With the year coming to a close, it’s that time again to take a look back at some of the best that the music world had to offer in 2016. First up on the “Best of” docket is my annual “Best Album Covers” list. Throughout the year, I kept a list of album covers that I found strange, beautiful, and provocative. This list is a compilation of my favorites from this yearlong collection. Anyone who loves the album as an art form knows the importance of a powerful LP image, and the following 20 covers elevate their corresponding albums.
You are about to read through what I deem the top 60 tracks of 2011. Yes, 60. For some reason, lists need to fit within the confines of the top 100, top 50, top 40, Top 20, or Top 10. Any other number seems arbitrary. I had the same uncertainty with the number 60. When I first assembled my list it consisted of 87 songs. I had a decision to make: force 13 more songs onto the list and create another monolith like I did last year (it was a lot of work by the way), or attempt to whittle the list down to 50. I went with the latter, but when finished, I found I still had 67 songs. I struggled and struggled and eventually had it to the number we have now: 60. At this point, I couldn’t remove one more song. None of these songs could be tossed aside, each holding a special meaning, memory, or melody that helped me through another year.
Truman Capote once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness approach saying, “It isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.” I suppose he would have the same response to Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse.” I say this because of the album’s rambling lyrics that wander about like a Bedouin in the desert. Prior to “Apocalypse,” Callahan used themes as a scaffold to his stories; on “Apocalypse” his stories wander in search of a theme, sometimes never arriving at their destination. This experience is often close to the heart with Callahan singing about his own confusions or channeling those emotions through his characters.
Callahan has never been one to follow songwriting norms, and on “Apocalypse” he has stretched his terrain to the unexplored. His songs are sparser, more personal, and more perplexing than anything he’s done since his days with Smog. He rarely aims to give us answers but puts us in his mind’s eye, giving us the task of trying to answer them ourselves. Whether its his personal story of seclusion as a musician on “Riding For the Feeling,” or his tale of a lonely cowboy on “Drover,” this is an album about the “Apocalypse” within; the endless, draining apocalypse of our heart and soul and how “ this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ Breaks a strong, strong mind.” If that’s not songwriting, I don’t know what is, Mr. Capote.
“Riding For the Feeling” tells of Callahan’s disconnect from both his fans and himself:
9. TV Ghost
[In The Red; 2011]
Last weekend, while visiting my friend PthestudP in Omaha, I played TV Ghost’s “Mass Dream” for him, knowing he’d like its chaotic take on post-punk. Within the first 40 seconds of “Wired Trap” I could see his eyes light up with excitement. Half way through the song though his take on the album had been altered, “I really like this, but I don’t know if I can handle it right now.” I wasn’t offended; I knew exactly what he was talking about. He was feeling that same combination of excitement and fear that I’d felt upon my first listen. Plus, sitting in a car and listening to “Mass Dream” is like drinking a 5-Hour Energy and watching “Antique Road Show.” You can not sit still and listen to this album, and if you do, seizures are probably in your future.
Just when it seemed the post-punk rebirth had run its course, TV Ghost’s take on the genre has tossed expectations for a loop, the church organ moaning behind the shrieking, surf guitar riffs, and the ballyhooing of singer Tim Gick. His voice, a combination of David Byrne’s nervous, jerky shouts and David Yow’s tortured, muffled howls, provides the mad scientist to this seance of terror and trepidation. You cannot resist the supernatural powers of “Mass Dream,” so just let the music grasp your soul and shake it.
As frenzied as “Wired Trap” starts out, the organ riff that surfaces at the 2-minute mark calms your nerves, if not for only a moment:
8. J. Mascis
“Several Shades of Why”
When I first got J. Mascis’s “Several Shades of Why” I didn’t expect much. Mr. Mascis without his trusty Jazzmaster and his wall of Marshall amps is like Samson without his locks. Or at least I thought as much. With all the distortion and guitar soloing gone, Mascis’s true strength is finally revealed: his songwriting. Neil Young has said that all great songs should sound just as good without effects and Mascis proves this sentiment with 10 delicate songs of love and loss that are warm and welcoming.
With effects all but gone, a vocalist’s strengths or weaknesses are put right out there for all to hear. But as we’ve learned over the years, Mascis’s distinct croaking vocal style is strangely an asset. On “Seven Shades of Why” this is especially true with it being backed by the pairing of an acoustic guitar and strings (I can’t help but wonder if Mascis’s friend Thurston Moore had a hand or at least an influence on this album). Don’t worry, Mascis guitar prowess is still on display, in this case, finger picking his way through one bittersweet ode after another. Then again, one of my favorite moments on “Seven Shades of Why” is when Mascis’s guitar returns to the stomp box for a quick Dinosaur Jr guitar solo at the end of “Where Are You,” just a quick reminder that he still has plenty of Guitar God power in his back pocket if his long silver locks ever do get cut off.
I’ve been trying to post only audio clips as not to slow down my page, but I couldn’t resist displaying Mascis’s trippy video for “Not Enough”:
7. Fucked Up
“David Comes To Life”
I have to confess that Fucked Up’s “David Comes To Life” shouldn’t be on this list. While coming up with it, I made the rule that all albums had to be released before June 1st in order to be considered, just to make life easier. “David Comes To Life” came out on June 7th of course, so what gives? For one, I’ve actually been listening to several of the tracks off the new album plus a handful of other rarities for a couple of months now. The Montreal-based band is so fan friendly that they gave free downloads of rare material for those that pre-ordered the album. But that’s still no excuse. I guess it boils down to this: with something this great, I couldn’t just sit on my hands until December. That would be, dare I say, fucked up.
Now that I have the entire album, my adoration for this hardcore-rock-opera has only grown more. In 2008 I placed the band’s “The Chemistry of Common People” in my top 10, saying that it saved hardcore. The band is back to their savioring ways, this time resurrecting rock n’ roll. The riffs on “David Comes To Life” tear out the speakers with sharp edges that cut their way into your brain. This is the type of riffage you’d find on a Bon Scott era AC/DC album, and the wall of guitar carnage is comparable to the multi-layered assault of Queen’s Brian May. Unlike May, who sat in a studio for weeks at a time recording a guitar over a guitar over a guitar, Fucked Up utilize three guitarists, often recording all together in one take. It’s truly teamwork at its finest with each guitar not simply backing the other up, but providing flourishes to fill the entire canvas.
Pink Eye’s vocals are the one piece in the band maintaining that hardcore sensibility, barking out one anger-laced tale of heartbreak after another. Unlike “The Chemistry of Common People,” this album never rests to take a breath. It is one backbreaking anthem after another for 80 minutes straight. As you’d expect, this can be a bit daunting, yet it’s totally fulfilling (if you can survive the Armageddon). Any other band would have cut out songs or saved half of them for the next album, but Fucked Up aren’t like any other band.
“The Other Shoe” will have you nodding your head and pumping your fist as you sing along to the chorus of “Dying on the inside!”:
6. Death Grips
[Third Worlds; 2011]
Not only is “Exmilitary Mixtape” the best rap album of 2011 so far, it might be the most unique rap album of the past 10 years. Death Grips is the side-project of Hella drummer Zach Hill, and his mastery of the “unpredictable” surprisingly translates well to hip-hop with 48-minutes of nightmarish madness. The beats are glitchy and jittery, the bass lines booming and foreboding, and the screaming vocals violent and cannibalistic: basically, it’s an Aphex Twins album for the world of hip-hop.
The entire album plays like a mix-tape (because it is I suppose) with each song blending into another vicious attack, resulting in a nonstop assault on the listener. Hill’s love of music is apparent with samples from all ends of the spectrum: Pet Shop Boys, Link Wray’s “The Rumble,” Black Flag, and even audio of Charles Manson. The use of the Manson audio to open the album is no mistake. “Exmillitary Mixtape” resembles what is probably going through Manson’s head at this very moment.
This past week I watched the entire first season of “Game of Thrones” and as I revisited “Exmilitary Mixtape” for this list, I couldn’t help but thinking of Khal Drogo: savage, fiery, and sadistic. Stretching boundaries like Tribe Called Quest did in the 90s, Death Grips could easily be called Tribe Called Dothraki.
I’m not quite sure what a “Death Yon” is but I’m definitely feeling it:
[Dot Dash; 2011]
When I finally figured out this mid-year list, I was a bit shocked that Snowman’s “Absence” ended up being this low due to how often I’ve listened to it over the past few months. Although the albums ranked above it are masterpieces, “Absence” is no slouch. It’s depressing to think that this is their last album, breaking up before it was even released.
A month ago I wrote of “Absence”: “An easy approach to reviewing an album is comparing it to what has come before. Whether it sounds like Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” or Ziggy Stardust, the use of compare and contrast helps guide the reader toward what they are in for with a certain album. With ‘Absence,’ my guiding light is, well, absent. It is both brooding and sinister like Earth and Pyramids, but you’d be hard-pressed trying to find any distortion here. It’s filled with harmonizing, ghostly vocals, but it is far and away from anything resembling Bon Iver or Panda Bear. It has the synthy pulse of Four Tet and Flying Lotus, but the drumbeats take more from tribal territories than dance clubs. There is no need to pigeonhole it: this is Snowman; this is ‘Absence’.
The atmosphere of Snowman will have your mind reeling with visions, your heart beating with anticipation. I realize that the word ‘atmosphere’ gets thrown a lot in music reviews (it’s become somewhat of a crutch for me) but in this case, it truly transports you to a temple of both solitude and mystery. It somehow calms the soul, yet builds a tension within.”
“A” will catch you off-guard, so prepare yourself:
Last year on his EP “Archer of the Beach,” Dan Bejar included the song “Grief Point,” an eight-minute ramble about his confusion on the role of music in his life and the lives of his listeners. Fortunately he had one more album for us all to enjoy, and he’s made sure not to follow expectations.
While many artists draw their musical inspiration from 80s sounds such as new wave and post-punk, Destroyer borrows from the most unpopular of 80s music forms – smooth jazz. Yes, smooth jazz: electronic piano plinks, cheesy saxophone solos a la Kenny G, echoed trumpets, and new agey synth walls fit for a massage parlor. Rather than going with lo-fi which he perfected decades before it was cool, the songs on “Kaputt” are done in the most produced of all musical forms.
He’s not using the form ironically like Beck used funk for “Midnight Vultures.” Bejar’s said in interviews that this album is about America, and if so, the smooth jazz form conjures up the 80s, a time of superficiality and indulgence, both prominent attributes of “Kaputt.” Despite these two unsavory elements, Bejar has created one of the most honest albums of 2011 via one of the most superficial genres. He sings with confidence on songs that will make you feel like you’re alone, roaming city streets in the fog at night in search of something: a taxi, another drink, or a long lost love. When he sings that “we built this city on ruins,” he’s not only playing off the Jefferson Starship song, but he’s also making a statement about the state of our nation today. As expected, Bejar is still writing tongue in cheek lyrics that are both amusing and insightful. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last we get from one of America’s finest songwriters.
“Song For America” would probably be Patrick Bateman’s favorite song:
3. Fleet Foxes
The first time I heard the opening line to “Helplessness Blues” first track “Montezuma,” I couldn’t help but have an emotional reactio: “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” A few weeks back a friend of mine on Facebook posted the exact same lyrics, and I wondered how many other aging drifters out there connected to Robin Peckfold’s tender lyrics.
I think that’s what makes “Helplessness Blues” such an incredible album. I’m not sure if it’s the lyrics, the guitar arrangements, or Pecknold’s soft voice, but I listen to this album and feel like it is a private, personal experience. The fact that thousands across the world are having that similar encounter tells me that this is more than a simple folk album. It somehow creates community through intimacy, if that makes any sense.
I often listen to music too much with my ear, analyzing them more than necessary, but with Fleet Foxes, I listen with my heart. I can’t necessarily break down what they do that is so great; okay, I could (harmonizing, break-downs, etc) but I don’t want to. The songs stir up the nostalgia and regret felt with old age, yet for some reason I don’t find it to be a total bummer of an album. Despite song after song of depressing tales, I sense in Pecknold’s voice a grain of hope. By the time the final track arrives, “Grown Ocean,” the narrator has realized that he can’t change his mistakes, so he continues on as the wide-eyed walker introduced on “Battery Kinzie,” always moving forward toward an unknown horizon.
On “Lorelai” he compares old age to being trash on the sidewalk, yet the guitars, melody, and mandolin only cause one to smile:
2. PJ Harvey
“Let England Shake”
[Vagrant/Island Def Jam; 2011]
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t pay attention in history class during high school. I could blame my lack of historical knowledge on my mediocre teachers, but it is entirely my fault for being too preoccupied with girls, sports, and rock and roll. Now, when in a discussion with others that pertains to anything in history (American or world) I find that I know almost nothing.
This lack of knowledge becomes even more frustrating when listening to “Let England Shake,” PJ Harvey’s intricate collection of songs about England’s history. The songs focus primarily on WWI, although the remnants of this war have apparently cast a shadow on modern Britain (this is an assumption based on PJ’s lyrics; not on anything I learned in history class). I find myself listening to “Let England Shake” again and again due to its collection of memorable songs, each distinct in its own way. And although I don’t know anything about the Gallipoli campaign, the Anzac trench, or Battleship Hill, PJ provides enough hints for even a dolt like myself to grasp the message within her imagery of “a pile of bones,” “Deformed children,” and soldiers that “fall like lumps of meat.” The lyrics read like a book of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. Harvey creates a unique dichotomy by pairing her gruesome descriptions of war within high-spirited songs that range from reggae, pop, and folk. As a result, the ugliness of war is anesthetized and treated in the same way it is in a textbook, revealing the facts in a way that is disconnected from those that lost their life. In the end, that’s the message of the album; all the soldiers died so that the ideal Britain could live on, when ironically that British ideal is now dead itself. I guess I learned something after all.
The lyrics to “All and Everyone” had to be taken from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” I swear it!:
1. Kurt Vile
“Smoke Ring For My Halo”
Was there any doubt who would be at #1? Anyone who follows my blog knows how much I adore Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring For My Halo.” I over-killed this album so severely that I hadn’t listened to it for three months in fear of ruining my enjoyment forever. Yet, for this list, I knew I had to revisit it in order to see where it placed. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed and found the feelings associated with this album quickly resurfacing.
Here’s what I wrote of the album back in March: “On the surface, Vile’s album doesn’t seem like much more than a collection of slow strum-bling and mumblings of a sarcastic, disaffected youth. But this isn’t just some jangly, patch-work of songs; a closer analysis and you’ll quickly see that every song is intricately constructed within a lush, cave-like environ that only magnifies the creaks and buzzing of Vile’s acoustic. While he seems all alone with only the ghosts of his band the Violators hiding in the background, the production hugs his vocals and creates an ambiance that is one part groove, and one part melancholy. Much like Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ each song on ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ is distinctly different, yet they all feel to be a part of the same world. It never feels like Vile is giving much effort, but don’t be fooled. This man is wearing his heart on each note captured on this album.
Vile’s lyrics also portray this feeling of indifference, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is a lot of pain being masked behind his nonchalance. For example, on ‘Ghost Town’ he mumbles: ‘Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / but I don’t pay ‘em any mind. / Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.’ Instead of a message facing adversity with ‘I will survive,’ Vile’s lyrics convey a feeling of simply giving up and continuing his journey of ‘Sleep walking through a ghost town.’ These white flag mantras are throughout the album, whether it be giving up on religion, society, love, or life.’
I’ve read several articles that compare Kurt Vile to Tom Petty, and although I don’t totally see it, “In My Time” is pretty damn Petty:
Somewhere in between this ocean and mountainside
I have this dream I think of it still sometimes
I know it’s just the season
I sense no time or reason
The sky falls down; it’s evening
The feeling goes; it’s leaving
The Dodos “The Season”
We returned to downtown Spearfish around 8 a.m. and headed to Alpine Coffee. As I was ordering up a grande Mocha, the girl behind the counter commented, “I love your shirt. Two Gallants are awesome.” The cute little red head in horn-rimmed glasses smiled and went off to make my drink. While waiting, I decided Spearfish would be a great place to live: a great micro-brew, the limitless possibilities the canyon offered, and beautiful women who appreciate quality beer and good music. My July 4th was off to a great start, and I knew it would only get better with The Dodos playing at the end of our day’s journey.
Once I had my coffee and Paul his bagel, we returned to the road, heading north toward Montana. We thought about backtracking for a couple hours to see Mount Rushmore, but we knew Bozeman sat 500 miles away. With Paul at the wheel, I began perusing our collection of Black Hills brochures. While reading a short article about Mount Rushmore’s construction, it mentioned that many questioned the addition of Theodore Roosevelt. It made sense; Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington are legendary presidents while Roosevelt was just some dude who had a moustache. Teddy is like the Ringo Starr of Rushmore – the untalented guy lucky to be standing awkwardly behind the rest of the other three geniuses.
With Paul being a history major, I decided to bring this point up to him. He of course disagreed with me. “Roosevelt is probably my favorite president.”
Figuring he had the wrong Roosevelt, I responded, “You mean FDR right?” (My favorite president).
“No! Teddy was the man. He used to have boxing matches in the White House. When McKinley died, a lot of people hated him because he was this uncivilized cowboy. He didn’t give a shit what anybody said.”
Paul went on to explain how Teddy was nothing “like Bush.” He talked about how Teddy was a huge conservationist, setting aside 16 million acres of land for national parks, which also pissed people off. He was in charge of the Panama Canal, was the first president to ride in a submarine, and often took expeditions to Africa to hunt elephant. Paul continued rambling off strange tidbits about Roosevelt, and after 10 minutes, I was questioning whether FDR was even my favorite Roosevelt.
I decided I wasn’t going to give up on my argument just yet. “Okay, okay, Roosevelt sounds like a rebel, but he still doesn’t deserve to be on Rushmore. The other three are legends.” Paul then spent another 10 minutes discrediting the American mythology of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. I tried to defend Lincoln, but my lack of knowledge left me with little to shield the bearded fellow. I had to give it to Paul; I hated history in school, but his unique perspective on these presidents’ legacies had my full attention. I could tell he was fascinated by the subject matter, and for the first time I got a glimpse of the great teacher Paul would be in the classroom.
This oldey time cartoon forgot to include "Bad Ass".
As we rolled into Belle Fourche, South Dakota, we noticed people in lawn chairs lining the sidewalks. We deducted that we had just beat the start of the Belle Fourche 4th of July Parade. Paul slowed the vehicle, rolled the windows down, and commenced waving to the perplexed Belle Fourch-ians. I grabbed our plastic American hats (bought during our shopping spree) and threw them on our heads, giving our float a patriotic flair. The looks we received were a combination of annoyance, disgust, and confusion. They must have been wondering, “Who are these Texans riding in a strange orange box car?” I would have felt like more of an ass if it weren’t for the little kids waving back; they thought we were the start of the parade – the grand marshals.
"Look kids! They let the special kids drive the short bus this year!"
After getting us through Wyoming and into Montana, Paul seceded his driving duty so he could take a nap. Despite my 5 a.m. cow wake up call, I was full of energy from either the excitement of seeing The Dodos or the mocha I slurped down in 15 minutes. With Mission of Burma’s “Vs.” blaring, I flew through the endless green hills of Eastern Montana, crossing multiple Indian reservations. I actually had the opportunity to see Mission of Burma in Denver with Paul – it was one of his many failed attempts at getting me to head west. I don’t regret missing the elderly band, who are pushing 60. They are still releasing great albums 25 years after “Vs.”, but I’ve already had bad experiences with seeing great artists in the twilight of their career. (Paul and I saw Bob Dylan mumble through an hour set at the 2001 Iowa State Fair. The night would have been a complete wash if it weren’t for us spending the majority of the show trying to sneak past the security guards.)
Seeing Mission of Burma back in 83′ is a different story:
When “Vs.” finally finished, we pulled over for a quick roadside lunch of cold ham sandwiches and Doritos. It was a nice relaxing meal, out in the middle of Montana without a house in sight, just miles and miles of hills and mountains. We cut our lunch short when a swarm of bees decided to join us. Paul took over driving. My two hours of rest in the land of screaming monkeys had finally caught up with me. I instantly fell into a deep sleep, but it lasted about 10 minutes. This was due to Paul’s music choice, Albert Ayler, a guy he claims is jazz music. The honking saxophone over the endless drum roll sounded nothing like the smooth jazz of Charlie Parker that I grew up on. The album contained two 20 minutes songs, both lacking any semblance of a melody. I have no doubt that my four year old niece could sit down with a saxophone and sound better than this garbage. I tried blocking out the music, but the racket continued jolting me from the brink of slumber.
"Hello Mr. Ayler. I challenge you to a saxophone duel!"
Here’s one of Albert’s “short” songs:
Being both grumpy and exhausted, I finally spoke up. “This has to be the worst excuse for jazz I’ve ever heard.” Paul ignored my comment, although he seemed irritated, and continued listening to what resembled a 5th grade marching band. Paul has always preferred noise over harmony. He likes early Animal Collective – I like their newer, more melodic stuff. When he heard the new Deerhoof, which I adore, he commented, “Why’d they have to start writing songs?”
Here’s the era of Animal Collective that I enjoy most:
…and here’s the era of Animal Collective Paul enjoys most:
With Ayler blaring away, I remained sleepless all the way to Billings. We pulled into downtown to check out our first brewery of the day, Billings Brewing Company. The city streets resembled a ghost town, with only an occasional homeless person stumbling down the street. By the time we found the brewery, we already knew it would be closed. We were right. Disappointed by our first failure of the day, and with both of us thirsty for a 4th of July beer, we decided to take a southern detour to Red Lodge so we could visit Red Lodge Ales Brewing Company. The scenic drive lightened my spirits. The curving, hilly path led us along the edge of The Big Slide Mountain. What I thought were mountains earlier in the drive didn’t compare to the peaks surrounding Red Lodge. The contrast of the gray mountains and the bright green hills encapsulated us with the kind of vivid colors that would give a kid epileptic seizures.
Nature's version of the NES game "Monster in My Pocket"
Red Lodge reminded me of any small town you see in Iowa, only that it was surrounded by mountains instead of corn fields. We drove down one of the few paved roads in town, leading us directly to a faded yellow machine shed with a sign reading “Red Lodge Ales”. It didn’t look like much, but we decided to check it out. Inside, we found a bar packed with people of all ages, ranchers in cowboy hats, elderly in their 4th of July best, and young hippies in hemp gear. I couldn’t believe how many people were in this little brewery. Red Lodge is only a town of 2,500. In Billings, population 90,000, not a creature was stirring, but in this little village everyone came out to enjoy a locally brewed beer for the holiday. After waiting in line to get our first brews of the day, we sat on the back patio and enjoyed the view of hazy mountains in the distance, Yellowstone stood right before us.
Machine shed or brewery?
I came to the conclusion that the quality of their beers hadn’t drawn all the business. Not that they tasted horrible, but they also didn’t have anything spectacular on tap (their best beer had to be the 10 year aged bock with a surprisingly sweet finish). I began to think about whether my hometown could support a brewery. Currently, if you want a tap beer in Estherville your choices are Bud Light and Bud Light. Would these Midwesterners break away from their light beer disillusionment and enjoy a lager packed with flavor (and alcohol content)? I doubted it. Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate to be here with these small town folk celebrating the 4th of July in their local brewery.
Walking back to the car, Paul was already feeling a bit tipsy, so I took up the driving once again. When I noticed him trying to sleep, I decided it was time for a little revenge. No, I wasn’t going to find noise to play – he’d enjoy it too much. I scoured my i-POD for an album jam-packed with infectious melodies. And there it was, the perfect poison to piss off Paul: Vampire Weekend.
30 seconds into “Mansford Roof” Paul’s eyes popped open. “What the hell is this?”
I ignored him, singing along to “I see a Mansford roof through the trees, I see a salty message written in the eaves.”
“Damn it, what the hell is this?”
“The ground beneath my feet, The hot garbage and concrete, and now the tops of buildings, I can see them too!” I sang at the top of my lungs.
“This is Vampire Weekend isn’t it?…Isn’t it!?” He grabbed the i-POD and looked in disgust.
I slyly smiled at him and continued singing along to the upbeat music. He laid back down for a bit, but by album’s end, he was sitting up at full attention. I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed the music or not. As “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” came to an end, he gave his final diagnosis. “Tracks two and three were amazing…the rest of the album sounds too much like Paul Simon’s African crap.” I agreed with him, although I’ve never found fault in Simon’s “African crap”.
Next we stopped in Livingston to check out Neptune’s Brewery. When we pulled up, it looked nothing like a brewery but more like a townie bar. The same vibe continued as we walked through the door. Maybe we were at the wrong place?
“Uh, is this the brewery?” I asked the girl behind the bar.
“Well, it’s just a bar first, but we do serve Neptune Beers.” I was confused. Is it a brewery or not? She went on to explain that a brew master rents out the back room to brew his beers. The bar serves his creations on tap, although not exclusively. We ordered a couple burgers and began sampling the drinks they had to offer. We were disappointed to say the least: the Bavarian was unusually dark and strange tasting, the Belgian resembled cheap rum, and the IPA was a mix of Pine Sol and gin. We had one beer left to sample: Toad’s Back Boch.
“This is Neptune’s most popular beer,” she said handing me my pint. I lifted the brown concoction to my nose and quickly pulled away due to the pond water stank wafting from the glass. I held my breath and took a swig. The name was fitting. It tasted exactly like a toad’s back, or at least what I would suspect. The syrupy texture hit my palette like a nuke, overpowering my taste buds with its mixture of rotted corpse and old people’s homes, finishing off with a bitter, dusty dry aftertaste. I couldn’t help but squint my eyes and wrinkle my brow at what, to this day, is the worst beer I’ve ever tasted.
When the bartender saw my sour look, she giggled and said,” I never said it was my favorite beer. I don’t like any of the beers he makes.”
Like licking a toad's back, minus the hallucinations.
We put the horrible Neptune experience behind us and drove the final leg of our day’s drive. Once in Bozeman, we zig-zagged through the streets for 20 minutes searching for both the VFW and a possible camping spot. We didn’t find any place to set up the tent, but we did finally come upon the VFW – a tin red garage, set back 20 feet from the road.
When we entered the bar it was pretty empty, except a girl sitting at the bar and a group of guys playing pool. While I made a bathroom run, Paul asked the bartender if he knew a place we could camp for free. The pony tailed metal band reject told Paul we were more than welcome to set up our tent behind his house. Upon hearing this option I felt uneasy. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a serial killer’s backyard. We decided to wait and see what the night would bring, keeping in mind we always had the scary looking bartender’s lawn as an option.
We sat down at the bar next to one of the only other patrons, a middle aged woman dressed like an orphan flower child. Her freckled face smiled at Paul, and she jumped straight into a conversation. She definitely wasn’t shy. I became instantly annoyed. When she found out we were from out of town, she began regaling stories of all her run-ins with the Bozeman police force, with each story ending in the statement, “You don’t mess with a Montana woman.” When I noticed the long-haired bartender glaring at her, I knew I wasn’t alone in my disdain. I couldn’t stand her yapping any longer, so I stood up, hoping Paul would catch my drift to escape from the rambling wreck. But Paul didn’t budge; he actually seemed to be enjoying her company (or he was trying to score some old lady ass).
Paul taking a moment to appreciate our freedom in front of the Bozeman VFW.
With people starting to arrive, I strolled casually around the VFW trying to entertain myself. I’d glance over at the bar occasionally to find the woman’s mouth still chattering endlessly. When th opening act started – some fat sweaty dude playing Elliot Smith covers – I made the conscious decision to get shit-faced in order to enjoy my seclusion/boredom. I chugged one Olympia beer after another, occasionally rejoining Paul and his new friend, the yammering mess. The conversation had moved on from the Bozeman police to the local tourist destinations we should check out. Her new catch-phrase was, “I should know, I’ve lived here for 25 years.” When I heard her say this for the third time, I echoed drunkenly,” How long have you lived here?” Followed by, “So would you describe yourself as a Montana woman?” She didn’t get my sarcasm, nor did she sense how much I loathed her.
I filed outside with the other patrons to check the fireworks being shot off at the local rodeo. I sat down at a picnic table behind the bar and watched the bursting colors in the Montana night sky. I began thinking about how exactly a year ago I watched fireworks in Lake Havasu, Arizona with my buddy Justin LeSieuer. I hadn’t talked to him for a couple months, but he seemed to be doing fine, still living with his girlfriend and her daughter. The year before he dreamed of getting out of the place he referred to as hell, but now it seemed like those aspirations had settled like the firework ashes falling from the sky.
Midway through the fireworks, Paul came out and sat next to me. He joked about the annoying woman as we looked on at the night sky. When the display came to a close, the crowd began scattering back into the bar to hear another local artist do his best Tom Waits impression. All that remained outside were the three pool playing guys, now sitting in the grass, and Paul and I on the picnic table. While Paul was lighting up a cigar, the three guys stood and began screaming the National Anthem, waving their arms around maniacally at the mountains silhouetted by the moon. When they reached the line “which so proudly we hail” Paul joined in on their mini-drunken choir. Soon the five of us were howling the anthem up toward the starry sky, feeling the cool Montana breeze wash over us. After screaming, “AND THE HOOOOOME OF THAAAAAAA BRAAAAAAVE!” the three guys fell to the grass in laughter.
One of them turned back toward us and yelled,” Nice singing boys!”
It was then that I realized, who our choirmates had been: The Dodos. The same band we’d driven two days straight to see. Instead of being a fanboy, lauding them with my love of their music, I calmly replied, “Thanks!” and then turned to Paul whispering, “That’s the Dodos.” He nodded his head and smiled as cigar smoke rolled out of his mouth and upward, congealing with the settling firework smoke. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 4th of July: watching fireworks behind a VFW in Montana, and singing the national anthem with the Dodos. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.