It’s the End of R.E.M. and I Feel Fine

Hopefully the people who spent the day with “Everybody Hurts” on repeat have talked themselves down off the ledge and realized that R.E.M. calling it quits is a no-big-deal decision that’s probably for the best. Soon as the news broke everyone was “reporting” it by posting “R.I.P R.E.M” on Facebook and Twitter and either pretending to be sad or cracking jokes about how they thought R.E.M. broke up years ago.

Good for them for calling it quits and going out on a high note (review below). Sure, some people thought they overstayed their welcome by 10 or 15 years already. Personally I still love their first 5 albums, but never could get into their mellow mid-to-late era albums. And yes, I’m including Automatic For The People, allegedly a consensus masterpiece. Sorry, I always found it to be overrated. Most people reading this now think I’m an idiot. Oh well.

They lasted 30 years. We didn’t need them to go on and on like the Stones. So don’t be sad, just put a bow on it, put ‘em to bed, and know that you can always visit them as you remember them best. We’ll help start the healing by reprinting our reviews of their most recent album (Collapse Into Now) and the reissue of their best (Reckoning).

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now (2011)

R.E.M.’s new album Collapse Into Now just breathes where its predecessor was trying to breathe fire. It’s nuanced, whereas Accelerate simply pushed the needle attempting to rock its way back to their early sound.

Accelerate was a fine record, and its sometimes-generic rockers are as good as some of the similar-veined material on Collapse Into Now. But the new one succeeds by acknowledging that the mid-tempo meditations (and mandolins!) are also part of the classic R.E.M. sound.

The clean mix puts the spotlight on Peter Buck, without turning everything up to 11. It combines a healthy dose of the acoustic atmospherics and mellow moments (that led them toward the sleepy missteps of their recent work) with enough energetic rockers to keep everyone awake.

Forget all the “finding their religion” puns, finally all of their sounds collapse into now.

R.E.M. – Reckoning (1984, reissue 2009)

r.e.m.’s first album was called murmur and when the second one starts you think maybe it could be called hypermumble but it’s not it’s called reckoning which is a pretty cool title i guess and it’s a really cool album. the guitars are jangly but not annoying and the melodies are catchy but this isn’t pop music this is cool college radio music from back when such a thing still existed before they started calling it alternative rock before alternative rock became so popular that by definition it was then pop. it’s still hard to hear what the singer is talking about but he mentions swallowing the ocean, a short-haired boy or girl (i’m not sure), catacombs, a camera, this season, a handshake is worthy, the tower, alone in a crowd, and during one song he just keeps repeating that he’s sorry. the one where he says "i’m sorry" is a lot of people’s favorite song from this album but i grew up in rockville, md, and went to rockville high school so of course we all thought the song called "don’t go back to rockville" was the coolest song since in some way it was possible that it might be about us even though we kinda knew that it probably wasn’t. this album came out in 1984 and ever since then every band in america and most other countries tried to sound just like this album whether they knew it or not except for all the bands that tried to make sure they didn’t sound like this album. in 2009 the people that make the records made a new version of r.e.m.’s reckoning that they cleaned up and made sound all pretty even though the spirit of the sound of this album is kinda scruffy and off the cuff to begin with it still sounded great after it was all dressed up in fancy sound quality because it was always beautiful on the inside.

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Carving a Heart in The Joshua Tree

They had to go all the way out there just to make the guitars echo like that.

Perhaps the least-cool thing to do in 2011 would be to write an essay on the greatness of U2’s The Joshua Tree album from 1987. I mean, you might get away with singing the praises of 1991’s Achtung Baby, seeing as it’s getting the deluxe makeover remaster reissue bonanza for it’s 20th anniversary this year. And it might be cool to write about The Joshua Tree being terrible and overrated, because the contrary opinion always generates interest.

While Achtung Baby has, for a while now, become the consensus “Best/Favorite” U2 album (itself a contrary opinion once upon a time), The Joshua Tree is the pinnacle and quintessential U2 effort, an epic rock album and in my opinion the best album by this hate-’em-if-ya-want-to legendary band. The two albums certainly represent not only the band’s peak, but also the collective moment when they pivoted. One of my favorite Bono quotes is his description of Achtung Baby as “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”

Let’s skip all the peripheral items that don’t matter (Bono’s politics and charitable efforts, whether or not U2 is “overrated”), strip away all the hype and bullshit, and simply discuss the music.

I’ll start where the album starts: “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This is the ultimate U2 song. Maybe it’s not their “best” pure song, but it might be my favorite and their most representative track. If someone had no clue, if they came from the future or the past or from another planet, you could just play that song and say THIS is what U2 is. Play it loud. The way the intro fades in and soon engulfs you in The Edge’s spider web of arpeggio notes drizzling down on you from the delay pedal. And then the bass changes notes and pretty soon the drums come running and racing in and you are charging toward something.

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The Top 10 Best Live Albums

These Top 10 Lists are impossible. I don’t know why we subject ourselves to doing them, but we do. And picking the Top 10 Best Live Albums is a particularly tough one, as easy as it might seem on the surface.

It’s hard enough just to get the performance/recording of actual live albums right, let alone properly assessing them in some form of a list. There’s always that impossible tightrope walk between the best performances and the hit songs; between the idea of releasing one complete show and mixing together the best sounding tracks from different nights. Depending on the band, and the expectations of their listeners, there are a myriad of stumbling blocks and inevitable drawbacks to the pursuit of a good live album.

How did this guy not make the list?

It’s an oxymoron within itself, the live album. Truly LIVE music isn’t really live when you listen back to it later. At its worst, it’s simply the songs you know but with canned crowd noise. But at its best, it can actually convey the energy and joy of the original performance (just as a “studio album” can capture a great take, that was technically played “live,” even if just in front of 3 engineers and not 3,000 screaming fans).

The difficult thing in identifying what I would deem the Top 10 Best Live Albums, for me, is the fact that it could be argued that the bands I most admire as live acts haven’t really made a truly great live album. Prince, The Roots, Radiohead, The Who, Black Crowes, and Led Zeppelin have all made attempts, but for some reason they haven’t quite nailed it yet on an official live release. (Maybe The Who and Zeppelin have come close, but for some reason they lack a flawless go-to set). U2, while they’ll make the honorable mentions list with Under a Blood Red Sky, I still feel like they are missing a career-spanning (but not too monstrous) live set. Continue reading →

Jason Isbell Hits Home

Sometimes records come along and they just creep in and grow on you. But even the ones that grow on you can still be familiar upon first meeting, like that person you meet who you just connect with on some level like you knew them before, or whatever it is that some folks refer to as a good vibe. Or like a creaky floor that’s just always sounded that way and for some reason it’s a subconscious comfort of sorts.

Jason IsbellAnd then in walks Jason Isbell’s latest album Here We Rest. It’s instantly likeable and the kind of record that sounds as good on Sunday morning as it did on Saturday night. It’s dense with real life, not unlike a film. There’s a perfect mix of heartbreak and promise; of love and pain, of dreams and regrets.

The sound of Isbell and his fine band, the 400 Unit, is also perfectly mixed. There’s a clarity and separation that allows each guitar and organ part to seep out without calling too much attention to itself. The different sounds used (acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, slide guitar, pianos and organs) are tasteful and always right on, and there’s “layers” without having 17 overdubs of extra guitars needlessly doubling parts.

Isbell’s coffee-stained vocal delivery is warm and sweet; a southern drawl meets blue-eyed soul that he honed when first winning us over as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. On some of DBT’s finest albums, Isbell’s songs (especially “Outfit,” “Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel,” “Goddamn Lonely Love”) were among the highlights, if not the centerpieces. No surprise that his first two solo albums were solid (but overlooked) gems. And this latest one is proving to be his finest, rewarding repeated listens with subtle nuances. Certain lyric lines just hit you, sometimes for their meaning and other times for Isbell’s phrasing; or both, when he turns a phrase like “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about.”

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Stephen Marley’s Roots Rock Revelation

Stephen Marley

Stephen Marley feelin' it.

Bob Marley once said that, while he knew he’d only be remembered for his music, his children were his true gift to the world. Bob Marley, a poet and a prophet.

With the recent release of Stephen Marley’s great new album, Revelation Pt. 1: The Root of Life, it’s time to start taking a closer look at the Marley kids, and the talents of Stephen Marley in particular.

Since Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers debuted in the mid-80s, and had a hit with Conscious Party in 1989, everyone has accepted and taken for granted that “Oh yea, Ziggy’s pretty good. Not quite his daddy but that’s ok cuz Bob was a legend.” And while most fans knew and appreciated Stephen’s presence and contribution to ZM&MM, the masses viewed the Marley kids as Ziggy and all the rest of ’em.

I don’t have the time or resources to research the 11 or so official children fathered by Bob Marley. With apologies to Ziggy, Bob’s beautiful-voiced daughters Sharon and Cedella, and his sons Rohan (who played football at University of Miami, has 5 children with Lauryn Hill, and runs the Marley Coffee business [seriously]), Julian (a few surprisingly decent albums to his name), Ky-Mani (a book and 6 [SIX!] albums to his credit), and even Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, he of the smash hit Welcome to Jamrock and recent collaboration with Nas, Distant Relatives… (did I miss anyone?)… I’d really like to shine the light on Stephen.

As much as most casual fans probably thought Ziggy “looked and sounded just like Bob Marley,” it was always Stephen whose voice really sounded eerily similar to Bob’s. Cherry-picking the Melody Makers CD’s and assembling all the tracks featuring Stephen on lead vocals would probably be a worthwhile endeavor.

It turns out that Stephen isn’t just a pretty voice and good musician. His production skills have blossomed over the last decade, as he was the maestro pushing the buttons behind the various high points of the Marley kids recent output (Damian’s Jamrock and Nas albums, Julian’s Grammy-nominated Awake, and both Stephen’s own solo albums). Add that to his contributions to some of the best tracks from Ziggy’s heyday (91-99, in my opinion), and you can see why I’m writing this article.
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“Getting” Bon Iver

The new Bon Iver record just doesn’t sound like anything else. Nowadays it seems that’s the last frontier: unique originality. There’s only so many notes. You’re not going to think of anything that Miles Davis or Leonard Bernstein didn’t already come up with. Everything else is Beatlesque or ripping off the Stones (who were rip-off artists).

So while it used to be good enough to just sound like something that was already considered great and successful, at some point being completely new and “indescribable” was the new benchmark. It wasn’t enough to combine genres, the best artists could defy them.

It probably started with invention of hip-hop and rap music in the late 70’s and it’s subsequent explosion in the 80’s. Sure, they literally and physically combined genres, but it didn’t sound like anything else ever. Later, Radiohead came along. Their earliest work was guitar-drums driven, but they morphed into something from the future. Something indescribable. You might make the case that more recent critics darlings My Morning Jacket have that “dude you just gotta hear ’em” factor that would put them in this category.

Interestingly, both Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James have something else in common: they like to do a lot of their work in falsetto, their high vocals often serving as either an attraction for fans or a deal-breaker for the listeners that just don’t like it.
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The Curious Case of Thomas Earl Petty

He’s made at least one quality album in five different decades. He’s a rock star despite his turned-the-corner-and-got-smacked-with-a-frying-pan looks. He’s had his house burned down by arsonists and toured with Bob Dylan. He’s played Live Aid, Bonnaroo, and the Super Bowl. He’s fought with record companies and been the subject of a 4-hr documentary. When he was 10, he met Elvis. He’s on the shortlist of Greatest Video Hitmakers of the 80s, but he’s also a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer who really does seem like he’d be cool to have a beer with.

He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a guitar strap. He’s Tom Petty.

Seriously, does anyone hate this guy? Sure, some might not love all his music. Some might be a bit turned off by his Dylanesque whine, or maybe they find “Free Fallin’” a bit annoying and overplayed. But does anyone hate Tom Petty? I don’t think so.

Without recounting his entire career, the broad strokes of it are a case study in… in… I’m not sure what. Petty and his career are just so unique for someone who comes off so ordinary. The first sentence of his bio on allmusic.com mentions that he was “shoehorned into the punk/new wave movement” of the late 1970s, but would anyone confuse Petty with the Sex Pistols or Talking Heads? He often shares sentences (and fans) with Bruce Springsteen, but even this Springsteen fanatic must admit that it’s Petty who exudes the regular-guy cool that Bruce has (ironically) tried so hard to personify.

His turn as the Mad Hatter in the infamous video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is one of the indelible images of MTV’s heyday, inexplicably tying him to the likes of Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the more-usual suspects who brought some artistry to the commercial art of video making.

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