It is perhaps a tad ironic that the last entry on “Twenty Pounds of Headlines” in 2008 does not come from me, but instead from my first guest blogger. As both a good friend and fellow pop-musicaphile, I have been asking Joe Master to contribute his thoughts on 2008’s music scene for some time now. And in between working blinding hours at his editor position for a medical trade publication in South Jersey, taking his dog Eppie for long, contemplative walks through Collingswood, and recently getting engaged, Joseph has finally thrown in his two cents. And I’m thrilled.
As a note, 2009 will feature many guest bloggers as “Twenty Pounds of Headlines” begins to move from mere blog to online magazine. If you’re interested in writing (about anything and everything…with the exception of cats) please let me know. In the meantime, enjoy Mr. Master’s ruminations.
Why Is Joe Master So Highly Suspicious? The Best and Worst of 2008:
By Joe Master
I have a few bones to pick with this year’s rock and roll a la mode. If you add all those bones together you might be able to fashion a spine, or at least a few vertebrae. But even then, the apparatus wouldn’t be able to carry half the weight Jim James carried in 2008.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no authority on well-endowed backbones. I once wrote a song called “Spineless Me.” I do, however, firmly believe that when dispensing titles like ”best” we should hold our fodder to the highest standards.
Like many of you, I listen to the selections on year-end lists hoping that I too can fall for ten albums that music critics got paid to fall for. But I rarely do. For instance, I don’t understand Animal Collective. Not even a little bit. In fact, Animal Collective makes me very uncomfortable.
So, it came as no surprise when most rock and roll literati chose not to favor My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges with a top ten nod. It came as even less of a surprise, though, when they chose to offer Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago their first-born children. And the one thing that makes me more uncomfortable than Animal Collective is the thought of Pitchfork critics procreating.
So, I’ll spare you my thoughts on Dear Science and Tha Carter III and I’ll try not to Google-search too many obscure details to disguise the fact that, like most of you (excluding our hero, Mr. DiUlio), I have no idea what I’m talking about. So, let’s get down to business…
Imagine yourself alone in a cottage with a guitar, some recording equipment and seasonal affective disorder. The snow is falling, the walls are shrinking and the drugs aren’t working. Doesn’t sound like a very good winter, does it?
Perhaps I am discouraged by Bon Iver’s misery. Or maybe I’m just coming down with the flu. For Emma not only made me sad; it put me to sleep. If I had been able to stay awake long enough to hear the line in “Skinny Love” about cutting the ropes I probably would have been impressed by the pathos. Ok. I lied. I was awake. I heard the line. It’s a great line.
However, For Emma is not a great album. At least not top 10 great. It is a hauntingly fragile, beautifully textured collection of songs patched together by a man who no doubt has a heart worth revisiting and a falsetto worth multitracking. But the scope of the narrative is towered by the hype. I mean, Mojo went as far as to proclaim: “isolation doesn’t get more splendid than this.”
What the hell does that even mean?
I really wanted to love For Emma. I wanted to bring it close, call it my own and connect with couplets like “only love is all maroon/gluey feathers on a flume,” but I just couldn’t. Especially after looking up flume in the dictionary and finding out that it is not a species of bird.
I get the point. It’s a cold-winter-day record, best played at low volumes beneath conversations with your intellectual friends—right? I dig the back-story, too. In fact, I dare say I find the Old Testament Bon Iver (Christian name: Justin Vernon) creation myth more compelling than the boring New Testament gospel.
Maybe I am just too painfully aware of all the ropes and pulleys. Maybe Blood On The Tracks ruined “break-up” albums for me years ago. But, after many repeat listens, I think I may have finally found an explanation for my apathy. I am supremely confident that if any of my closest consiglieri (Mr. DiUlio included) were to lock themselves in a cabin for a few months with Pro Tools and some instruments, they could produce a more dynamic, lyrically inviting, well-enunciated collection of tunes.
Retract those claws and minimize Pitchfork. Now, imagine yourself alone in that same Wisconsin cottage, just frowning away the day. Suddenly, there is a knock-knock-a-knocking at the door. Who could it be? Why…It’s Jim James. He says he’s here to help—that this is an intervention. Your mother probably sent him. So what does he do? He pulls up a milk crate, picks up your guitar and plays “I’m Amazed.”
When he is finished, he hands you the guitar and wishes you luck. He doesn’t have time to chat, he says, squinting at the horizon. He has to make it across the frozen river by sundown, or there will be hell to pay.
“Thank you, Jim James,” you say.
“It was my pleasure.”
As he vanishes down the river gorge it begins to snow, and you cry a little. What a beautiful winter, you think.
Now, I’m not saying that Jim James is some kind of musical deity. That would be ridiculous. But I’m not saying he isn’t from a different planet either. In fact, he probably is an alien. Either that or a soon-to-be Scientologist. But I have a confession to make: whether Evil Urges came from this world or the next, it is the year’s most promising, most beautifully crafted album.
More than any other record released in 2008, Evil Urges demands classification as a tour de force. From the brisk “Planet Telex” bass drum that opens the title track to the last hesitant breath of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2,” the album is equal parts interstellar tube-rock and subterranean bedrock. In fact, at one point—about three minutes and 40 seconds into the sublime “Smokin from Shootin”—James & Co. plug a pocket so perfectly that I swear you can hear the swish of two bodies fusing and shooting skyward, like lightening in reverse.
“Do you see my smokin’ guns?” James asks.
Yes. Yes I do.
Despite another depressing, yet less marketable back-story—apparently the band almost crumbled while recording the album in a somewhat larger cabin in Manhattan—the end result is uplifting and unabashedly inventive. Jim James may sing like Kermit The Frog, but he has no problem being green. In fact, he appears so comfortable in his own skin that he bears it all. “Oh! You really saw my naked heart,” he sings on “Thank You Too!”, a song that comes about as close to pop perfection as I’ve heard in a long time. Rarely does Rock and Roll stumble across a voice that has the kind of idiosyncratic, emotive power to pull off what could easily collapse into a tired cliché. Usually, those voices belong to weirdos. And weirdos often lead us on the very best adventures.
Evil Urges is an adventure. It traverses the mountains and valleys of Rock, R&B, Country, Funk and Psychadelia without fitting the mold of either; all the while driving forward with an unwavering confidence—would it be too bold to call it Obama-esque?—that somehow inspires a trust that sees us through any inconsistencies or odd right turns (and there are a few).
But some of those peculiar twists turn out to be the most memorable. I’ll even go as far as to assert that the devious giggles and falsetto squeal James unleashes toward the end of “Highly Suspicious” are the finest moments captured on record all year, both wickedly subversive and euphoric; everything Rock and Roll should be. Especially in crazy times like these.