Friday, May 27, 2011

What's New?: 5.27.2011

U2 — Under a Blood Red Sky (1983)

U2's first live album — and a good one too. The song selection is bit on the crowd pleasing side, but with the addition of two non-album songs ('Party Girl' and the especially great '11 O'clock Tick Tock') it really goes past being just for the die hard fans. The versions played here aren't very different from their studio counterparts, mostly just played a bit faster. The way Adam Clayton's bass is mixed in 'New Year's Day' finds him taking on an almost Peter Hook-ish tone, which doesn't necessarily work, but ultimately makes the song stick the most out of everything they play. Absolutely no surprises, but gosh darned good in any case.

Midnight Oil — Place Without a Postcard (1981)

Pretty standard pop/rock sound on this album. Glyn Johns' production is clean and no nonsense. The songs are probably better for it, although it does get a bit samey. No duds in the bunch though. And, as always, the band is political without sounding too preachy (I mean, anybody who gets as political as they do is inherently a little preachy). I really like the more introspective rocker 'Basement Flat' because it captures the lonely feeling of isolation that one often experiences in city living. Overall, it's a good indicator of the whole album. Of all the Midnight Oil albums I've checked out so far, it's by far the least assured as far as subject matter goes. Still, I dig it.

Jon Anderson — Olias of Sunhillow (1976)

It basically sounds like a super mellow Yes album. No guitar noodling from Steve Howe or ridiculously fast keyboard twinklings by Rick Wakeman. There is nothing here musically that you would not see coming if you are a Yes fan. I guess there's a lot to be gotten out of the story that accompanies the album, but I haven't really dug into that aspect of it (and don't really plan to, honestly). I like it mainly because it takes all the little short passages of really pretty bits from Tales from Topographic Oceans as its jumping off point and just gets really mellow and really tuneful. Jon Anderson sings about the same sort of "mystical" nonsense as always, but it's in his great tenor range, so it all sounds good. Like all good things Yes-related, it's best moments are most appreciated when you take the entire thing in. As a fan of 70's Yes, it certainly satisfies my appetite for more of that sound. But, on its own, not amazing or anything.

Midnight Oil — Diesel and Dust (1986)

All produced and super shiny sounding, but gosh ding dang, the songs are fancy, aren't they? 'Beds are Burning' is so popular your grandma probably likes it too. 'The Dead Heart' was the other big single off the album and it's good too, but I think what I was really surprised at was how strong the whole thing is. It actually reminds a lot of U2's the Joshua Tree because both this album and that album were made by bands who had recorded (and had hits, here and there) for years before really hitting it big and both albums had a surprisingly dark tone to them, especially considering how popular they became. But, where the Joshua Tree just gloomed up its entire second half, Diesel and Dust ends with the awesome jangly pep talk of a rocker 'Sometimes.' So yeah, really good mid-80's big budget guitar rock. And hooks. Did I mention there's hooks for days on this thing?

Midnight Oil — Blue Sky Mining (1990)

Probably my favorite of the band's albums I've checked out so far. It takes the "sophisticated arena rocker" guise that Diesel and Dust began and perfects it. Blue Sky Mining feels like it's their best fusing of the political and the introspective. The title track is case in point. The great follow up, the 12-string jangler 'Stars of Warburton', just ups the ante with probably the band's best hook ever and the rest of the album follow suit. Mid-tempo rockers with jangly undertones and layered, thoughtful production. Sure, its keyboard patches and guitar effects date it by now, but the material is so strong, that doesn't matter. To end with the yearning, haunting ballad 'Antarctica' is just excellent. Really good album. Totally scored a sweet clear blue vinyl copy, too.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Sea and Cake — The Moonlight Butterfly

Either the band's shortest album yet or their best EP, the Sea and Cake is back and they've released another collection of songs that feels —yet again— like a breath of completely fresh air. While they've certainly done their share of branching out past their humble dual jangle guitar roots in their seventeen year career, with Car Alarm, they reasserted their prominence as one of the best jangle guitar bands around and this new one just coasts along on similar vibes.

The question of whether or not this is Sam Prekop's band is answered, as the title track here is a nod to his abstract experimental synthesizer revelation (last year's Old Punch Card), but it is so in a more streamlined way. It sounds straight out of the Old Punch Card sessions, but revised to fit the mode of the band. It's a sparkly soft synth instrumental that absolutely shouldn't work coming right after two charging washes of pure Sea and Cake pop magic —that would be the vintage super fast S+C opener 'Covers' and it's surprisingly psychedelic follow 'Lyrics' (which has an Eric Claridge bassline is so good and so melodic that you'd swear he was trying to be Peter Hook)— but instead, 'The Moonlight Butterfly' plays as a dreamy interlude.

The big shocker here is 'Inn Keeping' which, at ten and a half minutes, is the longest thing the band has yet recorded. At times, it almost feels like one of those 1980's "Extended mix" versions of songs that popped up on 12" singles that would awesomely drag a song out by letting each layer, each riff and each piece of the song build into the track every two or four bars and then just keep riffing away at the tune for another four or five minutes. I hesitate to call it one of the band's best songs just yet, but holy hell is it good. If nothing else, it showcases the Kraut Rock side of the band (which they have always possessed) in clear daylight. Sweet.

Sure, the heavy synthesizers from One Bedroom are back and all of them have a very similar sound to the tones heard on Old Punch Card (heck, even a fairly concise song like 'Up on the North Shore' ascends into layers of white out analogue bliss), but it's all filtered through the band's (rediscovered?) sense of longing melodies and their absolute perfection of layers of pure jangly harmonic euphoria.

It's easy to neglect a band like the Sea and Cake. And yet, they never let me down. Album after album, defiant change in sound, defiant non-change in sound or just flat out playing what sounds good, they have become something that is pretty much unquestionable in terms of criticism by this point. Sure, it's easier to sit back and admire at the pure beauty of their music, but it's also necessary to do that first, in order to fully understand why I love them for what they do.

Predictably outstanding.


What's new?: 5.19.2011 Part Two

Some random bits and pieces. . .

Dire Straits — Communiqué (1979)

Also found this one on the cheap and figured I should go for it since I just got the first album the other day. I like it, though it does sound like outtakes from the first album, honestly. A bit more of a reliance on standard blues rock cliches, maybe. But, again, as on the first album, it's all filtered through that wonderfully clean (Telecaster?) guitar tone that I just love. Not much to say about this one, but the songs are good — just not as consistently good as the first album. Highlights for me are the building 'Where Do You Think You're Going?', the 'Sultans of Swing' rewrite 'Lady Writer' and the great mellow closer 'Follow Me Home.' Overall, I think this one may actually capture the mood of early Dire Straits even more than the first album, it just doesn't have the higher highlights.

The Sea and Cake — The Moonlight Butterfly (2011)
Review coming shortly. . .

David Sylvian + Holger Czukay — Flux + Mutability (1989)

I've had Plight and Premonition for years and have known about this one for even longer. I always swore up and down that I'd buy it if I saw it. Well, I never saw it. So, I finally just ordered a used one from Amazon. It's actually really good. The first track ('Flux') and its subtitle ('A big, bright, colourful world') are actually very representative of the album and are in very stark contrast to Plight and Premonition. It's a lovely little seventeen minute tune that features an expanded band with David and Holger being joined by Michael Karoli (guitar), Markus Stockhausen (flugelhorn, of course) and Jaki Liebezeit (percussiony stuff). Of the four longform pieces that came out of David and Holger's collaborations, I'd say it's easily the best thing they did. 'Mutability' (subtitle 'A new beginning is in the offing') is a slower and much more sparse affair. It actually reminds me a lot of the ambient stuff on Gone to Earth in that it has a basic chord progression that it follows faithfully, keeping the piece from feeling like it ever rambles or serves no purpose. It's actually very soundtracky, come to think of it. Where Plight and Premonition was scattered and somewhat dark, Flux + Mutability is full of peace and satisfaction. In a very short time, it's become my favorite of the two albums. However, I can see why both are relevant. Good stuff.


What's New?: 5.19.2011 Part One

All dollar bin finds. . .

Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin IV (a/k/a 'Zoso' a/k/a 'Untitled') (1971)

Technically a re-acquisition, but never really heard with contemporary ears (read on for the full story). This would be the unidentified grey spine on the top of today's scan. I've really had a tough go of things with Led Zeppelin, honestly. I bought up their entire discography when I was twenty because I worked at a used record store and felt like I should dress it, if I was going to play the part. Never really got into it, honestly. Soon learned about all the stealing (or "borrowing" if you prefer it that way) they did and just couldn't jive with the longhaired rockstar attitude mostly. Fast forward ten years and I'm a Fairport Convention fan and kind of a lonely guy, so I'm prone to musical chance taking. Zeppelin IV for a buck? Why not? And guess what? Despite the stealing, despite Robert Plant's still kind of annoying screamy voice, I like it. It fulfills that "rockin' out" urge that I get every so often. I found Zeppelin III (easily the band's most "folky" album — a sure fit for me) at a thrift store (for seventy seven cents, no less) a few months back, so I've been taking that in as well lately. And I genuinely like it. I guess I can look past all the "borrowing" and rockstar posturing and just appreciate this (and III) for just really solid albums of a bunch of guys sitting in the studio just vibing off the same creative wave. I've been very outspoken in the past about how much I couldn't stand these guys, but, all along, I've been too much of a classicist to fully subscribe to that. Overplayed as it may be, you really do have to marvel at the outright scope of 'Stairway to Heaven.' It's essentially the first "power ballad" if you would like to apply that term. 'The Battle of Evermore' is the highlight for me because it takes the folk rock explosion and legitimately translates it to the hard rock crowd. Good stuff. Surprisingly.

U2 — Boy (1980)

October (1981)

and War (1983)

I've had a go of it with u2 over the years, as well. If you look at what they were doing and when they were doing it, it should have been a no-brainer that I should be into them. But, as I got into them in retrospect, I always had a hard time separating the band from the early 8o's from the Bono-led behemoth that I knew from the early and mid-9o's. A mixtape from Dave a while back (awesomely subtitled 'The Lillywhite Years' and fully consisting of material from these three albums) put me into a different train of thought entirely. Sure, I knew 'I Will Follow' and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' already. But what about 'An Cat Dubh' (and it's awesome segue into the equally awesome 'Into the Heart') or 'Stranger in a Strange Land' or even 'New Year's Day'? Yeah, I fucked up by judging the band by its contemporary output and not their roots. All three albums are just undeniably strong post-punk. The Edge's guitar —with all of its Mike Oldfield, John Martyn and Vini Reilly influences— is just ace throughout all three albums. And while I find that I like the first album the best, October seems to me to be very underrated. Because it's the most consistent of the three, by far, It lacks the gargantuan highlights of the two albums that surround it, but it's the more listenable of the three albums, that's for sure. Still, as solid as all this stuff is, I give the ultimate nod to the first album, just based on pure sound. Any album with a side one that strong has to be the best something. I still prefer Unforgettable Fire (and, to a lesser extent, Joshua Tree) to all of these albums. But good god damn, pleased as punch to finally have them around at my whim.

Midnight Oil — 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1983)

and Red Sails in the Sunset (1984)

I've long-avoided Midnight Oil for some reason or another. I have an early teen memory of watching Peter Garrett flail around like a madman on Saturday Night Live and thinking something along the lines of, "Australia must be weird." Who can say no to spending two dollars on a band you've wanted to check out for years? Certainly not I. 10 is a good record, but overwhelming. I mean, sheesh, it starts with the weird paranoia of 'Outside World' erupts into the schizo rock of 'Only the Strong' and then moves into the dark jangle of 'Short Memory.' And that's just the first three songs! It does have a strong strummy alt-pop base to it all and it especially gets good on side two. But I think the band really got cluster-effingly great on Red Sails in the Sunset. It takes all the angry, liberal Cold War paranoia to its absolute extreme (just have a look at the cover) and the tunes are there with just about every track. It is very mazelike, as songs will end abruptly and the next song will begin almost immediately, but it's pretty darn seamless and the whole thing hangs together as an entire piece. The subject matter, by nature, is pretty dark and this all comes to head with the first three minutes of 'Jimmy Sharman's Boxers' sounding like something not that far off from the Cure's Pornography. Overall, two really solid albums that I feel like I've really only touched the surface of so far. It will take many more listens for these to fully absorb.

Dire Straits — Dire Straits (1978)

It's been said before, but it's relevant as hell, so why not repeat the same old stuff: Dire Straits, especially on this album, was like a classic folk rock band playing through a post-punk mindset and production philosophy. I mean, to hell with the rest of their catalogue. But, seriously, listen to Mark Knopfler's jangly twangy guitar sound. How can anybody not love the George Harrison-style slide guitar on top of low-key, tunefully wah-wah'd rhythm strums and a nearly ambient sensibility in the atmospherics? Seriously, what is it that makes the sound of this otherwise nice (and, admittedly, refreshing; especially in 1978) roots-rock album so engaging? I guess that's just it: the low-key, genuine and stripped down sound of the production. Maybe it's because Mark Knopfler was nearly thirty by the time he released this album, but he sounds downright past all of the hype. Seriously, is this the band's first or last album? I can't tell. Much like R.E.M., they certainly never made another album quite like it. The riffs are definitely indebted to the blues, but sometimes, like on the rightful standout 'Sultans of Swing,' they take on a weird, angular pattern that clearly betrays the album's origin. Mark Knopfler may have known every Dylan and Robert Johnson lick in the book, but he was (perhaps subconsciously) playing with the punks and their offspring in mind. So, ultimately, this may be the perfect album for people like me: the type who have a short patience for classic rock and the blues as interpreted by 60's/70's rockers, but who also do love to hear that thing when done right and, most of all —and most importantly— love the punk and the new wave philosophy. Because this album certainly has all of that.

Romeo Void — Never Say Never EP (1981)

Basically continuing in the vein of their classic first album It's A Condition. I've always been a big proponent of that album since I first heard it about a decade ago. And, unfortunately, it's somewhat of a (still) lost American post-punk classic. Like the good independent-minded band that they were, they kept on and released this EP the same year as their debut album. It's pretty much a continuation of that album, with a bit more of a sheen in the production. But still, wow at how good these four songs are. Could've taken some of these, switched them out for lesser moments on It's a Condition and had a really stunning album that would've competed with the post-punk goliaths. Instead, I hear it as another swipe at greatness by a band that simply didn't know any better than putting the lyric "I might like you better if we slept together" in their initial shot at the charts (wtf do I know — it's actually their most popular song in hindsight). The other three songs here have that awesomely dreary post-Joy Division dark jangle sound to them, all laced with Ben Bossi's appropriate new wave sax and Deborah Iyall's articulately bleak words on human interaction. The whole thing is great and really makes you appreciate the band as one of the unsung heroes of American post-punk. 415 Records: salute.


Friday, May 13, 2011

R.E.M. in a nutshell.

I've dug back into R.E.M. after years of having a few of their early albums and honestly just neglecting them. As a fan of 8o's post-punk and indie guitar rock, it's very easy to overlook R.E.M. as one of the defining American bands of the 8o's for one simple reason: they're enormously popular. They started indie, went major, got huge, got bloated and got boring. But they've always at least remained interesting (most recently because of the circumstances and not the music; which is always unfortunate). After a conversation recently with a friend, I realized, I should say something about one of the best bands to ever do it. I will try to keep this somewhat contained to within a reasonable length, but I make no promises. Sticking to official albums and stopping where I feel like they really did lose it, here's R.E.M. in a nutshell. . .

Chronic Town (1981)

As good as they were later on, I still find that this five song EP is the most enduring and just downright best thing they've ever done. It's like a post-punk band trying to play like the Byrds. Too nervous and jittery to be able to sound so polished, but with enough (alluringly simple) melodic ideas to pull it off. All Music has famously remarked that R.E.M. marked the point where post-punk officially became 'alternative rock' and while I would agree, for this EP and its follow up, they were still playing firmly in the post-punk mindset. The guitars may jangle more than their other post-punk peers, but Mitch Easter's stark production and Bill Berry's bare bones drumming makes them sound essentially like a slightly more polished garage band. Highlight: 'Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)' wherein Michael Stipe's mumbly jumbly vocals seem fully formed already as he babbles on about "Chronic town, poster torn, weeping wheel" and then all of a sudden explodes into, "BOX CARS ARE TURNING OUT OF TOWN. BOX CARS." Still one of the band's definitive songs.

Murmur (1983)

Where Chronic Town's presentation was sparse and no-nonsense, Murmur's production is still clear and jangly, but it sounds like maybe there is extra reverb on everything. Also, the songs are a bit more obtuse in their structure. Besides the big riff and glorious chorus of 'Radio Free Europe', most of the songs avoid traditional structure altogether. A song like 'Laughing' is just flat out sparse brilliance, as its lyrics mean absolutely nothing, but its riff is undeniable. In the end, the band never made another album quite like how Murmur sounds. It's almost ambient jangle at some points. Totally unique sound and vision. Highlight: 'We Walk' probably because it has one of the only coherent sets of lyrics on the album.

Reckoning (1984)

I wouldn't have used the word 'artsy' to describe Murmur in its own review because it only seems like it is when you consider what came immediately before it and immediately after it. Because when an album like Reckoning comes along and still sounds revolutionary despite its staunchly conservative and classicist sound, everything comes into focus. There are some days I'd call this my favorite R.E.M. album. Just based on pure songwriting, this one knocks it out of the park within the first four tracks. Peter Buck famously remarked later on that he thinks side one of this album is the best single side of a record that the band ever did. I can't say I blame him. The riffs throughout are layered and evolving, the choruses are simple and effective as hell and the sequencing and consistency of the whole thing is just tops. Truly, this sounds less like a band forcing themselves into something and more like a band trying to keep up with the creativity that was obviously bubbling over. One of the most definitive jangle albums of all time. Highlight: Still 'So. Central Rain', despite maybe slight overplayage throughout the years. It's just one of those warm, fuzzy pop singles that became popular on sheer quality. The song's stature —and the rest of the album's, for that matter— has only grown with time.

Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

You know something's wrong when Peter Buck labors away at that nearly mathematical riff right off the bat on 'Feeling Gravity's Pull.' And make no bones about it: that song (the album's opener, no less) was the darkest and just downright bleakest thing the band had done at the time. Produced by Joe Boyd, recorded in England and bringing in some dreary string augmentations, this is R.E.M.'s slowest, darkest and just all around best album in my ears. Always has been, in fact. I like the sludgy riffs. I like the gloom. I love the slowness of the whole thing. At this point, the band could probably have farted in unison and it would've come out as a melodic idea for a glorious riff. But, when I say this album is dark and gloomy, recontextualize that for an R.E.M. setting. While you still get some pretty bleak-sounding stuff like 'Maps and Legends' and 'Kohoutek' (an extremely underrated song), it's all filtered through the band's modern folk rock slant, so it's not like the thing is competing with Joy Division or anything (well, maybe if PB had played that riff on 'Feeling Gravity's Pull' a little more sloppily and with some feedback — you get the idea). 'Driver 8' is just one of those magnificent R.E.M. jangle pop gems that sounds incredible every time I hear it. Just top stuff, man. Joe Boyd's production is a match made in heaven for this material because it's longing and melancholy, while not forgetting the bigger picture fact that this is still a guitar band trying to make a pop record. Really wonderful stuff. I often go back to it and marvel at just how damn good it is. Because it's that good. Highlight: 'Feeling Gravity's Pull' with its labyrinthine riff and weird —even for Michael Stipe at this point— surreal lyrics. Stone cold is how classic it is.

Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

In which, the formula for the R.E.M. album, as we now know it, is formed. It rocks out a little ('Begin the Begin'), it gets folky ('Swan Swan H') and, most of all, it's got a few downright resonatingly great jangle pop tunes ('Fall on Me' and the greatly underrated political track 'Cuyahoga'). It's fine enough, I suppose. But I guess it's the first album where I find that they got a bit complacent and comfortable for the first time. A comfortable R.E.M. is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's also not very interesting most of the time. Don't get me wrong, a three-and-a-half for an 80's R.E.M. album is like a twelve hundred for any other band. But it just feels for the first time like they didn't give it their all. And the album suffers because of that. Highlight: 'Cuyahoga' because of the g'damm chorus vocals. Just heaven, they are.

Document (1987)

Different approach to production, different sounds, generally strong results. 'Finest Worksong' is an awesome, and quite brilliant, opening song. I'm almost positive I'd hate it if it were anywhere else in the album sequence. But it just opens things up, rocking out, big dated mid-80's drum sound; great stuff. And then it just awesomely jangles away like it's trying to be Reckoning or something. Can I just say that, removed from overplayage and all the cultural baggage bullshit that it picked up, I think 'It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' is really a rather fantastic song? Would that make me a bad person at this point? Because structurally, melodically, rhythmically, it's pretty fucking sharp. The harmonies, the riffs. Sheesh. I can only imagine what it was like being a teenager in 1987 and hearing that for the first time. I was only six, so as much as I would like to pretend I was that hip, all I have is a hindsight appreciation. Call it overplayed and old by this point, but what a fucking monument, in the bigger picture. I nominate it for the esteemed title of "The indie rock 'Free Bird'." And then, just guess what the next fucking song is. I dare you. Fucking guess, man. Only 'The One I Love.' One of the greatest pop singles in history followed by it's little brother. The rest of the album is good and it ends with the awesome fan favorite 'Oddfellows Local 151' but what else can you say, honestly? It's got no less than two of the best songs ever written on it. What else do you want? Highlight: 'The One I Love.' Just because.

Green (1988)

I know this is a line in the sand for just about everyone familiar with the band. R.E.M. got really popular off of Document and its two incredible singles, so off to a major record label they went and all hell broke loose. As it usually does, the hype surrounding the ethics of such a thing overshadowed the actual music. And, in this case, they just maintained. Didn't get better, didn't get worse; just made the same old class act, left field pop that they had been doing for a while. If anything, it was actually a step towards a little more willfully inaccessible music. 'Pop Song 89' is a silly goof, but catchy as heck. 'Get Up' is slow and sludgy. 'You Are Everything' is quiet and folky. 'Stand' is another amazing pop single whose popularity overshadows its actual quality. And then, the next three songs are arguably the best hat trick that the band ever pulled off. 'World Leader Pretend' is an incredible political allegory set to a dark, lush folk rock backing. It's one of the best things the band ever did (and there's a reason that it's the only song that had its lyrics printed on the album sleeve). 'The Wrong Child' is just about the most convincing thing they ever did to sound like a real folk band (and it's surprisingly affecting). And then 'Orange Crush' is just a textbook example of an anthemic single gone completely right. One of the defining albums of "alternative" rock for a reason. Maybe not their overall best, but I think I may go back to it more than just about anything else in their catalogue. Highlight: 'World Leader Pretend' because it's simultaneously pompous and catchy. Just excellent music.

Out of Time (1991)

God, I hate 'Radio Song.' I like the message, but the actual execution is pee-pee poor. Overproduced, contrived funk rock schlock. And, as a whole, this album is overproduced in the classic sense. Keyboards where they don't need to be, big boombastic drum sounds and just that all around stock early 90's big budget sheen. But the songs are good, for the most part. I like 'Shiny Happy People' just because I probably have a secret crush on Kate Pierson that I haven't fully addressed yet — but I do understand why somebody wouldn't like it. 'Losing My Religion' is, again, one of those great jangly R.E.M. singles that just ballooned out of control and got too popular for its own good. Elsewhere, 'Near Wild Heaven' is one of the rare non-Michael Stipe sung R.E.M. songs that is genuinely good. 'Belong' is a strangely catchy half-spoken thing and 'Texarcana' sounds straight out off the Reckoning demo reel (and, again, isn't sung by Stipe). Overall, a bit more folky and "weird" than you'd expect if you only knew the singles, but a darn solid effort, especially amongst the sometimes hindering production. Highlight: (surprisingly?) the two numbers where Mike Mills takes lead vocals ('Near Wild Heaven' and 'Texarcana').

Automatic for the People (1992)

I really like that the band's biggest album —the one that is, at once, their most acoustic-based, most pleasing to both their old fans and their new fans and probably the darkest of their major label albums— starts off with Michael Stipe, nearly whispering atop a Peter Buck acoustic strum, "Hey kids, rock and roll. Nobody tells you where to go." Fuggin' brilliant, buddy. Sure, 'Everybody Hurts' was so popular that even your grandparents probably know it, but take away the popularity and, again, you get a really affecting and genuine pop single. I could go without ever hearing it again, but to my eleven year old brain, seeing the video on MTV and —especially considering that I wasn't even into that sort of music— actually feeling something was pretty relevant. It's a first for R.E.M. because they had never done anything close to a power ballad at all before this, so I guess consider it significant just because of that. The rest of the album, like I said, is pretty dark and melancholy. And Michael Stipe swears a lot for some reason (seriously, what's up with that?). The other single, 'Man on the Moon,' is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs just because it captures that amazingly resonating classic pop single mood so well. The whole album is great, honestly. But don't judge it by the singles. Because you're totally wrong (even though the singles are pretty good), if you're doing that. Highlight: the sludgy rocker 'Ignoreland' that recalls Document, or maybe even Fables. It sounds like nothing else on the album and is all the more awesome for it.

Monster (1994)

Does this album suck? Or is it just R.E.M. finally lightening up and having fun, therefore making a genuinely good album? I don't know. Sure, a third of the songs are actually pretty stupid and contrived, but am I a bad person because. . . I. . . uhm. . . kind of like it? Whatever the case may be, I can now hear this as what I've shaped it to be in my own little twisted musical world: it's R.E.M.'s glam album. With all these crunchy guitar tones and catchy hooks, how could I hear it as anything else? Disposable as hell, but does it sound awesome when it's playing? You betcha. And besides, starting an album with 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?' and 'Crush With Eyeliner' does not hurt at all. I remember reading an interview with Michael Stipe (around 2003/2004) where he described this album as "a big fat, wah-wah pedal that we needed to get out of our system." And that makes sense, I guess. R.E.M. had never really "rocked out" for an entire album before; just in short bursts. So, why not, right? Highlight: the album closer 'You' which is actually a point where they get genuinely psychedelic. God bless the 90's, right?

New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

Motherfruggit, I don't care: this album kicks butts with no prejudice. A boxer or your grandma get the same treatment: a swift kick in the hiney by some of the band's most original material ever. The problem is: everybody hates on the darn thing because it's rumoured to be the album that made Bill Berry have an aneurism and say, "Hey dudes, I'm a farmer now." But, as a final sendoff for the band's original lineup, they basically made an update of Document or Green. It rocks a little, it folks a little, but mostly, it entertains a lot. Go ahead and deny it, like everybody else in the world. Call it too long, call it boring or whathaveyou. I call it a creative rebirth. The more rockin' Monster sound hasn't gone away, but with the sonic chances they took on that album, they must have picked up a new flair for studio knob-twiddling because the dynamics and layers achieved on this album sound like no other R.E.M. album before it. Honestly, this is the first R.E.M. album that doesn't sound like every song was just recorded live in the studio — irony supreme, as it was notoriously recorded in pieces amongst makeshift studios and soundchecks during the Monster tour. They've finally gotten a handle on how to properly overproduce an album. It's a weird one, too. I mean, seriously, the single was 'E-Bow the Letter.' Good song, sure. But that's one weird thing to try and get into the top 40 (even though, wow at the balls it took to release that as an a-side; the hook is "Aluminum tastes like fear" ferrchrissakes!). Highlight: 'Leave.' Only the longest and best song they ever did. Yeah, it's that good.

Up (1998)

Anutha muthafrugga because, sheesh, I luh this one too. It's infamously the band's first album without Bill Berry. And without one-fourth of their previous being present, they get all produced and smarty pants-sounding. Kind of like "pop art" before Kanye West was a pretentious a-hole about the whole labeling it that thing. 'Airportman' will blow you away. And then somebody will tell you it's an R.E.M. song and you'll need a clean pair of undergarments. And then the next song is 'Lotus.' Due apologies to the fanboys out there, but I'm sorry. Any album that starts with that one-two punch is better than Lifes Rich Pageant. It just is. Deal with it. Sure, the single was the somewhat MOR-minded 'Daysleeper' but even that is a good song within the album's running order. And, really, look at the first six songs. What an awesome bunch of super artsy pop songs. I love this album. And it has a great, uplifting 'overcoming the odds' tone to it that is just refreshing to hear, especially at this point. Highlight: 'Walk Unafraid.' You don't even remember what it sounds like, do you? For shame.
Reveal (2001)

Overproduced as all get out, but it sounds fine while it's playing, I suppose. At times, it almost sounds like they are consciously saying to themselves, "Hey, all those cool, interesting subtle guitar and keyboard layer sounds we awesomely snuck into the last album need to go, but let's keep all the stupid, cheesy guitars and keyboards." As much as I love the fact that they said the name of my hometown on the single, I still can't deny that it's blatantly overproduced. The dynamics from New Adventures and Up are completely gone, in favor of volume compression and that's just disappointing. 'Disappear' is a good song, I guess. I just hear layers and layers of unnecessities. Imagine that song on Fables and you see my point. Again, it's fine while it's playing, but there's very little substance. Highlight: 'I'll Take the Rain' because it sounds as depressed by this album's underwhelming quality as I am. At least it sounds genuine next to everything else here — all of which ends up sounding very cartoony. In a bad way.

And then, Around the Sun was even worse and, after that, I cared no longer. I guess they've gotten "better" in recent years, but I just can't bring myself to listen to another R.E.M. album that's as compressed and lifeless sounding as their last few. Up, as maligned as it became, at least sounded interesting from a production standpoint. Like the songs or not, at least they sounded cool on headphones in a dark room.

And I guess that's what I will always love about R.E.M. (at their best) in the end: they always make you feel like you're not alone. No matter how bad you feel, you can pick up Reckoning or Green and forget about your troubles for fourty minutes or so and just immerse yourself in some heartfelt expression that may be emotional, but in a completely true way that —and this is the whole point— is entirely life-affirming.


Starting a new series: What's new?

So, recently on the good ol' Mark Prindle discussion forum, our fearless board administrator accidentally deleted the entire first page of posts from the music discussion board.

On this page was a gargantuan topic entitled 'Recent purchases/acquisitions' in which I had documented every CD or record I had purchased dating back to the board's inception (April of 2010). I eventually started writing short reviews of everything.

As the topic was deleted, so was over a year of my own documentation of my expanding musical library. And part of my own personal memoirs, honestly.

So, I am making sure that never happens again with the start of this series.

The idea is simple: I buy an album, I listen to it a few times, I write a short review. These are not meant to be definitive thoughts on anything. Just quick initial impressions of stuff. As I am a music nerd of the highest order, I buy a lot of stuff and it tracks not only what I'm listening to, but also where my head is at.

So, here we go, the first entry into what will probably be a huge series.

Re-acquisition. Not sure why I dumped this one in the first place, because I've always thought it was (decidedly) better than Marquee Moon (I know; just go easy on me). Even though its best songs are not better than MM's best songs, it hangs together as album infinitely better. Of course, as everybody likes to point out, it's a LOT s.l.o.w.e.r than Marquee Moon. But I like it because it's just almost over-the-top jangly. Just jumpy and slow and loverly. It should be said that the album's two best songs are the last two songs on the original version. 'Ain't that Nothin'' and (especially) 'The Dream's Dream' just kick so much ass. One is the more rockin' Television that everybody loves from Marquee Moon while the other is a slow burning, evolving stream of conscious epic. Maybe that's why everybody rates Marquee Moon over this one so unanimously; because the best stuff is saved for last and nobody really bothered to get that far into it. In any case, the deluxe edition from a few years ago added the awesome title track (which confusingly went unreleased at the time) and it's a great little thing that starts out as a blues rocker, but then ventures off into vintage Television pretty dual guitar land seamlessly and totally convincingly. As the version I bought was the cheaper original CD version without the bonus material, I went ahead and spent the dollar to get the title track on the Amazon digital music store. Criminally underrated album. Love it.