No. 1 (And No. 1): Backyard Tea Parties And Blue Balls
Our year-end countdown ends with a pair of songs that are, when you get right down to it, pretty much polar opposites of one another. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
1A. Violet Vector And The Lovely Lovelies, “When I Say Can You Dig It (You Say Yeah We Can)”
The long-discussed ideal of the “celestial jukebox”–being able to listen to whatever, whenever, wherever–is still something of a pipe dream, but the “whatever” part of the equation inched ever closer to becoming reality in 2007. As a result, music fandom became pretty atomized; if you asked 100 people in roughly the same demographic to surrender their iPods and show their playlists, the chance of finding two that were exactly alike would be slim to none, and even the notion of finding 80% overlap would be slim. This situation further hastened the “big hits subsidize the flops” structure of the world’s major labels, much to the delight of the Digg-enabled hordes; consensus was a thing of the past, the days of the mythical “12-CDs-a-year” buyers moving in lockstep were done.
Which is why it was funny to me that so many people pegged LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” as a top-two contender for our year-end list. Putting aside the fact that we’d already hinted at its absence from our countdown, I have to wonder about what people are expecting as far as the criteria for year-end lists goes. I know that we’re all “professional” critics here, but the creeping consensus that I’ve seen on so many year-end lists made me feel like the scientific calculation of “good” (suitable sonic references + 30something nostalgia + generational-hero protagonist = x?) is sort of displacing the more ephemeral rush that one can get from hearing a terrific song, a feeling that isn’t unlike being in love, or at least having a semi-ridiculous, yet completely fun crush. I don’t know if I’m a sap or a sentimentalist or what, but I’d rather see a list filled with a thousand infatuations than yet another list that dutifully mentions Radiohead solely because they ganked Stars’ early-digital-release trick in a way that got them a lot of press.
All of this is a long way of saying that my No. 1 song of the year is Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies’ “When I Say Can You Dig It (You Say Year We Can”),” a twee-psych freakout from a North Carolina indiepop outfit that doesn’t even have a proper CD out yet. (Black Kids alert!) In a way, I feel incredibly awkward about this–am I being willfully contrarian? flaunting my “I listen to more music than you” plumage? putting off that first paying-attention-to-it spin of In Rainbows for a little too long?–but the numbers would have it no other way. What started as a download from some music blog first became a persistent earworm, then turned into a reason for me to commandeer my friends’ computers and force them to visit the band’s MySpace page to hear the track, and finally became the song that most defined my sorta-absurd, not-as-fun-as-this-song-might-indicate year, especially if you take into account a) its firm grip on my iTunes’ Most Played list; and b) the fact that it greeted visitors to my MySpace page for many, many weeks–the post-high school equivalent of wearing a band T-shirt on yearbook-photo day. The track itself is a hazy backyard tea party populated by people flinging around freshly picked flowers out of sheer joy, opening with the “Be My Baby” drums employed by our No. 28 song but veering off into an entirely different direction immediately afterward. It’s got a girly-girl singer and a loping beat and judiciously employed cowbells and a chorus of ebuillent voices shouting “yeah!” as if that syllable is the most wonderful one in the world’s entire lexicon and a breakdown that sounds like fireworks. Yes, fireworks. Maybe that was a side effect of the whole “falling-in-love-with-it” thing, but I swear to God I saw them on first listen, and I still do on the hundredth. (Maura Johnston)
Violet Vector And The Lovely Lovelies [MySpace]
1B. Grinderman, “No Pussy Blues”
For many, Nick Cave’s persona is long fixed as the Birthday Party’s most malevolent manchild, hunched over a microphone with forked tongue dangling over the lip of a London stage, a gaunt brat getting biblical on trashy rock and pulp horror novels, as much of a turn-on as he was revolting. And as Cave blossomed into a songwriter interested in more than just hilarious grotesqueries, into a lyricist as capable of writing as affectingly about human love as he was the love of a man for winged vermin, he’s been forced to periodically reaffirm that the quasi-domesticated piano man can still bend to his baser impulses while backed by plug ugly riffs. Reaffirm it, one suspects, as much for himself as for the faithful.
So of course those who haven’t closely followed his 20-plus years with his hetero life partners the Bad Seeds have missed his songwriting develop an emotional range, a sometimes startling humanism, that wasn’t even on the radar of the purposefully callow Cave of Junkyard. They’ve also missed out on his initial Birthday Party persona taking on an apocalyptic grown and sexy tone that one can only pull off with a certain number of birthday cards in the rubbish bin, an onstage glowering equal parts hellish carnival barker and pervy Pentecostal preacher pounding something other than the pulpit. A hell of lot of people think he’s sexier now than ever at 50, even if he looks more like a saloonkeep gone round the bend than the rakish Seedling of yore. That maleficent maturity is a big part of why.
But as with most long-term relationships, fan familiarity can breed dangerous contempt for a career, and many people probably think they’ve probably got a new Bad Seeds record pegged before it hits iTunes, pre-rejecting it because they’re expecting more bathos than eros, more ballads than bloodletting. Their loss, but Cave’s too, and one possible reason out of many as to why he took a brief Seeds break to bash out a scuzzy, sleazy set of garish comic blues this year with a garage band of cognac drinking buddies called Grinderman. Call it a way of doing something he’s always done, but letting a new trademark lure lapsed fans into his parlor only to shank them with the six-inch gold blade they thought he pawned long ago.
So “No Pussy Blues,” a tale of spurned romance, ‘case you misread the title, that’s Cave’s best tune in years, is ragged and noisy and decidedly un-genteel, driven by a Jim Sclavunos cymbal fill as twitchy as a piss shiver, a fuzz bassline from Martyn P. Casey that swings like a knuckle-dragging a daft bulldog punk in a ’40s cartoon, Warren Ellis’ already infamous electric bouzouki, and Cave’s dangerous student driver guitar, both of which come in noisy spurts like a horned-up Tex Avery tongue flinging saliva at any be-boobed honey in sight. You can’t dance to “No Pussy Blues” and naturally you sure can’t fuck to it–it’s too rhythmically stiff, though its repetitive jerks and pre-climaxes do imitate another, slightly less satisfying kind of sex–but all the lowbrow blue-balled frustration that’s forced zillions to take up crude musical arms against those who would deny them the booty is alive and well here.
Except most of those “gentlemen” were more than half Cave’s age, meaning they were half as mordant, teenagers lacking in delicious literary-minded self-consciousness (and plain ol’ self-consciousness). Cave’s droll narrative rises in hysterical pitch as he details his attempts to bed a lass presumably young enough to be his granddaughter–pace the intro, where Humbert here finds himself suddenly shy about his wrinkles and age spots as he’s interrogated by a collegiate audience’s eyes–with enough absurd kitchen-sink details that the song becomes something like a parallel universe Penthouse Forum letter, where instead of a fantasy object (literally) rolling over for the protagonist’s convoluted whims, he’s rebuffed no matter what sensitive-guy hoops he jumps through. A door-opener and a compliment-payer at first, he tries traditional courting only to run smack into her chastity, and even as he turns on the sugar and showers her with baubles and dogsits her awful yappy mutt, she “still just didn’t want to.” Shifting up his game, he goes all asshole out, drinks enough to blind a streak of tigers, bends her arm as well as her virgin ears, and still she’s batting her eyes with an “oh, you.” Finally he shrugs off his locked-legs lot and takes his jollies in letting his band whip up gnarly, cathartic feedback that would leave many a young neo no-waver blushing, as he stomps his heels and rolls his eyes and lets out a Little Richard “woo!” cuz he can.
When Maura mentioned a few entries back that Fall Out Boy’s guitars “didn’t sound like they’d been forcibly neutered,” presumably unlike so much other 2007 music, I had to giggle because it’s easy to imagine their axes and genitals alike shriveling up if they found themselves in the same room as Nick Cave and his song about forced impotence that manages to show up the (symbollic, natch) phalluses just about all of the year’s cocky young rock knuckleheads. A guaranteed emo antidote whether you choose to ignore its decidedly non-neutered
guitars bouzoukis or not, “No Pussy Blues” even makes self-loathing, abused by the less capable into near-irrelevance, funny again–the song itself is one masterful gag at Cave’s expense after another, Vaudeville pratfalls that keep landing him smack on his face while in pursuit of the punanny on the pedestal–the singer painting himself (in giant cartoon strokes) as the grostesque party in this stalled transaction. It’s all inwardly directed venom, a self-flagellate alone in this world with his six-inch burden, and the polar opposite of the other song I (very) briefly considered for this slot.
LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” undoubtedly a great record, has found its way to the top of many year-end best-of lists thanks to (among other sentiments) its generally uplifting affirmation that you still might be able to find solace for the sucky parts of your life in platonic companionship well after those intense friendships of your teenage years. And who wouldn’t find it easier to be seduced by a song with a smidge of hope for relationships getting richer with age? James Murphy’s occasional notes of thirtysomething anxiousness about isolation are pure Hallmark compared to Cave and his song that seems to say friends don’t mean shit when you’re twenty years on from that and still scrounging desperately for one more lay, no better off than you were when you were 15, just as fixated on ass, and probably more likely to get it. So what’s left to do but crack wise with a wink and all wit your tired ol’ butt can muster after yet another flub and set it to the grimiest groove of the last 12 months? “No Pussy Blues” ain’t earnest and it’s pretty ugly, but if you value ribaldry and release more than most things, this is your tune.
And though we’ll all hopefully find that special someone before we’re Cave’s age–the wedding band on his finger makes “No Pussy Blues” playacting anyway–and as much as we’ll all be wistful over displaced acquaintances tonight as one year gives way to the next, chances are a lot of folks out there will also be silently griping over all the dishes done in rubber gloves and gifts of flowers and snow white doves that never resulted in a roll in hay in 2007, while possibly angling for one last caress (and possibly failing). “No Pussy Blues” affirms that, while this squishy interpersonal coupling shit gets no less ridiculous as we age, at least that ridiculousness can provide ever-richer fodder for hilarious rock’n’roll. We’re not alone in our unfulfilled animal needs, but those of us who aren’t Nick Cave can only hope to bring such loud LOLz about our inability to get our rocks off when we’re pushing retirement age. (Jess Harvell)