Jerry Lee Lewis with his balls on fire
People like me are always looking for the Holy Grail: an album that just completely kicks ass, something we can love with no regrets. Sparkle in the Finish is one of those discs for me this year, except funkier and smarter and sadder than the Holy Grail ever could was.
“Enough with the pretentious crap. Tell us what the album sounds like.”
Brief description: Ike Reilly, as he showed on 2001’s Salesmen and Racists, is a songwriter who loves words, who wraps himself in the possibilities of human language. He is equally indebted to folk music and hip-hop and country music, for the freedom and ambiguity of their metrical lines and themes, but he also likes to just go nuts and rock out. His voice is touching and powerful without actually being very good, but his songs are so catchy and deep that you don’t want anyone else to sing them.
“Hey, wait, we’ve heard of this guy before, when he was called Beck! Hahaha!”
Oh, shut up, Ike Reilly would snap Beck in half with two fingers and move on to the next challenge. The first song here, “I Don’t Want What You Got (Goin’ On)”, is the most Beck-sounding thing here, and for that reason I don’t really know why they put it up front, except maybe because it is the funnest thing recorded by any American musician in this young century so far. Over a minimalist funk beat laid down by the Assassination (featuring a guitar riff that sounds VERY MUCH like something off of Odelay), Reilly spins a Chicago-style hipster narrative, one where he’s telling a story and you’re right there with him until you realize you have no idea where you both are: “Chuck Berry Cadillac / Ludacris Cadillac / Jerry Lee Lewis with his balls on fire / In the back of a Rocket 88 / With an out of state plate / And an underage date.” The guitars blast away on the chorus, Reilly gets all worked up thinking about how he wants to be famous but doesn’t want the compromises that that will bring. Beck Hansen would never stoop so low, which is why he sucks now and why Ike Reilly is my new hero.
There are so many reasons to love this record that I cannot even express them. Number One in my heart is the monster Grand Funk / Sweet riff that kicks off “Our Lady of Arturo” that then melts into a beefed-up version of Bob Dylan blues (Blonde on Blonde-era), incorporates a spoken-word break, and culminates in a harmonica/guitar noize-fest spurred on by Reilly’s tossed-off “I wanna play the harp now”. This is probably, though, tied at #1 with the other “harp” song, “St. Joe’s Band”, which starts off like a story about playing in garage bands at parties thrown by rich girls but turns out to be a pissed-off prayer to God from a dead man… what else are we supposed to make of a song talking about playing “the harp” that culminates with the line “But I don’t play the harmonica”?
There is freaky poetry shit all over the place here, incredibly seductive for people who actually listen to what kind of things a singer says. “Ex-Americans” is a wonderful closer, a long droney no-power-ballad that paints a very clear picture of something I can’t quite make out: “At the poolside I see her / Getting sun with her old man / Fueled by the sex of injustice / And wiggling to the beats of the Ex-Americans / Could I drink free to what you believe in / Or until I get myself a tan / Who could love me, so white and so loaded / Miss Ex-American?” Reilly drops phrases like “those statutory eyes” and references Hammond, Indiana and Waukegan, Illinois, the synthesized strings come in, the guitar sounds turn cosmic… oh, man, my heart stops every time. It’s not fair.
But you don’t have to care what Reilly is saying when his band is so hot. “Whatever Happened to the Girl in Me?” is a straight-ahead Mellencamp-on-scrotum-shrinking-steroids tune with a grindy bar-band determination to get free; it even has a breakdown that breaks up with a few awesome “yeah yeah yeah” chants. I have no idea why Ike Reilly’s inner girl has disappeared, or if this means some other girl that got under his skin, or both, or neither—it’s all about that dope beat, those brave guitars, that anguished voice singing about whatever the hell he’s singing about.
This is a lot less hip-hoppy than Salesmen and Racists, which had some straight-up rap tracks—Reilly has absorbed this influence and doesn’t need to brag and show off all about it anymore. I really love songwriters who know their history, and it’s clear that Reilly is on some encyclopaedic shizzle. “Garbage Day” manages to rip off a song I thought unrip-off-able: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”. But that incomprehensible song has here turned into a weird post-apocalyptic story about meeting a cute girl at an execution but missing an old girlfriend too much to get busy with her later when they meet again at “a strip joint in the basement of a transient hotel”. That makes it better than “Cecilia,” hands down; Reilly is a Paul Simon with the courage of his convictions. He is also able to convey incredible loneliness in a song that features lines like “the limpest biscuit of them all was money at the door”. I mean, what the hell is going on here?
Oh I could go on: the 6/8 Eric Burdon/Derek and the Dominoes crunch of “Ballard of the Choir Boy Bank Robber”; the lo-fi blues of “Waitin’ for Daddy” describing a drug-fueled binge spurred by the death of a hated but rich father; the very Jonathan Richman and/or Lou Reed-ish strut of “Holiday in New York” focused on impotence and industry and intoxicants; oh man. This record got me sprung, yo.
If I was going to be pretentious about it, I’d say that Ike Reilly has tapped into something very American, very real, very important. Or I could just say that this record kicks my ass like it’s Ron Artest and I just threw a beer at it.