Tag Archives: Favorite

100th Favorite: Boys and Girls In America, by The Hold Steady

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Boys and Girls in America. The Hold Steady.
2006, Vagrant Records. Producer: John Agnello
ADDED TO MY COLLECTION: ca. 2011.

album cover 100

IN A NUTSHELL –
nut
Driving guitar rock with a 70s feel. Great, wordy lyrics tell stories about young adults, warts and all.
Singer might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Would have been higher on the list if I’d listened to it more
– it got overshadowed in my collection by other albums by this band.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This record is by my favorite band from the “new life” era that was created for me when my “old life” was suddenly, and coldly, ripped away by the announcement
expectant – and the subsequent associated all-encompassing thoughts, plans, activities, and emotions – that my wife was pregnant.

In the late 90s, my wife and I lived in San Francisco, in a neighborhood that had been named among “the hippest” in the US and Canada by the Utne Reader. Probably NOT because of the fact that we lived there, but who knows? We are extremely hip.

couple

We went to multiple Farmers’ Markets each weekend, ate brunch at Boogaloo’s or Spaghetti Western, or some other equally-funky cafe, spent our evenings going to pottery class (her) or performing improv (me), saw several movies a month, cooked healthy food, hiked in Marin, or rode our bikes to the beach (on a squiggly route that actually avoided all of The City’s hills). We checked our Juno.com email accounts every couple days (preferably at times when we weren’t expecting phone calls, since the dial-up internet tied up the phone) by launching a program that was separate from our Netscape browser, on a computer with 512 MB of memory (that we thought was way more than we’d ever need) that our tech-savvy friend had recently loaded with cool sound clips from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Cities and towns were finally starting to recycle, decent (not excellent, but at least drinkable) coffee was finally becoming available everywhere, and Greg Louganis had recently come out, and it didn’t seem to alter my parents’ appreciation and admiration for his diving accomplishments. Life, both within our relationship and in the Clinton Blow Job world around us, was bulging with hot, squirming, exhilarating potential. The Dream of the 90s was alive and well.

I was making an effort to stay up-to-date with music and musicians, to find new acts I liked and discover records I’d overlooked. I can remember feeling proud that I had purchased several CDs released in 1997 (including Dig Me Out, OK Computer, and When I was Born for the 7th Time) and it wasn’t even 1998 yet.

Then mid 1998 hit, and a baby was due, and that old life gradually, but surely, ended. Somehow, music – which had always been extremely important in my life – became less so. Well, that’s not exactly right. NEW music became less important to me. I continued listening to the music I knew, and started to buy more CDs from the artists I’d always loved, but I wasn’t keeping up to date on the latest records by the newest bands. Suddenly, finding a decent rocking chair (no, wait … a decent GLIDING rocking chair (with gliding ottoman!!)

glider

god forbid my kid be forced to rock like everyone rocked for millennia before him) became more important than finding a decent rocking band.

And for a good 8 or 10 years, I didn’t really know much of what was happening in music. I picked up some music I liked from newer acts, like The White Stripes and The Strokes,
white stripes

strokes

but I didn’t become a “fan” of any newer acts, not in the way I’d typically dived into musical acts in the past, the way I did with Yes or Rush or The Beatles or R.E.M. or The Replacements or Elvis Costello. I wasn’t able to invest the time and energy into a band the way I had in my “old life.”

listening

Sometime around 2007, after getting tired of all my whining about not knowing any new artists, my young, hip sister-in-law, Johanna, gave me a bunch of new music to listen to, and among the batch of records was Separation Sunday, by The Hold Steady. I got hooked on it, and have become a fan of the band, almost like back-in-the-day.

There are two things about The Hold Steady that draw me to them: instrumentation and lyrics. And both characteristics are grandly on display on Boys and Girls in America.

The band employs a double guitar attack, with some keyboards thrown in – not loopy, atmospheric, techno keyboards, but recognizable piano and organ sounds. Most of the songs are driving rock, reminiscent of 70s classic rock, but not blues based – they don’t sound like they’re trying to emulate The Allman Brothers, or Grand Funk Railroad. Although the instrumentation is 70s rock, the songs are more pop-punk in structure.

Here’s a video for the first song on the album, “Stuck Between Stations,” which is a great example of what you get with The Hold Steady:

The song has guitars and bass cranked up loud, thumping drums, and nice piano fills, and displays the typical Hold Steady vocal style of cramming lots of words into a small space, and nearly singing, but mostly speaking, in an energetic fashion.

If you watched that, you probably noticed the band’s … well, distinct-looking singer, Craig Finn.

craig finn

Mr. Finn continues the long line of nerdy lead singers that tend to populate many of the bands I really like, like Elvis Costello, XTC’s Andy Partridge, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and Geddy Lee of Rush.
elvis costello

andy partridge

stipe

geddy lee


Craig Finn has a voice that probably will divide listeners, some finding it interesting, others dismissing its nasally, speaking-not-singing qualities. I like it, but more than his voice, I love his lyrics. The Hold Steady tend to sing about stupid young people trying to have fun, but oblivious to the fact that maybe their “fun” won’t feel like “fun” the next day. On initial listening, many of their songs seem to be about partying, getting high, being young and indifferent and simply out for a good time. For example, check out “Massive Nights.”

But if you look at the lyrics – and more importantly, listen to how Finn sings them – the good times don’t really sound like they’re all that good. The song describes a drunken, druggy prom date between the singer and a girl, and intersperses the story with reminiscences of all the “massive nights” he and his friends have had (“we had some massive highs/we had some crushing lows/we had some lusty little crushes/we had those all ages hardcore matinee shows”), but ends with an image that – whether a true description of events, or a metaphor for either a sex act or drug use or lost hopes – leaves the listener feeling that maybe those massive nights were massive because they were intended to obscure real problems:

“she had the gun in her mouth/she was shooting up at her dreams/when the chaperone said that we’d been crowned the king and the queen”

But the best part of the song is that it sounds great, and is fun to sing along to! It’s got a bouncy beat, nice harmony background vocals and those 70s guitars. It has a great energy, and even if you’re not some dork who’s into lyrics, there’s a lot to like about the song.

Another track in a lyrically similar vein is “Chillout Tent.”

In this story, which is probably familiar to all fans of live music who were young and dumb once upon a time, two college-age kids, a boy and a girl (the album is named Boys and Girls in America, after all), separately attend an outdoor concert, and after nearly overdosing end up meeting, and finally making out, in the venue’s infirmary, or “Chillout Tent.”

“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kind of sexy but it was kind of creepy.”

The boy and the girl seem indifferent to their near deaths, and instead sing about the “cool girl” and “cute boy” they met, while enthusing that the nurses at the tent “gave us oranges and cigarettes.” The chorus is sung in the first-person, by guest vocalists Elizabeth Elmore (of the band The Reputation) and Dave Pirner (of Soul Asylum), adding to the overall impact of the song, another one in which young people make bad choices but intend to party on, nonetheless.

But wait! Despite the lost dreams, bad decisions and next-morning regrets, the album isn’t a bummer! I over-analyze these things, I know. It’s a rock record, with strong songs, pounding beats, and in-your-face 70s rock guitars. The best part of Boys and Girls in America is that it’s a fun record, and nearly all the songs are sing-along gems – despite saps like me poring over lyrics and putting interpretive turds into this punchbowl of great songs.

punchbowl

Chips Ahoy” is about a horse race, and the singer’s attempts to get romantic with a woman who seems far more interested in horse racing than romance, despite his attempts to get her high.

You Can Make Him Like You” is a straight-ahead rocker that sounds to me like a feminist call to arms, mocking the notion that a woman should leave the “difficult” parts of life – like knowing directions home, or intellectual pursuits – to her man.

First Night” is a piano ballad about missing an ex, featuring characters who appeared in songs from their previous album, Separation Sunday.

hold steady concert poster

There’s a humor to the band (if you watch to the end of the video for “Stuck Between Stations,” you’ll see it), and a desire to have a wild, fun time – even if the wild fun has consequences. I don’t know why songs about youthful bad decisions make such a connection with me. There are many parts of my younger self that I’d like to forget (as I’ve written about before), and even though the lyrics to these songs can make me cringe with self-recognition, I am strangely drawn to them.

The band is frequently compared to Bruce Springsteen. I never really “got” Springsteen, maybe because when I first became really aware of him, his ass was ubiquitous in America, and I decided he was too popular for me to like; or maybe because my first serious girlfriend, M, of New York Cheesecake fame, was a Springsteen nut, and I was too immature to deal with her love for another man. But I know people who love him tend to love his songs for the stories of lost youth, faded glory and ambiguous memories set to a driving beat and hooky melodies. And if that’s the case, then I understand the comparison completely.

The album has a youthful energy, and evokes in me memories of what it was like to be young and free and unencumbered. Maybe that’s why I got so into them after my “old life” was left behind – to help me remember those feelings. And maybe the lyrics’ subtext of the ugly truth behind the memories appeals to me because I know that the “old life” wasn’t really always as wonderful it seems. In fact, I’ve had some “Massive Nights” of a different kind as a dad.

bedtime

TRACK LISTING (and some lyrics):
Stuck Between Stations (“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 all that great of a girlfriend”)
Chips Ahoy!
Hot Soft Light (“It started recreational/It ended kinda medical/It came on hot and soft and then/It tightened up its tentacles”)
Same Kooks
First Night
Party Pit
You Can Make Him Like You (“You don’t have to deal with the dealers/Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers/It only gets inconvenient/When you wanna get high alone”)
Massive Nights
Citrus (“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”)
Chillout Tent
Southtown Girls (“Southtown girls won’t blow you away/But you know that they’ll stay”)

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“Who Are You? Who? Who? Who? Who?” – The Who

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I haven’t updated my blog in several weeks. I know both of you out there are disappointed about this, but I have been extremely busy the past few weeks. This GIF presents a fairly accurate view of the activities in my life whenever I’m not sleeping or working.

Endless baseball. Not that I’m complaining – the games are good, and my kid is happy (well, one kid is happy … the other one can be happy, unless forced to attend said endless games …) so it hasn’t been a chore. But it has kept me away from some of the other things I like doing. And some of the housework has lagged a bit …

messy house

But one aspect of my life that has remained steady is that I have continued listening to my CD collection in my ongoing effort to identify my 100 favorite albums. I have listened to 245 as of this writing, and I think I have about 75 remaining, but it is hard to tell because I find that I am continually ADDING CDs to those under consideration! This is extending the process tremendously. I am experiencing the equivalent of “cost overruns,” a dreaded consequence of people trying to do just a little bit more to make things perfect.

You see, I started out with a list of about 150 CDs from my collection of 400 (ish) that I figured would all be vying for a place in the top 100. But as I flipped through my CD collection, I came across some that I hadn’t originally listed, but that I thought might have a place, so I added them into the mix. Then I realized I had some albums as MP3-only, and thought some of these had Hot Hundred potential, so I burned them and added them to the mix. Also, I realized there were albums NO LONGER IN my collection that I had loved when I owned them on cassette or vinyl, and these were added in as well. Plus, as I listened to CDs by particular artists, I realized that I had other albums by them – albums NOT on the original list – and thought it would be wise to give some of these a listen-to as well.

sisyphus

So my list grew. As a result, I have now been listening to my CD collection since mid-September, 2012, and I’m still only about 2/3 of the way through. (Please don’t check my math. To quote Barbie, “Math … is tough.”)

I’m glad I’ve been adding CDs to my list, for completeness’ sake, but I don’t know if it’s been worthwhile. I think my top CDs will mostly be part of the original 150. This is because they are familiar to me. I’m not trying to make an objective list of Great Albums, I’m trying to list my favorites, so familiarity is a factor in the process. It might seem unfair that the tremendous, new CD by AwesomeNewArtist won’t be ranked as highly as its musical merits would imply, but that’s just how life is: it’s all who you know.

I lived in San Francisco for about 8 years in the 90s, and in January, 1994, I made good on a Resolution by finally trying to perform stand-up comedy. For as long as I remember, doing stand-up had been a dream of mine. I had honed my act in various classrooms since kindergarten. Here’s one of my first publicity photos:

publicity photo

In third grade I entered a school talent show and performed a stand up routine about dog food, featuring a battery-powered yapping dog, “The Frisky Dachshund.”

frisky dachsund

(I named him “Pup,” and he was a state-of-the-art remote control toy in 1975).

frisky dachsund 2

I came in second place to a girl who tap danced.

[Not that I’m bitter, and I must say that the girl, Christy W., danced very well, but I KNOW I had the crowd on my side, particularly when my dog unexpectedly fell over, and I ad-libbed a bit about the dog food killing it. But who cares, I guess. That was almost 40 years ago, and I was just a kid …]

plaid

[But still, judges … Ms. Schworer, Mrs. Horst, Mrs. Ellsworth … what were you SEEING up there???!! Let’s get serious!]

Over the years I used any classroom speaking assignment to perform a comedy routine, and I had several successes. I read a poem from Mad Magazine in 8th grade English. I juggled tennis balls, soccer balls and ping-pong balls (even spitting them out of my mouth!!) in a demonstration speech in 11th grade. My masterpiece was when I impersonated my Geometry teacher, “Pinhead” Firestone, in a 10th grade extemporaneous speaking assignment. That performance KILLED!

The thought of doing it in front of strangers terrified me, but by 1994 in San Francisco, I decided to put the fears aside and just DO IT. My first time was at an advertised “Open Mic Night” at a comedy club called The Punchline. I had no idea how the “comedy scene” worked, or – more importantly – how an Open Mic Night worked.

open mic

How an Open Mic Night worked at a big comedy club (like The Punchline) was this: just like any other show at a Comedy Club, you respectfully watched professional comedians – even if the night was billed as an “Open Mic Night.” See, the big clubs advertised “Open Mic Night,” but it wasn’t as if the emcee asked for volunteers and selected folks out of the audience to come onstage and tell jokes. It was way more organized than that, and 99% of the performers were professional/near-professional comedians. Very few of the comics at comedy clubs’ Open Mic Nights would be first-timers. It happened occasionally, but it wasn’t typical.

You, the novice comedian, got your start at whatever failing cafes, bars, bookstores and other sad, lonely, empty venues hosted Open Mics. Someone hooked a cheap microphone to an old guitar amplifier, and placed it to the side of the room to create an unusual “stage.” I say unusual because most stages are placed in a room so as to engage as many people as possible. However, most Open Mics placed the stage so as to disturb as few patrons as possible. Here is a typical “view from the stage” at one of these comedy shows:

empty cafe

Usually these shows were initiated in a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the venue-owner to stay afloat before the business finally went under, the expectation being that business would increase because a bunch of alcoholic comedians would bring people in to watch the show. This theory had two flaws (at least): 1) while many (most?) comics are alcoholics, many (most?) are too poor/cheap to buy more than one drink at a bar; and 2) back then, even in those early, early days of email, very few Subject lines generated a quicker “Delete” from a recipient than those of the “Come to my Open Mic!!!” variety. Most of these sad Open Mics were organized by truly heroic (and I DO NOT say that in jest) men and women who realized that live comedy needs places for new performers to start, and who also recognized a need in their own career to learn how to host and emcee a show, which is required to get offers for actual paying gigs.

(Believe me, I don’t mean to shit on Open Mic shows at all – these shows are where the meiosis, embryogenesis and morphogenesis of live comedy occur. In comedy, these processes are just like they are in life: magical, inscrutable and disturbing all at the same time, giving rise to both perfect living machines,

AP

miscarriages, and everything in between.)

So, anyway, you, the newbie, go to the sad Open Mics, and after your soul had been thoroughly and persistently trampled flat by the regular indifference of strangers and other comics in the “audience;” and after the notion of getting booked on Letterman in another month or two (or even Year Or Two!) had been excised like the metastasizing, malignant tumor of self-defeating mythology that it truly is; and after your self-esteem had calloused-over to such a thickness that you believe that Carrie was a total wimp for getting so freaked out by a little pig’s blood …

… and after you’ve been hanging around the Big Club for a few weeks/months (not just the Open Mic Night, but most every night), and after the club comics there begin to recognize you as more than just a dreaded “hobbyist,” … maybe – JUST MAYBE – then you’ll get asked to perform 5 minutes at one of the Big Clubs’ Open Mic Nights.

(According to this great article, not much has changed on The Path To Comedy in 19 years.)

But in January, 1994, I had no idea how this all worked. So I strolled into The Punchline on a Monday Night (a typical night for “Open Mic”), was directed to the guy in charge (a nice fellow with a mustache, named Hutch [the fellow’s name, not the mustache’s name, smart-ass]) and told him I wanted to go onstage and tell jokes.

He didn’t have much to say to me. I bought a drink or two and kept asking him when I could go up and tell my jokes. He kept telling me he didn’t think he’d have time for me. I kept telling him I was ready. Finally, near the end of the night, he said, “Look, if you really want to get up there, we have one more bit you could be part of. It’s the Siskel & Ebert part of the show.” He explained to me that this was a somewhat regular feature of The Punchline’s Open Mic in which two professional comics would sit on stage with microphones and provide commentary on and criticism of another comedian’s set.

I think he expected I’d be intimidated by the thought of being heckled by professional comics, but I wasn’t. Not because I was so confident or ballsy, but because a) I was rather drunk by this point and b) I had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING! I was too ignorant to understand!

I took him up on the opportunity, and soon enough the host (and “Siskel”), Chris Hobbs, was introducing me to the crowd, while “Ebert,” (a woman whose name I don’t remember) applauded enthusiastically.

Now, it would be a great story if I told you I either bombed horribly and learned my lesson about how difficult stand-up is, or that I triumphed grandly and recognized that I had “what it takes” to succeed in comedy. But neither of those happened.

I went on stage and basically made fun of Siskel and Ebert before they could make fun of me. I started to tell the jokes I had prepared (some really awful religious puns and a long story I made up about my childhood imaginary friend pretending he didn’t recognize me at my tenth high school reunion) but then I segued into tearing apart the hosts’ looks, jokes, clothes, whatever. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the audience laughed, and the hosts laughed, and they made fun of everything about me, as well, and everyone had a good time.

I left the stage thinking that I had “killed,” but what really had happened was that the audience was somewhat charmed by a likeably drunken “civilian” on stage with professional comics, and grateful for the break in the rather monotonous 2 hour run of comics at 5 – 10 minutes a pop.

A couple new comics congratulated me for busting on Siskel and Ebert, but no comics approached me or spoke with me. After the show I spoke with Chris Hobbs, and he was really nice and gave me tips on where Open Mic shows were, and who to speak to, and he told me about The Road, but he didn’t say “You were hilarious!” or “Man, you are FUNNY!” or anything that made me think I was as special as I thought I had demonstrated. I was a little perplexed. I expected adulation from all the comedians.

“Oh well,” I thought, “they must be jealous. But I’ll show up next week and kill once again, and THEN they’ll see how spectacular I am!”

So, I showed up next week. Hutch didn’t put me up. I showed up the following week. Hutch didn’t put me up. Again, the next week. And the next. Week after week, he just ignored me. I didn’t go out and perform at any of the sad cafes or bars; I thought I had shown everyone that I was above those types of places. I didn’t really talk to a lot of the comedians; I figured they might hold me back, or negatively influence my comedy. I just kept returning to The Punchline, badgering Hutch, and waiting for him to realize he was impeding genius. And he never put me up again. After a couple months I stopped going, figuring “Harumph! Comedy is all just who you know!”

nyeah

And you know what?

I was right! Comedy IS who you know! Just like EVERYTHING ELSE IN LIFE!!! There seems to be an idea held among people (my 1994 self included) that “fairness” will only occur when everything is evaluated objectively. But objective evaluation simply doesn’t happen very much at all. It can’t! Maybe it does in science (it’s happened in a few of the labs I’ve worked in … a few …) but outside of that, everything is subjective.

Plus, Hutch wasn’t in a position to evaluate my comedy “objectively,” he was in a position to put comedians on stage who had a chance of making people laugh. I hadn’t shown any indication that I could be one of those comedians. He had seen me drunkenly banter with a couple people on stage. That’s it. None of the other comedians who went to The Punchline had seen me tell jokes anywhere else. Nobody had talked to me about my comedy background or goals. Nobody was familiar with me. I was UNKNOWN!

(But not The Unknown Comic.)

After a few years of doing some theater and improv, I decided to give stand-up another try. By this time my experience in performing had led me to realize that yes, it IS who you know, so I decided to get out there and GET KNOWN BY some people! I found myself loving stand-up a whole lot better the second time around.

erm

And this is how I feel about making a list of “best” records. The ones I know are the ones I’m going to rate highest. There are a lot of newer bands who I really like, such as The Hold Steady, Deer Tick, and Surfer Blood, but I don’t know if many/any of their CDs will make my list. It might seem ridiculous that Give the People What They Want gets placed higher than Astro Coast – critics may say the latter is the far superior album – but I’ve heard the former a million times, and the songs are burned (lovingly) into my brain! Give me twenty years of listening to Separation Sunday, and it might end up higher than Let Me Come Over on my list.

But my list is like life … it’s all who you know!

(By the way, when I went back to stand-up, Hutch eventually put me up on stage a few times!)

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