Archive for October, 2013

#1 R.E.M. – Murmur

October 17th, 2013 No comments

R.E.M. – Murmur

Murmur has always felt like a dark fairytale; the album cover is covered in Kudzu, a plant that arrived on America’s shores from Japan and found a place in the south to deal with soil erosion. Of course the plant not only solved the issue of soil erosion but started taking over the land, killing trees and covering it’s history.

Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry probably did not have much of an idea then they walked in the studio at this point in their careers to understand the nuances of making their first full length record. They had an idea of what they didn’t want; an album that sounded their live sets but rather create an eerie atmosphere to work with. With the help of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon producing, they not only redefined rock and roll but redefined the south as we know it.

When we think of southern rock we think of bands like the Allman Brothers or Lynrd Skynrd. However, what R.E.M. did was add some mysticism, in a way feeling a bit more in line with Faulkner’s ‘Sound in the Fury’ whether this was trying to decipher the lyrics of Michael Stipe or/if you understood what he was saying, what it exactly meant and immediately the phrase “Katie bar the door” comes to mind.

They borrowed from their past, taking their original songs from their first single Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still as being the backbone of the album. ‘Radio Free Europe’ creates a level of insurgency but the meaning can still be questioned as Stipe himself babbles lyrics that are both indecipherable as times and often contain phrases that are hard to discern the true meaning. In some ways, they were just random words

The arguments about what’s the best era for R.E.M. and I think its fairly obvious their first full length record was not just the best record of their careers but one of the top albums ever made. Delivered in the wake of punk, right at the height of New Wave, R.E.M.’s album works because it’s ability to not only launch one of the quietest revolutions in rock and roll but in such a subtle manner taking elements from pop. It lacks a bad chorus, verse, chord or note. The album works as much as a post-punk statement as much as it works as a psychedelic folk rock album with Michael Stipe’s mumbles creeping through the kudzu. Literally, I would say that this is the kind of album that makes dreams. Michael Stipe’s thoughts in his lyrics early on were not necessarily linear but phrases in many cases constructed together “purposefully haphazard”. Listeners would spend hours trying to make out the words and of course the internet was developed with part of the goal was for the world to get together and cobble together “Unofficial” lyrics of the band.

As much attention that is spent on Stipe’s lyrics or the guitar work of Peter Buck, the glue that holds everything together is Bill Berry whose drum work is underrated when considering the genius of this album. While fans were scourging to figure out what was being said, you find yourself lost in his percussion work on tracks like ‘Pilgrimage’ or Catapult (which also happens to be the grand experiment with Stephen Hague that went wrong).

While the band has shared songwriting credits equally through the years, there is one song the band has claimed was written by Berry and that would be their first “Ballad”, if you could call it that, and that would be ‘Perfect Circle’. Lyrically indirect, it seems the only clear quote would be “A perfect circle of acquaintences and friends’, and yet the song and music feel emotional and real.

Putting together this list of albums, at times, was a challenge. Making a determination of what albums should go where felt like pulling teeth and even after putting together the list there is still some doubt as to whether something should have been higher or lower on the listing. This is the one album that I have never doubted as being my favorite album. There is never any question that I would tattoo this on my chest wondering whether the dreamlike qualities exhibited throughout seemed to be more about my own personality. Maybe it is because I have always been difficult at remembering lyrics to songs and find the idea of memorizing key phrases more important.

Maybe it’s my love of the psychedelic sounds that the album displays, whether it’s the freakish nature on a song like 9-9 or are they the simple hooks on songs like Sitting Still that make this feel more like a pop album. Maybe it is the qualities of songs like “We Walk” which seem to invoke scary fairytales that remind me of my youth. It is an album that has only strengthened with time. I used to wonder if rock and roll would ever die in my heart. That I would grow old and start listening to something like Kenny G, but I realized that the album has kept me young, even if I have plenty of gray hairs on the outside, I am shaking through on the inside.

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#2 Radiohead – OK Computer

October 16th, 2013 No comments

Radiohead – OK Computer

The age that we live in often feels too fast. There appears a mutiny of data passing through our brains whether it is on the news, social media or in our lives. OK Computer has often felt like the culmination of these ideas as one slowly goes insane during the process. One might link it to a modern day “The Wall” by Pink Floyd, although without the storyline and quite a bit more abstract than that album was.

‘Ok Computer’ was a difficult sell, not due to the fact of the music on the album but rather my own preconceived notions of the band Radiohead. There was something that was not appealing to me before this point and so I believe it took me at least a year to get the gall to purchase the album, partly due, I believe to all the good press that it was getting not just by critics but by fans as well. Hell, I still remember listening to Sound Opinions back in 1995 when it was on Q101 and both Jim Derogatis and Bill Wyman were critical of R.E.M.’s choices for their opening bands during the Monster tour. Looking back at that decision it would appear that they made the right choice.

The story on where to begin with Radiohead is often whether you would prefer the safe approach (OK Computer) vs. the experimental route (Kid A). While these albums were made back to back, their styles albeit both depressive show a stark difference. That being said, OK Computer by itself is by itself a leap of faith but it also demonstrates the growth the band endured by their third record. In fact, we could say that Pablo Honey was amateurish compared to OK Computer.

Radiohead quite simply were able to create one of the most beautifully depressing albums that you would ever hear. When we talk about the growth of Radiohead, we can start with the song “Paranoid Android”, a song with 4 distinct sections, and ties many of the themes of OK Computer together including greed, violence and insanity. Paranoid Android is a game-changer for the band that released “Creep”.

“No Surprises” should be the warning sign for any band that is dealing with the pressures of fame. Simply, its beautiful and depressing and the video featuring Thom Yorke underwater for a great deal of it sheds light on the both the theme of the album but also the state of Thom Yorke. This on top of “Exit Music (For a Film)” brings more light to this theme when Yorke sings “Breathe, Keep Breathing, Don’t lose your nerve”. But throughout the songs there is the antagonist: “We hope your rules and wisdom choke you”.

OK Computer, is part science fiction, a grasp on late 20th Century fears of a digital age, on aliens but it’s collected in part to a collage of beautiful music that it becomes to feel very visual. Unlike the very stark Kid A, there is a bit of humor on the album and hope (see Lucky).

For me, the album seemed like this alternate universe that the band tapped into. I seem to remember listening to this album alongside R.E.M.’s ‘Up’ at the time and noting the similarities that Up had to Ok Computer, it was not as political as Ok Computer was nor concerned with the speed at which society was speeding up. In a way the album is very reflective, and allows us to slow down, to ponder and to think.

The bar was raised by such a degree between The Bends and Ok Computer that, if it were not for the current popularity of the band, both The Bends and Pablo Honey are natural progressions for the band but do not hold water to their work from this point. For me, the album seems poignant to current events. There was a host of emotion when I thought of America’s current default crisis and it just seemed like a fitting moment to reflect on all of this and the first album that came to mind was my number 2 album of all time.

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#3 Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground

October 10th, 2013 No comments

Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground

I think that the argument could be made that the Velvet Underground were the most important American band of the 60s and at least can have a healthy debate whether they are more important than the Beatles. It is true that the Beatles have offered something universally cultural in their music, but if there was ever an underbelly to rock and roll, the Velvets should hold that title.

Not as experimental as either it’s predecessor, White Light/White Heat or Velvet Underground and Nico, the Velvet’s third album is a much gentler album, feeling a bit more traditional than some of their earlier works. This might be due to the fact that John Cale had been forced out of the group and replaced by Doug Yule who is not throwing electric violin solos in the middle of songs.

It is their most melodic album and the first album that I would suggest to pick up for any beginner to the Velvet Underground experience. Now, even the gentle VU experience is full of surprises. “Candy Says” is about Warhol transsexual Candy Darling, a somber, vicious and telling portrait.

And that is the telling portrait. Songs like ‘Candy Says’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ are beautiful in their composition but lyrically they draw a level of morbidity and yet there is a tenderness as well. ‘Jesus’ is simply a plea for someone that has lost their sense of direction. Yet, there is still moments that they push the tempo such as “What Goes On” and “I am Beginning to See the Light”. Overall, there is this level of warmth that exists on this album that has always compelled me to pull it out first and fairly often when digging into the Velvet Underground collection.

Whereas, Velvet Underground and Nico had shocked me with songs like “Heroin” and “Black Angels Death Song”, and White Light/White Heat continued on that path with “Sister Ray”, their third album for me has always been that perfect compromise. Lou Reed is at his best being both the poet and the musician moving in a more folksy direction but still willing to draw attention with the “Murder Mystery”. It is other moments such as “After Hours” sung by Mo Tucker that give this album a bit of heart as well.

I know there will be those that will state that their first two albums were more important or even that Loaded is more accessible with songs like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” but there again is this late night chill moment that this album just feels so proper, so right and so perfect for my 3rd favorite album of all time.

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#4 R.E.M. – Reckoning

October 9th, 2013 No comments

Reckoning. The title suggests it all. R.E.M.’s second full length album is a departure both in sound and mystique. It is a more straight-forward southern rock record, without the overdubs, the studio work and extras that made Murmur such a unique record when it was released. Instead the band focused on a more live sound, completing the album in about two weeks with the same team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon.

For me, it was the album that started the madness. I remember listening to the opening chords to Seven Chinese Bros.; “Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean”, a bastardized reflection on a children’s book, the 5 Chinese Brothers, where one of them has the unique ability to swallow the ocean which brings us to the theme of the record. . . “File Under Water”.

Reckoning was the album that resonated. This strips it bare and sounds more straightforward rock although if you compare it to music today, you could say that it was one of the first “Alt-Country” albums.

I seem to remember Peter Buck railing against the idea of writing songs about being on the road, but the album itself always felt like it held a bit of Americana with it. On a recent road trip, I loaded the iPod mix I created with this album and the moments passing through Kansas or Nebraska did not seem so mundane.

There was also something very southern about the album and helped redefine southern rock as something that didn’t sound like Lynrd Skynrd. Remember that R.E.M. came out of an Athens scene that was more noted for it’s crazy new wave dance sounds such as the B-52s. This album if anything is farthest from it and in my opinion truly breaks the band away from the Athens scene and allows them to stand on their own two feet without the weight of the sleepy college town.

As I have grown more gray hairs, the song that I have adopted has to be So. Central Rain, which would probably go down as my favorite song if not for it’s flexibility and sincerity. I have always thought that So. Central Rain was the perfect pop song, the use of water i.e. “Rivers of Suggestion” to explain a poignant moment in a relationship. On the other end it, suggests that the song is just about a natural calamity such as a hurricane. I remember thinking about the song after Hurricane Sandy and thinking it became that perfect moment for me when thinking about the destruction that the storm caused.

The album following the breakout release is the difficult one and what R.E.M. was able to do was create an essential album. It speaks to the influence the band had on 80’s rock and it’s importance when the UK was getting all the notice.

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#5 Massive Attack – Mezzanine

October 8th, 2013 No comments

Is music dominated by critically-accepted era’s that have imprinted themselves on a music scene or do we create those eras based on our lives events? 1998 for example, turned out to be a good year for me in terms of albums hitting my top 10 listing (R.E.M.’s ‘Up’, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’, and Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’) but what does this say about me?

One of these is clearly considered one of the best releases over the past 20 years (Neutral Milk Hotel), a second is critically acclaimed (Massive Attack) and Up has somewhat has a maligned career among critics.

The band ‘Massive Attack’ is the evolution of the “Wild Bunch”, a musical collective of DJ’s that formed in the mid-80s in Bristol, UK club scene. Three of those performers, Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles went out to form the band. Their music had incorporated a wide variety of inspiration from Hip Hop, Jazz, Rock , Reggae and Soul/R&B. It was these genres of music that unexpectedly brought me to appreciate the band from the first time I listened to them.

There is something mysterious and dark about ‘Mezzanine’, an album that for me always seemed to have some level of urban seediness to it. It felt like a Wicker Park bar, with mood lighting and instrumental music.

It might just be the fact that I have lived in the city for the past 20+ years and see the lights and sights of the city as the backdrop for the music on the album. It might also have to do with the fact that the first time that I listened to it, I had never experienced music quite like that.

Mezzanine might be the sexiest album ever released. The seductive nature of ‘Inertia Creeps’ takes over before the slow embrace of “Exchange” creates that perfect 3 in the morning moment after a night on the town. The entire album feels more of a departure from their earlier releases, embracing a much more ambient sound rather than some of their more jazzy sounds from their previous two full length albums (Blue Lines and Protection).

In terms of the genre of Trip-Hop itself, I would say it was the strongest of all releases, even moreso than Portishead. The album for me is so visual. It’s midnight on a cold, moist fall evening in Chicago. The album blended the perfect moments of rock, soul and hip hop, the layers at which songs like “Man Next Door”, sampling “10:15 Saturday Night” by The Cure and “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, a weird combination on paper but clearly works on the album.

With all the sampling, guest musicians and such, it is still as if every note and sound was perfectly placed like a symphony.

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#6 Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over the Sea

October 3rd, 2013 No comments

Apologies for not getting back to this sooner. I went on vacation and I have been in the midst of trying to get back on track.

Jeff Mangum had created something that felt familiar and unique at the same time. But what had been overly compelling was his ability to express the tone of the lyrics in such a perfect manner. In “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2” there is an almost surrealist gospel moment when Mangum proclaims” I love you Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do” and proceeds to launch into pt. 3 which feels like a punk explosion. What it comes down to was that Mangum’s lyrics I have always saw it as a funeral procession. Neutral Milk Hotel feels as part of a band of minstrels parading through the town that contains a mix of punk, psychaedlic, jazz and folk. What has given the album it’s power is Mangum’s lyrics; some of which can be considered some of the most powerful lyrics on paper.

The album, thematically has been tied to Anne Frank, as Mangum has stated the fact that he was inspired by Frank after reading her diary and it would appear that it would be the center of the album, however, there are tracks such as “Two-Headed Boy” which sounds more like a mutant out of a science fiction classic.

Mangum is a true genius in his lyrics and one might say that he set the bar so high for himself that there is so much pressure to release an album as a follow-up. (Not counting of course his Orange Twin Field Works album which I do not think counts. I do not think that I have ever approached a lyricist in the same manner that Mangum has been able to resonate on the album and on top of this incorporate a wide range of music that over the years has inspired countless bands.

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