Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side

Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side
June 14, 1994

From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?

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Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”

“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.

Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hellin 1987: Together Forever.

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Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.

Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.

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Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”

You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.

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The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.

And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.


Critical Democracy: Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, and Rob Harvilla on Pazz & Jop’s Past and Present

The four former Village Voice music editors who discussed this year’s results collectively oversaw Pazz & Jop for 37 (or 38) out of its 45 (or 46) years. Robert Christgau — music editor from 1974 to 1985, and a Voice senior editor until 2006 — is a columnist at Noisey, and his recent collection, Is It Still Good to Ya?was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in the criticism category. Ann Powers — music editor from 1994 to 1997 — is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music. Rob Harvilla — music editor from 2006 to 2011 — is a staff writer at the Ringer. They spoke with Joe Levy — music editor from 1989 to 1994 — about Pazz & Jop’s transition from graph paper to spreadsheets, its place in today’s year-end pageants, and its confirmation of the Musgraves–Monáe ticket.

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Let’s start with some history. How did Pazz & Jop start, and why don’t we know whether this is the 45th or 46th poll?

CHRISTGAU: I was a columnist at the Voice from 1969 until 1972. As an afterthought of one of my Consumer Guide columns at the end of 1971, I described a poll and asked people to vote. I assumed only critics would; in fact, a lot of non-critics voted. So I decided everybody is a critic, tabulated the whole thing, and it was the last thing I published before I moved on to Newsday, where I stayed for two and a half years. The Voice then asked me to be their music editor and we ran the first, or second, Pazz & Jop poll, which was invitation only, critics only. I think there were 26 participants that year, 1974, and it’s continued every year since. For a while we were over 500 voters.

In 1993 there were 309 respondents; in 2000 there were 586; the last couple of years it’s been around 400. And for those who remain perplexed, why is it called Pazz & Jop?

CHRISTGAU: Because the points system was borrowed whole from a magazine called Jazz & Pop, which was primarily a jazz magazine.

So, the resemblance to peanut butter and jelly was purely unintentional?

CHRISTGAU: I never thought of it until this second.

And there was a monthly Pazz & Jop report at some point in the Eighties?

CHRISTGAU: There was a Pazz & Jop Product Report in which ten critics listed ten records that they liked, which I gathered by hand Monday nights, most of it over the phone, once a month, and then added it up.

POWERS: The by-hand aspect of Pazz & Jop was maybe my favorite part of it, Bob: the pencils, the notation, sitting around in your apartment.

CHRISTGAU: Eric Weisbard computerized the thing in ’98 or ’99, telling us that it was all for the better, and I never fully believed it. But I used to do it all by hand on graph paper, writing down every vote, and in the top a little box of the graph putting a number so that I knew who would cast the vote. Each voter had a number —

POWERS: You didn’t do it all by yourself, Bob.

CHRISTGAU: No. I did it with the help of a Poohbah, usually the music editor. Tom Carson did it for a long time.

Doug Simmons served after Tom and before me. Ann, you did after. It entailed three or four days and nights of reading each ballot out loud, giving each voter a number, and watching Bob pull a pencil from a bouquet of freshly sharpened Faber No. 2s to make notes on the graph paper. Rob, by your tenure it was computerized?

HARVILLA: If I remember correctly my first year, 2006, was the first year where you had to vote online. Previous to that you could also phone it in or mail it in. Our tabulation method was this really harrowing Excel spreadsheet, with however many journalism majors trying to do math. One of the big innovations of my tenure was handing that part over to a guy named Glenn McDonald. He literally did in 15 seconds what I failed to over the course of a month. When I came in there were still traces of the very harrowing handmade journalism.

CHRISTGAU: I don’t think there’s anything harrowing about it, and I suspect I was quite fervent about letting people vote by mail if they wanted to.

Ann and Rob, before you worked at the Voice what was your interaction with Pazz & Jop?

POWERS: Pazz & Jop is a huge part of my story as a writer. Eric Weisbard — who we’ve mentioned, and who was my boyfriend and is now my husband, and who was also a music editor of the Voice — when we started hanging out together, we would read the Voice all the time. It was the gold standard for us. I was already a music writer on the West Coast, living in the Bay Area and working for the SF Weekly, and a little bit for the LA Weekly. I had a very West Coast vision of myself and of music writing, and I didn’t really think I could ever make a connection with New York. It just felt like another world. But Eric is from Queens, he had grown up on the Voice, and he convinced me this was not a faraway land of Oz. He encouraged me to submit comments to Pazz & Jop, and Bob took a big chunk of my comments and published them as one of the essays that year. And that was the linchpin of me going from being a Bay Area writer — and potential PhD student and professor — to being a music writer. Soon after that, Joe, you commissioned me to write my first actual Voice piece, and the rest is history.

HARVILLA: I can’t say that the Voice is something that I grew up with the way Ann did. I got my first Pazz & Jop ballot around 2000 or 2002. It was my first job out of college at an alt-weekly in Columbus, Ohio, called the Other Paper. I got the email from Bob one day. I don’t remember if it was a form letter, but it was written as an email from Bob, and I wrote back: “Thank you so much. I’m very honored. This is really cool. Can you tell me a little bit more about this project?” And Bob printed that as a comment: “Hey, this is really cool. What is this? — Rob Harvilla.”

POWERS: But you know what? That’s a funny story, but it also gets at the importance of Pazz & Jop. Because Pazz & Jop always welcomed Rob Harvilla from Columbus, Ohio. It always welcomed Ann Powers from Oakland, California. Any person at any daily newspaper, anyone really. That’s so different than, say, a Rolling Stone compendium, which was always the staff, or Billboard. That is democracy in action right there.

On that note, let’s talk about the results of this year’s poll. Women dominated the albums list.

CHRISTGAU: It’s certainly the first time ever that the top five artists have been women. I think in ’93 it was three out of five.

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In ’93 Liz Phair was at the top of the albums list, and it was the first time a woman had topped the poll since Joni Mitchell in 1974. The headline was “Pazz & Jop’s Fifth (or Sixth) Year of the Woman.” 

CHRISTGAU: Yes. Because whenever there was an uptick we would notice it. Liz Phair’s year is also just about coexistent with riot grrrl. And riot grrrl seems to me a crucial turning point. Even though there’s not many punk women in the poll, it was that cultural upheaval that created the extraordinary breadth and wealth of female artists, especially in the alt-rock world. Elsewhere, too — Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe are one and two; neither of them are alt-rock.  

POWERS: I think music can never be separated from other cultural developments. This was true in the counterculture and in the early Seventies, when Joni Mitchell and Carole King and Roberta Flack were topping the charts and women’s liberation was a huge movement. Great novels were being written by women, and films were being made, if not always by women, about women’s freedom, like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. A similar thing was happening in the Nineties: Feminism was reconstituting itself, there was the third wave, there was the sense of a new generation trying to figure out how liberation works for us. And so, while absolutely riot grrrl was crucial, I don’t want to say it was necessarily the prime force. Because I think it’s always a groundswell of movement from all over the vast American demographic that makes a moment like that happen.

Also, the mainstreaming of indie music in the Nineties really helped. Liz Phair was not only a very significant woman artist, she was an extremely significant indie artist, and the way that she came to the fore is really important. She had made these tapes on her own, essentially demos, which circulated in Chicago and made her reputation. I think then, just as now, you could look at the success of a lot of women, even when they’re on major labels, as being connected to the technology, the distribution, the shifting landscape of how we listen to music. So, it’s not just about gender or a moment for women, it’s also about openings and shifting in the culture of music in general.

How do we see that play out in Pazz & Jop?

POWERS: I’ll give you an example: Kacey Musgraves is a major-label artist. She made her first splash as a slightly left-of-center country artist making music that would fit on country radio, although it seems that any man who walks into a studio in Nashville can get played on country radio before a great woman can. But Kacey started her career basically in mainstream country. She gained a following. She became emblematic of a new generation. But she still couldn’t get played on country radio. So with Golden Hour she decided to step outside making a record that would be played on country radio. She worked with these two producers, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, in East Nashville, where I live, to make a record that didn’t sound like what you’re hearing within the mainstream. It still connects to country, but I think it’s fair to say it is not strictly or merely a country album.

I would say it’s barely a country album.

CHRISTGAU: The sonic signature is the keyboard, not steel guitar or the pseudo-rock of the Luke Bryan types.

POWERS: Exactly. My point is that she could make that record because she knew that even if she didn’t get played on country radio, she could still reach her audience. She could still make a mark. And that has to do with the different realities that exist because of streaming and the different ways music is received by a younger generation now.

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Musgraves and Janelle Monáe were the album winners by a wide margin. Musgraves had 1155 points, with Monáe just 100 behind. And then we take a big 400-point drop to Cardi B and Mitski, who are tied. Why are Kacey and Janelle the runaway winners this year?

HARVILLA: I happened to see Kacey Musgraves live just a few days ago here in Columbus. Two thousand people at a sold-out club. There were a lot of young women, but there were also a lot of bearded dudes like myself. The easiest way to encapsulate her appeal is she covers Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” but she also covers “I Will Survive.” She played every single song off Golden Hour, including the one where she was on acid and talking about her mother for like 90 seconds. Ordinarily in a situation like that the crowd is clamoring for the hits — and she played “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ’Round” off the first record, maybe one or two songs off the second — but it was entirely focused on Golden Hour. And people loved it. They were singing along to every word in polar-vortex Ohio in January. It’s an incredibly heartening thing to see her dominating this poll season. But to be with that many people at a live show in a hostile environment and to have it be this warm and thrilling and totally engaged thing about someone playing their entire new record in full — you don’t see that very often. It was awesome.

POWERS: Well, I had the same experience seeing Janelle Monáe here in Nashville at the Ryman, the mother church of country music. A whole different Nashville emerged. The audience was mostly black, it was very proudly LGBTQ, young, old, alternative, bohemian. And again, as you were saying, Rob, while Janelle did play some of her older favorites, her show was very conceptual, very strongly focused on the narrative aspects of Dirty Computer. Janelle is always creating visuals to go along with her music, and she made what she calls an emotion picture to go along with Dirty Computer. She’s really a multimedia artist. And I think that leads to a very important thing, which is for all of the talk of the album being dead, I think Pazz & Jop this year represents how the album is very much alive, especially in the hands of women.

Now, there’s a historical argument to be made that when technologies are changing, people who have been excluded from the dominant technologies or marginalized can emerge or re-emerge and take hold. So maybe one thing that’s happening is the supposedly dead album, well, women are like, “It’s not dead. We’re still going to make amazing, cohesive, coherent albums. We’re going to offer a chance to sync into a story, or multiple stories, all connected to our audience.” And people are loving it. Mitski, Robyn, Noname, Lucy Dacus — these are all records you want to sit and spend time with, project yourself into, and be seen and heard by.

The resurgence of the album — particularly the concept album — is most clearly defined by hip-hop artists, and goes back to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The rise of the hip-hop album coincided with the rise of streaming, with artists responding with albums strong enough that people don’t just come for one track but stay for twelve — or in the case of Migos, fifty-seven. And it’s something we see reflected in Pazz & Jop this year — albums like Dirty Computer, Golden Hour, Be the Cowboy, Honey, and Invasion of Privacy are conceptual in nature. They have either a narrative or an emotional through line.

CHRISTGAU: And a musical through line, too — Cardi B, especially. She made a bunch of mixtapes, and I doggedly listened to them trying to see how good they were. They certainly aren’t awful, but the difference is amazing. She’s said she really wanted to make an album. And her mixtapes are hodgepodges, but Invasion of Privacy just has this power that doesn’t stop.

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Well, Cardi got robbed. “I Like It” should have topped the singles list.

CHRISTGAU: I would like to say something else about the album, which has been true for a long time: If you’re an active musician, one of the things you’re going to be doing is writing songs. God knows there’s lots of people who ride their catalog — I hear the Pixies are having a completely boring tour doing precisely that — but what I’ve been finding for many years is older artists putting songs together. And my discovery of the year is a doctor from Chicago named Rich Krueger who quit music to become a neonatologist. And he started making albums again, with these old songs and new songs he had been writing. The albums are called Life Ain’t That Long and Nowthen and they were my number six and fourteen albums of the year. Similarly, this wonderful guitar player named John Kruth — every once in a while he sits down and he makes an album. He’s got enough songs, and he did it again this year. And Willie Nelson made an album called Last Man Standing; he’s 85 years old, there’s not a bad song on that record.

POWERS: He’s made I don’t know how many albums in the past three years. Five?

CHRISTGAU: At least. And they’re all pretty good, but that one is astonishing.

POWERS: I completely agree. Sometimes I think that people over 70 are the most interesting artists. David Crosby made a great record.


POWERS: He made my list.

CHRISTGAU: No kidding?

POWERS: He’s competing with people half his age. It’s a fantastic record. He’s totally rejuvenated. Again, I think that the shift toward a different way of making music and getting music out there allows for these older artists just as it allows for women who might not have felt they had that access.

But what do you all think about the fact that the album is becoming a more multimedia form? I’m thinking about someone who is a little lower down on the Pazz & Jop album list, Tierra Whack. She made an album of very, very short songs inextricably connected to her video work. The fact that YouTube is the number one way that young people get music has changed the relationship between music and visuals. That’s one reason why Janelle Monáe can have this moment — because she’s been doing that for ten years. Finally technology has caught up to her, and to people like Tierra Whack and others, who are making whole work that goes beyond what we think of an album as being.

CHRISTGAU: I really prefer to listen to music than to watch it. Although in the case of Tierra Whack, it was watching the videos that convinced me to listen a little harder to the album and then say, “Hey, this is pretty good.” In the end I got to like that record so much that it ended up in my Top 10, and I now prefer the album to the videos. The videos were great the first time, not so great the second time, which is the way it is with visual information.

I’ve always been a skeptic about Janelle Monáe on record. I saw her live only once, in Denmark, and she was fantastic. But I’ve always felt she was kind of a thin singer, and I still do. I like this record much more than any of her others and I think it’s really good. But it’s not as good as Cardi B. It’s smarter, but not as strong.

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It’s a record I came to connect with while out of the country for a few weeks. It was one of the few things that made me miss America. How do you feel the place of Pazz & Jop has changed in an era where there are more and more year-end lists, and year-end list season seems to start earlier and earlier?

CHRISTGAU: The thing that bothers me about many magazine lists is that they are self-branding exercises. I think it ought to finally be about some combination of pleasure and satisfaction, aesthetic satisfaction, and I think a lot of people don’t do that. They try to make a list that they think represents them in a way they want to be represented in public. What I always try to persuade people to do, and what I really try very hard to do, is to ask which of these records do I like the most? Which one gives me the most pleasure? Whatever its appearance, whatever it says about politics — I mean, Superchunk made a terrific political record and I was really crazy about it. But when I sat down at the end of the year and played it I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much as the Pistol Annies or Bettye LaVette.

POWERS: To me Pazz & Jop is the final word. It’s the summation.

HARVILLA: But part of that story is the music editors who have been shepherding the Voice and Pazz & Jop in the last decade. Maura Johnston came after me; she had her own crew and a really smart popcentric approach. She and Brian McManus and Hilary Hughes — to keep this poll going and to keep it in the public eye in the past ten years, when the whole year-end list season has become decentralized, it’s really impressive.

There is a guy named Rob Mitchum. He used to write for Pitchfork, but he’s been doing a thing for five or six years now where he aggregates all the individual lists — all the publications and websites — in a hellacious Excel chart that he has a mastery over. He’s tracking it in real time, starting from right around Thanksgiving. He pulls everybody’s year-end list, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone on down. Everyone wants to do their year-end lists earlier now; it’s an arms race for sure. To watch Rob Mitchum’s tabulations as each new publication comes in and to see the pattern emerge, it demystifies things. You could definitely predict the Top 5 of Pazz & Jop or the Uproxx poll. The application of data to this process basically tells you what’s going to happen before it happens. And there are so many publications now. But it’s heartening to still see Pazz & Jop as the definitive end of it.

POWERS: Those of us who work hard on lists for our own home bases, we would all agree that in each case we have our own processes, we have our own teams, our own groups of thinkers, our own concerns about what our lists look like. I mean, when NPR’s albums list this year came up almost all women in the Top 20, that wasn’t planned, but it was a reflection of the entire year, our process as a group thinking about gender, thinking about how it relates to music. And I think in each case that individual process defines your list.

But with Pazz & Jop I bring a different mind-set to it. I am thinking about the larger community of music writers. And I care about the larger community of music writers a lot. I want us to have a home to be together, and that’s what Pazz & Jop gives us. And so, the fact that this poll still lives, it makes me feel like I still have a bigger home.


Keep Breathing and Master Your Reality Through Meditation

That upside-down feeling? The perpetual sense of impending doom? If the Age of Trump has fried your circuits, Lodro Rinzler — author of The Buddha Walks Into a Bar and other spiritual practice guides and co-founder of the Greenwich Village meditation studio MNDFL — wants you to know you’re not alone. “We have a lot of people come here motivated by fear, anxiety around this particular issue,” says Rinzler, who’s been a meditation teacher for sixteen years. As if in response, MNDFL has just opened an Upper East Side location, with a Williamsburg spot soon to follow. If you’re one of the stressed-out New Yorkers Rinzler calls “medi-curious,” dropping in for a first class costs just $10.

People woke up on November 9 with a grinding anxiety, like they were trapped in an endless Black Sabbath song.

People really feel heartbroken, essentially. Heartbroken, for lack of a better explanation, is when you have an expectation of how things are going to go and then reality steps in and says no, and your expectations are dashed to the wind. Now you’re heartbroken — and that includes feeling depressed and angry and frustrated and betrayed and the myriad emotions that I was certainly feeling and I think other people were feeling.  

What’s the simplest thing someone can do to calm those feelings?

When we get stuck in worry, sometimes the simplest thing is to just stop, raise your gaze or close your eyes, and take three deep breaths in through the nose, then out through the mouth. Just pausing and doing that actually calms the nervous system and allows us to come back to a point where we may be able to think of things a little bit more differently.

The millionth time we’re playing out a potential situation we might ask ourselves: “Is this useful? Is me sitting here on my own worrying about something that may or may not come to reality useful?” The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dilgo Khyentse once said that he never understood why us Westerners worry so much. If we worry about something and it doesn’t happen, we spent all of the mental energy for something that wasn’t reality. And if it does happen, what was the point in worrying? Because you didn’t do anything, and it still happened.

We get so lost in worry as opposed to saying, “OK, I can drop the storyline for a moment to come into my body and just notice what’s coming up.” Just feel the emotions for what they are. We can say, “Oh, there’s heartbreak. It feels like a sinking in the pit of my stomach and tightness in my shoulders and deep lethargy.” Starting to become familiar with the underlying emotions, we might actually see action that we want to take. But it’s not based in worry and neurosis. It’s based on our own wisdom, because we’re actually a little bit more embodied.

So meditation can help people move to action?

A lot of people come to a place like MNDFL with the idea that they’re suffering. The more familiar that they get with their own suffering, neurosis, pain, strong emotions, the more they start to see that in everyone else around them. So it’s no longer, “I’m a really angry or upset person and I’m in a bubble.” It’s, “I’m going about my day and I notice my co-worker is really upset and angry.” And all of a sudden it’s not me versus him, it’s an empathetic thing. It’s we.

Then step one is get grounded, take a breath, get in touch with me. Step two is get to we.

Exactly. People need to find out their own skillful means for how they would like to show up in what seems like a radically altered societal norm. That’s going to look different for everyone. It might mean giving to charities. It might mean donating your time. It might mean quitting your job and sitting in front of the White House and protesting for the next year. So long as it comes from a place of self-awareness it’s all super helpful. But when we’re talking about coming to the point of “we” it’s like: What’s our intention? If our intention is to force anyone into our point of view we may end up disappointed. But if our intention is to actually connect and understand others and try to effect change from a place of wholeness and compassion, then we might have a shot at changing minds and hearts.

MNDFL, 10 East 8th Street; 239 East 60th Street;


Second-Generation Punks

Richie James Follin—who leads the Willowz from behind a curtain of straight, brown, past-the-shoulders hair that would not have seemed out of place on David Cassidy of the Partridge Family in 1974 or Steven McDonald of Redd Kross in 1984—is a second-generation punk. His mom, Heidi—also the Willowz’ manager—was Dee Dee Ramone’s art dealer, and long ago dated Henry Rollins. His stepfather, Paul Kostabi—also the Willowz’ producer, and brother of noted painter Mark—did time in an early version of White Zombie and collaborated with Dee Dee on both music and canvases. For the record, Paul’s style bristles with the rough energy of Basquiat, while Dee Dee’s is, naturally, more cartoony.

The Willowz Are Coming—a half-hour debut album released last year, and recorded in a garage when the band were still a three-piece and still in their teens—is raw, gleeful, and full of the unrestrained joy of a group suddenly realizing that the world is a paper bag and their instruments a way of tearing it to shreds, as in “Something,” which Michel Gondry picked for the soundtrack of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Early punk bands come to mind, bands that made a sound out of their love of what they did, amateurs and professionals playing amateurs: X-Ray Spex, Kleenex, the Germs. But punk is only part of the Willowz’ heritage. From the start, their sound spreads out. Their songs are as much shapes as tunes, short but not easily summarized. This is not the sound of a style or a time. It’s more the sound of a place: the sprawl of suburban Los Angeles, where they grew up. Orange County, Anaheim to be precise. Strip malls, middle-class subdivisions, Disneyland. A world where the past is not more than a generation deep, the present is ever expanding, and the future is permanently under construction.

On the new, hour-long Talk in Circles, styles flash by like signs along the road: glitter, boogie, ’60s pop, overheated garage r&b, short metallic eruptions, gentle acoustic rambles. The songs sketch thwarted desires and grand ambitions, often in fractured language that seems half lyric, half journal-spill. The Willowz are now a four-piece, and only drummer Alex Nowicki remains in his teens. Their music is no longer wobbly—detailed guitar fills and buried keyboard countermelodies have found their way in. Yet the spirit of spontaneous invention remains. When Follin yowls his way up from underneath a note, the Willowz sound almost as hungry as the New York Dolls looking for a kiss or a hook, whichever can be found first.

So what is it like to be one of America’s most promising young bands? Some nights it is like this: You look out from beneath a curtain of straight, brown, past-the-shoulders hair at a sparse crowd that peaks at about 60, many of them not paying customers, six of them there to document the show. This was the picture at Southpaw a few Fridays ago, though to be fair, it was the Willowz’ fifth area gig in a week, and bassist Jessica Reynoza was sick. They played 10 songs, half of which achieved miraculous liftoff, one of which was a cover that nodded to their L.A. roots (Love’s “My Flash on You”), and one of which turned into a jam with trumpet and timbale. At the end of 30 minutes, Follin thanked us politely for paying attention. If you aren’t, you really ought to be. They’re desperate and exuberant at the same time, one of rock & roll’s greatest tricks, and chances are they’re only going to get more desperate and exuberant as life throws them for a loop or throws them a party, as the case may be.


Maneuvers in the Dark

Well, first off, it’s not bad, but before we get to that, full disclosure: I know the guy pretty well. Not as well as lots of other downtown folks, but somewhere there are photos of the two of us waltzing arm in arm at a friend’s wedding held at a restaurant that used to be on top of one of the two towers that no longer stand at the base of Manhattan. But I digress.

So to get right to the point: two CDs, one of dreamy keyboard-heavy dance rock that would have sounded excellent on the soundtrack of that late-’80s John Hughes movie where Molly Ringwald played a stripper (never actually released anywhere except inside my head), the other of techno-pastoral instrumentals, also keyboard-heavy. Disc one has blues-gone-glam guitar, not many dance beats, and was played on instruments, not sampled, though it isn’t all that different from his computer music, go figure. Disc two is computer music. Together they’re called Hotel, and are for sale in the minibars and gift shops of 21 W hotels in North America. (Perfect tie-in: Turn the W upside down and it’s an M.) The liner notes invoke our transient state as tourists in this earthly world, not that you’d know about it from listening to the songs, which stop at suggesting that relationships are the kind of thing Moby checks in and out of. But first thing you’ll notice: This is the kind of music they play in the lobbies of boutique hotels. Sexy, mysterioso, murky but precise, full of a curiously heavy uplift, like Red Bull and vodka. Makes me want to have a drink and fuck. Especially when the girl sings.

About the girl: She’s named Laura Dawn, provides backup throughout, gets two duets and two leads, the first of which is a chanteusey cover of New Order’s “Temptation” that’s been shot full of muscle relaxant. Best thing on the record. Four tracks later, she’s pretending she’s a couple of seconds away from a very stoned and very convincing orgasm on “I Like It.” Second best thing on the album. Third best? Wistful electro-ballad “Dream About Me.” Guess who sings on it.

Thing is: I’m not so sure it’s a good sign when someone else’s songs and someone else’s vocals are the best things on your album, even if your all-time classic is essentially built from other people’s songs and vocals. Hotel asks the same question as Moby’s last record, 18: Is it OK for a major artist to make a minor album? About half of Bob Dylan’s catalog says yes; about two-thirds of David Bowie’s says no. Before you point out that both of those artists are more major than Moby (and that in the case of Bowie, we’re not talking minor albums, we’re talking mediocre ones, a major risk with a minor album), let me remind you of the remarkable string of messy and messianic albums that led up to the quite major Play, which he has now followed with not one but two modest recaps, the first of Play, this one of the robo-disco he grew up on: Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Impeccably made, hedonistic, lovelorn, catchy, compelling. But spiritual, messianic, visionary? Not by a long shot.

So: Hate on him if you want. Me, I say visionary every time out is a rube’s dream, and not only that, your dream is demanding, rube. I enjoy minor every bit as much as visionary, sometimes more. Oh, and the ambient disc? Textural more than compositional, Eno with Vangelis dreams. Convincing when it manages to evoke a beat, otherwise good for a massage. But definitely the “aural Xanax” its creator intends. I’d take it with me the next time I check into a hotel. Unless it’s already there.


Buried Love

Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay has a dry voice and an even drier wit. Barzelay was born in Israel, raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, and did time studying jazz at Berklee before dropping out to start a noise-rock band named for the talking asshole in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. When he settled in Brooklyn, the noise stopped, but the name stayed.

He’s long been one of New York’s most underappreciated songwriters: a lanky fellow in a thrift store suit and horn-rim glasses sending hesitant melodies skyward from a Gibson hollow-body, melodies that deploy the open spaces of 1950s country, rock & roll, and cha-cha-cha for their own modern and often devious ends. Think of Lou Reed singing Buddy Holly songs, though that may just be the combination of the voice and the glasses. Barzelay’s songs return again and again to love and hostility and the paper-thin walls between the two, and his lyrics are graced by an ambiguity too complex to be called irony. He once built an entire song out of four minutes of gradually cresting acoustic and electric guitar, cello, glockenspiel, horns, banjo, and drums that culminated in the single unrhymed couplet “You’re so evil and I’m so good. I’ll make it up to you some day.” That was around the time he got married.

To be fair to the man, the album that followed his marriage and the birth of his son was full of love songs and called Soft Spot. And just the same, one of the prettiest things on it, about sipping iced tea and listening to Al Green, begins, “I buried our love in the backyard.” Weird, even if it is about letting love grow and blossom. Point is, the man knows how complicated, rewarding, and full of contradictions romance is. And his songs are just the same: I’ve listened to them for months before a lyric gave up a joke that was never meant to be entirely private.

Anyway, last year he moved with his wife and son down to Nashville, so we can no longer claim him as one of our own. He leaves us a parting gift: End of Love, recorded in Brooklyn and Nashville. It’s more guitar-focused, closer to rock than Clem Snide has come before, with feedback-filled solos mixed off in the distance. But it remains delicate and strange, city music with a big backyard. And when it’s hushed, it’s nearly weightless, the floating sound shoring up the dream logic of the lyrics: “A hundred thousand naked women running on the beach/In such a state of wild abandon they ignore my speech/About the ebb and flow/A dangerous undertow/And how there is a hole so deep it swallows up the sun.” About that hole: Both Eef and his wife lost their moms last year, and I suspect the endings—sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes quiet—that frequently turn up on End of Love reflect just this.

I want to tell you that the center of the album isn’t those endings, it’s the love. But it’s both. This is a dark record, with bad dreams and domestic disputes and nights spent on the couch watching a made-for-TV movie. The movie, by the way, is about how Ricky beat Lucy, or at least that’s what Barzelay imagines, since “they would never make a movie if everything was great/Because happiness is boring/It’s always black and white/ And the good times never last/And the chocolates move too fast for us all.” Reminds me of a Frank O’Hara poem about not going to his aunt’s funeral where he says, “There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy/but you can’t miss even a day of it, because it doesn’t last.” That’s the sound of End of Love: trying to hold on to what you have, knowing you won’t always be able to. It’s sweet and sad and frequently hilarious. Let’s hope he’s happy down in Nashville.

Clem Snide will perform at the Bowery Ballroom March 5.


In From The Cold

The story the Arcade Fire tell on Funeral starts in the middle, in mid-sentence, a sign that the story is bigger than the music, began before it, and will continue after it. Maybe it is the middle of the night. Certainly the music seems to have just woken up. It floats in from far away: some strings, then fingers wandering across piano keys, looking for the way, before an electric guitar—distant and buzzing through a wide, empty space—clears the way for Win Butler. He is alone in a world of darkness and winter, talking about what he’s seen and how it feels: ” . . . and if the snow buries my, my neighborhood/And if my parents are crying, then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.”

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” may be a dream, or it may be the reality of winter in Montreal, where it can snow six months a year, and where underground tunnels connect downtown. As the music heats up, what comes next is part fairy tale, part parable: a girl climbs out her chimney, meets Butler in the center of the city. They let their hair grow long, they live in the snow, their skin gets thick. She is the golden hymn in his head, the song he’s been reaching for. They have babies but have forgotten how to name them. Instead, they have only memories, the memories of the bedrooms of those who are gone: parents, friends, the image of those bedrooms in their minds, clear as can be.

Funeral is a remarkable record, hard to hear at first, then hard to stop hearing. It is an indie-rock cause célèbre, fiercely praised, defended, and protected, most visibly by the impassioned bloggers who are transfixed by both the disarming sincerity of the record’s artistic ambitions and the septet’s wild live shows—neither unusual in indie land—and Funeral‘s backstory, which is.

In the time leading up to its release, the band members lost two grandparents and an aunt. They found themselves constantly at memorial services, and then they found that their songs were a way to transmute their grief. Funeral returns continually to death—even the album closer, about looking out at the countryside from the backseat of a car—but also to religion, love, babies, kids playing in the snow, and community.

The music—mostly recorded at Hotel2Tango, a proudly analog studio in Montreal’s former Jewish ghetto that gave Funeral‘s songs living, breathing presence—is as emotionally unfettered as it is carefully constructed. It reaches back to ’80s bands like the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Violent Femmes, and Jane’s Addiction, who strummed their way through catharsis after catharsis, a sound that has become in recent years a new classicism. The Arcade Fire stretch that sound until it is both older and newer, shading it with the gloom of folk songs and the yowling urgency of indie rock. Arcade Fire songs are often called “operatic,” possibly because they are full of old-world touches like violin, viola, accordion, and xylophone, and possibly because they can be oddly decentered, swelling and shifting with an oceanic pulse, spreading out as far as the eye can see, then leaping into furious rock codas at will. The vocal melodies tend toward chants, yelps, and incantations.

As much as the talk about death and bad weather and the darkness being chased away by light that pours out of our eyes, our hearts, our hands, what gives the Arcade Fire their singular charge is that they practice what they preach: family and community. Butler, a former religious-studies major, married singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne last August, a month before Funeral was released. Butler’s younger brother, Will, plays bass. In a way that every band can, the Arcade Fire provide a community for their fans, who can find in both the album packaging—quaint illustrations that evoke the 19th century—and in lyrics like “there’s some spirit I used to know, that’s been drowned out by the radio” typical indie invocations of the homespun and the handmade as ways of fighting off alienation. But the Arcade Fire also offer something deeper: an example of how to navigate the complexities, good and bad, that life inevitably throws at you as you get older. Death. Marriage. Children. A way of making a future. Not an easy one. “If the children don’t grow up,” cries Butler on Funeral‘s anthemic “Wake Up,” “our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” He sounds so wide open to his pain he could be John Lennon circa Plastic Ono Band, finally acknowledging that his fans were in effect his own kids.

The Arcade Fire play Webster Hall February 1 and Irving Plaza February 2.


Put It All Down

“I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way,” the poet John Ashbery wrote in 1972. “And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” For 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, Pavement made music that lived in this gap of poetic indeterminacy—the gap, as Lou Reed put it, between thought and expression. They were the most consistent band of the ’90s, transmuting the noise and chaos of scenemakers like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. into glamour and melody, and restoring lyrical romanticism to an indie-rock world that had learned to feed on its own disillusionment. Few bands were funnier, or better, at describing their own sound in song, always better than the critics they loved to hoodwink: “electricity and lust,” “tricks are everything,” “style for miles and miles/so much style that it’s wasted,” “Can you treat it like an oil well/When it’s underground, out of sight?” “a special new band.”

In 2002, Matador expanded Pavement’s debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, into a double CD encompassing the Watery Domestic EP, B-sides, one-offs, Peel sessions, and a widely bootlegged live show. At this point in their development they could do no wrong, and having this material together in one place only makes that clearer. The music—the title goes a long way toward describing the sound—takes shape around singer-guitarist Steven Malkmus, much of it in overdubs that allowed for what partner Scott Kannberg calls “happy accidents.” Malkmus seems to be finding his way through these songs for the first time, using his voice and guitar to navigate. Almost 13 years later, the sense of discovery, of exploration, remains overwhelming.

Now comes a similar reissue of 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that includes a disc of material that has never even been bootlegged. It’s less compelling, but still fascinating. By this time, the music was no longer taking shape around Malkmus; now Malkmus was calling it forth, directing it, dictating the form. Pavement is in transition here—CRCR is a California album recorded on 32nd Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. These songs are products of skill, not accident, and the previously unreleased tracks document a band learning how to turn one into the other. Eight come from aborted sessions at original drummer Gary Young’s studio in Stockton, California. Young was drinking so much they could only work in the morning, and it shows—the sound is a little bleary-eyed. Most of the vocals seem to be scratch takes where Malkmus has yet to find either melody or lyric.

Still, as the sessions continue in New York with a new drummer, you can hear how he used his habit of making lyrics up at the mic to map his unconscious, and how much power the music draws from just that. The sloppy off-the-cuff jokes (“I never had any children. . . . Maybe I’d like to fuck a woman and make one/But I don’t know if I should because I don’t have a real steady job”) make it plain that his great subject was a longing for love and domesticity at war with the bohemian pull of poetry, art, and rock & roll. So much for his much-bruited lyrical opacity. And though only a few of the bonus tracks are must-hears, including “Fucking Righteous,” a jam as in-the-red as the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” or “Sister Ray,” pleasures and surprises abound. It’s the sound of a great band gaining ambition, confidence, ability. Soon Pavement will take some of these first-draft songs on the road, and eventually they’ll recut them for their masterpiece, Wowee Zowee.

Put it all down or leave it all out. Malkmus—an Ashbery fan—knew there was no hope of truly doing either. So he went for songs that attempted both at once. In the gap this created, music and listeners could talk to each other, define each other. They still can.


Or Give Me Death

On the cover of the Libertines’ self-titled second album, singer-guitarists Carl Barât and Pete Doherty sit shoulder-to-shoulder displaying their tattoos of the band’s name. Barât’s is on his left bicep, Doherty’s on his left forearm, just below the crook of the elbow, a fine place for a needle. They’re in a pub outside London on October 8, 2003, after a show celebrating Doherty’s release from prison, where he had served one month for burgling Barât’s apartment, presumably to finance his heroin and crack habit. Two final details tell the rest: beneath Doherty’s Libertines tattoo is a skull-and-crossbones, for a rock ‘n’ roll pirate is he to the death. And though you can’t see it in the cropped picture on the booklet, just off to the right an unidentified man thrusts his arms into the frame. He has written “Pete” and “Carl” across the knuckles of each hand, like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter with love and hate etched on his fists.

Such is the sad state of one of current rock & roll’s best bands, stuck in mud and myth. Their music is as raw as a freshly skinned knee: decades worth of British melody-craft riding bursts of densely clotted guitar noise. Their 2002 debut, Up the Bracket, recorded after five years of Barât and Doherty living together in London squats, drew frequent comparisons to the Strokes and the Clash, whose Mick Jones produced. Yet the Strokes are more sober, at least in the studio, and the Clash more original. The Libertines invoked the history of punk as deliberately as the New York Dolls swiped lyrics and a producer from the Shangri-Las. One song was called “The Boy Looked at Johnny” and the chorus of another went, “please kill me/oh no, don’t kill me.” The longer you listened, the more the music gave up: ’60s garage, skiffle, music-hall, glam, le jazz hot, hardcore loud-hard-fast, acoustic rambles, maximum r&b. At the band’s U.S. gigs, Barât and Doherty fell all over the stage and each other as though they’d studied the choreographed erotic tension of the great battling lovers of years gone by: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell.

But soon enough Doherty’s habit was too much. The band was playing gigs without him and he was crawling in Barât’s window. The two of them sing about it on the lead cut of The Libertines, “Can’t Stand Me Now”: “Your light fingers through the dark,” says Barât, “that shattered the lamp and into darkness cast us,” to which Doherty replies, “No, you’ve got it wrong way round/You shut me up and blamed it on the brown.” Almost every song chronicles doomed love: Barât and Doherty’s for each other, and Doherty’s for the poisons he uses to heat and cool his brain. As for the music, gone are the skintight arrangements of Up the Bracket. The Libertines occasionally falls back on ready-made blues, and several songs drift off into jammy puddles. The underrated rhythm section is always ready at the rescue, but throughout the Libertines sound surprised to find themselves alive after a seven-day weekend. Too loose to be called shattered, this music fights for its own existence second-by-second; it brings to mind the slovenly mid-’70s Stones trying to play the repertoire of the bright-eyed early-’60s Stones. Of course it’s exhilarating, an argument to keep going. But it’s also deeply disquieting, crammed with a junkie’s self-mythologizing confessions.

The Libertines soldier on. An August show at the Bowery Ballroom with Bostonite Anthony Rossamondo replacing Doherty on guitar was full of swing and slop; an October 13 stop at Webster Hall was brutal, with tempos and volume pushed to a frenzied, thrashing screech. It was efficient, devastating, and empty of romance. And who can imagine how Barât feels singing the line from “The Saga” that goes, “Only fools, vultures and undertakers will have any time for you.” As for Doherty, he had a top 10 U.K. single called “For Lovers,” recorded with his running buddy Wolfman. And he’s been playing gigs with his band Babyshambles to scare up drug money. Go to to see photos of Doherty smoking crack and to to find band graphics that feature needles and blood. More recent pictures show Doherty with black tunnels where once he had eyes. He is a true believer whose dream of a life of pure art and freedom, far outside the laws of reason and convention, is no longer sustainable. The brown powder allows him to dream when he’s awake, if that’s what you can call it. Barât has said there are only two ways for this story to end. But the more time goes by, the more there seems to be only one.


Accidentally on Purpose

Born in 1980 in Omaha, Nebraska, Conor Oberst has been recording since age 13, and has already released seven CDs documenting his prodigious lyricism, egregious pessimism, indiscriminate romanticism, and passionate belief that his self-inflicted darkness can be chased away, or at least held at bay, by guitars and four-track tape machines, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll go back to “drinking like the way I drank before.” He’s like that, Conor is. Long-winded, in a rush, exhaling lyric after lyric with little regard for meter, rhyme, or artistic decorum. Self-expression above all. And Lord, can this boy express himself.

Four of his records are with a mix-and-match band called Bright Eyes, one with the fine and yowling Desaparecidos, and two with his first band, Commander Venus. There are also several Bright Eyes EPs and a split album of orchestral pop with a sideman’s band, Son, Ambulance, who sound slightly less lacerated by life’s ordinary ups and downs than Oberst, and who prove that the tradition of Gilbert O’Sullivan remains alive and well in the Midwest. In short, enough music to provide a soundtrack to an entire life, which is just the impression that Oberst wants to give: his every experience and feeling documented, and you are there. This would be tedious stuff without talent, but Oberst has rare gifts. For one thing, an absolutely unerring sense of the dramatic.

His vocals are always raw, on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough; as a songwriter, he leans on pregnant pauses that explode his tunes forward and saturate his simplest acoustic strummings with a dark pageantry worthy of Joy Division, or at least Echo and the Bunnymen. His narrative voice constantly edges toward the prophetic, which is perhaps the legacy of a childhood spent in Catholic school, and certainly the cause of the usual misguided Dylan comparisons. Oberst, though, cares nothing for the blues and lacks Dylan’s studied timelessness. He is all about capturing the moment. His songs unfold as carefully planned accidents.

Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground collects his finest accidents yet. The music is scored for guitar, banjo, dulcimer, oboe, flute, violin, cello, French horn, trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and what sounds like a gurgling bong; “Can I get a goddamn timpani roll?” Oberst asks at the start of the final song, “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved).” Some tracks are nothing more than scratches of guitar; others are inebriated country waltzes; one attempts a funk beat and, in the course of pondering the efficacy of desperate after-show sex, offers up the immortal line, “Your tongue in my mouth/ Trying to keep the words from coming out.”

Onstage at Irving Plaza September 20, it took a 14-piece band of multi-instrumentalists to reanimate Lifted‘s expansive arrangements. The music was ragged when it wanted to be, precise when it needed to be, with three drummers and a woodwind section that filled the air with delicate ’60s pop colors. At times, you felt you were in the room with the most ambitious and spirited band indie-rock has ever seen; at other times, it had the disarming intimacy of a high school band recital.

Bright Eyes albums are nothing if not obsessive—on two different records Oberst recalls that first kiss in attic, and the same summer rooftop party pops up more than once as well. But Lifted is different. Not a single song sounds like it was written and recorded in a closet, and while every lyric retains the air of impossibly direct confession, Oberst’s world now seems larger, populated. This may be the lesson of the other excellent album he released this year, Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish, where he steps to the mic fronting a guitar band and spews rage about the endless demands and compromises that the working life heaps on real people. Its lyrics jammed with shopping bags and malls and 14-hour days and SUVs, it’s a remarkable achievement for a boho who spends most of his time on a narcissistic quest for love. In the opening track Oberst imagines himself as a wage slave whose wife urges him to cut down on the coffee: “Baby, all that caffeine causes bad dreams. Where all your anxieties are released.” Seven songs later, he’s a money pig bent on building a factory the size of a country. Either way he’s stepping out of himself, giving voice to those desperate to “enroll in that middle class.” When he made Lifted, some of those voices stayed with him.

Lifted returns again and again to the idea of rapture, of being lifted above the pain and darkness of earthly life. By God, by song, by friendship, by love, by drink, by desperate after-show sex. It is a strangely religious album; every once in a while Oberst’s characters seem to have wandered in from a Flannery O’Connor story or a Walker Percy novel—whether they know it or not, they’re searching for good in a world that gives them nothing but bad. There are moments—more than a few—when the language drifts into that of a striving short story or descends into adolescent prattle about beauty and art, but I catch myself wondering at those moments why I find talk about beauty and art so very adolescent. Such is the challenge Lifted presents: the challenge of faith. It is frankly sentimental music, lost in memory, full of mistakes. Give it a chance and it will take you backward to a time when you believed in something that you don’t believe in anymore. And then, if you’re like me, when it’s over, you’ll remember you live in New York, not Nebraska, and turn on the TV.