Tag Archives: REM

Spring/Early Summer 2016 Album Lightning Round: A Whole Lotta Love

My buddy Ovidiu Boar over at Tangle Up In Music has a really nice recurring column where he combines a bunch of short album reviews into one long post. I’ve got a pretty large backlog of albums to review that came out over the last few months so I’m adopting (read: stealing) his format in order to purge myself of these albums. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so go check out Ovidiu Boar and his fantastic website.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a couple of albums I’ve been meaning to review:

WEEZER (White Album) by Weezer

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Weezer are one of those bands that I sometimes wish would just stop recording and retire. But every time I completely write them off the band turns up with a decent album. The last time Weezer surprised me was back in 2008 when they released THE RED ALBUM, and that was nearly a decade ago. Since that time, the band has continued to tour and released albums. None of them were very good/memorable and when they came out, I didn’t hear anyone talk about them. I’m not sure what’s going on with Weezer, but when the best song your band’s put out in 8 years is a cover of “Unbreak My Heart,” it might be time to hang up your boots. Then last month, when I was listening to the new Monkees album, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my favorite track was written by Rivers Cuomo. Which got me excited about the new Weezer album, which is again self-titled and will henceforth be referred to by its color designation. THE WHITE ALBUM doesn’t have anything on it as good as his Monkee’s song “She Makes Me Laugh,” but the album isn’t a disaster. In fact, there’s some pretty good stuff on it. Before I praise the band, however, I have to acknowledge that once again the single is the worst part of a Weezer album. “Thank God For Girls” once again features Rivers embarrassing-as-hell rapping. I’m not sure who keeps telling him he can pull this off, but I wish they’d be honest with him. Rivers: you can’t rap, please stop.

“(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” should have been the single! It’s a great pop ballad that actually would have fit nicely on that Monkee’s album I keep mentioning. A fun, throwback pop song, it’s the kind of track the band’s marketing should be pushing. The album opener, “California Kids” is another track I really enjoy.  Both of these songs have a Beach Boys-by-way-of-The Cars sound that I really dig it.

“Do You Wanna Get High?” has a catchy chorus that (subject matter notwithstanding) also would have made a good choice for an album single. Near the end THE WHITE ALBUM loses steam, particularly on “L.A. Girlz” which is as dumb as the track’s spelling. Thankfully, the album redeems itself with the  fantastically sublime campfire singalong closing track “Endless Bummer.” This is hands-down my favorite track on the album, mostly because it’s the kind of sad sack song Weezer used to be really good at writing.  Any song (or album for that matter) with the lyrics “kumbaya makes me violent/I just want this summer to end” can’t be anything but awesome. Weezer, I’m glad you’re still out there plugging away. Hopefully it won’t be another 8 years before they put out another good album.

 

PAGING MR. PROUST by The Jayhawks

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The Jayhawks are one of those great 90’s college rock bands I don’t ever hear enough people talk about. I’m not exactly sure why they never reached the same legendary status of their peers R.E.M, but they really should have become household names. The last Jayhawks album I listened to was RAINY DAY MUSIC from 2003, which if you haven’t heard is fantastic and worth checking out. The Jayhawks are an Americana/Folk-Rock band that sometimes sound an awful lot like Neil Young & CSNY so if you’re a fan of that kind of music, The Jayhawks are probably your next favorite band.

PAGING MR. PROUST features the same brilliant harmonies and guitar playing one would expect to find on a Jayhawks album, but with an extra shade of darkness. I’m not sure how to explain it, but this music reminds me of autumnal sunset. There’s a cool edge bleeding into the band’s warmth and a lonely feeling permeates the album. PAGING MR. PROUST opens with “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” a song drenched in 60’s era folk. The harmonies kick in and I suddenly remembered why I love this band so much. “Lovers of the Sun” with it’s quiet melancholy is achingly beautiful and my favorite track on the record. My second favorite song is the harder edged “Comeback Kids,” which is a great love song that isn’t afraid to sound a little spooky. Another standout track, “The Devil In Her Eyes” features a stratospheric guitar solo at the end that recalls Mr. Young’s PSYCHEDELIC PILL record from a few years back.  “Dust of Long Dead Stars” with it’s Romantics-esque guitar riff is another standout track.

Not everything on the album fires on all cylinders, and there are sadly a few duds on the album. I have tried to love “Lost the Summer” but just can’t connect with it. The track’s intentionally cold, detached feel is no doubt the barrier preventing me from enjoying it. I can intellectually see that it’s great, with some fantastic guitar work, but it just doesn’t move me. Similarly, the scratchy/glitchy sounding “Ace” is more filler and less album track. I’m not sure why the band felt that this needed to be included on PAGING MR. PROUST. Still, these minor blemishes can’t distort the overall beauty of this Jayhawks album.

 

THE GETAWAY by Red Hot Chili Peppers

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I nearly copied and pasted my opening paragraph from my Weezer review. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are yet another 90’s band that I sometimes think should just give up the ghost and retire as legends. I found their last album, 2011’s I’M WITH YOU, to be pedestrian and highly forgettable. The band’s last truly great album was 1999’s CALIFORNICATION (I really liked parts of STADIUM ARCADIUM but being a bloated double-album take it down a few notches in my book), which if you’re keeping score was a really long time ago. I’ve never really been a real big Chili Peppers fan, but back in 2012 and 2013 the band released a bunch of songs recorded during the I’M WITH YOU sessions–songs that weren’t featured on the album. These songs, collected as I’M BESIDE YOU, are some of the best songs I’ve ever heard from the band. I actually need to sit down and do a write-up on these tracks because they are outstanding. So, these amazing b-sides are what piqued my interest for THE GETAWAY.

How is the album? It’s pretty good. Nothing on the album is as great as those b-sides from 2012/2013, but there are some good stuff on THE GETAWAY. The title track is a great, classic late-era Peppers-sounding track. With a funky beat and that distinct electric bass that’s come to define the band, it starts the album off right. Sadly the album can’t maintain this momentum and becomes a bit underwhelming, with one too many un-funky tracks for my liking. Besides the aforementioned “The Getaway,” I also enjoyed the equally good “Dark Necessities.”

And while the album never drops off, never to regain the heights of that one-two-punch, there are good tracks sprinkled throughout the rest of the album. For example, I enjoyed “Detroit” the band’s love letter to that hardscrabble Michigan city. The buoyant “We Turn Red” sounds like a single waiting to happen, it’s a great song that recalls the band’s earlier efforts. I wish the bulk of the album had been as energetic, the only other track on THE GETAWAY that comes close to being as interesting is the shimmering dance track”Go Robot.”And while I don’t think it’s fantastic, it’s worth checking out the album closer “Dreams of a Samurai” which besides being very strange, seems to reference the recent death of Scott Weiland.

Sadly, I don’t think I can recommend THE GETAWAY but there’s enough interesting stuff on the album that I also can’t outright dismiss it. If you’re a diehard fan you’ll probably be pleased enough with the record, everyone else should just stick to the singles. And, of course, stay tuned for that post on those amazing b-sides the band put out a few years ago.

 

That’s it for now. I imagine I’ll have to do one more of these to get myself fully caught up. Chime in below if you’ve heard any of these albums and agree/disagree with me (I love hearing how wrong I am).

 

 

 

 

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Can We Talk About Michael Stipe’s Beard?

Recently I was listening to a podcast and someone was talking about a benefit concert held on March 31st for the late (great) David Bowie at Carnegie Hall in New York. Among the many stars who came out to pay tribute to the Thin White Duke, was former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe. Stipe pretty much fell off my radar in 2011 when R.E.M. called it a day and ended their storied career. Growing up, my parents were really into mid-period R.E.M. going so far as to take me to see them play live in 1995 when the band was touring in support of their album MONSTER. Some of the later albums like UP and ACCELERATE were actually pretty good, even though most people probably didn’t take the time to listen to them.

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Winter is coming! Stipe is totes ready for Movember.

Anyway, Stipe’s bizarre rendition of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” was a hot topic on this podcast, so I decided to pull up a video of it online. I found a clip very easily, and while the sound isn’t great, everyone who wasn’t there needs to watch it. Is the cover that great? It’s okay, I suppose (it’s a bit talky for my taste). But that’s not what I’m here to discuss today…no, I’m more interested in that beard Stipe is rocking.

When and where did he get that thing? My wife saw him and said he looks like fantasy writer/procrastinator George R.R. Martin (though not fat). Me? I think Stipe is slowly turning into a Jack Skellington version of Santa Claus. The beard/facial hair is all the rage these days, so I get why Stipe would sport a little growth now that he’s out of the spotlight…but the beard he’s rocking these days is epic. Believe me, as a guy who sometimes has a beard, it takes serious commitment to have a beard that full and bushy. Known for his shiny-happy-chromedome, hair is not the first thing one thinks of when thinking about Michael Stipe. This beard changes everything though. From now on, when I hear FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION I’m going to think about Stipe’s bouffant, salt-and-pepper beard swaying back and forth to the rhythm.

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Rhett Miller at The Soiled Dove Underground 01/30/2015

On Friday night I saw Rhett Miller in concert, the last time I saw him was eleven years ago in St. Louis. I did the math while sipping a Moscow Mule before the show, and I’ve been listening to Miller and his band Old 97’s for fourteen years. Most artists today seem to appear on the music scene and then dissapear after two or three years. Longevity, along with album sales, seems to have vanished from the music industry. I guess that’s why I’m shocked I’ve been listening to Miller for so long.

I discovered Old 97’s while trolling music magazines on my lunch break, back when I was working for minimum wage at a chain drugstore. The band’s blend of rock and country fascinated me…and Miller had a cool haircut…so I bought FIGHT SONGS and the then-newly released SATELLITE RIDES. I was blown away and the band quickly became one of my favorites. Pioneers in the “alt-country” scene, like The Jayhawks (another great band I’ve only recently discovered), the Old 97’s are one of those great bands that haven’t had massive mainstream success in large part because they don’t fit neatly into one genre.

Guy still has a cool haircut.

Guy still has a cool haircut.

Rhett went solo in 2002 with THE INSTIGATOR* and for a moment I feared the 97’s were done for. Luckily for all parties, Miller quickly proved that he can walk the delicate balance between band and solo career. I saw the Old 97’s just before I moved away to college, the show was more raucous and raw than I’d imagined. But as I waited for the show to start Friday night I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see Miller by himself a decade later.

It takes a special kind of talent to go up onstage alone and play songs by yourself, especially when the songs everyone knows and lovers were recorded with a full band. If I’d had my choice prior to the show, I’d have preferred to see Miller play with the Old 97’s rather than just bang away on his guitar alone. But I must admit there was something really special and intimate about seeing Rhett with only a guitar. The stripped back set also reminded me once again what a powerful set of pipes he’s got, his voice still boyish and ragged. The set list was surprisingly heavy on Old 97’s material, with the best songs from his solo output peppered in between. I wasn’t expecting as many of his band’s songs to be included since it was a solo show.  Despite being pared down, all of these songs sounded great.

The venue, unfortunately named The Soiled Dove Underground, was small and intimate. I’d estimate it could hold about 200 people and the crowd was about half that size. The Soiled Dove is a sort of yuppie jazz club, which clashed a bit with the Texas-twang Miller was throwing off. I was seated at a table, which made my knees happy, and the audience was brimming with a white hair. That said, I wasn’t the youngest person by far—an 11-year-old girl named Nora was in the front row, sitting dead center of the stage. I know her age and name because both Miller and his opening act made a big deal about their being a kid in the audience. Though two sets of people sent shots of tequila up to the stage for Miller (he politely said thanks but didn’t drink them, sticking to whiskey the entire evening) the show was much tamer than the night I saw Old 97’s in St. Louis.

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About halfway through the set, Miller confessed to not really having a set list and began taking requests from the audience. There were a lot of requests for older, twangy-heavy 97’s tracks like “Murder or a Heart Attack” and “Timebomb,” which was to be expected. More interestingly, though, there were also few oddball requests that Miller was all to happy to oblige. The first and best oddball request was for REM’s “Diver 8” off that band’s 1985 album FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION. Not only was Miller happy to sing this song, he also prefaced the song with an anecdote about seeing Peter Buck in his boxer shorts in Mexico.

Later, after the audience was good and liquored, there was a great swell of enthusiasm for Miller to play “Murray” songs. This of course was a reference to Murray Hammond, the bass player for Old 97’s, who has over the years contributed a handful of really kickass songs to the band’s repertoire. Miller did an admirable job replicated the solemn “Valentine” off FIGHT SONGS as well as performing a valiant though lyrically incomplete run through of “W. TX Teardrops” off 1997’s TOO FAR TO CARE. I dearly love both of those songs and seeing them performed live, although by a different singer and with giant lyrical holes, was a nice treat.

Time’s been kind to Rhett Miller and his ability to give a crowd exactly what they want. Before playing his final song, Miller said that he’d be back later this year in Colorado with the Old 97’s. I’m not sure I’d have gone prior to seeing this show, but Miller has definitely sold me a ticket to that show.

As a side note, Miller’s opening act was a record producer friend of his who seemed really interesting. I tried to remember his name, but it escaped me. I’ve tried to look it up online, but both the venue website and Miller’s tour page fail to name him. I love seeing new acts and find being introduced to an artist for the first time live is a really great way to discover new talents. I wish artists/bands would make it easier for us in the listening public to find out who they are. The opening act doesn’t have to be on the marquee or anything, but if you got a strange/unusual name, maybe say it more than once or twice?

 

 

*I don’t count the out-of-print MYTHOLOGIES from 1989.

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Aping The Beach Boys

 

Last month, Ben Folds Five released their first new studio album since 1999.   After reading a few favorable-to-glowing reviews, I decided to check out the new album despite being a casual fan of the group.  To my great joy, THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND is a really fantastic album that’s chock full of really good pop songs, I encourage you to seek it out.

The opposite of “Rire and Rain” but not PET SOUNDS.

One song, though, really stood out to me: the second track “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.”  The song, which begins with drums and very familiar-sounding vocal harmonies instantly made me think of Jellyfish.  Particularly their second album SPILT MILK which my mom got me into durin the 1990’s.  Hypnotized, I found myself listening to the song over and over.

Then, around the 30th listen or so, I had a realization: The Beach Boys.  In this modern age, where artists are paying homage to other artists who were paying tribute to other artists, it can be tricky to trace the musical genealogy of a group or song .  Now that I’ve thought abou it, it’s obvious to me that on “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”  the band is clearly doing something that goes back to the 1960’s: they’re aping The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys, as I’m fond of reminding you all, were pioneers in rock music and highly influential.  The band has a stuffy/boring reputation among many young people today, but nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve written before about my deep love of PET SOUNDS, but beyond that monumental album, the band’s influence can be felt today.  Being such a cultural-touchstone, other bands have been making sly (and sometimes not so sly) references to The Beach Boys in their work.  That this has been going on literally since they achieved their initial popularity in the 1960’s only serves to underscore just how damn important they were/are as a band.

We don’t know how lucky we are, boys.

The first time I can remember thinking “this band is making fun/referencing The Beach Boys” was when I heard The Beatles self-titled double album THE BEATLES (also known as the “White Album”).  The first song of the first album is “Back in the USS,” which is a direct parody of “California Girls.”  The Beach Boy-esque backing vocals are a perfect copy of The Beach Boys, but more than that The Beatles also poke fun at the band’s Apple-Pie/Baseball American-ness with their song’s Soviet Union-theme.  The Beatles were not the first, and they were not the last to ape The Beach Boys however.

Growing up, another band that I was exposed via my parents was REM.  I remember to practically wearing out their cassette of OUT OF TIME when it came out in 1991.  I had no idea what any of the songs were about, but I really liked them all, in particular the fourth track “Near Wild Heaven.”  The song, co-written and sung by bassist Mike Mills, is pretty much a spot-on WILD HONEY-era Beach Boys song.  And like “Back in the USSR,” it’s not the just vocal arrangement that’s referential to the Beach Boys, the lyrics and chords are also reminiscent of the band.  Looking back on it now, I think it’s weird that one of my all-time favorite REM songs is really just them riffing ironically on The Beach Boys. 

Not near enough…

English rockers XTC recorded a series of albums as their alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear and recorded “Pale and Precious,” a song that channels Wilson’s PET SOUNDS and SMILE-era lush production so well it borderlines on plagiarism. I feel weird mentioning the song because The Dukes were sort of a jokey-novelty, but “Pale and Precious” is too good to ignore.  Many people think these over-the-top homages are cheap, easy ripoffs but the amount of detail and knowledge required to create what essentially amounts to a “lost” Beach Boys song is incredible.  Anyone who willing to disregard the artistic merits of “Pale and Precious” can should try their hand at writing such a loving tribute–I have a feeling it’s harder than Andy Partridge makes it look.

Alt-rockers Everclear started their third album, SO MUCH FOR THE AFTERGLOW, with a massive Beach Boys nod on the album’s title track “So Much For The Afterglow.”  The song has an opening so Beach Boy-esque that when it comes on when I shuffle my iTunes I always mistake it for an actual Beach Boys song.  Jellyfish likewise opened their second album, the before-mentioned SPILT MILK, with “Hush” a lovely lullaby that exists thanks to The Beach Boys.

Sounds like The Beach Boys drunk on everclear.

Much like there are for The Beatles, there are a large contingent of modern bands who’s primary influence is The Beach Boys.  I vividly recall when California rockers Rooney broke onto the scene and were hailed by (the then-still somewhat musical) MTV as the “modern Beach Boys.”  The comparison wasn’t completely off-base, though I don’t think Rooney is as strongly connected to The Beach Boys as say,  South Carolina rockers The Explorers Club.   The Explorer’s Club have managed to cultivate a small, but growing fanbase with their supremely Beach Boys-like pop sound.  I  particularly enjoy their song “Run Run Run” of their most recent album GRAND HOTEL, which sounds like an eerily like an early 1970’s Beach Boy number.

This is a fantastic album, you should check it out.

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Brian Wilson & Company must feel very flattered indeed.  It’s one thing to write a good song, it’s another thing to invent a unique style that others copy and build upon.  Below is a Spotify-playlist I’ve started for this interesting sub-sub-sub-genre of music, if you are a Spotify user please feel free to add songs you think fit into the category of Aping The Beach Boys. I’d be interested to see how massive the list can get.

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Hindu Love Gods: Warren Zevon & REM Cut a Record

I’ve made no secret about my love of Warren Zevon.  As a song-writer, Zevon remains unmatched in his ability to combine heartbreaking sincerity and with a vicious sense of humor.  Warren’s career, like the roots of a gnarled tree, is a rat’s nest of odd choices and strange left-turns.  One of the stranger oddities in Zevon’s catalogue is the HINDU LOVE GODS album.  The Hindu Love Gods was basically Warren and alt-rockers REM sans-Michael Stipe*. The band had “existed” for a couple of years before finally coalescing around Warren’s 1987 album SENTIMENTAL HYGIENE.

The story goes,  after playing a smattering of live gigs in the early 1980’s with Zevon (as The Hindu Love Gods) REM agreed to serve as his back-up band on the his latest record.  Zevon, a notorious party-animal/man with a serious substance problem, got soused with REM and in between recording the “official” record also wound up recording a collection of covers.  Eventually, this raw, unusual collection of mostly blues covers was released by Giant Records as HINDU LOVE GODS.

Hindu Love Gods: Peter Buck, Bill Berry, Mike Mills, and Mr. Warren Zevon.

The band recorded two two tracks by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson  (“Walkin’ Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues”), a song by Muddy Waters (“Mannis Boy”), and  a Woody Guthrie cover (“Vigilante Man”).  The songs are all really well done, and Zevon’s growly voice is perfectly suited to the blues.  The album’s country number, “I’m A One-Woman Man” is probably the album’s biggest joke (Zevon was a well-known womanizer), but it’s also a solid-cover.  All-in-all, HINDU LOVE GODS is a faithful blues record recorded by two unique musical entities.

“The End”

Except that’s not “the end.”  You see, in the middle of all these odd-but-logical blues numbers, Zevon & Co. also cover Prince and The Georgia Satellites(?).  Even if you’re not a fan of the blues (shame on you!) HINDU LOVE GODS is something you should check-out just for “Raspberry Beret” and “Battleship Chains.”  I‘m not a huge Prince fan, by any stretch, but The Hindu’s version of “Raspberry Beret” is pretty badass, taking the slower-groove of the original version and injecting what can only be described as “drunken urgency.”  There’s something to be said about the art of the cover song:  it’s one thing to do a song justice, it’s another thing to completely change the way the listener regards the original.  I also think that a truly great cover will renew or add to your appreciation of the original.  And that’s just what The Hindu’s cover of “Raspberry Beret” does.

The band’s cover of The Georgia Satellites’ “Battleship Chains” doesn’t re-invent the wheel nearly as much as the cover of “Raspberry Beret,” but has a charming bar-band intensity that the original southern-rock version lacks.  What on Earth made them choose Prince and The Georgia Satellites? There couldn’t be more diametrically opposed acts (at least in my mind).

These two songs lower the album’s seriousness and raise the screw-ball factor.  Instead of a reverent, back-to-our-roots blues tribute (á la late period Eric Clapton), these two songs clue the listener-in on just how wild and wooly these recording sessions were.  No doubt Zevon and REM have a reverence for classic blues, but HINDU LOVE GODS is really just a couple of dudes having tremendous fun in a recording studio.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: HINDU LOVE GODS is an entertaining curiosity.

*Stipe would appear briefly on SENTIMENTAL HYGIENE and did play with The Hindu Love Gods live.

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