Thursday, September 29, 2011

Curin' with JT - Part 3 – Mainstream Success

Disintegration (1989)

JT’s Thoughts: No album that I’ve ever listened to has had the same staying power and makes me feel the way that this one does. Robert is at his dreary, gorgeous, dreamy best and the band couldn’t sound better. Easily the strongest album in the Cure’s cannon and after 20+ years of constant listening remains my favorite album of all time...period. (A+)

Favorite: ‘Prayers for Rain’

Least: ‘Fascination Street’

Gem: ‘Untitled’

Ok, here we go… JT and I call this one “the Big D” because, well, everything about it is simply big, huge, massive, etc. The personal and emotional involvement I have with this album really makes it difficult for me to be objective, while at the same time there’s nothing I can say that will adequately convey how important this album is, not just to me but period. This is what the previous ten years had lead up to, and yet there was really no way of knowing, from Kiss Me, what those tinkling chimes at the beginning of Plainsong were going to reveal. With keyboards providing an elegant, flowing backdrop, and chiming guitars cutting through with pristine beauty, Robert’s plaintive vocals and lyrics are the cap piece to a mood that is so deliciously melancholy and so sinisterly enjoyable that it’s almost a frightening listen. In a subconscious way, this album has spawned attempted duplications (even by the Cure) for over twenty years, and while that is the ultimate compliment, nothing stands up to the dark, majestic masterpiece that is Disintegration. (A+)

Fave: Untitled

Least: Lullaby

Gem: Closedown


JT’s Thoughts: This album is the little sister companion piece to Disintegration in my book. Songs such as ‘End’, ‘The Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ and ‘Letter’s to Elise’ would’ve fit the mood if not tone of Disintegration, but Robert busts out some of his strongest pop songs and spices things up a bit. ‘Friday I’m in Love’ as well as ‘High’ are wonderfully infectious shimmering pop songs and while this album is no Disintegration, I don’t think anyone really expected it to be. (B+)

Favorite: ‘End’

Least: ‘Wendy Time’

Gem: ‘Friday I’m in Love’

It’s hard to follow up on perfection, and with Wish the Cure sorta tried but also sorta didn’t. The better moments are when they’re going for the latter. This means “bubble gum” pop ditties like High, Friday I’m in Love and A Letter to Elise stand out like shining stars, while more concise “ballads” like Apart, Trust and To Wish Impossible Things are understated gems that get lost between sprawling mini epics like Open, End and From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea. That’s not to say that these latter songs are bad, and I’ve enjoyed re-exploring them for this project, but they sometimes tend to lose focus, and so seem a little pedestrian and ultimately hamper the flow of the album. Throw in a couple of funky head scratchers like Wendy Time and Doing the Unstuck (again, not saying they’re bad songs, they just don’t quite “fit”), and Wish is an extremely uneven listen, especially when one considers some of the fantastic b-sides that could have replaced more “meandering” numbers and fleshed this album out nicely into a collection of mope-pop perfection instead of the indecisive feel of “should we carry on with the scope of the Big D or step in other directions?” (B+)

Fave: A Letter to Elise

Least: From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea

Gem: Cut

Wild Mood Swings (1996)

JT’s Thoughts: I can’t think of a more perfectly named album than this one by the Cure. The album is a mess and completely all over the place mood wise, is strangely compelling at times and downright boring at others. To me the singles are the high point on this album... “The 13th” is the most quirky pop song the band had released since “The Lovecats,” which came out 13 years earlier. All and all this album is an interesting listen but after “Round & Round & Round” the album seems to drag on a bit. (C+)

Favorite: The 13th

Least: Trap

Gem: Round & Round & Round

Initially, WMS starts off as almost a Wish mark 2 with the wailing, epic lament of Want. But by track two things take a quirky, sardonic turn with Club America and pretty much tangent off in one direction or other for the rest of the album. When it first came out I was extremely underwhelmed, but these are songs that really, really stick in your head and over the past 15 years I’ve really come to love it, to the point where it’s in my all time top five Cure albums and one of the ones I reach for most frequently. I know folks saw/see this as a departure, but really, looking back over the past 1.5 decades of their career to that point, the Cure has always been about producing the unexpected while still maintaining a signature melancholy sweet sound. I liken WMS most to Japanese Whispers for a good blend of fun and sulk, and to Kiss Me in the sense of dynamic scope (without being quite as tediously long). As with Kiss Me (and Wish before) it’s the upbeat numbers that work the best, though here they dabble in various styles from bossa nova to jazz (that’s what she wants), with some fantastic horns that go nicely with the more standard Cure-esque pop outings. Still, there are several nice ballads, and ballads more in the “traditional” sense of rock n roll with more straightforward acoustic arrangements (yet another departure), especially the unrequited love song Jupiter Crash, that always takes me back to younger days and the early uncertainties of fresh adulthood. At the end of the day, this is another very mixed bag, yet it’s this diversity that keeps everything interesting, and (unlike Wish) a lack of multiple pseudo epics allow WMS to traverse its emotional peaks and valleys almost seamlessly, making it a highly rewarding listen and a “latter day” (and overlooked) standout for the Cure. (A)

Fave: The 13th

Least: Want

Gem: Return

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Living in a post-REM world

You can just type "REM break up" in the search engine of your choice and get the official scoop on the best from Athens (which is saying a lot), who are now calling it a day.

I can certainly understand the reasons for this. They've made multiple impressions on the musical world over the past 30 years and their legacy is in tact; they've earned their honest millions and can retire in comfort; and last year's Collapse into Now was a definite high note to go out on, encapsulating not only the various elements of the classic REM sound, but still continuing to explore fresh territories that are ever interesting and exciting. Plus, Peter has about a million other guitar commitments. ;-)

So it's all good, right?

I've got 15 albums of mostly fantastic music to either lean on or simply enjoy in the future as I have in the past, and while I may greedily want more and more new music, I don't necessarily need it. No good thing lasts forever, kids.

But that's all foundational history, and like the work of the Beatles and The Doors have lived on, REM will as well in the exact same way. But I was never around for the Beatles and the Doors when they existed, that was someone else's loss, the shock of another generation. So for me personally (and millions of other 30/40 somethings), I honestly can't imagine a world without REM as some sort of functional entity, as they've been a part of my life for longer than they haven't, which is longer than any friends I currently have. That thought right there sorta shakes me, because under the same idea, in another 30 years time I could have none of the friends I do now, but still have REM's music.

And while we've had our (one-sided) ups and downs, and for awhile there in the mid 90s I denied them like Peter to Christ, like any personable, meaningful, heartfelt relationship, there will be times of appreciation and ingratitude, an emotional feast or famine, but in the end you always come back to what is true and good and wholesome, and 100% of the time (even with the clunkers), that has been REM.

But even though good friendships far too often drift apart and fade away, it's the memories that will sustain us until the next meeting, or at least keep us smiling fondly when we know we'll likely never see old Bob again. And with music it's a bit easier to put on a disc and for a moment recapture that feeling you had when you were 16 and hearing Wolves, Lower for the first time, the excitement you felt and the friends you shared it with, which is rather a win-win, 'cos not only does it rekindle the love you have for that music, but it also conjures a warm feeling of nostalgia for folks who are God knows anywhere, but hopefully doing ok.

(Ah, the pangs of growing older in a linear existence.)

That's the beauty and power of music, and few were any better at evoking that power than REM.

So, Michael, Peter, Mike and Bill, thank you, thank you, THANK have been here, and you are everything.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Curin' with JT - Part 2 – Pop Leanings

Japanese Whispers (1983)

JT’s thoughts: While the music change is drastic from Pornography to this “album,” some of the themes remain. Robert does blow us out with a few truly playful pop songs, but the overwhelming material here is of a darker nature. ‘Just One Kiss’ could’ve fit nicely onto Pornography and ‘Lament’ sounds like a leftover track from the Faith, but the true brilliance of this album lies in the ‘singles’...’Lovecats’ and ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ are easily two of the best pop songs that Robert ever wrote. (B+)

Favorite: ‘Let’s Go To Bed’

Least: ‘Speak My Language’

Gem: ‘Lament’

Me: Another fairly major stylistic shift, as the acrid bitterness and heavy handed doom of Pornography is gone. But instead of falling back to previous outings, they take their signature mope and run it through the synth pop filter du jour in a way only the Cure could. This is the first outing where they are doing much more instrumentation than the existing band could effectively pull off in a live setting (mostly just a duo here) and there are loads of fun and interesting little keyboard flourishes, guitar fills and just random noises going on to fatten up the sound considerably. Also, we get the return of Robert’s whimsy and playfulness, especially on the two “full band” jazzy numbers, Speak My Language and super fan fave, The Love Cats. I remember thinking how patchy this album was stylistically, but now I know better, and since this is really a US collection of three UK singles, it’s hard to fault a lack of cohesiveness, and I sorta wish each single and its b-sides were lumped in order. But the way it’s spread out works pretty well as a legit album, and Japanese Whispers is a perfect bridge between the Cure’s post punk beginnings and the pop that would make them alt-super stars. (A-)

Fave: The Upstairs Room

Least: Lament

Gem: Just One Kiss

The Top (1984)

JT’s thoughts: While easily the weakest of the early Cure albums, there are enough great songs on here to put it head and shoulders above most of the other stuff that was coming out during the same time period. This album, Robert’s work with Severin as the Glove and Japanese Whispers are nice transition pieces that would lead to the Cure’s breaking through to the mainstream over the course of the next three albums. (B-)

Favorite: ‘Piggy In The Mirror’

Least: ‘Give Me It’

Gem: ‘Dressing Up’

Me: For all intents and purposes this is a Mad Bob solo album, as he played everything but the drums, and even Lol Tolhurst was relegated to “other instruments.” Coming off the high water mark of Let’s Go to Bed, The Walk and The Love Cats (aka Japanese Whispers), one would think that pop bliss was just around the next record groove, but no. The Top is a dark affair, perhaps even more so than the violent Pornography, because at least there we find some relief through activity. Now it’s just a wallowing in self-misery (so to speak) and the album is a sludgy, somewhat complex listen as a result. In fact, it’s the first Cure album that I’d say is better to break down and take in pieces rather than as a whole, as the songs themselves are mostly pretty good, sometimes excellent, but only the latter when they bounce and attempt to be happy, or at least content, in their melancholy. This is the most experimental album since Seventeen Second, but fuller, more developed and staying within defined song structures. There are a lot of atonal dirges (Wailing Wall, The Top) replacing the lush beauty of say Faith for a cold, sterile atmosphere of complete isolation. Other songs are wild and frenetic (Give Me It, Shake Dog Shake), searching for a hold and an identity. Some are like madcap carnival music (Piggy in the Mirror, Bananafishbones), but any whimsy is covered by a lurid creepiness that is equally ingratiating and off putting. And still others try to be bright, shimmering pop (The Caterpillar, Dressing Up, Birdmad Girl), but still maintain a certain barren gloom that is hard to shake. These latter are also the most satisfying lyrically, though there are some other nice (if disturbing) images scattered throughout. Overall, The Top feels like an unfocused effort that is hampered by its indecision, which mars all but the very best tunes and makes the rest so dreary in the murk, that there’s more effort than ecstasy in this brand of misery. (B)

Fave: Birdmad Girl

Least: Give Me It

Gem: Piggy in the Mirror

The Head on the Door (1985)

JT’s thoughts: Easily the most poppy of the Cure albums since TIB/BDC, and containing the breakout singles ‘Inbetween Days’ and ‘Close to Me,’ this was the Cure’s first major introduction to mainstream radio and MTV. Many of the songs on this album sound a bit dated (hey it was 1985, what do you expect!) in recording but the hooks and melodies are all exactly where they need to be and as such, this album is an amazing, easy and enjoyable listen. (B+)

Favorite: ‘Push’

Least: ‘Screw

Gem: “Six Different Ways’

Me: Ok, first off I want to say that, with similar production either way, there’s not much difference between many of these songs, as far as style goes (Latin flair, prominent synths, bouncy rhythms), and those from The Top. However, production is the key, and overall HOtD is a much livelier, more upbeat affair. (So I’m basically saying that production could have saved The Top or killed HotD.) Having said that, while the signature sulk is still in place, it’s presented playfully, almost tongue in cheek, as if Robert has embraced the melancholy he’s known for and is going to have a bit of fun with it. But again, it all falls to production, and the post break up lament of In Between Days would have sounded like a jump off a cliff under the weight of The Top, instead of a lighthearted, “la, la,” devil may care romp. It’s the juxtaposition of happy music and sad words that make it so deadly and delicious. In a similar vein, Close to Me would have been more sinister, the Baby Screams more vicious, Six Different Ways more morose and The Blood, well, that’s still a song about a hangover, so you can’t help but giggle. As they stand here, these songs are teasingly glum, never taking themselves too seriously, but also not so paper thin as to blow away in the wind. There is still some true darkness thematically, even in the shimmering “bubble gum” of In Between Days, and some numbers (Kyoto Song, Sinking) are strong indicators that despair and questionable deeds are really only a click away. (A)

Fave: Push

Least: Kyoto Song

Gem: Screw

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)

JT’s Thoughts: And with ‘Just Like Heaven’ the Cure had officially arrived in the mainstream, and what an album to do it 18 Songs and over an hour of music, Kiss Me is a bit of a monster. Robert must’ve been overflowing with creative juices at this time and hits on all different moods from melancholy (‘One More Time’ & the Disintegration sounding ‘A Thousand Hours’) to angry (‘Fight’ and ‘Shiver and Shake’) to happy(ish) (‘Hey You!’ & ‘Hot Hot Hot’) to lovelorn (‘Just Like Heaven’ & ‘Catch’) and nearly knocks it all out of the park. There are a few slight missteps and as a rule 18 songs is just overkill, but Robert somehow makes it all work. (A)

Favorite: ‘Catch’

‘Least: ‘Shiver and Shake’

Gem: ‘The Perfect Girl’

Me: I’m gonna level with ya…I really don’t like this album. Of course there are a lot of essential Cure songs on here, not only the well known (Just like Heaven) but more obscure as well (All I Want). Robert is in full form from playful to tortured and in/out of love, with a nice blend of upbeat and dreamy numbers showcasing pretty much everything the Cure could do well, up to that point. Honestly, aside from a handful of sorta trite throwaways (Shiver and Shake, Fight), there’s not a bad song on the album, but with a few exceptions, I rarely get excited when I’m listening, just recognize that these are good songs by a great band, enjoying the experience from that perspective but nothing more. I think the issue for me is twofold. 1) This is a dreaded double album, and broken down just right, this could be two “to the point” and therefore stellar releases (or at least one and some good b-sides). 2) The production/performance is rather stiff, and while HotD may sound more “80s dated,” those songs are loose and vibrant, while much of Kiss Me suffers from a stifled, claustrophobic atmosphere that hampers rather than enhances the outcome. As a result, while I love a good 95% of these songs, I never want to hear them in this setting. And really, maybe that’s just me. (B+)

Fave: Just like Heaven

Least: Shiver and Shake

Gem: All I Want

Monday, September 12, 2011

Curin' with JT - Part 1 – Uncharacteristic Beginnings and Early “Goth”

JT and I have been at it again, this time tackling the rather lengthy back catalog of the Cure. I think it’s safe to say that, along with the Smiths, the Cure was the musical magnetism that first brought our friendship together nearly 20 years ago. That being said, the importance of this band on our lives, both separately and as the Duo of Awesome, was at one time immense, and doubtless our musical tastes and general perceptions of life and how to live it (to throw in a little REM there) wouldn’t be quite the same without them.

Mad Bob

So, again, when we bash on a record a bit, it’s from the tough love perspective of a true fan who expects much from their heroes and whose disappointment is great when they fail to deliver. I will say here that over the past couple or so releases, our faith (pun intended) in the Cure as a reliable source for inspiring music has rather waned, and we have literally spent hours discussing whether that change was in us as older folks or in the band as, er, older folks. However, with the output of their latest effort, 4:13 Dream, we together found a spark that made us think that Mad Bob and crew still had it, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re both looking forward to any new material with more aplomb than, well, dread.

Before were get started, note that, for you purists our there, we are including Boys Don’t Cry and Japanese Whispers as proper albums, even though they’re technically singles collections for the US market (though we both decided to lump the former in with Three Imaginary Boys).

Also, for the sake of reader digestion, I’m breaking these albums down into four separate posts.

Ok, now that we have that business out of the way, get out your lip stick, your eyeliner, pull on your hair, pull on your pout and let’s move…

Three Imaginary Boys/Boys Don’t Cry (1979/1980)

JT's thoughts: These albums are both extremely strong. They weren’t (totally) punk. They weren’t (totally) new wave. What they had was a very strong set of catchy punky new wavey pop songs that still sound fantastic 30+ years later. The addition of both “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Killing An Arab” gives Boys Don’t Cry the decided edge on rating. (TIB- B, BDC- A)

Favorite: (TIB) “Fire In Cairo”, (BDC) “Boys Don’t Cry”

Least: (TIB) ‘The Weedy Burton’ (BDC)“So What”

Gem: (Both) ‘Another Day”

Me: In 1979 Robert and Co were pretty much jumping on the punk/post punk bandwagon and to me they sound like they’re trying to be the Buzzcocks. That in and of itself is neither good nor bad, just what it is, because the end result is some great pop punk and some, well, songs. Of the two collections, Boys Don’t Cry is the most consistent because it contains all the singles (Killing an Arab, Jumping Some Else’s Train, Boys Don’t Cry) plus the best songs from Three Imaginary Boys (Accuracy, Grinding Halt, Fire in Cairo, Three Imaginary Boys). The problem with Three Imaginary Boys itself is that songs like Meathook, So What and Foxy Lady (the only instance in the Cure of a cover on a proper album or when someone other than Robert took lead vocals) are charming but ultimately uninteresting throwaways, not worthy to stand up against even third tier numbers on Boys Don’t Cry (which are second tier numbers on Three Imaginary Boys) like Object or Subway Song. There’s very little to point to what they would do just a year later (Three Imaginary Boys, Another Day), though occasionally this sound would pop up again in future efforts. Basically, this batch of songs was one to get out of their system, which they do amply in most instances, while others present some of the best examples of the genre. (3IB – B+/BDC – A-)

Favorite: Jumping Someone Else’s Train

Least: Foxy Lady

Gem: Another Day

Seventeen Seconds (1980)

JT's thoughts: The Cure start to come into their own on this album. TIB/BDC were both fun poppy albums, but this album truly sounds like a ‘Cure’ album. There were hints of where the band were headed with ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ and ‘Subway Song’ but I can only imagine the shock on the A&R men’s faces when they heard the album and there were no obvious singles. Having said that, next to the Big D this album has always been my favorite by the Cure...we’ll see if by the end of these reviews I still feel that way. (A+)

Favorite: “Seventeen Seconds”

Least: “The Final Sound”

Gem: “In Your Room”

Me: From the first notes it’s obvious that this is a completely different type of music from the Three Imaginary Boys Don’t Cry era. Augmented to a four piece and with two new members, it’s almost a different band, but I think this has more to do with Robert’s vision than personnel changes. Slower, sparser, stripped of basically all but the barest bones of pop conventions, in a lot of ways Seventeen Seconds is more sketches than fully realized songs. But the ones that are (Play for Today, A Forest, M) remain some of the strongest of the Cure’s early output, while other minimalist offerings (Secrets, At Night, Seventeen Seconds) and a couple of soundscape pieces (A Reflection, Three, The Final Sound) showcase an experimental vulnerability that they would never quite touch on again. There is very little jangle or bounce, even on the more upbeat tunes, and the bleak lyrical imagery, often present on Three Imaginary Boys Don’t Cry, is matched by the music all the way around, as any lightheartedness from before is completely thrown to the side. This is more a mood setter than the depths of despair that would come later, so in a lot of ways Seventeen Seconds is the rough outline of everything the Cure would do for the next couple of years, and even throughout the rest of their career, and should be listened to as a whole instead of dissected song by song. (A)

Favorite: M

Least: At Night

Gem: Secrets

Faith (1982)

JT's thoughts: This is it...this is where the Cure began developing the label that still clings to them despite the variety of phases and sounds the band have gone through. This is the beginning of the Cure as GOTH but it isn’t really. The songs are too strong and timeless to truly be labeled any one thing but, as the press tends to do, they said Goth and 30 years later the Cure are still a Goth band. If this is Goth, this and Pornography have to be the best Goth albums ever released, because Robert never gets lost on making ‘scary’ songs so much that he forgets to make beautiful songs. Suck that Peter Murphy! (A)

Favorite: ‘The Funeral Party’

Least: ‘Primary’

Gem: ‘’The Drowning Man’

Me: Aside from maybe Boys Don’t Cry (or more like Standing On a Beach), I have the most memories of this one pre Disintegration; just dark, foggy nights on childhood FL back roads, freaking out friends with the downbeats and somber lyrics. This one was pretty much a guidepost for me between about 15 and 18 and is still my overall favorite Cure album. But musically speaking, whittled back down to a trio with the loss of keyboardist Matthieu Hartley, Faith is ironically more keyboard heavy than Seventeen Seconds, and the addition of these keyboards, along with more overall F/X, helps to fill out much of the sound, picking up nicely where the latter album left off. Faith also benefits from a more fully developed set of songs, almost all low key, morose outings with plaintive melodies over lush and sweeping or tribal, rhythm-centric backdrops. The best moments of the album are the last two songs, The Drowning Man and title track; minimal, emotive and grief ridden dirges that (along with the Funeral Party) were the first true stamp of the gloomy, gothic shroud that has haunted the Cure, and made them millions, ever since. This album more than any other points to what they would do eight years later with Disintegration, and while they certainly became more frantic and foreboding in the space between, they were never as delicate or lovely. (A+)

Favorite: The Drowning Man

Least: Primary

Gem: Doubt

Pornography (1982)

JT's thoughts: Ok, at times, Robert does get a bit scary on this album, but again he never forgets the craft of song (Again, suck that Peter Murphy!), and while these songs are bleak I never feel anything but empowered listening to this album. The drums are almost tribal and very driving, leading to a feeling that this is perhaps the closest the Cure ever got to recording a ‘metal’’ album. (A)

Favorite: ‘A Short Term Effect’

Least: ‘Pornography’

Gem: ‘A Strange Day’

Me: Turn the despair knob to 11, please. I guess in some ways Pornography is the logical follow up to Faith, at least lyrically, as Robert has gone from pensive to bitter and often acts out his emotions in violence instead of gloomy complacency. Musically it’s so much heavier, so much more biting, abrasive and just downright sinister when compared to the sweeping, elegant heartache of Faith, it’s hard to believe this is the same band. I think the key ingredient here is anger, even fury, and this is most evident with the drums, which are pounded like hammers into anvils, never letting up, and the rest of the instruments follow suit. Even the lightest moment (A Strange Day) is wrapped in mystery and confusion, and the rest of the album is a diatribe that more than once pushes towards murder. But having said that, there is quite a lot of beauty beneath the icy keyboards and drilling guitars, as lovely vocal melodies (The Figurehead, Cold) weave their way in and out of the barrage, making this bitter pill not only bearable, but enjoyable again and again. Turn it up for maximum misery. (A)

Fave: Siamese Twins

Least: A Short Term Effect

Gem: The Figurehead