Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I've got a bunch more to say about Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, but today I'd rather talk about rock and roll. In particular, I have found myself spending a lot of time considering how surprised I have been with my own reaction to two albums that were released this fall: The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America & Boom Patrol, by the Slats.

I have been a big fan of the Hold Steady since my buddy Rob Sieracki burned me a copy of their first album, "Almost Killed Me." The Hold Steady's earlier incarnation, a band called Lifter Puller, is a deservedly legendary band, and Almost Killed Me struck me as an attempt to take some of the snide wittiness and riffage of Lifter Puller and apply that in the context of a kind of self-conscious classic rock motif. This album still knocks me out. At its best, it's downright hilararious, and the tunes benefit from a learned amalgamation of punk rock and early Springsteen. Their second album, Separation Sunday, was perhaps a bit too studied in its use of recurring characters and blues riffs, but I thought it was still an outstanding record.

This fall brought the third Hold Steady full-length, Boys and Girls in America. For the first time, the music, the lyrics, the timbre of the guitar, and the gestalt of the lp all strike me as underwhelming. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this record has also been the subject of numerous fawning profiles of the band in middle-brow publications from coast to coast. Like the White Stripes, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips, the Hold Steady are one of the small number of bands that folks in their mid-thirties are told it is okay to like. Why is it okay to like them? Because, we are told, they are smart, and mature, and did we mention they were smart?, and they use irony (hmmm...), and their song-writing involves a mature synthesis of elements we thirty-something folks should get: punk, classic rock, new wave, and more.

But there's a problem, I think. I think The Hold Steady have gotten so self-aware that they've actually gotten hung up on themselves. Whatever edginess they may have had--in the form of riffs or in the form of sarcasm/insight--seems to have been replaced with the dull sense that they're simply putting together a classic rock album with quotes around it. The whole record (title included) seems to say: "Hey, this is like a classic rock thing, and you should enjoy it in the same way the hipsters at a dive bar enjoy it when a Meatloaf song comes up on the jukebox." It reminds me of the 'wink, wink' sarcasm that tv commercials developed after Letterman made irony safe in the mid-1980s. There's irony IN this stuff, obviously. However, the irony is so toothless and self-referential that it fails to serve any aesthetic purpose besides self-aggrandisement (or, even worse, populist audience-aggrandisement). The irony OF this album is that, by assembling an album of tunes that constantly allude to hook-filled, riffy, bluesy, exciting rock music, the Hold Steady have created a record that is smoothed over and boring. They have taken a long walk off the surprisingly short pier of irony in rock. I know they're creative enough to do better in the future; I hope they do so.

If the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America is my disappointment of the year, the Slats' Boom Patrol is my most pleasant surprise of the year. Like the Hold Steady, the Slats attempt to be funny, and they make specific references to existing genres. On Boom Patrol, they seem more than ever to be embracing their goal to capture the specific sound of new wave music in 1981 (seriously: they specify 1981 as the year they want to sound like). And, of course, it's worth pointing out that few people seem to take the Slats seriously. Perhaps this is because there's little reason to take them seriously at all. They're a jokey band, with a simple approach: poppy, anthemic songs, usually with some kind of humorous slant. They're from Iowa City and Minneapolis, hardly the centers of the rock intelligentsia. At WMXM (the college radio station where I have a show), the Slats record came to us from a promotional company called Pirate, who are not regarded as a likely source of quality music. So, I started with pretty low expectations with the Slats.

But man, this Boom Patrol album brings it. The fun thing (for me, and for this little essay) is how Boom Patrol mirrors some of the tendencies on the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America. Both bands try to be funny, both quote pop music history, and both relate to the tradition of punk rock. But whereas the Hold Steady seem to have attempted to swallow a dinosaur in order to sound like dinosaur rock, the Slats manage on Boom Patrol to be cocksure in their simultaneous lampooning of and tribute to cock rock. A great example is the song "Call My Telephone," which has every single element of 1981 power pop that one could imagine. First of all: IT'S ACTUALLY ABOUT USING THE TELEPHONE. Strangely astute, this observation: pop songs in the early 1980s were very much hung up on (pardon the pun) telephony (cf. "Call Me," "867-5309," and plenty of songs by the Cars and the Romantics). Secondly, the song involves the structure of a carefully-crafted new wave song. The introduction is ridiculously involved, the call and response between lead singers and backup singers is utterly anthemic, and the blunt directness of the whole thing puts one in the mind of Gary Numan on one of his rare happy days.

What does all this tell us about punk, about irony, about rock? Perhaps not much. But still, I think we have in these two records a good contrast between music that attempts to coast on irony that increasingly isn't there (Boys and Girls in America) and music whose unpretentious sense of humor reminds us why wit and irony aren't such bad things after all (Boom Patrol).


Blogger Jeff Pooley said...

This is a smart post--and I have the same reaction to the irony-drenched, wink-nod posturing.

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the slats rule

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the slats rule

10:32 AM  
Blogger Titanarum said...

Man, you gots to read this if you haven't:

"Tad Kubler lets his inner Randy Bachman out to play, and then makes him use distortion instead of chorus. The rhythm section holds that shit the fuck down, and they are gonna keep that shit the fuck down, even if they have to be assholes about it. Meanwhile, the album’s publicity campaign makes rather a lot of pointing out that the rock you hear on this record, bursting as it is with somewhat malicious glee and indulgent regret, is not meant in an ironic way.

I can’t decide whether this overattention to the potential audience’s imagined reception is a necessary evil (since most critics, while they’re sketching out the one or two sentences that’ll serve as backstory in a review, take press kits at face value: which sad fact is enough to drive a man to strong drink) or just a consequence of Craig having moved to Williamsburg. I do think rather too much is made of “ironic appreciation”; I’m of the opinion that people who affect ironic postures are just trying real hard not to look overenthusiastic, since the betting line on overenthusiastic people ever getting laid is 8-1 against and getting worse all the time, and that sooner or later all ironic appreciators become genuine enthusiasts over the same things they were pretending to be ironic about. In the end none of this business will make any difference at all. Because the answer to the question about what the Hold Steady’s excellence means in light of everybody lately coming to the Craig-Finn-Is-Our-Own-Yeats party is this: it means that now that everybody’s finally here, we can really start to party in earnest."

8 to 1? Shit, more like 12 to 1.

11:22 PM  

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