late night listening. Ballad “In the Dark” is one of the subtlest moments on the album, mostly showcasing Gonzalez’s vocals above simple synths and a memorable chorus. This isn’t the kind of flashy song that typically will show up on year-end best of lists, but it’s pretty much perfectly executed and has been stuck in my head for a few days now.

6. Ponytail – “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)” (2008)

I’ve recently gotten into Baltimore art-rockers Ponytail, who just broke up last year. Their 2008 album Ice Cream Spiritual is a great blast of exhilarating rock with an artsy twist that comes from lead singer Molly Siegel, whose abstract vocalizing will either fascinate you or drive you insane. “Celebrate the Body Electric” starts with a pulsating, simple guitar riff which eventually gives way to seven minutes of noisy, chaotic fun thanks to the unique combination of Dustin Wong’s inventive guitar playing and Siegel’s ADHD vocals. I’m guessing a lot of people will skip this one, but I find this band really exciting and fun.

7. Chairlift – “Met Before” (2012)

I mentioned in a previous post how catchy some of the song’s on Chairlift’s latest album Something are. While some of the songs on the album were bizarre and quirky, “Met Before” is more straight forward, but as a result is also the album’s most anthemic moment thanks to its sparking synths and a nice vocal turn from singer Carolyn Polachek.

8. Throwing Muses – “Red Shoes” (1991)

Throwing Muses are one of the most underrated bands of all time — an influential, ambitious group that is one of the few bands that can stake a claim to being truly original. I’ve been very into them lately, especially their 1991 album The Real Ramona that is the best combination of singer Kristin Hersch’s oddball songwriting and band member Tanya Donnelly’s pop craft that she would later showcase as the frontwoman for Belly. “Red Shoes” has Herch’s lyrics which are always hard to pin down, but is also accessible thanks to a bright guitar part and bass line along with some of Donnelly’s patented harmonies.

9. Mind Spiders – “Wait For Us” (2012)

Texas punks Mind Spiders play loud, no-frills garage rock with extra percussion thanks to a pair of drummers. “Wait for Us” is simple and straightforward, but that’s refreshing these days, and the the band piles on the noise and feedback in the second half of the song as it builds into a roaring climax.

10. Cate Le Bon – “The Man I Wanted” (2012)

“The Man I Wanted” is the closest Cate Le Bon comes to directly channeling Nico, one of her primary influences. The song has a slow tempo and its instrumentation isn’t as flashy as most moments on Le Bon’s most recent album Cyrk, but it has poignant lyrics and what I think is her best vocal performance on the album (I really enjoy the way she pronounces certain words with her accent).

11. John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey – “Civil War Correspondent” (1996)

I’m pretty much always listening to some PJ Harvey, due to the depth, variety, and consistent greatness of her catalogue. Lately I’ve finally gotten into Dance Hall With Louse Point, her underrated 1996 collaboration with John Parish. At the time the album was mostly dismissed, largely because PJ was coming off an incredible run of albums and people had little interest in what was perceived as an artsy side project for the singer. However, now I think it stands up with some of her best work. “Civil War Correspondent” starts with a noisy guitar riff but then fades into a more atmospheric song that is carried by PJ’s always incredible vocals.

12. Christian Mistress – “Black to Gold” (2012)

For those wanting a burst of rock, Christian Mistress bring it in full force with a sound indebted largely to classic metal bands like Iron Maiden. Frontwoman Christine Davis brings the right amount of pizzazz to the band and really carries them on “Black to Gold,” which has crushing metal riffs and drumming but is also accessible and borderline pop in its structure.

13. Team Dresch – “She’s Amazing” (1995)

“She’s Amazing” is the kind of song I’m talking about whenever I discuss how female bands can make songs with a certain amount of power that other bands can’t. Sung about a positive female media role model who “many people will try to destroy”, this song is extremely uplifting and feels important to the band and listener on a whole different level from most music.  It’s one of several great songs on Team Dresch’s lost punk classic Personal Best, which I’ve been listening to a lot the last month or so.

14. Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents” (2012)

Sharon Van Etten has sort of an ordinary charm to her that I think makes her music more authentic and real as a result. “Serpents” is the most straight-forward rock song on her latest album Tramp, and it comes from the always welcome tradition of trashing a former abusive boyfriend.

15. Grimes – “Be a Body” (2012)

Claire Boucher’s Visions is so far the best pop album of the year, and in a just universe where actual craft was rewarded instead of image and appealing to the masses it would certainly be tearing up the pop charts. “Be a Body” is one of her many inventive pop songs on the album, and it’s mostly due to Boucher and her malleable voice, which can go from sounding dark and mysterious to high and girly, usually in the span of the same song.

16. The Breeders – “Safari” (1992)

I had usually ignored EPs by bands for some reason, so I’m just now getting into The Breeders’ Safari EP. For fans of the band, it’s notable for being the only release by them that included both Tanya Donnelly (making her second appearance on this playlist) and Kelley Deal. That combination pays dividends, especially on the title track which is one of their most psychedelic, angular tracks, with noisy dissonant guitar, minimal lyrics, but still some pop in there thanks to Kim Deal’s sweet voice.

Thanks for listening/reading and I hope to make this a recurring thing in the future!

The Men: “Open Your Heart” (or: how derivative is too derivative?)

For fans of rock music, Brooklyn foursome The Men’s new album Open Your Heart has been one of the most anticipated albums of the year. The band plays the kind of no-frills straight up rock that I’ve been complaining about not hearing in seemingly every post on this blog, with lots of noise and little in the way of pretension or cutesiness. With the album riding a wave of strong reviews and hype, I listened to it hoping to finally be blown away and to hear the type of rock music that I’ve been craving for so long.

In a way, Open Your Heart does deliver that, as nobody can complain that the band’s sound isn’t noisy or energetic enough. Yet, I hate this album, in the way that I only can when something infringes on what I believe are the basic tenets of great rock music and gets rewarded for it anyways.

The problem with The Men is that everything they do is completely derivative. Open Your Heart is being praised for being a diverse album with songs of many different genres, but in reality it’s more like songs of many different bands — namely more innovative, talented bands that The Men shamelessly pilfer in creating this album. On the title track they rip off The Replacements and especially the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love.” On “Ex-Dreams” they rip off Sonic Youth. On “Turn it Around” they rip off The Buzzcocks again. On “Presence” they rip off Spacemen 3. Literally every song on this album is just a copy of a better song by a better band.

In this way, The Men remind me a lot of Yuck, another band that succeeded last year by borrowing a lot of sounds from the past. However, I like Yuck because they put their own original spin on the bands they’re influenced by. They may have been guilty of sounding like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, but they still had an identifiable aesthetic that was their own thanks to their youthful lyrics and enthusiasm. More importantly, Yuck were also able to write good, melodic songs, which allowed them to carve out their own identity as well.

The Men don’t do any of that, and that is what I find lacking most in Open Your Heart. It isn’t just that “Ex-Dreams” borrows from Sonic Youth, it’s that it sounds exactly like Sonic Youth, right down to replicating Thurston Moore’s semi-spoken vocal style, and brings nothing else to the table besides that. It goes beyond merely being influenced by Sonic Youth — it completely misappropriates their aesthetic.

In this sense, The Men’s unremarkable band name is oddly fitting. On Open Your Heart, they sound completely anonymous. They’re so focused on emulating other bands that they never form their own identity. The music is loud and often fast-paced in the way that we associate with rock music, but it’s completely devoid of another crucial rock ingredient, which is personality. It doesn’t sound like the work of four musicians who have a purpose in what they’re doing; it sounds like the work of ciphers who have filtered through a list of influences and are now transmitting them in a less interesting way.

I imagine this stuff doesn’t matter for most people. They’ll enjoy Open Your Heart because they like Sonic Youth or the Buzzcocks and want to hear more music that sounds like them. Personally, few things bother me more than the kind of music on Open Your Heart, the kind that presents itself as exciting and daring when in reality it’s just a shallow retread of better music that has already been made. It makes me feel even more angry when bands like this get critical acclaim and make money while truly original, interesting bands go unnoticed. Whether they intended it or not, The Men are basically profiting on the love people have for bands like Sonic Youth, The Buzzcocks, and The Replacements, and something about that makes me feel a bit dirty.

In 2012, it’s hard for any band to be completely original, but there is a way to have clear influences in your sound without completely copying someone else. On Open Your Heart, The Men are content to merely replicate bands they like instead of trying to sound like themselves, and the result is an unoriginal album that sounds more like the set of a cover band than one that writes their own music. I’d rather just listen to some songs by previous great rock bands on shuffle than hear this band’s mediocre take on them.