Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Uncle Bob is 70

As many folks know, today marks a milestone in rock lore with Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. There have already been countless articles written on this subject by folks far more qualified than myself, so anything I have to add will just be an ink stain of insignificance alongside the legit critics, rabid fans and those deeply in the know who have so much more insight into Dylan’s music. But being a reasonable fan in my own right, I would be remiss if I did not say a little something here.

I decided a couple of weeks ago that I would celebrate the day with nothing but Dylan in the speakers. Since it would be literally impossible to burn through all of his official albums, plus the loads of exceptional “extracurricular” material floating around out there, I decided to truly make it a mixed bag and jump all over the place as much as I was able.

I officially started things off last night with a little “pre party” listen to a bootleg (unofficial) set of mid 60s outtakes called Thin Wild Mercury Music, which contains alternate performances of a lot of well known tunes that in some instances (e.g. Visions of Johanna) blow the more familiar album versions out of the water.

The official festivities got going around 5:00 this morning, with me getting up at that unlawful hour in order to get my mom to the airport. Things rocked pretty steadily until about mid afternoon and then picked up again earlier this evening. Here’s the list:

Together Through Life (2009) – My disappointment with Modern Times made me reluctant to pick this one up, but now that I have, while I don’t play it much, each listen impresses me more and it’s a great sleepy morning mood setter.

Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – Easily my favorite of the “golden three” (my moniker), side one is kick out the balls, jams to the wall folk punk as lyrically surreal and musically muscular as anything else before or since, while side two sheds the skin of the “protest balladeer” with a sneering grace that proves his ability to do just about everything was at the whim of his muse.

Tramps (NYC, 1999) – This bootleg is stellar, from quality to performance to song selection, and what really struck me is how his songs, even ones that were 30+ years old at the time, are in a continuous state of metamorphosis, retaining the same heart but wearing an outer skin that keeps them relevant and progressive well into the 21st century.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) – Easily the most accessible (even listenable) of the protest trio, while two of his biggest songs are here (Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall), it’s the album tracks that make this one a winner, from the gorgeous and tender Girl from the North Country to the “funny because it’s true” Talking World War III Blues, this is the best of Dylan before he went electric.

Desire (1976) – A musical and emotional mess, a lot of varying styles (straight rock, Caribbean, Eastern, etc) result in a lack of cohesiveness that can make Desire a difficult and disjointed listen, but song for song this can be overlooked due to strong writing and a ramshackle, blasé charm that eases a lot of the heavy subject matter, while other tracks are as whimsical and lighthearted as they appear.

The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs – Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (2008) – Well, the title pretty much says it all, and there are loads of tunes here that once collected make a quite workable double album (much more so than Modern Times). As mentioned before, alternate takes of previously familiar tunes (Mississippi, Most of the Time) are exceptional, showcasing multiple possibilities; while previously unreleased tracks (Red River Shore, Series of Dreams) make one wonder how they sat vaulted so long, with material from the Oh Mercy sessions being especially nice.

Oh Mercy (1989) – After a decade of what was, at its best, good songs mired in 80s overproduction and assumed indifference, Oh Mercy was certainly a return to Dylan-par songwriting and believable performances, if not a full fledged comeback. Daniel Lanois’ production is slightly “telling” of the times (sax solos, ugh…), but he leans things up considerably, pulling a lot of fantastic songs into the forefront to let them stand on their own merit instead of hampering them with studio antics.

John Wesley Harding (1967) – Dylan’s “post motorcycle crash” period (again, my moniker), which I guess ended with Self Portrait, is my favorite. I love the brevity and loose acoustic jangle of these songs, just riffing around and laying things down lickity split. Twelve informal narratives ranging from hilarious to horrifying, JWH shows every side of late 60s Dylan compacted into two to four minute capsules.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Judybatin' with JT

God love the Judybats! Who? Yeah, I know…

These guys (and for awhile one gal) remain TN’s best-kept secret. In the 90s they had some college rock success, sorta poked the bottom of the mainstream charts and then imploded due to lack of direction and indifference from, as I understand it, all involved.

I first caught wind of them in high school through friends Cybil and/or Susan (one or the other, possibly both), who, though younger, had access to some older folks in the know with good music. (See kids, this was before the internet, so music had to be either well promoted by a label/MTV, which the JBs really weren’t, or passed along by word of mouth before you heard about them.)

The original line up (I think)

Initially I thought they were British, or maybe European, based on their sound and the pix in the first album, Native Son, but soon learned they were just good ol’ Tennessee folk, which was a big “eye opener” when their second album, Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow, came out and had a big red pick up truck, with a dog and a Knox County license plate on the cover. Ye-ha!

When I went to college, one of the first people I met was this guy named Robert Lee (whom I mentioned back in my Frente! post). Early on in our relationship he randomly quoted a line from She’s Sad, She Said, and I about fell out, so we were close friends for sure after that. Come to find out, a buddy of his was going to school at UT and sorta had some in-connections-access to the goings on of the Judybats, so it was cool hearing about stuff before it “broke” and what have you. Just a good time all around to be 19, listening to good music, and able to see these bands live.

Unfortunately, I missed their epic performance with the remnants of the original line up on the Capital steps, but JT was there, so maybe he can tell you about it sometime. I did catch them three times though “back in the day,” twice in Knoxville and once in Nashville. And while I enjoyed those shows, I considered them “past their heyday,” as their third and fourth releases didn’t really hit the sweet spots like those first two.

Keeping a steady line up was hard for them initially, and folks left for all the reasons you’ve heard before, from not liking touring, to other interests, to major label wankery (sweet & cute Peg Hambright was asked to lose weight…boo, hiss!). While this certainly had an impact on the way songs and performing them were approached, the three principle writers (I assume) in the form of vocalist/lyricist Jeff Heiskell and guitarists Ed Winters and Johnny Sughrue were still intact, so the drop in quality could have been a lack of ideas, or simply Warner Bros pushing them in directions they weren’t suited for in order to capitalize on burgeoning college radio success, pushing it to the next level and therefore ruining the integrity of the music. Really, a lot of that is speculation on my part, but even on the first album the band was well under the label’s thumb, performing a spectacular cover of Roky Erickson’s She Lives in a Time of her Own (and releasing it as a single) when most of them had never heard the song (or even of Erickson I believe).

"Second half" five piece line up

Now, having said some of that, a lot of folks really liked Pain Makes You Beautiful, their third album, with Robert being one, and our Knoxville pals others, so maybe it’s just the difference in musical preference. And that’s why JT and I have, again, taken it upon ourselves to listen to the entire Judybats catalog and see where we stand with these albums today. There are only four, so this has not been as arduous a journey as REM. And yes, I realize they got back together around 2000 and put out the ‘00 album, but that was really just a bastardized version of the band led by Jeff Heiskell, with a completely different sound. And while it was nice to have them back, and those tunes were really enjoyable, and the shows were fun (I think I saw them another three times), it was more of something to do as a bunch of guys in their 30s having fun playing music than actually trying to make a career of it. Also, I think Jeff Heiskell is “solo” now, but I’ve only heard a few songs here and there and don’t think he plays out much.


The big question with the Judybats, for me at least, is did they ever realize their fullest potential with Native Son and Shacks, or simply put out two outstanding and forward moving albums before getting sucked into the mediocrity making mainstream machine? (BAM, take that alliteration!)

Perhaps we’ll unravel a bit of that here, same format as before and, as always, JT goes first…

Also, here is JT’s disclaimer: The Judybats hold a very, very special place in my heart. Growing up in Nashville and not listening to country music (until a little later in my life) I felt isolated, but knowing that there was a band making quirky, catchy, wonderful pop music that lived 3 hours from me was a game changer and gave me a sense of pride. Seeing them at Dancing in the District was, along with seeing Morrissey and the Cure, highlights of my young concert going career and still stands as one of my all time favorite shows.

Native Son (1990)


(See Down in the Shacks review first) So, after I fell in love with their sophomore release I was thrilled to know that they had another album and I didn’t have to wait for a new release, which could take years...and when you’re a teenager years seem like an eternity. What I found upon purchasing this album was another amazing set of songs that were infectious and affecting. I feel like the band had most of the songs written for both this album and Down in the Shacks and had them ready to go when they were signed because they seem to be of the same ilk. Very rarely has a band come out of the box so hard with two perfect albums the way that the Judybats did... (A+)

Fave Song: Don’t Drop the Baby

Least Fave Song: Woman in the Garden

Discovered Gem: The Wanted Man


Native Son in a lot of ways is the epitome of an alt-college rock record in the late 80s or early 90s. But there’s also a bit of a New Wave hold over as well, blending nicely with the more “standard” homespun, folky feel going around in those days. With Jeff Heiskell’s drawl, they’re sorta like a Brit band with a Southern singer, and his droll delivery of oddball yet sincere lyrics is a big part of what separates them from like acts. It’s this humor, without going to the silly extremes of say TMBG or The Farm, that makes them so endearing, offsetting some of the more serious subject matters like mental breakdown and spousal abuse. Musically, Native Son gets the job done, accenting the vocal melodies (or quirks) with enough alterations and subtle tones to keep things interesting, and not diminishing the fact that these are some truly great songs by getting too flashy or extravagant in any one area. There are solos (another oddity of the genre/times/aesthetic), and little counter violins and keys, and fun backing vocals, but they carry the song instead of drawing the focus away from it. Essentially, it’s a good blend of all talents and, despite a couple of minor filler tunes, an ideal alt-pop beginning. There’s technically nothing “earth shattering” about Native Son, but there’s also nothing else out there that I can say really sounds like it, and I can’t really point to any obvious influences or something they’re attempting to be…the kids were just making (good) music. I know some more recent critics and some of my alt-friends back in the day weren’t overly accepting of this record, which to me means it has a truly distinct voice that doesn’t speak to everyone, even those of a like mind, but it’s held up well and remains timeless and is certainly a voice for me. (A)

Fave: Wanted Man

Least Fave: Perfumed Lies

Gem: In Like with You

Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow (1991)


Once upon a time I was obsessed with Morrissey and would purchase anything that he had anything to do with...this of course included purchasing compilations that he appeared on even if I already had the song that he contributed to said comp. One such album that falls neatly into this category was ‘Just Say Anything’… There were so many songs on this album that I would go on to love, but the one that I literally listened to 1000 times was ‘Don’t Drop the Baby’ by the then-unknown-to-me Judybats. This would’ve been summer 1991 and to my delight I discovered that the Judybats were just about to release an album...so I rushed out to the Cats to pick it up, and when I got home and started feverishly searching for ‘Don’t Drop the Baby’ I was shocked and disappointed to learn that it wasn’t on this album but… From the opening guitar strums of ‘Our Story’ I was hooked. Jeff Heiskell sounds great and anyone from the south that uses the word ‘arse’ is brilliant in my book. I still listen to this album on a(n almost) monthly basis...if you do the math that means I’ve heard this album at least 240 times and somehow it still manages to excite me and make me feel like I am a teenager again and that all is right with the world. (A+)

Fave Song: Saturday

Least Fave Song: Animal Farm

Discovered Gem: When Things Get Slow Around Here


I remember coming across this one in Camelot Music back in PC during my senior year of high school and having no idea it existed, only to learn it had just been released a week or so before. Good timing! I still have that cassette somewhere as a keepsake. Just like Native Son, I loved Shacks from the beginning and appreciated the change ups. These days this one gets more listens because it feels almost “joyous” in the sense of a sing-along type affair, even though many of these songs are about heartache/break and the like. The moody, New Wave vibe is pretty much gone and replaced by a country-folk whimsy, so basically if Native Son was a Brit band with a Southern singer, Shacks is a Southern band who has spent some time in England. Again, Jeff Heiskell comes to the forefront and he’s having a hoot, from falling for lesbian bakers (Margot Known as Missy) to nostalgia over past times (Lullaby - Weren’t We Wild), this is a vehicle for his skewed, wink-wink take on things as they go on around him and always good for a chuckle, though he also takes a stab at environmental concerns (Poor Bruised World), while the sinister frankness of Witch’s Night retains some of the flavor of the debut. From front to back the songs are more solid, and where Native Son admittedly lags ever so slightly during parts of side two, everything on Shacks is top notch. Why this album was basically ignored and didn’t launch the Judybats into at least big time alterno-status is a tragedy that can only be explained, in my eyes, by the reshaping of everything musically with the emergence of Nirvana. But the cult audience in the know certainly holds this album as the greatest thing the Judybats ever did, and deservedly so, and I think it should have only been the beginning of greater things to come. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. (A+)

Fave: She’s Sad She Said

Least: How It Is

Gem: Is Anything

Pain Makes You Beautiful (1993)


And the eternity became a reality (see Native Son review)... After completely devouring their first two albums and seeing them in concert, the wait was on for their next release, which took a full two years before it came out and I found it to be a (pure light, pure delight) pure delight. While some of their quirkiness was gone, the songs were still there and many of them were extremely strong. This is the sound of a band maturing and while it wasn’t Native Son and it wasn’t Down in the Shacks, it was pretty damn good. (B+)

Fave Song: Being Simple

Least Fave Song: Incredible Bittersweet

Discovered Gem: Trip Me up


Here’s where things begin to go south for me (no pun intended). I remember Ugly on the Outside was on a Sire Records sampler my freshman year of college and I la-la-loved it, so I was super pumped to get the new album. When it finally dropped, Robert and I rushed to get it out at Rivergate Mall of all places. I’ll say right now that the first two songs, one of them being from the aforementioned sampler, are worth the price of the album and darn near the best thing the Judybats ever did. All Day Afternoon especially seems to pick up where Shacks was leaving off, and that should have been the direction for the rest of the album. However, by Being Simple, which was a minor mainstream hit and the song the band is best known for, was nothing more to me than a stab at Hootie-esque adult alternative success, and really, that’s what PMYB boils down to. Acoustic guitarist Johnny Sughrue picked up an electric and things get more rockin’ and “soulful” all around, but it doesn’t make anything more exciting. To me PMYB was nothing but a big letdown, and while Robert and most friends loved it, I listened begrudgingly. Still, at the forefront of things is Jeff Heiskell, who gives it his all, and listening years later this helps me discover some true merits with PMYB that I can appreciate on more than a nostalgic kick. Lyrically it’s the best of the lot, and he delivers them with a cocky, self-assured attitude that makes even generic, Kravitz-esque funk workouts like An Intense Beige and Incredible Bittersweet almost believable. But it’s his croon that really brings out the shining moments, and while Being Simple does have some worth (for what it is), My Dead Friend, My Dulcinea and especially Trip Me Up bring the album to great heights even in their mellow styling. At the end of the day this is a worthwhile effort, but the attempt at mainstream acceptability hampers the charm and quirky naivety that made the first two albums so endearingly accessible. (B+)

Fave: All Day Afternoon

Least: Incredible Bittersweet

Gem: Trip Me Up

Full-Empty (1994)


Ouch. (F)

Fave Song: Sorry Counts (?)

Least Fave Song: Wounded Bird (!!!)

Discovered Gem: Liquid (?)


When PMYB basically flopped, nobody knew what would happen next. There were a couple of new songs that we’d heard at some shows that were very promising, The Cache of Misery and Nude, but of those two only the former made Full-Empty, and was stuck all the way near the end. From beginning to end this is an album that sounds like, “Here we are now, but what do we do about it?” I have to say that there are several songs here that I like more than a good bit of PMYB, and listening to it again after a few years I have better memories and am more apt to sing out, but the production is so lousy (worst drum sound EVER on a major label release) and the band’s performance is so apathetic, why would anyone want to listen to it again? If this album had the production or performance of PMYB, it would have been a step forward. Yet the biggest loss is Jeff Heiskell, who dropped his trademark twang and now sings with a lax, “Where am I?” posturing that is neither appealing nor even offensive, it’s just there. Still, there are some nice moments, and I quite enjoy Drought, Sorry Counts and In This Maroon, to name a couple, and most every song has moments where the band seems to be finding themselves, but it’s not enough to salvage whatever magic may have been left scattered on the studio floor. Having said all of that, there’s a soft spot in my heart for Full-Empty, though at the end of that day it’s just a dud and a lousy end to such a worthy band. (C+)

Fave: Sorry Counts

Least: Stupid-Cute

Gem: In this Maroon

New Music: That’s the Stuff!!

I’m not even sure how to start this one. The fact that the Feelies have an album of new material after 20 years of virtual silence should be enough in and of itself.

Is it any good? Of course it is. Yeah, but is it really great? OF COURSE IT IS!!!

During their initial late 70s to early 90s run, The Feelies were always rather sporadic as a recording unit, and more active playing live shows in New York and New Jersey under sundry variations like Yung Wu or the Trypes or the Willies, and then later on as Wake Ooloo. But in 1980, as the Feelies themselves, they released the seminal, one of a kind and instantly lovable Crazy Rhythms (recorded while still in high school) and then were silent for a full six years. The influence of this album alone to college rock and indie pop cannot but overstated, so much so that REM’s Peter Buck jumped at the opportunity to produce their 1986 follow up, The Good Earth. And the next several years would be the most prolific for the Feelies, with two more albums, 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time for a Witness.

Each new offering showed a progression of style while still maintaining a classic and essential Feelies sound that was somewhere along the lines of Velvet Underground meets the Byrds with, early on, a little youthful angst to keep things jitterbug jumpin’. (Honestly, like REM’s Murmur, the Cure’s Disintegration or Stone Roses’ debut, some albums just are, existing to be marveled at but never duplicated.) After 1991, that was pretty much it. Despite loads of critical praise and a decently prominent spot in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, widespread commercial success continued to elude the Feelies, and they maintained nothing more than a local celebrity status, or at best a select national cult following amongst like musicians or just music lovers “in the know”…something that has continued to the present day. My understanding is that Bill Million just picked up and moved to Florida without telling anyone until he’d already gotten there. Take that, rock stardom. After that, Wake Ooloo sorta took the helm for folks looking for a Feelies-related fix, with three highly underappreciated albums, which itself ended somewhere in the 90s. So, aside from the MUCH needed reissues of Crazy Rhythms, the Good Earth and Only Life from a couple of years ago, there wasn’t much to keep folks satiated until Glenn Mercer’s solo debut in 2007, Wheels in Motion, a much praised, worthy and overlooked release in and of itself.

So a few weeks back my buddy Bill sent me a link that talked about the new Feelies album, Here Before…coming out that day!! WTF??? I’d had no idea, which is typical of me. But Bill hadn’t heard either, and usually he’s pretty well in the know, so I don’t feel too bad.


This is the “classic” line up of the Feelies, the five piece that recorded their last three albums (if not the “iconic” four piece set up of Crazy Rhythms), which of course means that Glenn Mercer and Bill Million are present on guitar, vocal, writing and production duties. It honestly couldn’t go any other way.

I’ve had Here Before in nearly continuous spin these days. From sound, to style, to production, to songwriting, it could have easily come out as a precursor to the Good Earth, as a follow up to Only Life, or as reunion/comeback in 2001. The signature Feelies sound is immediate, warm, inviting and familiar, and just like the rest of their albums, sounds timeless and yet contemporarily relevant. The well-meshed guitars are all there, the frenetic, intertwined solos, the understated lead vocals, the classic “Ooooooh…Aaaaaah…” backing vocals, the propulsive rhythm section, and the overall cohesive yet relaxed unit of song that is such enjoyable listening, it’s almost ridiculous.

On an album full of so many highlights, it’s hard to single out one or two, and favorite songs honestly seem to change with each listen as I catch little runs and nuances here and there and say “Ah, that’s the stuff...” But for past catalog familiarity, I immediately lean towards The Good Earth, as most songs contain that laid back, almost Western feel, but the heavier crunch from Time for a Witness pops up frequently, a bit of the trippy atmospherics from Only Life and one solo, for Time is Right, seems to be a direct homage to Loveless Love off of Crazy Rhythms. Still, there’s nothing formulaic going on, with plenty of new vibes to keep the classic sound spreading ever outward.

Lyrically The Feelies often seemed more interested in words to carry the melody than making any grand statements on love, life or what have you (a big exception might be Crazy Rhythms), and this remains the case now. While the opening track, Nobody Knows, seems to allude to people wondering will they or won’t they ever get back together again, most of the songs seem to tackle the ins and outs of life with an apt simplicity, though a theme of positive motion and/or moving on seems to be prevalent. These guys are all on or around the 50 mark, so the release of frustration and anxiety (which was often more implied in the past) is gone, so now it’s just good times, good vibes and, most importantly, good music.

Here Before, as a title, is purposeful, as the album essentially showcases what the Feelies have done and can still do, past, present and future, and I hope this time they stick around for awhile. (I’m not holding my breath.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There and Back Again…

Awhile back I did a post on final albums, and I have a few more of those in the works. But this batch focuses on albums after an extended hiatus, when for all practical purposes the world could have assumed that these guys had delivered their last batch of new material, but were pleasantly surprised (or not) to have them get back together for a time with either one last nostalgic hurrah or as a second (or third) latter stage of their career.


16 Lovers Lane (1988) - With 16 Lovers Lane the Go-Betweens successfully completed the transition from the angular post punk posturing of 1982’s Send Me a Lullaby to a polished and sophisticated brand of pop that, while radio ready, was as intelligent and intuitive as any of the accessibly expressive albums that had come in between. The subjects of love, life and art continue to dominate these ten songs, with the standard 50-50 split between singer/songwriter/guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. The sheen is most apparent, and effective, on McLennan’s more straightforward offerings, from opener Love Goes On, to perennial favorite Streets of Your Town, to the bitter angst of Was There Anything I Could Do. His voice sets the stage for songs that are warm yet aloof, letting you peer inside but never enter for the full picture. Still, Forster manages to all but steal the show with his plaintive croon, never quite shedding the bookish, arty and often morose edge of their early days, with the pensive Love is a Sign, the wispy Clouds and Dive for Your Memory, a closer that is as poignant and moving as you’d expect from a band as consistently conscious and introspective as the Go-Betweens.

And then 12 years later…

The Friends of Rachel Worth (2000) – After more than a decade apart, Forster/McLennan pick up (sadly sans drummer Lindy Morrison) not so much where they left off as where they would have logically been had they continued working together as an active unit throughout the 90s. The old magic is still quite potent and the mesh in no way frayed as Australia’s greatest songwriting team delivers ten more superb tracks of alt-pop that only they could. The gloss of 16 Lovers Lane is completely gone and the bare, rustic approach hearkens back to the early days of Before Hollywood or the more angular moments of Spring Hill Fair, but with a more maturely cultivated pop sense than the youthfulness of those albums allow. McLennan is as confessional and melodically moving as ever, while Forster remains frank and open in his interpretation of the world around him. Whereas with the first stage of their career each writer’s songs were distinctly their own, The Friends of Rachel Worth finds them melding together with a raw, almost harder edged sound that is unique unto itself and yet clearly the Go-Betweens. With all members of Sleater-Kinney on board to not only flesh out the band but give credence to the Go-B’s legacy and influence, it was a triumphal comeback in every possible way.

But is this really it? – Yes, even though they released two more wonderful albums of adult-alterno-pop, with the untimely death of Grant McLennan in 2006, the Go-Betweens are no more and will never release another album of new/original material.

New Order

Republic (1993) – I’ve commented several times before (though maybe not here) that New Order was a great singles band more than anything, as often their albums, while containing some good songs, often feel half-baked and unfocused in comparison. This is especially true with Low Life and Brotherhood, though by Technique it seemed like they were finally taking the concept of a long play seriously and, with one glaring misstep (Fine Time, I hate your guts), it’s a pretty solid album, even if it waffles back and forth between acid dance and more standard “pop rock.” With Republic, all of that finally came together. From the opening guitar of Regret to the somber drums of Avalanche, Republic is a dark, melodic tour de force of hard-edged dance tunes that (like Power, Corruption & Lies and a dozen singles along the way) again resets the shape and boundaries of pop music. Bernard sounds better than ever before and the band is cohesive and fluid, as each song flows one into the other and everything feels just right. It’s the first, and only, album where they seem to embrace where they are, by acknowledging where they began (as the murky doom of Joy Division) and how they got there (as dance pop pioneers) and meshing the two together in an effort that equally points backwards, forwards and also speaks for the moment. And then they stopped. But it was a good place to do so, ‘cos this is their magnum opus.

And then eight years later…

Get Ready (2001) – I was truly excited about this album, especially after hearing the lead single, Crystal. It was formulaic, but the concoction is always tasty when NO does it right, which they do track after track on Get Ready. My first, and continued, impression is that it reminded me a lot of Low Life and Brotherhood, more “rock” oriented than dance pop (though that signature sound is certainly present), but also far more “together” than either of those albums. Even rather banal outings like Rock the Shack and Slow Jam maintain an endearing quality that finds my head bobbing and my lips singing along, even if the lyrics are sorta, you know, there. Still, there are plenty of obviously worthwhile songs like the moody Vicious Streak, dance-tastic Someone Like You, pensively positive Run Wild and the absolutely gorgeous Turn My Way, a duet with then guest member Billy Corgan that is equally balls out and heartbreaking. Overall this album sees NO seeming to feel good about making music again, nothing forced, everything natural, and so the results are going to be enjoyable, even if they aren’t rewriting the blueprint for pop music. I mean they already have about a dozen times.

But is this really it? – It appears so. With 2005’s pleasant but forgettable Waiting for the Siren’s Call, it seems that Hooky had (again) had enough and quit the band to pursue other interests, leaving the rest of the guys (with Gillian officially gone, it was all guys at this point) to form Bad Lieutenant, who put out an album in 2009 that I never heard. (Sorry, Bernie!)

Smashing Pumpkins

*Machina/The Machines of God (2000) – The best things about this album are the worst things about this album, namely Billy Corgan’s ambition (and ego) and a loose storyline based on caricature versions of the band and a statement about the record industry in general. The first four songs are excellent, with Stand Inside Your Love being one of the greatest songs ever written. Ever. But from there everything gets lost in a sludge of excess and over production, with the songs and everything about them lost in a tidal wave of f/x and layer upon layer of guitar. While this worked on previous efforts, here it sounds muddled and chaotic. Listened to on their own, almost every tune is great, but from front to back Machina is well over an hour of music that is a cerebral challenge at best and a downright mess at worst. In a way this was a fitting end to the Pumpkins, a concerted effort at (another) magnum opus that succeeds just long enough to topple over on itself.

*I realize that there is a Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music that was a released as a free download after Machina, but since it wasn’t commercially available, had no released singles, etc, I’m not going to officially count it…though I do like it quite a bit more than Machina I. So, there you have that.

And then seven years later…

Zeitgeist (2007) – Even without James and D’Arcy, Zeitgeist is a worthy comeback. Easily the most consistently heavy album from the Pumpkins to date, it’s also one of the catchiest and melodic. It’s full of hooks and riffs that stick in your head and make themselves welcome. One thing I love is how much Billy is doing with his voice, layering harmonies and counter melodies in ways he’d never done before, or at least as frequently, and the results are a ferocious kind of pop that to me means that the Pumpkins were not only back, but in full force. Yes, there are moments to yawn at, as the indulgence of United States is just an attempt to recreate the 20-something angst of Silver F*ck (which in and of itself can get a bit tedious), and trading in his signature self/world-loathing for a bunch of politically outraged commentaries isn’t really my thing, but skip buttons are easy to push and overall the album carries on with as much worth and power as any of the best moments from Mellon Collie on, with Bring the Light being one of Corgan’s best songs (and solos) since Siamese Dream.

But is this really it? – No, not by a long shot it seems. Billy and Co began releasing free downloads of songs that would/will eventually become Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, while also fitting out replacements for Jimmy C on drums and Ginger Pooley on bass. I’m not really sure of the status on all of those songs and the completed album (maybe Wiki knows…), but everything I’ve heard has been pretty swell, plus they allegedly have another new album called Oceania in the wings for 2011 to boot. RAWK!!

Monday, May 9, 2011

REMin' with JT Part 3

Part 3, Life as a Three-Legged Dog: 1997 - Present

Up (1998)


Fave Song: Daysleeper

Least fave: Airportman

Discovered Gem: Diminished

The band apparently spent a lot of time listening to Pet Sounds prior to the release of this album, as many songs sound like covers of that era of Beach Boys songs (Parakeet, At My Most Beautiful). While this album isn’t bad, it just sort of sputters along for the most part with a few peaks (Daysleeper) and a few valleys (Diminished). (C)


Fave Song: Diminished

Least fave: Lotus

Discovered Gem: You’re in the Air

I remember pretty well when this one came out. There was this article in Paste I think called Life as a Three-Legged Dog or something, basically all about REM figuring out how to be REM without Bill drumming. Then they were on Letterman where they’d first debuted 15 years earlier with So Central Rain (before it had a name). They played Lotus and I hated it. I was still pretty much at odds with Stipe and REM in general at this point and hadn’t paid much attention to anything since OoT, but Karla was a fan of Automatic and I’d heard it a bit because of her and thought it was pretty good, so after we heard Daysleeper (which has “the REM sound”) she picked it up. I remember it was definitely her copy and there’s candle wax on the back of the case ‘cos she always used to burn those in her Murfreesboro apartment. Anyway… I remember thinking it sounded pretty much like you’d expect it to – REM making music without a fulltime drummer and so incorporating a lot of electronics and loops, etc to not only provide a beat, but to fill in the gaps. There’s a lot of experimentation here and stuff that felt like it was written on the sly (Hope) with Stipe riffing to “this cool chord progression” someone had come up with playing a keyboard through distortion. Something, I dunno. I think a lot of it feels like a bunch of sketches or demos, like the songs are only half written and need more fleshing out. Sometimes that’s part of the charm (Fall to Climb) but other times it just sounds unfinished (Why Not Smile). I think I read once somewhere that Bill did a lot of the arranging, so that makes sense. But having said that, I think it’s an interesting study of a band redefining itself and trying to prove something, not because they’re attempting to stay relevant or hip or popular (and they certainly didn’t need the money), but finding a reason to remain a working, functional band at all. I think there’s a lot of insecure desperation here, like on certain moments of Green (with the whole “going major” deal), as if they’re trying to convince themselves as well as the fans that they should keep going, and in a lot of ways that works for me. And also for that reason, Up sounds like they worked hard at it and the results may be a bit overdone (while also sounding incomplete), yet endearingly so, though the effortless meandering of NAiHF is here but less spontaneous, tepid and almost awkward. I think the person who shines here most is Stipe. His lyrics are super introspective and he has several of his most memorable and lovely melodies to date (The Apologist, You’re in the Air, Diminished). And it’s these melodies that kept me coming back to Up every few months or so, even when I refused to listen to anything else from the 90s…though it was around this time that A Life Less Ordinary came out and Leave from NAiHF was on the soundtrack and I discovered the overlooked brilliance of that album. Anyway, for the first album after such a major loss, I think Up is a winner. They could have easily brought in Bill #2 on drums and gone for a classic REM sound, but instead decided to do things in their own way with what they had between the three of them. And while some of it falls short or is unmemorable, there are plenty of worthwhile moments amongst all the buzzing and bleeping and somewhat dated sounding loops. (B+)

Reveal (2001)


Fave Song: All The Way To Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star)

Least fave: Beachball

Discovered Gem: She Just Wants To Be

I look at this album as a perfection of the sound explored on Up. The melodies are stronger and the production adds a nice Air-y (the band) quality to quite a few of the songs. (B)


Fave Song: Beat a Drum

Least fave: Saturn Return

Discovered Gem: She Just Wants to Be

If Up is about awkward new beginnings and the toil of rediscovery, Reveal is about those efforts realized…and delivered in spades. This is Up brought to its fullest potential. The cold distance is gone and replaced by warm intimacy. It’s like a day out at the beach and in a lot of ways I feel “California” and even “the Beach Boys” in many of these songs, especially with the idea that the band is using the studio as an instrument (plus, there are a lot of warm/summer/beach references). Incorporating live drums on most of the material helps immensely, and there is a definite confidence that was severely lacking with Up. That album was almost like a side project, but this is a fulltime band again. From the first time I heard Imitation of Life on the radio I thought, “Ok, these guys are back…” and picked up the album. It was this album that made me drop my woes with Stipe and the band in general and begin to embrace again everything about them that I’d once loved. Somewhat recently (at the time) accepting Automatic and discovering the majesty of NAiHF certainly helped this cause, and even Up sounded inspiring as a launching pad for REM 3.0 if you will. And inspiring really is the word here, because one thing REM and Stipe as a lead man have always been good at is pumping up a listener, so the doubt of Up is gone, and the ambiguity of NAiHF is gone, and the rock star posturing of Monster is gone, so really what you have left is REM making the music that created albums like Automatic, Green and LRP. (A)

Around the Sun (2004)


Fave Song: Boy in the Well

Least fave: Leaving New York

Discovered Gem: Aftermath

This is their worst album and is the only one that I truly found a chore revisiting in order to complete this project. After three or four false starts I finally made it through. I think it is best to let Peter Buck summarize it for me, “"... just wasn't really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can't stand it anymore." (C-)


Fave Song: Electron Blue

Least fave: Leaving New York

Discovered Gem: Aftermath

I’ll say first that this isn’t a terrible album, but it’s so non-obtrusive it’s hardly even there, not even annoying enough to be offensive. At least Monster is in your face, but AtS exists to take up a number in a catalog. It’s like with Reveal they found what they were looking for and now they’re not sure what to do with it. This isn’t so much resting on their laurels as it is just indifferent to where they are as a band or what they’re putting out as “music.” They still have that “experimentation” element but it’s only in an attempt to make these songs sound more interesting. Fail. REM is best when they’re kicking out new territory, but they’re neither doing that nor further fleshing out where they’ve already dabbled (as with the case from Up to Reveal). Again, like Monster, it’s not terrible music per se, but it’s terrible REM music. These songs are what you would expect from a band like Matchbox 20, uninspired and harmless but “pleasant” enough, with all the right parts in place, and fitting as the background of some nighttime social drama on Fox. Leaving New York has got to be the worst song in REM’s repertoire because it’s so cliché in every way, and a good 2/3 of the album follows suit. Honestly, this is like someone trying to write an REM song and doing it badly. All of the passion and believability is gone. I mean I think of a song like Wake Up Bomb and how much they just kick the crap out it, and it makes these songs laughable. But having said that, there are some decent moments, songs that would be second, maybe third tier offerings on better releases, which means they’re good but not great. Among those are Electron Blue, Final Straw, Wanderlust and Aftermath… But a big problem here is Stipe. While he certainly salvaged a lot of the undercooked feeling in Up with some super impassioned vocals and his obscure, introspective lyrics, he’s just way too obvious and banal on a lot of these songs, even many of the ones I just mentioned (especially Final Straw). And even when they’re trying to bust out the jams, it just sounds forced and deliberate, especially from Stipe, whose screeching on Ascent of Man is just the absolute pits, and makes Lotus from Up seem like a small revelation. The main deal is that, unlike Reveal and even Up, these songs don’t linger with me, they don’t beg to be re-listened to. I often put on an album because I have a song in my head and I want to hear it. Why should I put forth the effort out of obligation to listen to something and hope that it will be good, when I’ve got 10+ other albums to choose from? If this had been the last thing REM ever did it wouldn’t have been surprising, but it would have been an absolutely disappointing low point at the end of a career where ambition was the key, even if it sometimes led them astray. Here ambition is traded for bland ambiguity, and no one is more aware of it than REM. (C-)

Accelerate (2008)


Fave Song: Horse to Water

Least fave: I'm Gonna DJ

Discovered Gem: Until the Day is Done

This album may not be their best but after the drudgery that was Around the Sun and the slow nature of both Up and Reveal it is certainly a breath of fresh air. Sounds like a band having fun being a band and in doing so is a greatly entertaining and enjoyable listen. (B)


Fave Song: Sing for the Submarine

Least fave: Hollow Man

Discovered Gem: I'm Gonna DJ

There was a lot of build up to this one as a comeback and I think it deserves that status. I immediately liked it when I first heard it. It was urgent without being desperate, engaging without being flashy or in your face. A few years later it’s not the REM of the past decade that I reach for (Reveal, you know I love you), but I always enjoy it when I do decide to put it on, and give it at least 2-3 spins. One thing that makes this easy to do is its brevity. While their past several releases have boasted 13 or 14 tracks and run close to or over an hour, Accelerate is 11 tracks and just over 30 minutes. I love it. I mean just get ‘er done, ya’ll…and then let’s do it again! But also, musically, the songs are just a thousand times better than everything on AtS, and since they’re aware of this, they perform as such. Mike’s return to prominent backing vocals is so great, and I didn’t realize how much I had missed them on the past few albums until I heard him “ah-ahing” on Supernatural Superserious. Also, Stipe’s lyrics are back up to snuff, poignant but not always straightforward, and certainly nowhere near the uninspired, saccharine sentimental drivel of AtS. They’re having a good time and so that means I’m going to enjoy listening to it. It’s the fun they had with songs like Stand or Shiny Happy People but took themselves too seriously to truly embrace back then, which at the time was fine. Now that they’re older and conventions are behind them, they can just go with the flow and make a good record. And while they’re not really breaking new ground - ‘cos I think this is like LRP’s younger, edgier brother, and there are songs that seem to be cousins of other stuff (e.g. Living Well is the Best Revenge to Bad Day…which is an early version of End of the World) - they’re approaching it with a no holds barred attitude, firing all guns without the gimmick, sleaze, faux glam posturing (that was intended) on Monster, and just letting themselves produce what comes naturally instead of laboring to make a “meaningful” album. Compared to “classic” efforts, Accelerate might not be as earth shattering as a Murmur or a Fables or a Green, but it’s proof that the guys can still produce some worthwhile material and I hold it on par to the better (but not best) moments of Document or OoT, and the last three songs are some of the best music REM has laid down in 20 years. So at the end of the day, this album is just a lot of fun and the enjoyment level is much higher without the pretention of heady lyrics or complex song structures. REM can do that, and have quite well, but AtS proved that it has to come naturally and that they needed a break from that…and so did we. (A-)

Collapse Into Now (2011)


Fave Song: Everyday Is Yours To Win

Least fave: Mine Smell Like Honey

Discovered Gem: Uberlin

The release of this album was the catalyst that started this whole crazy little project and I have to say that while hopefully REM still have many years ahead of them, this is a fine note to end on for now. The band seems comfortable and secure in who they are and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. (B)


Fave Song: All the Best

Least fave: Discoverer

Discovered Gem: That Someone is You

I’ll say right off that the comeback of Accelerate was in no way a fluke as, to me, CiN picks up on that energy and, most importantly, confidence and takes it to the next level. REM has put out an album that I think truly sounds like an REM album from front to back for the first time since Automatic. And while we can argue that REM has always been about creating new sounds, there is a sound that is distinctly “REM” that crops up from time to time in the up and down years from Monster to Accelerate, but has hardly been consistent with those efforts. There are lots of high energy numbers that jump out of the gate ready for anything just like on Accelerate, but the difference here is that while Accelerate was almost all steady rockers, CiN boasts loads of low key songs that often as not punctuate the high water marks as do their more visceral siblings. Having said that, All the Best, with its “take this” attitude, is an early and overall highlight, with the whole Quasimodo/bell ringing line that, when harnessed with the music, is one of the best images of Stipe’s career. Still, I don’t think they’re shattering many musical barriers and in a lot of ways this album is sorta blueprint REM; they’re taking the ingredients that they know go well together and making a nice, er, casserole. There are several songs that sound like a “part 2” of something else, like Uberlin to Drive or Blue to E-Bow the Letter (to Country Feedback). But the songs are so stinking good that really, who cares? I seriously get excited listening to this record, like I did when OoT first came out or the first time I heard Fables. And I think CiN smashes OoT with a hammer…repeatedly. It Happened Today, when that build up finally explodes, is just one of those spine tingling moments in music when I want to crank the stereo as loud as it will go. Meanwhile, Uberlin and Oh My Heart are fragile and beautiful, never overdoing it, just letting the song and melody carry on. And really, that’s a big part of the success of these past two albums, they just went in and did it ‘cos they knew they had a good batch of songs, so no need to take forever with studio magic trying to make a dead horse walk. And yeah, there are some “unessential” numbers, like (maybe) Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter, but they’re so much fun to jump and sing along to, that it doesn’t really matter, and introspective, uplifting songs like Every Day is Yours to Win counter the “mindless” bounce quite nicely. And I think a big ingredient here is hope, ‘cos as I’ve said already, REM was always good about shining a light even at the end of the longest, bleakest tunnel, and with CiN it’s a spotlight about a mile wide. I am officially looking forward to the next album. (A)