Monday, October 09, 2006

1870s nostalgia geek vs. 1970s nostalgia geek

yes, i intentionally sought unflattering pictures of these dudes, and google delivered. oh god it delivered.

Colin Meloy and Craig Finn are to literacy in rock what The Game is to making powerful enemies. That means they're legendary. Both are pasty, bespectacled indie rock icons who lead bands that pretend they're too good for the genre because they should've been born in different time periods. Both the Decemberists and the Hold Steady are mightily revered by almost everyone who's heard of them. Both placed in the top 40 of the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll last year. Both singers used to be in pretty good bands (Tarkio for Meloy, Lifter-Puller for Finn) who they ditched for better ones and subsequently fully realized their respective sounds. In Colin's case, that means he found the perfect theater-geek troupe with whom to play post-gig Quidditch (D&D became passe when Weezer released "Beverly Hills"), and Craig just found wittier drinking buddies to karoake "Glory Days" with by the time they're half-able to walk. Both bands are more popular than ever in 2006, having just released two brand new albums on the very same day, on their fancy new labels. They're also the two most lauded albums of 2006, Dylan aside. Pitchfork awarded Boys a 9.4 and Blender four and a half stars, those publications' highest-rated reviews this year, respectively. The Onion's A.V. Club gave The Crane Wife an A and in Rolling Stone, my personal God, Robert Christgau offered his seal of approval despite a few initial jeers at Meloy's conceptual ambitions. Starting out on Metacritic with a 92 for Wife and a 91 for Boys, they remain neck and neck at 86 and 85 as of this writing. These are clearly important records, for music listeners, and for the bands. In other words, the biggest indie word-of-mouth breakthroughs since Zach Braff and Adam Brody brought The Shins and Death Cab For Cutie into the average American home two years ago.

The Hold Steady likely made their all-time peak last year with Separation Sunday, a masterful rock opera about a chick named Holly Lujah who gets born again and stops being a drunkslut....or does she, asks the new Boys And Girls In America (Vagrant). The Decemberists made Picaresque, an album so overflowing with fancypants ideas and production their fans will forever consider it a career peak (of course it was their last before singing with a major) when all it truly marked was a mildly overrated cult band just getting started. In 2006, the playing field is a bit leveled. For one thing, The Crane Wife (Capitol) is unexpectedly kickass, which is saying alot for a record titled after an 11-minute multi-partite based on a Japanese folktale. Thankfully, Meloy also discovered some of the 70s kitsch Finn abjures: Sabbath riffs, disco, 11-minute multi-partites (well, maybe not those). A guy who knows his curlew from his veranda is expected to make albums like Picaresque forever, with lots of tales about a showdown of vengeance inside a whale's belly and the occasional flash of insight to the aughts, in this case, the Bush-shredding satire "16 Military Wives," with a hilarious video to match. It remains the Decemberists' single best song, great buildup, la-di-da chanting, miraculous horn arrangements, wonderfully catchy refrain. Picaresque occasionally came close to it ("The Mariner's Revenge Song," "On The Bus Mall") but The Crane Wife nearly always does.

Boys And Girls In America is slightly the opposite. Separation Sunday was near flawless, and while Boys only has one track that flat-out annoys ("Chillout Tent," and it's only the chintzy guest vocalists' faults...Dave Pirner and Elisabeth Elmore from theREPUTATION), it's a tad more resistible, more expected. You see it coming a riff away, every drug reference, every play on a girl's name, every slang term too young for its band members, every bit of wisdom about "Southern Girls." Separation Sunday's sly affairs with Born to Run and Zoso references were brilliant for their mystery--was "Hornets! Hornets!" actually supposed to sound like "Hold On Loosely"? Now that the cards are on the table (these aren't hip old indie-rockers, these are out-of-touch Springsteen geeks like your dad), America's fun relies solely on its songs. It gets it half right: "Stuck Between Stations," "Chips Ahoy!," "Hot Soft Light" and "Same Kooks" is a hell of an opening sequence. The only new trick in the bag is a keyboard ready to emit "Badlands" glockenspiels and switch to "Roundabout" organ swirls at a hipster's notice. The latter appears 2/3 of the way through the brilliant single "Chips Ahoy!," the most melodic song the band has put its name on, and tied with "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" as its most singable. "Hot Soft Light" has a shuffling thunderriff Ted Leo would kill for, but when side B announces the ballads, it becomes clear the band's trying too hard to become "accessible" and "melodic," and they're bypassing their natural abilities and veering into sap central by the time we reach "Chillout Tent" and the audacious, intentionally cheesy "Southtown Girls." Don't get me wrong, the album's fucking great by normal standards, it's just a warning shot for future efforts that might be saccharine enough to make this one look like Lifter Puller.

Or is it? features a juicy outtake you can download called "Hot Fries" that garage-rocks like it belongs on The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me. Likewise, The Decemberists have an iTunes-available b-side called "Culling of the Fold" that sounds like Clem Snide's "Something Beautiful" done merengue and sung by cutthroat Gypsy pirates or something. It beats nearly anything on The Crane Wife, which oughta frustrate the hell out of Picaresque fans. But the exclusiveness of both of these tracks seems to thumb their nose at anyone who believes The Decemberists or The Hold Steady have given up all they can offer. Maybe they haven't peaked yet, they sure aren't having that notion, and neither are the geeks who love them.
Both: A-


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