The best rock album of 2012 – not that it matters – was Local H’s Hallelujah! I’m a Bum, a concept album about politics, money troubles, and Chicago weather. For a band that specializes in concept albums, Local H has kept their music remarkably unpretentious over the past 20 years. They remain two men, singer/guitarist/bassist Scott Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair, bashing out blocks of rock with riffs and hooks. Lucas’s lyrics are sometimes cryptic, but more in a goofy/absurdist way than a creepy/arty way. They can do searing rants like “Paddy Considine”, or songs of swollen-hearted empathy like “Say the Word”, and it all sounds connected to a larger theme.
Credit their expert sense of pacing – like movie directors they mix up long with short, loud with soft, and they revisit catchphrases throughout their albums. Also credit their refusal to over-elaborate. The songs are rooted in Chicago but the narrators are generic types who don’t say much, who clip their exposition to fit verses and choruses rather than the other way around, and that strategy ends up making their songs relatable and powerful.
In “Another February” (“slightly worse than January”), Lucas sings as someone spiraling into economic despair. Over an ominous guitar rumble, he sketches the scenario: “You’re digging out your car again… / The circle comes around, the bartenders are down / February comes again.” Even if you don’t keep an ice scraper in your car, you probably get the picture – this is humdrum everyday life in its grayest form. Depression turns to despair as Lucas pulls out his secret weapon, a paint-scrapingly sand-blastingly beautiful upper range:
“Oh God I lost the thread!
That goddam battery’s dead!”
From there, he and St. Clair take off into a huge lurching riff that fills in the blanks between Lucas’s stingy details:
“You bounce another check!
The dog’s a nervous wreck!”
As the owner of a nervous cat who recently started medication, I relate, and that seems to be Lucas’s goal – inserting just enough pinpoint details to give his tightly wound songs the illusion of life. Sometimes everydayness can fence in a song or make it seem like a writing exercise, but Lucas’s flair for the abrupt and uncanny, along with St. Clair’s massive and unpredictable drum patterns, gives these songs a jolt of immediacy.
Like most good concept albums, Hallelujah! has a couple experimental numbers. “Night Flight to Paris” and “Limit Your Change” are repetitive groove pieces in the vein of Hüsker Dü’s “Reoccurring Dreams”, from their conceptual landmark Zen Arcade. As with the Hüskers, Local H’s grooves rock. They also throw shiny sonic tchotchkes into the mix, like chipper falsetto “doo-doo-doo”s in “They Saved Reagan’s Brain” and rapid-fire horns in the blistering “Here Come Ol’ Laptop”. For variety, there’s one unconvincing country song; “Look Who’s Walking on Four Legs Again” sounds a little like Wilco, about as country as we Chicagoans get. The most notable gimmicks are the most potentially divisive – soundbites, in “Limit Your Change”, of Republican politicians saying silly things. Sarah Palin’s “hopey changey thing” and Mitt Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” are both here, and would seem to establish Local H as unrepentant liberals.
Not so fast! In the closing song “Waves Again”, Lucas sings, “Your Superman, he says ‘Yes we can’” – hey, I’ve got that guy’s bumper sticker! But to a swaying beat and a circling melody, Lucas goes on,
“But we’re grains of sand.
We get set free in waves again,
We’re saved again,
But no one wises up,
So no one will rise up.
Jesus saves again, again,
We get set free in waves.”
Maybe that’s cynical, but it’s also profoundly realistic. Like Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, Lucas takes aim at the machinations of the powerful over everyday people, regardless of political party. (One solid riff rocker calls them “The Ruling Kind”.) A young duo like Japandroids can sing YOLO b.s. like, “If they try to slow you down / Tell ‘em all to go to hell!” After early commercial success and years of respect on tiny labels, Local H is no longer afraid to slow down, and there’s something immensely comforting in that. “We get set free” – free from optimism, from false hope, from any expectation that we could be making a difference if we just tried a little harder to further other people’s political agendas. Lucas sings the empathy of the disillusioned.
Not that Local H is slacking off – they made a concept album that rocks harder than 90 per cent of last year, for Pete’s sake, and they remain at the top of their game. It’s just that, at this point in their career, Lucas and St. Clair know exactly what their game is, and they’re unwilling to play anyone else’s.