Given that, let’s talk about music.
I’m a child of the ‘90s. That means that I have a certain level of baggage when it comes to discussing albums. One of the big problems now is that nobody is making albums anymore. We’ve moved past the idea of albums to $.99 downloads on iTunes and shit. This saddens me, as I remember the joy of cracking open a CD case, sticking it in the player, and discovering music on my old RCA boombox. That’s why I still care about things like the album of the year. It’s also, I suppose, why I listen mostly to independent music. Mainstream music doesn’t really seem to give a shit about the craftsmanship of an album anymore.
I suppose, though, that, mainstream music hasn’t really ever cared. The album as a thing was really only an artifact of that brief period from the ‘70s through the ‘90s when songs were four or five minutes long and the main technology was either a chunk of vinyl or a CD. Even in the ‘50s and ‘60s I’m given to understand the primary way music was transmitted was through the 45, from which piece of technology we get the terms “single” and “B-Side.”
When I was growing up the single made no sense. It cost pretty much the same amount of money to buy an album as it did to buy a single, especially since the single was usually some sort of crazy German import with three songs and who the fuck really cared about that sort of thing? So I spent my formative years buying albums pretty much exclusively. Those albums, for the record, are pretty much the expected ‘90s albums: Counting Crows, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Our Lady Peace, Candlebox, etc. Of course, I also still have a whole bunch of CDs with exactly one good track designed to sneak a $15 disc into my pocket for a buck worth of good music. I know disappointment, but I also know the joy of a good album.
The two big ones, though, are Soundgarden’s Superunknown and Local H’s Pack Up the Cats. Those will always be albums 1 and 2 on my list of all-time greatest albums. No questions can be asked, no quarter given. I used to have a rule, in fact, that if I started playing one of those albums there was absolutely no way I could stop or pause before every last second of every song had played. This is how one properly respects an album, after all.
As such, you’d think that I’d have been excited about the news that Local H was releasing a new album last Tuesday. You’d especially think that since in 2008 I was there for two nights of the Seven Night Stand, mostly because I couldn’t afford more, and those specific nights were for Pack Up the Cats and the release of 12 Angry Months. You might think that because I have enjoyed the hell out of Scott Lucas’s side project, Scott Lucas & the Married Men.
You’d be wrong. See, I knew the exact wrong things about the new album, Hallelujah! I’m a Bum. The first thing was that it was going to be political in nature. The second was that Scott really wanted it to come out before the election because it’s an album about the politics we have right now, in 2012. I have to say that I’m all 2012 in politics-ed out.
Still, I got the new Local H album. On Friday. I skipped Tuesday’s release show, even though I love CD release shows. I was at the 12 Angry Months CD release show. I was at the Lovehammers’ Heavy Crown release show. I’ll be at the Lovehammers’ CD release show in December.
The problem is that I’d gotten the standard press. Scott Lucas had something to say and, according to him, it would piss off people on both sides of the red/blue divide. I’m tired of being pissed off. I mean, seriously. I’m a politics wonk even though I don’t want to be most of the time and I’ve been pissed off since some time in 2010. I believe that time was “November.”
Still, thanks to the magic of Amazon’s Cloud Player, I was able to buy Hallelujah! I’m a Bum and listen on Friday. This was also my first experience with Cloud Player and, let me tell you, it's great but also not that great. I mean, I’m sold on the whole idea of the Cloud Player. I think it’s fantastic. I’m also reasonably certain it’s not designed to use with albums, because, holy hell, Local H put out an album last Tuesday.
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum reminds me of nothing so much as Pack Up the Cats. In fact, if we take Local H’s albums from As Good As Dead on we can tease out a few strings.
First of all, there’s a four-word theme. As Good As Dead. Pack Up the Cats. Here Comes the Zoo. Whatever Happened to PJ Soles? Hallelujah! I’m a Bum. Even George Lassos the Moon with the Married Men follows the pattern.
Second, there’s the cyclical nature of things. As Good As Dead starts with “Manifest Density Pt. 1” and ends with “Manifest Density Pt. 2.” Here Comes the Zoo ends with a 20 minute coda that repeats every song on the album in some form. Whatever Happened to PJ Soles? goes from “Where Are They Now?” to “Halcyon Days (Where Were You Then?).” The very last guitar riff in 12 Angry Months is the same exact guitar riff that starts the album. Hallelujah! I’m a Bum starts with “Waves” and ends with “Waves Again.” The latter uses the same musical structure as the former.
“Waves” is, in fact, the thesis statement of the entire project. “We get set free in waves again/We’re saved again/But no one rises up/And no one wises up/We get set free in waves again/Jesus saves again/We get set free in waves/We get set free in waves.” This is American politics. It makes me sad. I think Scott thinks I should be angry, but what the fuck can I do about it?
Really, Hallelujah! is a depressing album. I don’t know any other way to describe it. Part of the problem, I think, is that Scott really does want it to piss off both sides but he and I are in more-or-less complete agreement on everything. The Republicans suck. The Democrats won’t actually save us. So what are we going to do about it? Everyone is going to wait for salvation and won’t rise up. That sucks.
As far as craftsmanship goes, though, Hallelujah! is amazing. As I’ve said, it reminds me of nothing so much as Pack Up the Cats. It also makes me hate Amazon’s Cloud Player even though I really, really like Amazon’s Cloud Player.
See, the problem is that Hallelujah! doesn’t so much have disparate tracks. Everything blends. When listening to the album in any format but the Cloud Player I have no idea when one song leads to another. In the Cloud Player there’s this obvious gap between songs. It’s really disconcerting and it takes away from the moment.
Either way, I’ve talked about Hallelujah! a lot. I don’t feel like I’ve made any actual useful statements about it, though. I’m okay with that…
No, seriously. Here’s the thing: it’s a problematic album. The main comparisons I want to use are Pack Up the Cats and 12 Angry Months, one of which is my second-favorite album of all time, the other of which is pretty much amazeballs. I can’t feel that way about Hallelujah!, however. It’s too much an artifact of this exact point in American history and, specifically, a specific opinion of American politics.
The album includes samples of Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney speeches. The song “Here Comes ‘Ol Laptop” is a direct call-out of people who sit on their computers and attempt to be moderates engaging in false equivalencies. It’s hard to talk about that sort of thing, though, as it’s only obvious in “Here Comes Ol’ Laptop,” “Look Who’s Walking on Four Legs Again,” “Limit Your Change,” “Feed a Fever,” and “Paddy Considine.” That’s five of seventeen tracks. But those five tracks pretty much inform the entire damn thing.
Also, too, this album is relentlessly Chicago. It uses the automated announcements on the Blue Line more than anything else as atmospherics and interstitials. For all I know that might be more distracting to someone who’s never ridden the L than a random bit of Sarah Palin saying something stupid.
Right now my big question is whether or not anything can stack up against Sons of Bill’s Sirens in 2012. Hallelujah! I’m a Bum most certainly can.
This, however, is what creates my dilemma. It might not be possible to be neutral on a moving Blue Line train, but it is possible to be ambivalent. Hallelujah! is very much like Pack Up the Cats in that it's almost impossible to not listen to the entire album. The lack of stopping points is both its great strength and weakness. I can't actually pick a song I like best as of yet. I can, however, say I like the flow.
Scott Lucas does something he's done many times in the past on this album: he splices in not-music to cut and separate. In Pack Up the Cats he used answering machine messages and whistling. In Here Comes the Zoo he used all kinds of ambient noises. It worked to great effect in Pack Up the Cats because the not-music was on the same beat with and part of the actual songs. It was actually somewhat distracting on Here Comes the Zoo, since the ambient noises replaced or uprooted the music. With Hallelujah! he gets back to the Pack Up the Cats style, interspersing sounds of the Blue Line all over the place and even tossing in a conversation about the Chicago cold that links "Blue Line" to "Another February."
This gives the album a definite weight of place and could, on some level, make it a definitive Chicago album. Rattling trains, the bong-bong of the opening door, the stop announcement, the complaints about the cold are distinct and genuine moments of Chicago-ness. When combined with the despair and determination of "Blue Line" and "Another February" they pretty much explain what it's like to mark time in Chicago, especially for those who are down on their luck and not getting any help. That can exist as a proper political statement all on its own.
It's also a reminder that Scott Lucas is, undeniably, an artist. Hallelujah! is a piece of musical craftsmanship and it's a definite step forward in those terms. I don't compare it to Pack Up the Cats to say that Lucas is stuck in the same place he was 14 years ago so much as I do to point out that he works on a theme and everything he's been doing is a successively more realized interpretation of an idea or even an ideal of music. It's really the same exercise he's been running through all the great Local H albums: a sort of anger and despair coupled with the gritty determination to see things through and the realization that everything just comes back around in the end.
As Good As Dead, Pack Up the Cats, and 12 Angry Months were intensely personal albums and that is what gave them their permanent universal appeal. Hallelujah! I'm a Bum is an intensely political album. That's really where it stumbles. I can understand the addition of the Blue Line and the conversation with the bum. It's the bit where all of the sudden Bill O'Reilly is telling me to shut up, Mitt Romney is reminding me that he likes being able to fire people, and Sarah Palin is wishing Ronald Reagan a happy birthday that get in the way and make this an album that will ultimately be an artifact of a very specific time.
That makes the album disposable. Is it worth listening to now? Absolutely. Will it be worth listening to fourteen years from now? Probably. It will be weird to listen to once we've moved past the Tea Party's shenanigans and Sarah Palin's nothing but an occasional bar trivia question. This, I suppose, is the problem of art. Something that requires immediacy in both time and place can only be properly appreciated in that time and place.
It's sad, too. Generally when I think of disposable music I think of bubble gum pop by a succession of interchangeable bottle blondes or newspaper advertisment boy bands. I think of canned beats and dumbed-down lyrics. I don't think of intensely crafted music made by someone who has been creating classic albums for nearly two decades.
But that's where I am with Hallelujah! I'm a Bum. I love it. I also don't really much care for it. I think its almost fully realized ambitions absolutely blow its intent out of the water, but that intent will ultimately drag those ambitions right back down into the deep.
I was on record several years ago as saying I hated Chuck Klosterman. I’ve been forced to totally re-think that stance, as I’ve realized he does a fantastically good job of writing about something that’s inherently difficult to write about without, y’know, being a jackass. I actually like Klosterman these days. It’s kinda weird.
The internet, of course, has made that sort of thing not only accessible, but also desirable.
Really, this is one of those weird places where I could go off on a random-ass tangent about tradition and technology and “this is why we do things.” That weird interplay between LPs and EPs that carried over into CDs for no damn good reason is kind of interesting. Albums are between 60 and 70 minutes because of that even though they could be, theoretically, infinitely long by now.
Okay, I knew four things, the fourth being “Another February” was an awesome fucking song.
This, of course, requires taking “PJ Soles” as a single word. I’m okay with that.