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R.E.M. – Document – Looking Back at the Album 25 years Later

September 27th, 2012

In the midst of a presidential campaign season, R.E.M.’s politically motivated ‘Document’, turns a quarter century old. From the fiery pulpit of Michael Stipe and guitar work of Peter Buck, R.E.M. masterfully craft these 11 songs into an iconic work. I always felt that Stipe laments the dangers of ‘isms’ but while the band has always sought a more progressive point of view and while it truthfully ridicules some of the Reagan cheerleading of the 80’s, it also clearly points fingers at some dangers of institutions in general.

‘Finest Worksong’ opens the album as an almost “Pseudo Workers Party Theme song”, straight from the “Barack Obama Socialist” handbook some might say. There is a certain hokeyness to the lyrics, as if I need to sit there and be inspired to psych myself up for the workday. It drives home an opening statement and an idea. The album follows some of the themes of prior albums in a different manner. ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ opens thoughts up to the idea of “Let’s begin again”, “Lets start a new country up”. For Document, it’s let’s organize with a different purpose than the America that we currently live in. Let’s not just talk about beginning again but actually starting over. The first side of the album becomes a bit of a propaganda piece, a PSA, if you may.

Realize that R.E.M. becomes more than just singing these mantras without actually believing in the concepts behind them. As they tour, their shows always have a local politically minded groups with worthy causes having tables set up near the entrance ways for fans to gain knowledge. Realize that this is before the internet where the power of information was much more expensive than it is now.

‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’, both make their points known with one suggesting the hypocrisy of how America values it’s own freedoms but not those of other countries, in this case a country in Central America and another, a reference in the title to Senator Joseph McCarthy who went on his dirge regarding communist spies in the United States. They kick start this album in such a manner in that we are not speaking about ‘Hope and Change’ but challenging the very fabric of America and the party on the right. As some have claimed that Ronald Reagan has grown to become an icon among the right wing, there needs to be a realization that the progressive left did not have the power during this time challenging the listener to understand the ideas of what it means to be an American.

‘Disturbance at the Heron House,’ grapples at the heart of the album. The song contains all the necessary ingredients for a classic R.E.M. track. There are lyrics like the following: “The followers of chaos out of control” and the “Gathering of Grunts and Greens” which will leave even the most studied R.E.M. fan questioning what is being derived by the song unless they read the “Stipe Notes” and see that the song is Stipe’s version of Orwell’s classic novel “Animal Farm”.

For me, the song’s strength was not realized for me initially, on the album itself but live and in this case the acoustic version.

R.E.M.’s songs invoke a level of flexibility that show both their delicate nature in tracks like the one above or their more “Stomp and Stammering” nature like the version on the album. Bill Berry’s percussion has this very shocking and persistent beginning, a sense of prevailing order where the fable being shared is quite the opposite. Stipe’s mechanism of enunciating during various elements of the acoustic track pulls in the listener in the sad spectacle.

‘Strange’ is the second time that the band has covered a song from another band on a regular album. In this case, its Wire’s with the lyrics slightly altered to Michael’s own nervousness rather than Joey’s. It offers a nice segway into ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’, a song that would be considered more popular now, especially with all the various “Doomsday” items that will hit the news, the song often becomes part of that news cycles soundtrack.

If we were old school, we would then flip sides and run into the song “The One I Love”. It’s the first time that Michael Stipe uses the word “Love” in any song and one listen to the caustic lyrics and one you realize that the reminiscent moment holds very little meaning. The simple message is Stipe doing Morrisey, “A simple prop to occupy my time”. However, on the live version on the Deluxe Edition that was released, we see a much more vulnerable side. The acoustic version here shows an even darker side.

Per the liner notes, it would appear that there were plenty of different versions of the song available and each one would seem to be reinvented but each would have a different story. For a song that repeats itself, it is one of the few that often feels so complex and yet at the same time, you can take a word like “Love” that Stipe had refused to use in a lyric before this and somehow made sure that it would be utterly complex, confusing and their first legitimate hit single.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Document contains not the complete but most of the show from Utrecht, Holland from September 1987. The diehard fans out there will whine and scream that the second disc was not the complete show, choosing to leave off some cover tracks like the Clique’s ‘Superman’, which appeared, on ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’.

Others will complain that they would have preferred a demo concept, like the previous 2 reissues that contained early versions of songs worked on during that period of time. What I have found with Demo’s in the past is that while there will be a handful of the songs that will feel unique, there will be some that just do not feel all that different than the version that ended up on the album itself and will thus get 4 songs that feel partially interesting.

While this might satisfy the anal retentive R.E.M. fan wondering if it is true if a song was originally written with a mandolin in mind, the truth of the matter was that R.E.M. is a live band. For the fan that is introduced to R.E.M. with this album, the show that is attached is a worthy piece of history with one minor exception being the editing down of So. Central Rain to remove both Time After Time, and the Capella snippet of “Red Rain”, from the album. That part is a bit of a travesty because the medley is one of the most beautiful renditions of So. Central Rain that I had heard and for me there is a bit of sentimentality in that it was this B-side that had pushed me deeper into the R.E.M. discography looking for anything and everything R.E.M.

By the time of Document, Michael Stipe had been getting much more comfortable in the live setting taking on the role of the lead singer more prominently than before. While the band had grown by leaps and bounds, Stipe had exhibited a level of growing pains in front of the audience. Interviews were rough, as he would get tired of the same questions being asked and often make up answers while the other band mates would roll their eyes. If you read old interviews you will note that it is often Mike and Peter doing interviews for this reason.

When he got around to touring for Fables, he would often tell stories onstage about Old Man Kensey before the band would sing or discuss Brevis Mekis, i.e. the man behind the song ‘Life and How to Live It’ who split his house in half and would live in one side for awhile and would move and live on the other half. While the live show does contain a mention of Mekis during Life and How To Live It, it’s the ability of the songs to be injected full of energy that might be missing on the album versions. This is not to say that their music is boring on the albums but rather, unlike todays bands, the live sound often features less meddling and more emotion. While their earlier albums can be characterized with less studio work than their later years, they were never trying to be Pink Floyd either, expanding songs past the 10 minute mark

‘Oddfellows Local 151’, a song that is actually referencing a liquor store (The Firehouse is a liquor store in Athens) rather than the suggested thought that it might actually be a firehouse and Peewee was union member. Its duplicative meaning is often tricky and when realized, maybe even a little hilarious. As I am reminded from doing an Athens tour with Paul Butchart that we did pass by that Liquor store but did not see Peewee hanging around anywhere. The live track emanates more of the eeriness of the moment that you don’t feel as much on the regular album a song that in my opinion feels much more sanitized than on the live version.

Document is the last of the truly strong politically motivated albums the band released. I have always felt that “Green” has been a little flawed and considering some of the carefully worded lyrics for “Document”, “Green” always felt a bit more dumbed down, ‘Document’ is often complex , especially musically but I am always mindful of the lack of music and lyrics that can match the power of what Stipe penned to paper 25 years ago. A work of art.

Music, R.E.M.

In Defense of Emily White (NPR) against David Lowery (Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven)

June 20th, 2012

Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven’s David Lowery is living in the past. His blog post criticizing NPR’s music intern Emily White has received some notoriety so before I proceed, I would first suggest you check out the article by the intern and the article by Lowery.

There are several things that go wrong here, namely why Lowery got on his high horse and started off on this tangent. It would appear that Lowery is attacking White as being part of the problem where I more would think that there is a generational gap in how we consume information.

Emily admits in her blog that much of the music that she has in her collection was not bought by her but obtained in other manners. She admits to a brief fling with Kazaa in the fifth grade but admits to receiving music in other ways, such as through mix CDs or in her unique situation, burning albums from her college radio stations collection.

As a generation X’er, I have to admit to getting tape dubs of albums from friends and or doing them for others. This was (and still is) a form of stealing and while in my personal situation I did purchase several albums, I would not be surprised of Mr. Lowery can also attest to receiving free music in the past. It would seem that the methods at which Emily has obtained this music are different than the methods at which the Music Industry has attacked, i.e. (Bit Torrent and File Sharing sites).

I support Emily’s position in that she is bringing the point of view of the current music fan that wants to go to concerts and buy t-shirts and wants to purchase music as a form of convenience rather than an owning a physical copy of the album. Is buying a copy of a piece of plastic or downloading a copy off the Internet the only way to support a band? Is Spotify a valid mechanism to distribute music? Now these are questions that I cannot necessarily answer to the detail of knowing the nuances of contracts but I do think that Spotify is a direction at how we sell music. Like any service, (see Netflix), there is eventually pullback from those parties that want a bigger share and even Emily brings out hope that methods in the future are more fair for artists.

This does not speak of a “Free Culture Movement” as David Lowery points out but rather speaks about an artist that has lost touch and a bitter old man because the band he is hasn’t been relevant for over 15 years. Emily is not asking for these items to be “Free” but rather change the mode of service. There is no ownership of Mr. Lowery’s Cracker cds but rather the fee to borrow them or have them on standby if need be and receive appropriate compensation of those albums are actually listened to.

Why do we need to buy a physical CD or record? What is so important about the piece of plastic? Does it have magic powers? If I subscribe to a service like Netflix and stream the same show over and over again is this any different than listening to the same album over and over again on Spotify?

An artist today has more power than ever before to completely control the method at which their music is going to be released. If they do not want to put it on Spotify, they do not have to. If they only want to put it on vinyl (see Peter Buck) they can do that.

The most shameful moment of course was the comments that Lowery made about Vic Chestnutt and Mark Linkous(Sparklehorse). I am not sure how can somehow blame file sharing for their suicides. Vic Chestnutt had financial/health issues before we even knew what file sharing was. I do not believe that in either situation that if file sharing had somehow not existed, that they would still be alive today but he makes it all seem so simple that if everyone that downloaded their music illegally had bought it properly they would still be alive today.

Music is not socialism. Where were the bands when all the fans complained about Ticketmaster? They were raking in the profits.

Where were the bands in the 90s when the price for a CD could be anywhere from 16-18 dollars?

We have more tools than ever to listen to music, whether it is on our computers, our telephones, our iPods (and yes, these do cost money but is that any different for those expensive Cracker CDs in the 90s needed the CD player and the amplifier and speakers that cost hundreds of dollars? Companies like Sony made out like bandits. Of course where is Sony today? In the shitter.

Fans, took over, they decided to make their own rules, and they threw away the corporate playlists at the radio stations and made their own Spotify playlists. They determined what was relevant to listen to not what the industry told them to. They shared music with their friends in their Facebook feeds to make more fans of their favorite music. They acted as that moment of free promotion, that level of excitement when you are sharing that song or album for the first time with a friend hoping that they like it too or the mix that someone finds several songs appealing only to go and check out that band for themselves.

Lastly, a lot of bands just suck. They are not going to make money selling their albums, going on tour and selling T-Shirts. At the end of the day, the music has to be good, plain and simple. You can discuss the economics of music all you want, Spotify, stealing, .etc, but the biggest question comes down to the contents. Is it good.

Music

Helplessness Blues – The Song

November 6th, 2011

I figure the best way to start with this song is actually posting the lyrics:

Lyrics to Helplessness Blues :

I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinking
I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station
Oh just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night
That would do such injustice to you

Or bow down and be grateful
And say “Sure take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls
And determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

If I know only one thing
It’s that every thing that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable
Often I barely can speak

Yeah I’m tongue tied and dizzy
And I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues?
Why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I’ll come back to you someday soon myself

If I had an orchard
I’d work till I’m raw
If i had an orchard
I’d work till I’m sore

And you would wait tables
And soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight
My light in the dawn
If I had an orchard
I’d work till I’m sore

If I had an orchard
I’d work till I’m sore

Someday I’ll be
Like the man on the screen

I have been stuck on this song for the last month or so.  What I find awesome was that I completely disagree with my review on the song (and my review of the Fleet Foxes) album.

It’s not that I am wrong (or that I think that I am wrong) but rather the song has amassed a meaning beyond that of a single narrative and yet carries enough weight with it to be, in my opinion one of the best songs of the year.

After seeing the Fleet Foxes at Pitchfork Music Festival this summer and re-inspiring my desire to listen to their latest album, it’s made some inroads up the Zimmermann Notes charts as one of the best of the year.  I complained in my earlier review about it’s lack of politics or social pursuits and I believe that my review shortchanged this just a bit.

As of late, it has been the Occupy Wall Street movement that made me refocus how this music will have a lasting effect as its title track is chilling as it explores the impetus of the generation making their case against the world.

I posted the lyrics as a whole because I think they need to be recited. Part of me listens to the first three stanzas of what has been written as Generation Y’s prelude to Occupy Wall Street.

However, it’s more this innate desire to return humanity to a more natural state but also a call to action.  It tilts the emotional scales with its beauty providing a sense of purpose and understanding for those that feel trapped in similar scenarios. The generation that distrusted corporations at the same time lives off corporations has to try to balance out the inequities of life and reevaluate their own. We hear the protagonist wish to work the land, to work in an orchard, creating their own fruits of their labor, feeling a sense of accomplishment and still able to appreciate the beauty in the world (‘gold hair in the sunlight’).

‘Helplessness Blues’ is a timeless treasure, one that will be redefined in my head for different causes and events, but a song that should be examined for it’s depth for the era that we are living in now.

Fleet Foxes, Music

R.E.M.: They Set the Pace

September 23rd, 2011

Part of the passion of music is that it doesn’t die, and often in our most vulnerable moments is when it pops its ugly head. You know you are afflicted if you can play a song over and over again in an endless loop and the song to speaks to you. Then sometimes it becomes more than just one song but several.

The madness started with Seven Chinese Bros. The opening guitar intro was the hook and well the lyrics kept me coming for more. From there it just went downhill.

For me, the last quarter century has been situated around a band by the name of R.E.M.  and for me they became the band that mattered. I have questioned whether or not I would be the music fan that I am if there was never that moment of discovery. Would another band have taken its place? Before this point, I heard music but it never resonated with me. R.E.M. provided the colors.  Their songs became a personal experience. There was never a moment of loneliness with an R.E.M. album in hand. It would fill the void and talk to you in a manner that a person could never share. There was a reason that fans of the band were sometimes referred to as destiples.

I think that every fan has his or her own story to say regarding R.E.M. Our murals are all a bit different but they have been on our collective conscience for some time that their mentioning of breaking up feels slightly like abandonment. We could still count on a release. Speaking to a friend a couple months ago he remarked that a new R.E.M. album is still a new R.E.M. album. Well outside of what we can expect to see various retrospectives of their careers over the next several years, there will not be any new albums to speak of. No tours, singles, promos. That time has moved on.

R.E.M. wove a tapestry of Kudzu in our brains exploring the nuances of what defined us. They were a thinking mans band that required the upmost attention. Fans have created numerous conspiracy theories about their music, the albums and their packaging.

It was never about being the biggest band. They did not flaunt like U2 did but rather launched one of the quietest revolutions in the history of Rock and Roll.

In their early days, they were not an overly talented bunch. Peter Buck could barely play guitar, Michael Stipe was always off key, Bill Berry didn’t always keep a constant beat but they knew what they wanted, they had a bit of luck coming their way and they reached heights nobody expected them to reach.

Ego? This is a band that would go into a studio and try to make their parts quieter than their band mates. Their songs are co-written by all band members sharing equally. They handled their music and their careers democratically.  They broke rules. Their videos were odd and unlike anything you saw on MTV at the time.

They not only helped put Athens, Georgia on the map but also kept America as being relevant during a time when British Music was invading the airwaves.   They carried the torch for bands like the Replacements, Husker Du and the Minutemen helping to promote rock’s image in the states and create a grassroots groudwork for other bands to follow. R.E.M.’s success was a major turning point for the industry realizing that smart rock and roll sold.

They became godfathers to their successors, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead coming to the aid of these bands when stardom waved their ugly finger at them. Although unsuccessful, Stipe tried to save Kurt Cobain and was directly responsible for Thom Yorke writing “How To Disappear Completely”.

They cared about their predecessors listing the likes of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, New York Dolls, Television, The Feelies, just to start. Peter Buck was a rock and roll encyclopedia that if he was not in a rock band would have been selling records and making snide remarks about them.

They stood up for causes they believed in, treating the rock and roll concert as an event not just of entertainment but education. It was commonplace to see R.E.M. on a benefit release or having them announce during a show to visit a local charity organization that had a table set up at the venue.  They continue to support causes publicly and privately both globally and locally.

Every indie rock performer can thank R.E.M. for creating the blueprint for their careers.  There was talent and some luck but plenty of hard work. They toured incessantly in the early years playing at pizza joints and wherever else would have them with every audience member converted into a fan before they left.  They

They relied more on their fans to campaign on their behalf.  Even in the 80s it was common to see fans traveling up and down the east coast to check out multiple shows. They treated their fans with respect and admiration at times letting them travel with them in their early days. Their fanclub has always been receptive and I believe in existence for close to 27 years if I am not mistaken.  Over that time they have never changed their membership price (being 10 dollars a year).

There have been many remarks that R.E.M. should have broken up {Insert Number of Years} ago, and to that response I would offer some thoughts. Yes, it is true that R.E.M. is not the same band that it was but how many bands can you name that have shown the highese level of quality over 31 years? I do not think there is a band on the planet that can make that same claim.  Personally, their string of albums from Chronic Town to Up is unmatched. While their last 4 albums (Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate and Collapse into Now) have not matched their predecessors, part of their problem is they were going up against a legacy that was unattainable.

The IRS years (Chronic Town through Document) is a starting point for anyone wanting to discover the college rock scene back then. The first half of their Warner’s Contract showed a band that was in the mainstream still making music that made you think. They came out with two acoustic-driven albums in Out of Time and Automatic for the People and then created a Monster that was more Iggy Pop, T-Rex and Bowie than grunge.  New Adventures is still a solid effort and for the record I play Up just as much as any of their prior works.

But for 2 decades they were as strong as any band out there and I am not sure how their legacy should be tarnished. They have bowed out the way that they should have and while I am shocked and slightly saddened to see them go, I am also happy for them to be able to reflect on their careers and start the next part of their life.

My personal opinion has been that this has been in the works for some time. I believe that Collapse into Now was intended to be the last album and that the band had fully intended to break up unless something drastically changed. There was never a need for a farewell tour; they are not the Eagles.

The band’s last album, however, ‘Collapse Into Now” does deserve another listen. I think there is no doubt this was written as a final group of swan songs and taken in that context it creates a nice conclusion to the story of R.E.M.

For me, this has been one of the more bittersweet posts to write. I do not think you can encapsulate a eulogy in a couple paragraphs for something that has been so important in my life for 31 years.  I have to be honest there have been moments where I was afraid I was going to lose it. Thinking of a certain lyric or listening to a song and yes, the eyes begin to water up.

One of the first songs that R.E.M. wrote was a little ditty called ‘Just a Touch’. While the song never made it onto a proper release until their 4th album, the song is about the day that Elvis died.

I remember heading down to Athens several years back to check out an early video of R.E.M. that surfaced from 1980. We sat in the auditorium and watched as a very young R.E.M. was performing Just a Touch.  I remember someone in the audience had thought that Stipe’s performance was very “Elvis-like” which shocked me because this was an event of the Athens Historical Society and not hardcore rock fans. Part of the gift of being a band for 31 years is that there are plenty of songs for fans to choose from. I figure that this song is that moment for me.

You set the pace of what was to come
I have to carry on now that you’re gone
A day in the life well nobody laughed
Look to the days how long can this last


In closing, I want to thank R.E.M. for the last 31 years.  For most of that time I have been thinking of your music trying to figure it all out and your decision to call it quits will not stop that. It’s easy to say that you have been the most influential band over this period of time and you will be missed.

Music, R.E.M.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Review)

June 23rd, 2011

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

4.5 Stars out of 5

“Basically, meaningfulcore music is reborn” – Carles, (www.hipsterrunoff.com)

When I read that Justin Vernon grew up in Eau Claire, WI, I knew that this fact would be almost everything that I would need to describe this album. If this album does not represent driving through central Wisconsin in the middle of winter then it represents driving through central Wisconsin in the middle of winter with a deer on your roof. This album represents all the depression and despair of the Upper Midwest Rural Landscape; it’s snow and puddles and ice and alcoholism, cheese and Leinenkugel.  It’s the morning after drinking a couple six packs of New Glarus Spotted Cow in the home of someone who is a Minnesota Vikings fan.

The music holds all the isolation while Vernon’s voice holds all the soul and they carry this simple formula together for one of the best albums of 2011.

The recent awful Peter Gabriel cover album ‘Scratch My Back’ had two fairly decent songs on it. One of them, Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ , provided that answer about Vernon’s voice.  Vernon has the IT Factor just like Gabriel has and I think there was a reason after listening to the track as to why it worked. While there were many tracks that Gabriel picked were outside his range, ‘Flume’ was the contemporary song that he was able to push to a new crowd. If you were a Peter Gabriel fan and picked up the album, and had never heard of Bon Iver yet, it should have been one of your first purchases after listening to the Peter Gabriel pieces.

You can be an awfully good songwriter and write catchy songs. It’s another thing to capture an essence of soul and meaning within a song to trandscend me the listener to a different place and Vernon simply has that gift.

In terms of production, after Bon Iver’s debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago,” the success has allowed Bon Iver to improve on their initial release but not enough to go crazy.  It’s still endearing enough to spend watching the people come and leave from the Farm and Fleet all day.

There is a difference between this album and the Fleet Foxes in that Bon Iver builds an album that feels authentic.  I do not feel as if Robin Pecknold’s beard is all of a sudden gonna be pulled off and he is a girl or some Hollywood starlet.  Vernon on the other hand is going to the Walleye Fish Fry on Friday night and writing songs like Holocene to a bunch of individuals that are replacing the letters “FAVRE” on their back to “RODGERS”.

Holocene just requires the listener to replay it over and over.  As I mentioned earlier, the more I listen, I hear that “Peter Gabriel” nuance in the voice that drives me closer.

There are other songs that are ever so close from the audience singing along. ‘Towers’ deserves audience participation as the tempo moves ever so speedier.

This is not an album you are going to get your dance moves to and some might argue it’s a good album to listen to when you are burying your pet cat and I say that pretty confidently that there will not be a better album this year to bury your cat to.

I am remiss to give it a perfect grade as the final track Beth/Rest does it’s best to try to remember the 80’s and ruins a perfectly good album with a throw in piece of schlocky crap. Whatever “Bruce Hornsby on a casio keyboard/piano” getup they have going on here has to leave and pretty quick. I know the 80’s are all the rage these days but that is not the single on this album. People listening to this track and saying that “It’s executed to perfection” obviously did not live through the crap of the 80’s and lastly it just does not feel anything like the rest of the album. It just doesn’t belong.

I am not big personally on the “Folksy” albums so when an album such as this pulls my attention, I would suggest climbing on board. Maybe, it just feels like Wisconsin.

Bon Iver, Music

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Review)

May 11th, 2011

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

(4 Stars out of 5)

The Fleet Foxes are becoming the modern day Simon and Garfunkel. Robin Pecknold with his plethora of backup vocalists have modernized the folk genre to the point that in 20 years the next up and coming band will be called the next Fleet Foxes.

‘Helplessness Blues’ is a sophomore effort that doesn’t stray too far from their debut album that shot to the tops of the critic’s charts.  While the album offers less pop and more atmosphere, the key to their sound is that they avoid the trap of ‘Folk’ albums that sound like ‘Folk’ albums. It’s one thing having poignant lyrics and it’s another where you can combine that with beautiful melodies.

For me, folk music is a genre that has never quite inspired me to search out the deep cuts of any particular artist with a few exceptions. Often those exceptions where rooted in pop acts that had great lyricists to begin with.

And while I would describe the Fleet Foxes as one of the better bands of the 21st Century, one of the flaws I see, and this being a minor one at that is songs like ‘Battery Kinzie’, and ‘Helplessness Blues’, don’t provide the power of the band that I mentioned earlier (Simon and Garfunkel). Helplessness Blues is a very personal album and often the “Lost Love” songs don’t pack the same power that a poet and a one-man band can carry.

Take songs like ‘America’ and ‘Homeward Bound’, which are more about trying to find our place in our culture. Or take a more contemporary artist such as Jeff Tweedy who pondered in ‘Ashes of American Flags’, “I wonder why we listen to poets and nobody gives a fuck”.  It might be because as Pecknold ponders in ‘Helplessness Blues’:

And now after some thinkin’

I’d say I’d rather be

a functioning cog in some great machinery

serving something beyond me.

But I don’t I don’t know what that will be.

I’ll get back to you someday

Soon you will see.

In our post 9/11 world we are asked to remember and yet we write about our own personal battles.  Pecknold’s in many ways admitting right here that very failure; “How can I figure out the battles going around me when I am still trying to get past my own?”

It might also have to do with the fact that more than ever we are being raised to be individuals rather than members of society. We cannot function in teams or as part of a unit. There are strong political beliefs that ask for more individual rights with less reliance on the public sector.

Montezuma expresses that same sentiment: “Oh how could I dream of, Such a selfless and true love, Could I wash my hands of? Just lookin out for me”

Conversely, since Jeff Tweedy and Wilco made the great American album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, the future work has proved to be much more about internalizing everything.

In an age where we can see photos and video from our fingertips, I want to see a band try to tackle that subject.   While I might be hard on the Fleet Foxes, it’s my thought that they might be that band.  While the album provides the tools to be one of the great folk rock albums of this era, it needs to go further.

Fleet Foxes, Music

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Review)

April 29th, 2011

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

(4 Stars out of 5)

Admittedly, this is a difficult review to write. As has been reported in other venues, bassist Gerard Smith passed away from his battle with lung cancer.  Often is the case with musicians who die at an early age is that their deaths are much more tragic (from drugs, alcohol, suicide or accident). Here is a case of someone doing everything right in a band revolutionizing the sound of rock, soul and funk. In an era when bands have striated off in different directions, TV on the Radio is trying to bring these elements back where they belong.

TV on the Radio’s ‘Nine Types of Light’ is their most accessible album to date. A much ‘cleaner’ sounding album missing much of the fuzz from previous albums and in some ways their career seems to be going in the direction of David Byrne, going from a energetic art-punk career to a more vanilla but still acceptable pop sound.

Which is where preconceived notions can be fallible. When does TV on the Radio begin to sound like U2 and would I be saying this if this was a killer debut album by some no-name band?

With the circumstances of Gerard Smith fresh on my brain while strolling the city streets of Chicago, I began to reminisce by pulling out ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’, an album filled with energy.

I consider a song like ‘I Was A Lover’ beginning to write the next chapter after Prince. As I made my way through the tracks I forgot in this day of age how powerful this album was and I began to wonder why I have not returned to Cookie Mountain more often. It’s slightly crisp outer edges with the chewy chocolate chip center, both with dark and white chocolate in the middle.  Ok, I am getting ahead of myself.

Inevitably, as comparisons are made, the product in front of me is still solid from cover-to-cover.  ‘Second Song,’ sets the stage as one of those classic rock songs, mixing between an almost straight delivery and falsetto, the album is about love, the most overused, overwrought subject in the rock and roll encyclopedia and the band does not let anyone down with this album. If you took the lyrics and created a cloud, the word would be in 72 font.

Before you throw this in the garbage, TV on the Radio offers two compelling reasons to hold onto this: Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. Soul, soul and some more soul. We take away the fuzz, we make the sound cleaner and Adebimpe shines as one of the true crooners of the 21st Century. What separates them from many other lead singers these days is that they bring character to the songs, providing an essential warmth that can be enjoyed with a nice Pinot and the lights turned down. Maybe not first date material but perfect for that essential reminder when the kids are at the grandparents and need a little couples time.

While African or R&B might be common elements it reminds me more of some of those Peter Gabriel works of the late 80s and early 90s especially on ‘You’, it seems to get that perfect method of modern rock and soul.

Possibly one of the first ballads that I have enjoyed in years, ‘Killer Crane’ works with this beautiful organ reminiscent of John Paul Jones and banjo.

There are some more subtle moments such as ‘Forgotten’, the forgotten track on the album. The sleepy beginning builds into an opus, as Adebimpe purrs before mixing the falsetto shouts and horns explode into your eardrums.

What makes ‘TV on the Radio’ is their crossover appeal. While the album is solid, it lacks the shock of ‘Cookie Mountain’ and ‘Dear Science’ and while I do like the soulful albums about ‘Love’ the lyric can be overused here. Some might say that you cannot overuse the term but trust me, if every third sentence spewed out by your lover included ‘I Love You’ I would start to question what else love is about. It’s a word so powerful that said too early in a relationship can be a deal-breaker and never said enough can be a heart-breaker and said too much in a relationship can be a sanity breaker.

I look at “Light” in terms of “Love” in feeling illuminated. The forces that drive this feeling of love are often in the multiples and I question whether they are all present here. Even with it’s limits, the album still has enough substance to make it a worthy purchase.

Music, TV On The Radio

tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l – (Review)

April 28th, 2011

4 1/2 Stars out of 5

Often times the label Feminist can be a major impediment for a musician’s career. This is not to say that there have been great female performers over the years such as Joni Mitchell or Patti Smith but rather the lack of females getting headline performances or the fact their message gets labeled as being strictly for females.  I am not sure what the opposite would be for men, possibly “Cock Rock?!?!?” Point being is that a preachy Ani Difranco-type might woo a female listener, but often times this alienates the men from giving it a chance. It’s often the dangers of women’s empowerment movements that I see where men feel marginalized. Having a powerful female voice can often be less about being on the pulpit and more about providing a vision or image, illuminating the listener to what they feel or see.

Being a Chicagoan, let’s take a look at two of the major festivals over the summer, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. For Lollapalooza, you have to scroll down to the fifth line to find a Female act – Crystal Castles, led by the truly invigorating Alice Glass, who had more stamina than most male performers. Even after breaking her leg, she still performed several live shows, performing against doctors orders.

Pitchfork might be slightly better but far from preferable. It does have Neko Case performing in what would appear to be the pre-headlining for Animal Collective’s show but that is about hit for the top-billing artists.

Women have a much more difficult time getting into the racket and are often much more heavily scrutinized for their lyrics and/or image.  While this probably deserves a full on essay at some point, the truth is, when a female artist arrives on the scene with a powerful voice, many times it is given some notice.

In this case that voice is Merrill Gerbus, who created the band tUnE-yArDs, is as exciting as they come and another in the line of smart and intelligent female voices musicians that deserves to be heard. She is not your prototypical female musician. Looping her voice and drums onstage, she’s not just nailing down the craft as a musician but her cracking soulful voice is as powerful as Janis Joplin.

Her album “w h o k i l l” reminds you of the Dirty Projectors gone R&B. Her voice smokes through this album leaving an indelible impression on you as she bangs her drums.

Consider the opening track, “My Country”…

“My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, how come I cannot see my future within your arms?”

Garbus is not preaching, she is interpreting the world as she sees it, striving to find an understanding for whatever inequities we are faced with. Coming from the female perspective offers a semblance of power that is often missing in today’s music.

As much as I love my navel-gazing psychaedelic trance electronica, there are also times when we need to start a new country up, underneath the riverbed, dot, dot, dot.

And like a similar album that was released last year by Janelle Monae, these artists are often overshadowed with this intent that a woman does or should not have an opinion.

If these were just lyrics on a piece of paper, they are one thing, but her music is full out powerful.  Her sound is expanded on this second release giving herself more room to grow. She understands the basis to getting people off their asses and that is having a good beat.

The music is as much lo-fi as it is R&B. Listen to the storyline of ‘Riotriot’, she shutters, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand and like I’ve never felt before”, before there is all out assault musically.  This is not proselytizing, but rather asking questions.

Or consider the infectious build-up to the song “Bizness” that cries to us how we face with self-loathing and what better than screaming that self-loathing right out of you.

While the album deals with issues like violence, it treats them in a playful manner allowing the listener not only to open their ears but their eyes. Garbus is the real deal and the album succeeds as being one of the few truly essential albums of the year.

As a personal note, my excitement grew at the prospects that she is going to be playing Pitchfork this year. While she is playing an early slot, chances are in future years,  they will be increasing the font-size for tUnE-yArDs on those festival posters.

Music, Tune-yards

Raveonettes – Raven in a Grave (Review)

April 23rd, 2011

Raveonettes – Raven in a Grave (2.5 Stars out of 5)

I have often had a weird relationship with the Raveonettes. They have played the role of the all-too-sweet candy that tastes good going down but eventually gives you a stomachache. Their brand of 80’s new wave sounds on the surface have a way of seeping into my psyche only to escape without notice. The music is like a quick hitter with no lasting satisfaction.

Their latest “Raven in a Grave” on the whole tastes like a bad batch of candy. I had felt the need to review the Raveonette’s following my review of the Dirty Beaches because I felt that when borrowing from a genre there is a difference between something that is genuine and something that feels like a copy.

Recharge and Revolt started the album out strongly, playing itself as a tune from the Radio Dept.  They set the feeling perfectly, as if the song belongs in regular rotation at Club Neo.

The problem starts on songs such as ‘Forget that You’re Young ‘ and ‘Apparitions’ that are trying to take to the bank the 80’s revivalism to a new level. With the amount of bands like Dan Behar’s ‘Destroyer’ and ‘Cut Copy’ attempting to cash in on the 80’s era Goth bands begins to sound contrived and boring. Whereas bands like Ariel Pink were able to successfully bring some of their own into the mix, it sounds like 80s MTV gone bad.

There is no character and I am left feeling pretty empty. By the time you get to ‘Summer Moon’ you want to kill yourself.  Note to the Raveonettes: take a listen to an album like The XX’s debut album that creates an atmosphere with some attitude.

Listen to Jamie Smith and Romy Madley Croft sing on that.  It captures the soul that is necessary for a song like this to be successful.

The second half of the album is slightly stronger. Songs like ‘Ignite’ bring some insurgence after being lulled to sleep and maybe they realized that in the title. It’s not able to save the album although it will fit perfectly on that mix that you are creating of 80’s revivalist bands.

I think the major problem that I have with a release like this is that there is no enigmatic lead singer. Danish partners Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo feel very bland here.  The mid-tempo songs die without the power of an invigorating voice and the rest of the album feels as if it’s just rehashed ideas. You would be better served by just pulling out your Jesus & Mary Chain collection and humming along.

On a similar note: as genres are rediscovered, so are television shows. If you have not received the memo yet, MTV is going to have 120 Minutes back on the air.

Music, Raveonettes

Dirty Beaches – Badlands (Review)

April 20th, 2011

Dirty Beaches – Badlands (4 Stars out of 5)

The Dirty Beaches’ album Badlands, has a unique niche in that the brand of Rockabilly discovering the Cramps feels like the soundtrack to every B-Movie Surfer-Meets-Vampire movie that you will ever see.

As we know about most “Surfer-Meets-Vampire” movies is that they are not all that good.  In fact, I am not sure that I have ever seen one myself. These 50s and 60s flicks that would make it to the screen with vixens in bathing suits and/or blood often exhibited the extremes of our society. Their campyness was charming in a “I love to freeze a Twinkie and eat it” even if it’s not healthy for me.

Dirty Beaches is that music that you hear at the small dive bar your friend took you to and you realize that everyone is cooler than you are and you realize that you’re a Yuppie living in your Lakeview apartment and you might as well be living in the suburbs.  Yeah, you might want to put down that Heineken.

The Dirty Beaches is the soundtrack for every cool place that you have ever been while you are wasted and the music surrounded you while you drank PBRs and several shots of Jameson before puking outside in the alley.

The aspect carries a film noir like quality to it, as suggested elsewhere his music is inspired more by movies and directors like David Lynch providing a eerie backdrop of longing.

The brainchild behind Dirty Beaches is Alex Zhang Huntai, a Taiwanese born nomad currently living in Montreal. His music is better suited for soundtracks of movies of yore, and maybe just the fact that I can enjoy the 3 am movie on TMC could illustrate my enjoyment of the album.

The way that I see Huntai’s lo-fi music representing is sounding almost like a memory that he is trying to reproduce.  As his nomadic travels have taken him from Taiwan, Honolulu and Vancouver, we hear through Huntai’s ears the memories taken from these locations, never crystal clear but often blurred as memories often are. I recollect hearing about how various Asian cultures had grappled onto this old rockabilly surf music and would be curious how personal this might be for Huntai.

At first listen, the first standout track was ‘Horses’ straight out of an old surfer movie, playing it pretty simple with the drum loops and guitar but the arrangment is perfect for his singing delivery which is straight out of an Elvis Presley style.

What he is often able to do successfully is take a song like ‘Sweet 17’ with it’s sexual prowess and you can see Elvis’s sweat dripping from his forehead.  Huntai yelps into the microphone while a blurry Ventures-induced guitar beat is provided.

In checking out some of his live material, I am still up in the air regarding his live performance if he is trying to do too much at once. Acts that are derived out of your studio apartment can sound pretty good on record but once on tour they might fall a little flat. This performance shows promise but others not as much.  Merril  Gerbus, from tUnE-yArDs (who will be featured in a future review), shows that this jump can be made from playing the role of the McGyver musician and performing exponentially onstage. There is definitely potential there for something more substantial.

Huntai admits to using many drum loops borrowed from Youtube for this recording and while some might point out that they would prefer that a more authentic drum sound is created on his own, in an era where loops have been used for years there is still an art for picking out the correct sound on his recordings. So what? It works, it’s relevant and this recording is for real.

Only running at a paltry 26 minutes, some might consider this an “EP” material, but there is real talent here to be found. This album is a true delight in every possible manner.

Dirty Beaches, Music