I have been in love with this album since I first filmed the band recording it last year for our upcoming Sarah Shook & the Disarmers documentary What It Takes: film en douze tableaux. As they meticulously laid down the tracks, as Shook turned in sneering, sizzling vocals, as Eric Peterson bent his guitar neck to points from which I thought it night not return, as John Howie Jr redefined the art of drums in alt-country, as Aaron Oliva brought almost a jazz feel to the proceedings with his upright bass, and as Phil Sullivan traded steel licks with Peterson answering every one of Shook’s sneers with one of his own, my crew and I knew we were witnessing a miracle.

There isn’t a song on Years that won’t grab you by the throat and slap you with a line of two that’ll make you realize what a great songwriter Shook is. Instead of going through song by song, buy the record and experience it from start to finish (as all great albums should be experienced — really sit with headphones, press play and for 37 minutes immerse yourself in a work of art). And every time you think it can’t get any better, there’s another track that comes on…and by the time you’re at the half-way point with What It Takes, and the thrilling duel between the strings of Peterson and Sullivan you’ll be crying from the sheer emotional excitement. And then Shook ends it all with the title track, slapping you in the face one more time. “Baby it’s been years since I knew how to move you,” she sings on the coda, But sorry, no, you’re wrong there, Shook. Every note on this emotional roller coaster of a record moves us, kills us just a little with its brilliance, then brings us back to life again with the promise of another song. It’s life support in a time of posers and gutless rock and roll. And yes, to me it’s rock and roll as much as it is country, alt-country, whatever you want to call it. It’s just freakin’ great. And it rocks me to the core of my very soul.

Superchunk – “I Hate Music”

If every band I’ve ever loved could have (or would in the future) follow Superchunk’s model of how to keep it going, goddamn I’d be a happy man.   Superchunk could literally write the book on how to grow old gracefully in rock & roll.

They began as every great band before them.  A kick-ass balls-to-the-wall record.  Theirs was self-titled, released in 1990, and just happen to contain one of the greatest rock anthems of all time in “Slack Motherfucker.”  It’s refrain of “I’m working/But I’m not working for you/Slack Motherfucker” still today rings loud and clear voicing the frustrations of the last two generations at least.  If the off-wall street folk had a slogan as concise as this they might have gotten somewhere.

Now granted, this first album came at a time when people were wrongly convinced that the genius embers that were burning out in Minneapolis had somehow moved west to Seattle.  Uh-uh.  Wrong!  They moved southeast to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  And Superchunk planted the seeds that over the next few years would give us the likes of Archers of Loaf and Polvo.  Rock & roll in the 90s was Chapel Hill.

For their second album the band had Steve Albini behind the boards and delivered a masterpiece.  “No Pocky for Kitty” stands for me as one of the classic indie rock albums of all time.  And they didn’t stop there, “On The Mouth,” “Foolish,” “Here’s Where The Strings Come In.”  Three abums in three years.  Then three more over the next six years.  And I’m not even counting the EPs and B-sides.  Never a miss.  Never an album that made you wonder what went wrong.  And though they certainly had a specific sound, so driven by Laura Ballance’s bass, Jim Wilbur’s guitar, Jon Wurster’s drums, and Mac McCaughan’s vocals – perhaps best described as part Replacements/part Rush – they kept changing it up just enough to keep it fresh and wonderful, but never so much as to turn away the die-hards.

And then they took a decade off.

I’m sure I was not alone in wondering if we’d ever see a new Superchunk album.  I’m sure I was not alone in mourning another great band from my younger days.  (A band as great on stage as in the studio.)

And then in 2010 they released a new album called “Majesty Shredding.”  Was it their best?  No.  But it didn’t have to be.  It was another fine addition to the canon, with one of their best songs ever in “Learned to Surf.”   And it was a wake up call that Superchunk was still around.  (Though by this point, we probably would have been happy with Mac reading the phone book while Laura played a walking bass line.)

Which bring us to the present day.  A new album.  “I Hate Music.”  A title ripped from a song on The Replacements first album.  (I know Mac loves the Mats, he said as much on camera in my film “Color Me Obsessed.”)  That, if nothing else, held promise.

But no where, no how, did it prepare me for what I was about to hear.

This is Superchunk’s masterpiece.  A finely honed collection of eleven songs about life, love, growing old, touring.  It’s a Wim Wenders road trip through a life in rock and roll.  (I played the album for the first time on a long non-Wim Wenders road trip, so I will talk about it in order of how the songs hit me.)

It begins almost liltingly.  The acoustic opening of “Overflows” when a seemingly mellowed Mac sings “Everything the dead don’t know/Piles up like magazines and overflows/And everything that you won’t see/Just swirls around/Comes down and buries me.”  Then the drums, the bass, a delightfully light electric guitar line kicks in, as do the goosebumps.  But I’m skeptical.  Bands always put their best track first.

We move on to “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” which starts with an almost Rick Springfield guitar riff, and the line from which the title was culled.  Springfield is quickly ditched for a sound that could have easily sounded at home on “No Pocky.”  It’s the sort of song which even if everything else sucked would make the album worth buying.  A fun summer driving song about hating the thing you probably love the most.

I mentioned Rush before, and I know that might sound like a strange band to mention in the same sentence as Superchunk.  But listen to “Void” with its arena rock aspirations and you’ll see where I’m coming from.  It’s sort of unlike anything Superchunk has done before, and was honestly the last song on the record I warmed up to.  But Goddamn if Jon isn’t channeling his best Neil Peart.

The next song on “I Hate Music” is probably, deep down, my favorite.  “Staying Home,” one minute, fifteen seconds of pure punk bliss that truly does sound as it if belongs on that first Replacements album from where this albums’ title came.  Right down to Jim doing his best Bob Stinson, and the fall-apart ending.  It’s noisy, it’s useless, it’s pure bliss.  I fucking love this song.

And as I’m driving to Rhode Island, shaking off the shivers as if Stinson’s ghost had just poked the side of my ear with the jagged end of his guitar string, the noise pop jangle of “Low F” comes on, and by this point I’m not as much reduced to tears as I am a vibrating gaggle of goosebumps.

“And you caught me singing/Said ‘Can you meet me down at low F?’”  A love song that only Superchunk could deliver, with the best guitar solo I’ve hear since Wilco’s “Impossible Germany.”  But is it a love song to their life in rock?  Is it a love song to a life partner?  Is it a love song to the other members in the band?  Does it make any difference?  As with any great work of art, it means something different to every one who listens.

Here the album just does not let up.  It’s like a futuristic collection of a band’s greatest hits, from a world where the majority of record buyers actually had taste.

“Trees of Barcelona” and “Breaking Down” and I begin to wonder if this record could really be as good as I’m thinking it is.  It’s not just a maturity in their sound, but a vibrancy.  They sound like the Superchunk of  1990, perhaps not singing about working for the worst boss of all time, but instead of the joy of a gig in a beautiful Spanish city, or of how we all begin to break down.  Yes, it’s called getting old.  But they don’t sound as if they’ve aged a day.

With “Out of the Sun” and “Your Theme” I’m hearing the Mats again in the guitars, and that’s such a beautiful thing.  The harmonies and throw-away chorus especially, and the soloing that ends the latter.  (Can I say thank you guys now for helping to keep guitars alive?)

At this point I’m thinking two tracks to go.  And I can almost feel the apprehension.  There is no way they can keep this up.

And “FOH” begins, the wall of guitars, and Mac asking “Did you lose something?”  I want to say I had begun to lose my belief in rock & roll?  But that’s out the window.  We hit the sing-along chorus, “How’s everything at the front of the house,” and I think perhaps I died in a car crash and I’m in heaven because there really is a God and he/she is a Mats fan, and he/she is thanking me for making “Color Me Obsessed” and this music is what we get to listen to every day.

I’m tempted to just hit the back button so I can hear the song again, and by this time sing along, and then Mac asks me, “What can we do?”

That is the title of the final track, the eleventh track, over six minutes long.  And much like “Slack Motherfucker” twenty-three years earlier Superchunk has given us an anthem.  The genius of a band firing in unison, a bit older, a lot wiser, probably more proficient on their instruments, and an answer to anyone who ever thought they were never coming back, “I’ve got wrinkles around my eyes/I’ll say I love you, I won’t say goodbye.”

And yes, Mac, Laura, Jon, and Jim.  I’m a sucker for brilliance.  The tears begin, and I start the album all over again, and crank it just a little louder this time.

And if you really want to know what you can do, as if the answer isn’t obvious: never stop playing music.

A Masterpiece for a post-Hüsker Dü World

As a disclosure, let me state that I am director of the upcoming Grant Hart documentary EVERY EVERYTHING. But that said, if I didn’t truly love this record I would write nothing at all. As even my closest friends know, if they ask for an opinion from me, I will give it to them truthfully. I’m not one to sugar coat, or ever tell people what they want to hear.

Next, so you know where I stand, I believe these to be indisputable facts:

1. Hüsker Dü and The Replacements are the two most important rock bands of the past 32 years. That every single band that picked up a guitar and rocked post 1987 owes everything to these two bands. They saved rock and roll at a time when even punk had completely lost its edge and become new wave. So that is the regard in which I hold the members of these two bands.

2. Just as the Beatles had two great singer/songwriters in Lennon and McCarthey, Hüsker Dü had Mould and Hart. There is no Hüsker Dü without Grant Hart. He is as important to the band as Mould, and just as good a songwriter. As for their post-Hüsker Dü careers, Hart might not have been as prolific, but he delivered “2541” and “The Main,” which for me are the two best post-breakup songs.

Now, onto The Argument.

The Argument
This is a vast, impressive work. Hardly a collection of pop tunes that you can play on your car’s stereo system and listen to at leisure…at least not at first. In taking on a book most of us could not even get through the Cliff Notes on, Hart has given us a true rock opera, about good vs. evil, about heaven vs. hell, about lust and the snake in the garden. This is a post-punk rock bible, a “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” or “Tommy” for our day. But the first half dozen times through you need to listen. To absorb. To take in the grandeur of what he’s accomplished. And only then you will find the pop songs. The rock songs. The songs to break your heart. Then you will begin to see the scope of “The Argument.” Then you will begin to see the influences Hart wears proudly on his sleeves, from an almost polished version of the noise we came to love as Hüsker Dü fans to nods towards Dylan (“For Those Too High Aspiring” is probably my favorite track, sounding like a lost track Bob Dylan contributed to “Zen Arcade”), the Doors (“Golden Chain”), the Faces (“Shine, Shine, Shine”), Buddy Holly (“Letting Me Out”), doo wop (“So Far From Heaven”), anthem rock (“Glorious,” which would make for a perfect very tongue-in-cheek Christian rock anthem), even a Rudy Vallée ukulele ditty (“Underneath the Apple Tree”), and yes, old Bowie (the brilliant title track). Hart is a walking history-of-music encyclopedia, and that knowledge shines through on every track.

The production is masterful. (The use of the beep from Sputnik on “Is the Sky the Limit” is a stroke of genius.) Hart’s voice is powerful when it needs to be. Frail, almost cracked, when he wants to rip out your heart. The instrumentation is at times a cacophony of blessed noise pop and at other times brisk, clean, clear. There are moments when a track ends and you actually wish for a breather before what will assault you next.

To take on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” might have seemed a fool’s game for most musicians. But Grant Hart isn’t like most musicians. He’s probably one of the smartest men in rock & roll. And while this might have been a glorious gamble that ended badly, he’s hit the jackpot. But no more so than the fans who get to experience this work of art.

Should you buy it? Well, I’ll answer that question with a question: would you go see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” if it was in a gallery in your town? If the answer is yes. That you would have to see the genius in Van Gogh’s swirls in person and for yourself. Then, yes, buy “The Argument.”  Masterpieces only come around every so often.

Beautiful, chaotic noise

There’s something about CHRONICLES OF MARNIA, the new record from Marnie Stern that just makes me smile.

I love noise pop. LOVE it! I love guitars. Big guitars, loud guitars, out of tune guitars.  Guitars with broken strings.  Guitars with fret buzz.  Every guitar is beautiful.  Every guitar has a soul  (If I hear a synthesizer starting up a song, I take it off.) I LOVE balls to the wall rock in the spirit of The Replacements or the Archers of Loaf. I find beauty in the choas, peace in the noise. I love bad singers, people who screech and wail, and tear their hearts out through their sleeves, and always manage a few off-pitch notes during every song. There’s no passion in perfection.  There’s nothing more boring than perfection.  People who can play and sing every note perfectly, repeating such perfection perfectly each time, are robots.  Soulless.  Gutless.  Artless.  It’s powered milk for the masses.  Pure shit for hip people.  (Guitars can’t hurt people, only people can hurt guitars.)

I love artists who aren’t afraid to take a chance and try something new.

Artists who turn genres on their ear.

Artists who realize failure is the only road to success.

I love Marnie Stern.

And I love this record.

David Bowie’s “The Next Day”

OK…so I wake up this morning and wondered if I were dreaming. Would I need to chew my own arm off and escape silently because of a horrible mistake I had made in a rush of teenaged lust?  It was too goo to be real.  I was a teenager again.  Six feet tall, 120 pounds, with hair half-way down my back.  I could drink and fuck all night.

I was afraid to be awake.

So, I get in the car, half-asleep, hair in Albert Einstein mode, and head into town for my morning cup of Willoughbys. I bypass the news, and turn it on.  I turn it up.  And I get goose bumps.  I actually get turned on. It wasn’t a dream. David Bowie HAD released a brilliant new album, and it sounded even better today.


The opening and title track “The Next Day” made me want to cry, I don’t think the stereo in my wife’s GTI could go any louder.  The dirty horns on made me feel as if I were in the front row of Radio City Music Hall once again and Bowie was about to launch into “Young Americans” or “Fame.”  “Valentine’s Day” sounds like the great missing track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions, the reel of 2-inch tape stolen from the vault and never reported missing. “Dancing Out In Space” must have been recorded in 1969, right? What the fuck?

Thank you, Mr. Bowie, for making me feel young again.  And for showing the hipsters and would-be rockers of the day what it means to rock and roll.  What it means to write a song.  What it means to be a God.

I just need to keep repeating it wasn’t a dream.

I just need to keep it repeating.