Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dark Triology Part 3

I have to admit that my third choice in the Dark Trilogy is a rather odd one, or perhaps a less obvious one. There are dozens of others I could have chosen, or should have chosen, and maybe even by the same artist (maybe).

I sorta have this theory about album covers that sometimes holds up and sometimes doesn’t. And the basic idea is that the color and/or design of the album pretty much set the tone for the sound of the album (which you would think would be the purpose of an album cover, but so often this is not the case). And really, I’ve not been far off with my first two entries. The Cure’s Faith is a washed out gray, very drab and low key, with something that looks like a face leering out from the right side (though it’s actually, so I’ve read, a picture of an old abandoned abbey). And while the Smiths Meat is Murder sports a white cover (perhaps representing the bounce and pop of several of the songs), the picture(s) therein is a still from the Emile de Antonio documentary In the Year of the Pig that discusses the origins of the Vietnam War. Pretty bleak stuff.

And if you’ll look at the picture up top, you’ll see that today’s album, REM Fables of the Reconstruction (aka Reconstruction of the Fables), sports a fairly somber cover, with an overall sepia tone (at least my faded copy), and amidst the four cornered pictures of the band, a burning book. This could merely state that they’re destroying everything you’ve heard about the subjects at hand and creating a new version, or, as with me, you could think of dreaded censorship, or it could mean nothing at all. And the latter is possibly most probably the case simply because in a recent online Q&A (which is truly a great read if you’re a fan http://popsongs.wordpress.com/) about the meanings of songs, etc, Michael Stipe basically said (and I can’t find the exact quote) that the lyrics to first few albums meant absolutely nothing. Which for the most part, especially on Murmur, I’m pretty much relieved to hear, ‘cos I thought dude was crazy. And this is also nice because here I don’t have to interpret Stipe’s lyrics literally.

This is yet another album where even your more hardcore fans sort of set it to the side and don’t give it much credit. Big mistake. For a time this was my favorite REM album. Right now it’s at number three, though that can change. But just because it’s shifted in status doesn’t mean I think any less of it, it’s just that I’ve discovered something new and wonderful about another album that I heretofore (man, I love that word) had not noticed.

But I digress.

A pervasive subject of Fables seems to be location or distance (in either time or space), i.e. travel or the urge to move on or to make a change or to grow older or to long for something else, a place other than the one you find yourself in. Desiring the unattainable, being forced into the unwanted, these are the images of loss and regret that Stipe conjures from the dark for Buck, Mills and Berry to piece together.

And this is possibly the overall theme of the album (when you pick out lines that make sense). The moody Driver 8, the ultimate train song, is passingly hopeful, “We can reach our destination but we're still a ways away," while Can’t Get There from Here (as if the title isn’t enough) says, “If you're needing inspiration, Philomath is where I go.” (Which, again, makes little sense, but it suggests movement, getting somewhere, change.) Less direct examples are in the quirky opener Feeling Gravity’s Pull, “Time and distance are out of place here,” or the completely obscure Life and How to Live It, “So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best.” (It’s worth tracking down several bootlegs from 1985 where this song is listed and hearing Stipe’s story behind the lyrics.)

It’s no surprise that so many of the lyrics are about being in another place as the band recorded Fables of the Reconstruction in England, in the winter, in a cold, damp, half condemned studio. And so the music reflects the sentiment, the longing to be elsewhere, another place, another state of mind and since this isn’t possible, it’s expressed through the only outlet readily available.

Despite purchasing this album in high school, I don’t really have any vivid memories connected to it, which is odd since so many of my musical associations were formed at that time; though I can imagine the ancient, mossy oaks of the Cove (an area of PC) with roads running along canals and small bays while Green Grow the Rushes provides a perfect soundtrack. And once my friend Steve (then Steev) and I played a very last minute and shambolic version of Driver 8 for a handful of friends before heading off to do something with our night. (Also, I can never pass by an old abandoned train on some dilapidated piece of track without that opening riff echoing through my head.) Mainly Fables has been an album that has stuck with me in my close subconscious. I’ll pick up Murmur or Document or Green or Reveal for a causal listen before this one, but I always know it’s there, a lingering presence. Aside from Murmur (which is hallowed to me as the greatest album ever…EVER), if I could only own one REM album it would be Fables, simply because it represents the band at possibly their most vulnerable, partly shedding the protective shell of their early obscurity, when they were confirmed but not completely confident, when they knew where they wanted to be but not quite how to get there. Their following two releases, Life’s Rich Pageant and Document, would find them fully realized and major label worthy, and Fables of the Reconstruction solidified that foundation, providing REM with a dark past, some skeletons to rattle in their closet and a reason to break into the light of day.

Buy it!

Green Grow the Rushes

Driver 8 live (and smokin’!)

Even as I write this I’m thinking of other albums that could have easily made the dark cut, and perhaps they’ll get a proper shout out one day, though most likely under a different context. So here, in alphabetical order by band, are 13 runner-ups.

Afghan Whigs—Gentlemen: The album of 1994 and the musical definition of the term misogynistic. Nowhere else will you find a collection of tunes more blatantly embittered and spiteful towards the female sex. And the shrugged acknowledgment by the male of the species does little to redeem these thoughts and actions, as regret and repentance are simply shadows on the backdoor.

Arcadia—So Red the Rose: The lesser known splinter project that also created the Powerstation and easily the best thing “Duran Duran” ever did, this collection of sometimes low-key, sometimes lush, sometimes theatrical pop classics, broods with an underlying intensity and near-malevolence never found in their more popular incarnation.

Bauhaus—Burning from the Inside: With Peter Murphy partially down and out with illness, it was all hands on deck to fill in the gaps and the boys who would later become Love and Rockets provided amply. Previous albums were all stark, dark affairs, but it all came to a head here. The edgy feelings between Murphy and his mates created energy both beautiful and sinister, some of his most bitter lyrics fuelled by instrumentation equally textured and sparse. It’s an avalanche of emotion and yet, after the nine plus minute rant of the title track, there is a glimmer of light in the closing track, Hope.

Beatles—For Sale: This is the sound of a band worn out, unsure of where it is or wants to be, and truly digging into the vault of its self-examination to provide material for a seeming non-stop train ride. When the first three titles of the album bear names such as No Reply, I’m a Loser and Baby’s in Black, you know that there will be little to laugh about on this trip. Even lighter numbers like I Follow the Sun are delivered with a twist of world-weary acceptance.

Belle & Sebastian—Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Pilgrim: Here is a band in transition. With key and founding members departing soon after release, it’s obvious from this helter skelter collection of songs covering several different styles as well as topics as broad and succinct as war and rape, that the days of whimsical melancholy from earlier efforts has been left far in the dust.

The Church—Starfish: With an opening line like “Our instruments have no way of measuring this feeling,” it’s evident from the moody bass and menacing guitars that feelings are not good. Kilbey and Co wind their way through ten flawless cuts, each drenched by a shower of doubt and self-awareness, jibes at society, at love, at religion and a healthy dose of mythological imagery to tie it all in a neat bow.

The Cure—The Top: Essentially a Robert Smith solo album and often dismissed by fans (as well as the band), The Top is an overlooked and underrated classic. It’s only flaw is that it’s too powerful, too good at what it does, as these songs grouped together can prove a dense and heavy a barrage of sour times for the average listener, even the weathered Cure fan, where even the light and flirty tinkling of The Caterpillar can’t break through the morass. If I’m not mistaken, however, this is M-Sullivan’s personal favorite.

Depeche Mode—Black Celebration: With a catalogue full of dark albums, for a band to not only acknowledge but commemorate the bleakness of their sound means that they are embracing their demons and bending them to their own dark will. This album perfectly bridges the gap between DM’s earlier “Casio” sound and the earthy, more realized tones of Music for the Masses and the classic Violator.

PJ Harvey—Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea: Bad love, heroin, whores, suicide, Polly Jean delivers it all with a straightforward pop sensibility that is neither the “grunge” influenced grit of her debut or the organ heavy experimentation of To Bring You My Love. Every track is instantly accessible and yet immediately disturbing as she moans, screeches and thrashes, weaving her tales of urban distress and depravity.

Joy Division—Closer: I could easily throw Unknown Pleasures in here. But Closer took the sparse, open darkness of that debut and looked within, what the man and the band were made of, wrapping itself in a gauze of complete self-evaluation, and finding very little to be pleased with. While Ian Curtis’ lyrics pull up images of gladiatorial bouts and marriages falling apart, they were much more personal than the rest of the band realized until after his death by self hanging in May 1980. Closer was released posthumously.

Low—I Could Live in Hope: Despite it’s title, this collection of dirges denotes all the reasons why one could not live in hope. Never again was the band so fragile and consistently beautiful, allowing the songs to carry themselves as far as possible in open space before fading away into sad obscurity.

New Order—Movement: After Curtis’ death, the remnants of Joy Division became New Order, but despite this “fresh” name, the band still had a dark skin to shed and acknowledge the start of their evolution with this gloomy collection of lyrically obscure songs, equally an homage to their fallen comrade as it is a turning point towards a brighter future.

Travis—12 Memories: A shout out for Karla, here are 12 brooding pop songs that have long left the “young man good times” of Good Feeling and replaced the atmospheric dreaminess of The Man Who and The Invisible Band for a heavier, more unsettling sound. Principle songwriter Fran Healy admitted his frustration with the record industry and life in general while writing this album, especially in the wake of the near fatal/debilitating accident of drummer Neil Primrose, which is completely obvious in his lyrics and voice.

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