Shots is an entirely adequate way to burn half an hour
Alexi Lalas has spent much of his career attempting to rescue some shred of dignity while wearing denim. At the 1994 World Cup, he marched gallantly up and down the pitch in a denim-printed polyester jersey that was as inhospitable to soccer as it was to flop sweat. “We were like the cowboys of the world,” Tab Ramos told Slate. “Here we were, wearing jeans.” In press photos, Lalas’ teammates sat glumly in front of the kits, fully aware that posterity would look unkindly upon US Soccer’s sartorial choices. But not Lalas. In his defining photograph from the tournament, he is jumping in the air, his legs and arms spread wide. His shock of red hair and even more shocking beard immediately grab your attention. The denim kit is still a monstrosity, but it is not as noticeable, like a hole in a wall hidden by a painting. Through effort alone, Lalas conquered the denim terror, though not — it should be noted — Romário’s Brazil in the round of 16.
Having survived one deathmatch with denim, Lalas could be forgiven for choosing to never wear it again. Most of his teammates did. You don’t see Roy Wegerle out on the golf course in the full Canadian Tuxedo. He’s done with denim. But not Lalas. On the cover of his new album, Shots, he stares straight ahead, attempting to break the fourth wall while wearing a denim shirt jacket. He looks mildly grizzled, but in an earnest sort of way. Alexi Lalas doesn’t have to do this; he’s already proven that he can conquer denim. By that token, mind you, all of Shots is unnecessary; having proven all that he might need to prove, Alexi Lalas is still out there making music. In that respect, Shots is as compelling as it is unessential.
Alexi Lalas is not a bad musician. If you’ve come expecting joking allusions to William Hung or Florence Foster Jenkins, I can only disappoint you. Whereas the joke acts of years past are memorably atrocious, Lalas’ latest record is aggressively, competently unmemorable. Shots lives longer in the download screen than the memory. And that’s fine. Shots is a briskly paced pop-rock affair — 10 songs in 30 minutes — that does well not to overstay its welcome. I could rattle off names of far worse albums — ranging from the genuinely bad to the outright atrocious — for hours. That said, all of those albums are in their own way more memorable than Shots. If you can work up the energy to start listening, you will pleasantly make it to the end, and even be mildly amused along the way. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but these are not altogether bad qualities for an album to possess. The vocabulary of music criticism, however, relegates these traits to musak, which in turn undersells Shots. Lalas’ latest work therefore challenges our idea of what constitutes a good album.
The bigger challenge, however, might be explaining what Alexi Lalas is trying to prove at this point. This isn’t his first album, a distinction that belongs to 1996’s far more ponderous and country-inflected Far From Close, which featured two images of Lalas at his most Erlich Bachman on its cover and ended with a two-minute-long reprise of a song that had just finished clocking at five minutes. In subsequent years, Lalas released Ginger (here’s looking at you, Tim Minchin), So It Goes, and Infinity Spaces. If anything, Lalas is becoming more prolific with time. Shots is his third album in six years, which, if you’re keeping score at home, is the same rate as Taylor Swift’s output. Lalas has already proven that he can make passable music, but he’s still going.
Shots may not address soccer in its lyrics — Lalas tweeted that “American Outlaw” was inspired by the supporter’s group, but the only linkage is that both are a bit dull and white — but it nevertheless provides an insight into the fine margins of success. It is an album with which you can be entirely pleased while listening but that you’d never go out of your way to find if it wasn’t by Alexi Lalas. Shots is not a vanity project in the manner of ridiculous Knicks owner James Dolan’s band, but its main references to its creator’s desires are metatextual. This tension is fascinating yet fundamentally at odds with the music itself.
All of which is to say that there exists an alternate world where Alexi Lalas grew up as a competent but not particularly memorable musician. On its own, that might not have been enough. Just like your high school’s most talented musician, Bizarro Lalas would have remained talented but probably not have gone on to stardom. He had that extra 1% as a soccer player, but not as a musician. As Lalas’ most confident release, this tension is foregrounded in Shots.
Alexi Lalas is nevertheless still making music. He’d probably be doing it if he didn’t have a following. But he does, and so he isn’t singing into the void. And he keeps singing — not exceptionally, but competently. Shots has all the rock staples you might dream of having on an album: brisk solos, epic key-changes before a final chorus, and instruments dropping out during bridges so you can clap along with the drums. In that respect, the album is both stunningly milquetoast yet oddly personal. These are all the things you, too, might want to do if you could release a rock album. The lyrical longing of Far from Close’s “Under the Mountain” has morphed into something more atmospheric in the last twenty years.
In that respect, Alexi Lalas has a good deal to do with Jack Benny, the man wrongly credited with the maxim: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” As a comedian, Benny played the violin like a bumbling fool on his radio show. Indeed, a staple of his comedy involved reducing his violin teacher to a nervous wreck. In Benny’s hands, the noble instrument became a strangled rat screaming for dear life. Here was a man who could make a Stradivarius sound like a Studebaker. On occasion, however, he would appear at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall in support of various charities. The joke was all set up: here’s that joker Jack Benny about to make a fool of himself in front of a paying audience and professional orchestra! There was indeed some initial faffing about at these performances, described by one journalist as “more horsing around than in the Louisville stables the morning of the Kentucky Derby.” But once the comedy was over, Benny would play passably. That, too, may sound like damning with faint praise, but not embarrassing yourself with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall is accomplishment enough. Jack Benny was never on track to quit his day job, but in these moments he was far from his normal, cringe-inducing self. To the casual, observer, he might even have appeared to be good at playing the violin, which, in a sense, he was.
Jack Benny is rarely remembered as a passable violinist for the same reason few will remember Alexi Lalas as a rock musician: extreme competence holds little value in a highly competitive society. Below a certain threshold, you might as well be memorably bad instead of merely good enough. Novelty acts therefore live longer in the public consciousness than passable performers. Jack Benny and Alexi Lalas both had that extra magic in one field, but could not be satisfied with that alone. Shots may be the least confessional album this side of Cookie Monster’s C is for Cookie but it is nevertheless extremely revealing.
David Rudin is an editor at Howler and staff writer for Kill Screen. He tweets as @DavidSRudin and a few other things that needn’t be discussed here.