Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Require Justin Hawkins to Make Me Happy, or An Open Letter to J.-Hawk., or Listen to Hot Leg...They're Good.

The Darkness are an amazing band. They're witty, charming, hilarious, incredibly talented musicians with easily one of the most enigmatic and charismatic vocalists recording today, and the songs they write are just so good; infectiously catchy and undeniably Rock N' Roll. I'm glad they've gotten back together, hell, I'm elated, but I still can't help feeling a little bittersweet about this reunion, because it seems to me that a world with The Darkness has no choice but to be a Legless one, and that bums me out hardcore.

Hot Leg was the band Justin Hawkins formed after the breakup of The Darkness (or technically, I guess his band after British Whale, but 3 total songs hardly filled the void that The Darkness left behind, so I choose to gloss over B-Dub). They released their debut (and quite possibly only) record, Red Light Fever, in 2009, and after nearly 3 years of a life devoid of the product of Justin Hawkins' self-described "truth larynx" (you can't deny it, this guy can fucking wail), Hot Leg didn't just feel like a breath of fresh air to me, they felt like air, period. After listening to that record for the first time, it felt like I had been forced to hold my breath for 3 years and was finally given the chance to exhale.

I'll be the first to admit that even if Red Light Fever wasn't that good, I would've been on board. It was a product of Justin Hawkins and it existed, and that would have been more than enough for me, but it was good. It was really good (it still is). In fact, I would call it Rock genius. It is vastly superior to The Darkness's sophomore effort One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back, and if you ask me, on the right day it's at least Permission to Land's equal, on an even righter day, I'd probably say Red Light Fever is the better record of the two.

For as much as I like One Way Ticket..., the album still sounds to me like the work of a band trying to figure out what their next step is. I wouldn't go so far as to say they sound like they're floundering, but the record sounds like the product of a band who knows they can't possibly improve on what they've already done but can't quite decide what direction to go into. I'm not saying the album isn't cohesive because it is, and I'm not saying it's just across-the-board adequate, because there are 4 songs that are downright remarkable and 6 others that are at the very least pretty damn good. Still, the record as a whole seems to lack focus. It's the work of a band trying to reinvent themselves without knowing what they want to do or how to do it.

Red Light Fever on the other hand is fucking razor sharp; it's honed and pin-point accurate. It has all of the focus that One Way Ticket... lacks while managing to hold onto the fundamental "Man-Rock" framework that made Permission to Land so essential. And by folding in elements of soul, funk, and blues, they manage to move out of the daunting shadow that Permission to Land cast upon any purely Rock effort that Justin Hawkins would ever attempt. When you listen to Red Light Fever, you can hear that Hot Leg not only knew who they were but what they intended to accomplish before they ever even thought about entering a studio. The result is 10 ├╝ber catchy songs with subtly sophisticated arrangements that give this record, if not an edge, at least separation from the work that Justin Hawkins did in the past. Sure, Hawkins' lyrics on Red Light Fever may lack the tongue-in-cheek, covert humor of Permission to Land,  but they're no more blunt than the songs on One Way Ticket..., and they're so forcefully fun and infectious that being hit over the head a few times seems a very small price to pay for such a strong set of tunes.

Songs like "Chickens", "Cocktails", "Kissing in the Wind", and "Prima Donna" are good enough to match or trump the best songs on One Way Ticket..., and "Whichever Way You Want to Give It" easily rivals "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" in single-ready Pop-Rock genius. On a whole, Red Light Fever seems far more of an appropriate follow-up to Permission to Land than One Way Ticket... was, but none of the aforementioned really accounts for my lamenting.

What really makes me so sad, aside from the possibility that I may never hear "Whichever Way You Want to Give it" or "Cupboard Love" live, is knowing what was on Hot Leg's horizon. Having stumbled across rough demos and live recordings of songs that were meant to be on RLF's follow-up makes me think, fuck that, makes me know that these guys had so much more to give and were really only on the brink of making a broad musical impact. On its own, the fact that "Into my Arms" may never be recorded is enough to bring me next to tears. Add everything else I've heard into the mix, and it seems categorically tragic.

Certainly I'm not saying I'm unhappy that The Darkness are once again a band, but I can't even begin to pretend that I'm okay with the possibility that Hot Leg isn't. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and in a year or so, I'll find out that J-Hawk isn't a man built for monogamy and a new Hot Leg record will find its way into my grubby little hands. And I suppose that, Darkness or Leg or British Whale or something else entirely, as long as Justin Hawkins is putting new music into the world, I'm going to be happy, but without Hot Leg, I'm not entirely sure I can be satisfied.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I've Never Been a Religous Man, but I've Recently Joined The Church of Rock and Roll, and I Think I Just May Be Saved.

I've bought my fair share of records over the past year and I can say that I have not passionately disliked any of them. Sure, some have simply been "not bad", but at least a decent chunk of them have been good, and some have in fact been quite good: Craig Finn's Clear Heart Full Eyes, Dawes' Nothing is Wrong, Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials, Surfer Blood's Tarot Classics, Wilco's The Whole Love, Explosions in the Sky's Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, Cloud Nothings' Attack on Memory, Cursive's I Am Gemini, Ryan Adams' Ashes & Fire...these are a few of the albums I've bought this year that I like. I am happy I own them.  I like them all and they will not go unlistened to, but as much as I may like all of them, I don't love any of them, and for me that's a problem.

Personally, I need to be obsessed with a record. I want to listen to a record and get excited about it ending so I can start it over again because it's just that good. I want to be engulfed by an album. I want it to destroy and remake me. I want to feel a little emptier when I'm not listening to it. I want to be consumed by it. This is who I am and when I don't have this I feel a little less like me. Just liking something a lot doesn't cut the sauce. Sure, I can always go back and listen to older albums I love and that levels me out enough, but it's never quite the same. Rediscovering an album might be awesome, but it's never quite as special as "discovering" it. And for the last 10 months of my life, I haven't heard anything new that's been good enough to be amazing, good enough to floor me, good enough to be obsessed with. But 29 days ago, I went to see The Darkness at St. Andrews Hall in downtown Detroit. Those Lowestoft, Suffolk boys killed it (not that there was any doubt they would...come on, it's The Darkness), but Foxy Shazam stole the fucking show.

Had you asked me 30 days ago what I thought of Foxy Shazam, I would have told you I don't listen to female rappers,  but then again that would have been 1 day before I watched Foxy Shazam blow the fucking doors off Saint Andrews Hall. Their live show is a spectacle, the songs rocked unbelievably hard and were catchy as all hell, Eric Nally was ridiculously funny, and that voice of his, it sounded bigger than life itself. But above all of that, watching them on stage, you knew you were watching Rock Stars; guys with too much bravado playing songs that were so huge they should be heard in stadiums instead of the relatively small venue I was watching them in. I don't know...it felt like someone was letting me in on a big secret right before it was about be revealed to the world, like the guy who takes the final tally on votes for the Presidential election. Seeing them was like knowing something that would undoubtedly affect the world before the world knew they were going to be affected.

When I got home that night, I cracked open a beer and pulled up Spotify to make sure I heard what I thought I did. I suppose I wanted to make sure the carpet matched the drapes.  It didn't seem possible that a band that electric on stage could convert that energy onto tape (...probably a hard-drive). Within literally 1 second of "Holy Touch", I knew I needed this record. The next morning, I called my local record store (again, if you're in the Ann Arbor, Mi area, stop into Underground Sounds on Liberty between 4th and 5th, across the street from the post office...best record store ever, the owner Matt not only knows his shit but is the shit) and ordered The Church of Rock and Roll. A week later, it arrived, and my life has been infinitely better ever since.

This album isn't just good, it's kind of everything. Sky White is Jim Steinman without the pretension, Loren Turner shreds as major as any other great guitar player from the last 2 decades but without fighting for center stage, and the rhythm section of Daisy Caplan (bass) and Aaron McVeigh (drums) coupled with the one-man horn section that is Alex Nauth that feels very Booker T. and the M.G.'s via Otis Redding. Then there's that voice. Eric Sean Nally is a quarter Freddie Mercury, a quarter Marvin Lee Aday (Meat Loaf), a quarter space alien and a quarter ringmaster at a seedy-ass circus, but wholly Eric Nally. No sound that big should ever come out of a man so small, yet it does and it's amazing.

Then there are the songs...they may on occasion be funny, but these songs are no joke. The relentless hooks of "Holy Touch" alone would make this record a worthwhile listen, but once you toss in the unstoppable rock drive of opener "Welcome to the Church of Rock and Roll", the gutter-gospel of "I Like It", the pop-rock swing of "Last Chance at Love", penitent sincerity of "Forever Together", the beautifully bitter-sweetness of "(It's) Too Late Baby", the no-nonsense swagger of "I Wanna Be Yours", the absolute rock genius of "Wasted Feelings" (my favorite song on the record), the plodding shredfest that is "The Temple", the R&B tinged groove of "The Streets" (my son Finn's favorite song on the album. He's only 1, but that song gets him bopping like nothing else), and the positively anthemic closer, "Freedom", with lyrics that run the gamut of the human condition: from completely inconsequential but entertaining to salaciously sleazy to tender, honest and poignant...Eric Nally knows how lay down a word or two and he makes sure to do it on every fucking song on The Church of Rock and Roll.

But for me, if there's one thing that makes this album matter more to me than any other record right now, it's that it just makes me feel good. I realize I have a lot to be thankful for: a loving wife, a beautiful and hilarious son, 2 incredible dogs, a great family, unbelievable friends, food in my belly and a roof over my head, but life is still really fucking tough. It's tough when you work 45 hours a week (sometimes 50, occasionally more, though that is relatively rare) and still can't make both ends meet. It's tough when you get home from work and it takes all the energy you muster just to keep both eyes open let alone be a functioning husband, father, and dog-father. It's tough when past mistakes and youthful indiscretions seem like they will follow you to the grave, and it's tough when you feel helpless and hopeless virtually all of the time. Life is hard, and when you're holding the short end of the stick, even a handful of hardcore pluses can't cancel out the multitude of minor negatives. Feeling good isn't easy, but it's a whole lot easier with Foxy Shazam.

Dealing with life is no simple task, not for me, not for the majority of the country.  But when The Church of Rock and Roll is spinning on my record player, I forget that I usually can't pay my bills. I forget that I'm overworked and underpaid. I forget that "The American Dream" is a big fucking lie and that hard work doesn't really pay off, it just gives you more stress. I forget that life is usually tough and remember that it also can be sweet. I watch my little man sitting on his knees bouncing to "Holy Tough", "(It's) Too Late Baby", "Wasted Feelings", or "The Streets", and it reminds me that even when things are bad, things can still be good. For a little over a half an hour, I remember that sometimes things rock even when things suck, and for me, that's certainly something worth remembering.