Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Murmur - R.E.M.

I.R.S.  SP-70604

I had mixed reactions to the announcement a few months ago that R.E.M. was breaking up.  Part of me was relieved I’m sorry to say.  It is not that their latter day work was bad, I generally enjoyed most of their recent albums, but I was buying and listening largely out of loyalty.  They stopped being interesting to me years ago and I felt they should have broken up when Bill Berry left the band.  On the other hand they were one of the most important bands in my musical life.  During their years on I.R.S. Records they were my favorite band aside from the Beatles.  I spent the 1970s listening to the music of the 1960s and wishing I had been born earlier.  I ignored contemporary music until the New Wave started, but even though I really liked a lot of New Wave groups, they did not displace my affection for the 1960s bands.  R.E.M. changed that.  They were the first group I ever loved that hadn’t either already broken up (Beatles, Yardbirds, Monkees, Jefferson Airplane) or was only a diminished version of its former self (Fairport Convention, the Who, the Kinks.)  I anxiously looked forward to each new R.E.M. album and finally felt nourished by my own musical culture rather than feeding on the leftovers of the baby boomers.  My passion for R.E.M. didn’t last much past the point they signed with Warner Bros. unfortunately.  As the group got more popular and started having hit singles, I became less enthusiastic about them.  Part of it was me being an indie-rock snob, but also the music was different.  The early R.E.M. was enigmatic and mysterious, the Warner Bros. R.E.M. was more accessible, there was little mystery to songs like “Shiny Happy People” and “Man In The Moon.”  I still liked those albums but the magic was gone.  Oh what magic it was.  I first fell for R.E.M. when I heard “Radio Free Europe” on a college radio station.  It blew me away and I sought it out in the record store on my next visit.  In the bin I saw this weird album called “Murmur.”  It was a strikingly odd name for a strikingly odd looking album.  Record covers in the 1970s did not look like this, even the more abstract ones generally had some sort of meaning like “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Led Zeppelin IV.”  I stared at the monochromatic image of overgrown kudzu on the cover of “Murmur” and wondered what the heck was this about?   Being a native Californian I’d never seen kudzu but if I ever make it down to Athens I will make a pilgrimage to this kudzu field.  I flipped the album over and saw a picture of a wooden trestle, a list of strange song titles and pictures of 4 guys who looked more like nerds than rock stars.  Not only did this record look different than anything I’d seen before, it sounded different too.  Art rock in the 70s took many forms, the literary-based music of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, the classical music inspired experimentation of Frank Zappa and the Krautrock bands, the grand theatrical statements of concept albums like “The Wall” or “Quadrophenia,” intellectual ironists like Brian Eno, Roxy Music or John Cale, and provocateurs like Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, David Bowie or Johnny Rotten.  I don’t think any commercial rock record ever sounded like “Murmur.”  The music was hooky and alluring but the words were illusive, seemingly abstract.  Bits and pieces stood out in striking clarity but other parts were indecipherable, willfully obscure.  The overall effect was making the seemingly mundane and ordinary seem mystical, as dreamlike as the band’s name.  It was as if André Breton and Man Ray had joined the Byrds.  The music was still rock - it had a beat and you could dance to it, but the effect was different, it was less visceral and more cerebral.  Most pop music is meant to be consumed and discarded, this record requires the listener to fill in the blanks, R.E.M. provides the framework and the listeners add their own vision to it.  It is almost a collaboration between the musicians and the audience. This album defies conventional interpretation, it is meant to be experienced not analyzed and I think everyone probably reacts to it differently.  For me this makes the music more personal and generates a deeper bond between the band and the audience.  It used to be a running joke among R.E.M. fans to make up their own lyrics about what they thought Michael Stipe was singing about and I don’t think that is too far from the way the album works.  I used to find myself singing along to a R.E.M. song and realizing that I had no idea what I was singing about.  Even if one didn’t know the words, it was hard to resist singing along, this music is so compelling, so full of hooks.  Inevitably after playing one of the I.R.S. albums I will find the songs running through my head for hours or even days later as if they were seared into my brain.  I’m sure part of the reason I loved the R.E.M. so much was the way their music was grounded in my favorite music of the 1960s - the jangly guitar of the Byrds, the melodic bass lines of Paul McCartney, the soaring multi-layered vocals of Jefferson Airplane, the propulsive, crisp backbeat of Booker T. and the M.G.s, yet it was not retro, it was a modern sound.  It blew away everything on the radio.  So much of the music of the 1980s now sounds dated, fake and gimmicky, but "Murmur" sounds as good today as it did in 1983.  All the songs are good and many are great.  My favorites are “Radio Free Europe,” “Pilgrimage,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Sitting Still,” and “Shaking Through.”  This is my favorite album of the 1980s and one of my favorite albums of all time.  Rest in peace R.E.M., your greatness will live on as long as rock music exists.  Recommended for people who think "Wolves, Lower" is a better song than "Losing My Religion."

Post Script (2014): Well I finally made it down to Athens over the summer.  It only took me 30 years, yikes.  I loved it there, great town.  I did not bother to look for the kudzu field, that stuff is everywhere down there.  I did make it to the trestle though.  I got goose bumps when I walked under it.  For this R.E.M. fan it was like visiting a holy place.  Kudos to Athens for preserving it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand
Domino  E92441

When I became obsessed with Belle and Sebastian back in the late 1990s I started following the Scottish pop scene.  I discovered a lot of really good bands that way.  That was how I first heard of Franz Ferdinand.  They didn't sound all that interesting to me, but I filed them away in my brain as a topic for future investigation.  Then before I knew it, they broke big in the United States rapidly becoming the biggest Scottish band over here much to my surprise.  "Take Me Out" was all over the airwaves and I saw videos of these sharp-dressed pretty boys playing their dance pop and dismissed them as the Duran Duran of the 2000s.  I had some female friends who were really into them and they would come back from shows raving about them but I wasn't convinced.  Then I came across a sealed vinyl copy of their debut album in a thrift store and decided to pick it up for a spin and realized that they were better than I thought.  This album may be a bit lightweight and derivative, but it is never dull and it gets me hopping.  A lot of it is insanely catchy dance pop, like the two hits "Take Me Out" and "This Fire" as well as "The Dark of the Matinee" which has an enticing theatrical feeling to it and some of the most sophisticated lyrics on the record.  "Auf Achse," "Darts of Pleasure," "Michael" and "Come on Home" are also designed for the dance floor and really deliver the goods.  There is a 1980s flavor to these songs but they are mostly guitar driven rather than synth driven much to my approval.  You can also hear art rock-ish elements suggestive of Roxy Music or David Bowie particularly in Alex Kapranos' mannered vocals.  The big hooky bass lines and spiky rhythm guitar recall the New Wave funk of Talking Heads or Gang of Four.  Some songs deviate from the formula.  My favorite song is "Jacqueline" which starts slow like a cabaret song and then the pounding bass kicks in soon joined by a killer guitar riff and an exciting nouveau-garage style song ensues that sounds like the Strokes only better.  The riff-happy "Cheating on You" is another first rate rocker that really gets me going.  "Tell Her Tonight" sounds like 80s punk-funk in the verses but goes 1960s in the chorus, I find the shifting textures and driving beat very compelling.  Almost all the songs deal with romance aside from "40'" which is about a diver contemplating the water below him and features some of my favorite guitar work on the record.  As far as intelligent dance pop goes, this album is a real winner.  It is relentless in its drive and compulsive beat, I can't sit still when it is playing, but it also has clever lyrics and musical variety.  I find a lot of dance pop to be either inane or monotonous, okay for a club or party, but not for listening.  In contrast Franz Ferdinand appreciate traditional pop values and write well-crafted songs.  I give them extra points as well for their use of Russian Constructivism in their design graphics. Recommended for smart kids who like to dance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jackie De Shannon - Jackie DeShannon/In The Wind - Jackie DeShannon

Jackie De Shannon
Jackie DeShannon
Liberty LRP-3320

In The Wind
Jackie DeShannon
Imperial  LP-12296

You might notice that the songs on these two albums are largely identical.  I unfortunately didn't notice and once again got rooked by a major record label.  It's not the first time and probably won't be the last time.  I bought "In The Wind" many years ago, it was one of the very first Jackie DeShannon albums that I acquired.  The problem with having a lot of records though is that it is hard to remember what songs are on all of them.  A year or two ago, I was rummaging through the bins at the Pasadena City College Flea Market and I saw "Jackie De Shannon" which was her debut album.  I was quite taken by the cover and even though I remembered some of the songs from "In the Wind" I didn't hesitate to buy it.  I don't really regret it, the debut album's cover photo is awesome and it has more extensive liner notes, the notes on "In the Wind" have been edited out of the ones on the debut and are only half as long.  The debut album is all folk songs mostly from the commercial folk repertoire.  Both albums have 12 songs, "In The Wind" substitutes "Needles and Pins" and "Don't Turn Your Back On Me" for "Betsy From Pike" and "Sing Hallelujah."  "Needles and Pins" is a classic song, it should have been a hit for her and she wrote the passionate "Don't Turn Your Back On Me" but although they are great songs neither is a folk song and they disrupt the atmosphere and consistency of the "In The Wind" album compared to "Jackie De Shannon."  I really like her version of the 19th Century ballad "Betsy From Pike" and her singing on the gospel song "Sing Hallelujah" is excellent.  They are two of my favorite songs on the debut album, which is another reason why I don't mind having it.  I don't know the rationale for reissuing the debut album under another guise but I'm assuming that Imperial was trying to capitalize on Bob Dylan's growing fame or Peter, Paul and Mary's commercial success as well as trying to exploit the Searcher's success with their version of "Needles and Pins" in 1964.  Both albums feature three Dylan songs plus one that he popularized, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down."  My favorite of the four is her exuberant version of "Walkin' Down The Line."  Three songs associated with Peter, Paul and Mary also appear on the record.  "Puff (The Magic Dragon)" is not a good fit for her and she delivers a robust cover of "If I Had A Hammer" but there is nothing interesting about it.  The best of the three is her country flavored version of "500 Miles" which she sings with great feeling.  There is also a soulful vocal on "Oh Sweet Chariot" and her husky vocal on Bobby Darin's "Jailer Bring Me Water" is very effective.  That isn't really a folk song and neither is "Little Yellow Roses" which was written by the English actor Trevor Peacock, but both are arranged to sound like folk songs.  Considering her background in pop and her skill at songwriting, it is surprising to me that her debut album featured only folk style songs, none of which she wrote.  It is a tribute to her great skill as a vocalist and her versatility that the album is still completely convincing.  I like it better than any album Joan Baez ever made.  The instrumentation is mostly acoustic guitar and bass with occasional harmonica and percussion and DeShannon is tastefully supported by background singers throughout the album.  Both albums are really worthwhile, if you are a fan of DeShannon you ought to own at least one of them.  If I had to choose just one, I'd pick "Jackie DeShannon" because it has better song sequencing and I prefer the packaging.  Recommended for people who think that Tom Rush is a better folk singer than Pete Seeger.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's 2 Easy - The Easybeats

It's 2 Easy
The Easybeats
Parlophone  APLP.058

The second Australian album by the Easybeats.  The Easybeats are by far my favorite Australian group although I'm hardly an expert on the subject.  When I first got this record I was surprised to see that almost all of the songs were credited to Stevie Wright and George Young.  The later Easybeat records were largely composed by Harry Vanda and George Young and of course the Vanda/Young partnership would continue long after the Easybeats broke up.  For most Americans the most well-known song on this album is "Women (Make You Feel Alright)" which also appeared on the United Artists album, "Friday On My Mind," which was their American debut record and it also appears on most Easybeats comps.  It is a classic good time rocker.  My favorite song on the album is "You Are The Light," a delightful folk-rock song that reminds me of the Beau Brummels.  I also really like "Easy As Can Be" which is catchy garage band style rock with a driving beat and a compelling hook.  The percussion driven "I Can See" is another great song that builds in power reminiscent of mid-1960s the Who.  "Wedding Ring" is a powerful rocker worthy of the Standells.  It was a hit down under and should have been here too.  "Let Me Be," "Someway, Somewhere," "Sad and Lonely and Blue" "What About Our Love" and "Then I'll Tell You Goodbye" sound very British Invasion, at their best they evoke comparisons to the early Beatles.  You could argue that they are imitative, but they are done so well that I don't care.  There are a few songs that vary from this style, "Somethin' Wrong" is pure garage, "In My Book" is a 1950s style romantic ballad, "Come and See Her" is rhythm and blues flavored and "I'll Find Somebody To Take Your Place" sounds like jug band music.  This album is not quite as good as "Friday On My Mind" which has a punchier sound and more distinguished songwriting, but it is still a very worthwhile purchase for fans of mid-1960s rock.  It might be hard to find a vinyl copy in the U.S., but it is easily available on CD.  Recommended to fans of the Searchers who wish they rocked a little harder. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Joyful - Orpheus

MGM  SE-4599

I imagine that most record collectors are familiar with the story of the "Bosstown Sound."  It was a notorious hype that attempted to position Boston as the successor to the San Francisco Sound in the late 1960s.  It was a shameless bit of record industry chicanery that I first learned of reading Lillian Roxon's "Rock Encyclopedia" as a teenager.  In recent years there has been some revisionist thinking on this topic and defenses of the groups associated with it.  I like some of the groups, most notably the Beacon Street Union, Ultimate Spinach and Earth Opera but I still don't believe the hype.  This group just reinforces my opinion.  I only acquired the three MGM Orpheus albums last year when I came across them at the record mart at the Pasadena City College Flea Market and was able to get them at a bargain price.  I became interested in them from reading reviews of the CD reissues of their original albums.  When I initially listened to the albums though I was dismayed.  I found the music sappy and boring.  With repeated listenings my opinion improved, but I still think the group is pretty minor.  This was the band's third album and is the one I like the best.  Orpheus played soft rock for the most part, a cross between the commercial pop of a group like the Association and the more ambitious, personal music of a group like Free Design, but ultimately not as satisfying as either.  There are some nice arrangements and lovely vocal harmonies but the music itself is often not very memorable.  Most of the songs on this album were written by the group's guitarist, Bruce Arnold often in collaboration with the group's bassist Eric Gulliksen.  They are mostly lugubrious love songs.  "As They All Fall" is the prettiest with a pleasant string arrangement and elaborate vocal harmonies.  "May I Look at You" has a jaunty melody and "I Can Make The Sun Rise" features some propulsive acoustic guitar work and a greater sense of urgency than most of the songs on the record.  "Lovin' You" is the closest thing to a rock song on the album, it is guitar-driven and relatively fast paced and easily my favorite song on the record.  The vocal interplay on "Joyful" is very enjoyable and I like the hooky bass line.  It segues into the delicate album closer, the pretentiously titled "Of Enlightenment."  "To Touch Our Love Again" is just too sappy for me but it does have an interesting arrangement.  There are also three songs that were written by others. "By the Size of My Shoes" by Larry Weiss and Jimmy Wilson is the most successful of the three, it has a nice soulful feel to it which is unusual for this group.  It would have been a tasty song for a guy like Jerry Butler.  Fans of the Turtles will probably be shocked by the Orpheus version of Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon's "Me About You."  The Turtles classic version was cheerful soaring sunshine pop.  Orpheus slows down the song and sucks all the life out of it, they might as well be singing about their dead girlfriend it is so gloomy.  The other non-original is "Brown Arms in Houston" by Lesley Miller and Joe Henry.  It was a flop single for the group.  It sounds like something Glen Campbell or even Andy Williams might have sung, middle of the road with a very slight country/soul feel.  With repeated spins, I've come to like this album, but very little of it sticks with me when it is done playing.  I do appreciate its intelligence and grace, I just wish the music was a little more distinctive.  It sounds best late at night, during the day it bores me.  Recommended for people who think the Association are too loud. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Circuital - My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket
ATO  0105

I finally got to see My Morning Jacket live this summer.  For years I've been reading about what an awesome live act they are and I have to agree.  It was amazing.  I don't know how they go out there and deliver such a high energy show night after night.  I envy their strength and stamina.  Almost every number ends up in a frenzied jam as if they had learned to play by listening to "Free Bird" over and over.  I was totally drained afterwards.  Not a lot of that energy has been transferred to their records though.  I enjoy the records a lot but it is hard to believe that they are made by the same band.  I guess that's why my favorite album of theirs is the live one, "Okonokos."  I had high hopes for this one though after hearing them run through much of it live.  The album gets off to a rousing start with "Victory Dance" which begins with the bang of a gong and a majestic fanfare leading into a compelling song colored with imagery from Native American culture and an almost biblical endorsement of the value of work.  Jim James (or Yim Yames as he seems to be calling himself lately) provides an earnest double-tracked vocal that makes the lyrics take on the gravity of a spiritual quest.  The song starts slow and gradually builds in power to its soaring climax just like the live act.  The song flows seemlessly into "Circuital" which also builds slowly and then rocks out.  It reminds me a bit of 1970s era The Who.  It explores the various meanings of circuit as they apply to life both in terms of inter-connectivity as well as circularity in the life cycle.  I think it is a major song destined to be one of the band's standouts and it gives James a chance to stretch out his amazing vocal cords.  "The Day is Coming" has a bit of a sunshine pop feel to it.  It begins with language sounding like it is about the day of reckoning but ultimately it is an uplifting "seize the day" type song.  The good vibes continue with the optimistic "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" which is a gentle, folky song embracing positive thinking and peace of mind.  "Outta My System" reminds me of "Sunflower" era Beach Boys.  It has a strong pop flavor with a catchy melody and a lot of instrumental richness.  It is a song about maturity that endorses sowing one's wild oats as a youth in order to avoid temptation when one is older.  The group kicks it up a few notches for the soulful and forceful "Holdin' On To Black Metal" which argues that it is okay for a rebellious teen to dig black metal music, but you ought to find something better to listen to as an adult with James mostly taking umbrage with the Satanic elements in black metal.  Personally I think one should stop listening to black metal simply because it sucks.  The very upbeat "First Light" is a spiritual song, not specifically religious although it could be interpreted that way.  Essentially James is celebrating something that has given his life direction and meaning.  It begins with a solitary guitar chord reminiscent of "A Hard Day's Night" and then the group rocks out with one of the most propulsive songs on the record.  "You Wanna Freak Out" sounds almost like a paean to hedonism, but I think it is actually endorsing being true to oneself and being uninhibited.  It is another upbeat sunshine pop-type song.  "Slow Slow Tune" is exactly that, a gentle lullaby for James' future child.  The album ends with another slow one, "Movin' Away" which is driven by a simple piano line and a gorgeous vocal.  The song shows James committing to settling down with his love although apparently with some ambivalence.  It is a perfect ending to an album that is thematically driven by a spiritual and personal quest for happiness and meaning.  It is really a wonderful record, endlessly listenable and rewarding.  It is also a model for vinyl packaging, a sturdy, elegant cardboard gatefold album with heavy weight paper sleeves covered with pictures and an insert that reproduces the handwritten lyrics which are a bit hard to read but testify to James' frenzied creativity.  The record is spread over two 180 gram slabs of vinyl running at 45 rpm.  I'm not so crazy about the speed since it requires frequent flipping of the record, but it sounds magnificent, an impeccable pressing.  This record may not live up to the power of their live act, but it is a credit to their immense talent and chemistry as a band and I'm not the least bit disappointed in it.  It is one of the best albums of the year.  Recommended to people who are looking for something more than sex and drugs in their rock and roll.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lady Godiva - Peter and Gordon

Lady Godiva
Peter and Gordon
Capitol  ST 2664

I've been listening to a lot of British Invasion of late.  As a teen it was my favorite genre of pop music.  When I was really young, I liked Peter and Gordon because of their proper English accents and nerdy looks, but as I got older they seemed corny to me and I was only interested in them because of Peter Asher's connection to Paul McCartney and the handful of McCartney songs they recorded that the Beatles never did.  I look at the pictures on the back cover of this album and think that the boys look pretty cool, like wannabe Byrds, but unfortunately the music inside is mostly sappy.  It is hard to believe that this record came out in 1967, it would have been outmoded in 1964.  Compared to their increasingly ambitious peers Chad and Jeremy, not to mention every other significant British Invasion group, they seem hopelessly square.  To their credit, the two best songs were written by Asher and Gordon Waller, "Morning's Calling" and "Start Trying Someone Else."  The latter is just a decent romantic ballad, but the former is one of their few credible rock songs, an excellent folk-rock song with lovely lyrics about escape and heartache.  "Morning's Calling" is the best Peter and Gordon song that I've ever heard not written by a Beatle.  It is worth the purchase of this album in itself, although you can also find it on the b-side of the "Lady Godiva" single.  "Lady Godiva" is a novelty song with a music hall flavor, it is pretty catchy if you like that sort of thing.  It was their last top ten single.  The remainder of the album is made up of cover songs, none of which are very good.  In their hands the Beatles' "If I Fell" loses all its bite and becomes overwrought teen pablum.  Corny crooning predominates on "Till There Was You," "Young and Beautiful," "When I Fall In Love," and "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" which are also hampered by hackneyed arrangements.  I do like their melodramatic version of "The Exodus Song" which has some emotional power.   There is a yearning quality to the vocal on "A Taste of Honey" that cuts through some of the muzak.  The boys come on like the English Righteous Brothers on "Baby I'm Yours," it is not exactly soulful but it is kind of dynamic.  This isn't a good record, but I'm not sorry I bought it.  Recommended for people who think British accents make everything sound better.