FLASHBACK: MURMUR BY R.E.M.

Now that people are (hopefully) done flooding facebook with clips of that one song by this band, please enjoy my review of R.E.M.’s Murmur, which I posted on Amazon.com way back on December 11, 2005.

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Murmur is arguably the most important American record of the 1980s. It is seen by many as the birth of alternative rock. I can’t quite agree with this assessment, but R.E.M.’s debut was literally music to the ears of music fans who couldn’t quite relate to post-punk, new wave, and the MTV pop of the early 80s.

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Seemingly out of nowhere came a record with a rustic, acoustic feel, at a time when electric guitars were wiry and robotic, and synthesizers were on the verge of becoming a lead instrument. One might say that Murmur was to the early 80s was The Band’s first LP was to the late 60s. And the fact that Murmur reached #36 on the Billboard Top 200 is a testament to the size of the market that R.E.M. was able to tap (not that that was their intention).

At the risk of making a potentially politically incorrect statement – a concern that I am sensitive to – I would say that R.E.M. were the founders of alternative rock in the same way that Christopher Columbus was the one who discovered America. While Murmur certainly sounded different than anything released in well over a decade, I still cannot help but give The Feelies‘ debut Crazy Rhythms the distinction of being the first alternative record.

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To me, Crazy Rhythms sounds different enough from what came before it, but enough like what came after it to merit this distinction. In other words, alternative rock was already there, but not many people knew about it. This is where R.E.M. comes in. As I said before, although Murmur had no apparent target audience and practically no commercial viability, it still reached the Top 40. Hence, the importance of Murmur – like that of Columbus – is immeasurable.

Murmur is a fascinating listen. It sounds like something unearthed from a spot where such a thing has no earthly business being. R.E.M. was influenced by artists from across the punk (The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television) and pop (The Byrds, Big Star, The Soft Boys) spectrums, but managed to avoid sounding too much like any of them. This is a case of so many influences perfecting the sound. Like the best albums by the artists whom the members of R.E.M. loved, Murmur marks a point when popular music starts to sound different. Perhaps the most obvious case of this is that after this album, lyrics could be not only be cryptic, but the vocals themselves unintelligible.

The songs on Murmur – like the songs on Crazy Rhythms – do not seem to be about anything. “Perfect Circle”, for example, is a fine case of how R.E.M.’s lyrics are more significant in terms of how they are said rather than what the actual words are (e.g., “Standing too soon/Shoulders high in the room”). And while R.E.M. was a minimalist band at heart, producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon succeeded in adorning the songs without swallowing them whole, such as in the waltz-like feel of “We Walk”.

The disparate styles and sounds that merge to create the mural that Murmur is reflects the disparate backgrounds of the the band’s members. Stipe was born in Decatur, GA, but formed his first band while in high school in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Peter Buck was born in northern California, Mike Mills in southern California, and Bill Berry in Deluth, Minnesota. Yet somehow, they were all able to come together at a party in Athens, GA, and henceforth be forever shrouded in the mythology of the American South. And of course, the irony is never lost on critics that the band’s name refers to the state of sleep in which dreaming occurs, and thus their music and lyrics would forever be compared to the opaque, symbolic, non-linear images of dreamland.

Musically, Murmur delivers on the promise of the Chronic Town EP, with many of their trademarks firmly in place on the first single, “Radio Free Europe.”

Michael Stipe’s voice isn’t quite a drawl, but it has a nasally twang about it that gives it its edge. The arpeggios are invincibly crisp on “Talk About the Passion,” and equally slinky on the rocking “Catapult” and “Sitting Still.”

On “9-9,” the guitar richochets in between verses of Velvet Underground-like narration. And the rhythm section is nothing to sneeze at, either. Witness the thumping bass lines on “Laughing,” and the footstomping beats of “Pilgrimage” and “Moral Kiosk.”

Then there is “Shaking Through,” which is just beautiful, and “West of the Fields,” a forceful closer to an almost flawless record.

R.E.M.’s debut LP was enough to convince skeptics and believers alike that there was probably nothing that the band couldn’t do. Within five years, Rolling Stone would deem them “America’s Best Rock ‘n Roll Band”, and few who were in the know would dispute the claim. Five years after that, R.E.M. would be America’s biggest rock ‘n roll band. Whether this was poetic justice or a travesty depends on your point of view. Either way, the band would always have its first half-dozen or so records to justify their worshipping audience and critical raves. With Murmur, they hit the ground running, and have kept moving, albeit a bit more slowly, for over 20 years since.

FLASHBACK: THE WHO SELL OUT

Originally posted six years ago today on Amazon.com. I was actually a bit late in getting around to The Who, but as they say, there is no zealot like the convert.

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Where (or When) The Who Joined the Ranks of the Great

The Who Sell Out (1967) proved that The Who was not just another quick singles band for whom an LP was too large of a canvas. The Who Sings My Generation showed promise, but its follow-up A Quick One was undercooked. Sell Out was when they finally produced a complete set of all original songs that was uniformly strong from beginning to end. The sound on this record was much less mod, and an lot more pop and psychedelia. Fortunately, they were careful to not sound too much like freaks or hippies (cause after all, they were neither). Instead, Townshend was determined to embrace the sound of the late 60s without simply blending into it. And while their ambition was obvious, the fake commercials that connect the songs – including two longer ones written by John Entwistle – indicated that the band was unwilling to itself too seriously.

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For as much of a quintessential Who album as Sell Out is, it opens with a song written by John “Speedy” King, a friend of the band and later a member of Thunderclap Newman. “Armenia City in the Sky” is about as psychedelic as The Who ever got, lyrically and musically.

“I Can See For Miles,” the band’s only US Top 10, is another slice of psychedelia, with its crashing drums, insistent guitar, and far off images of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,” meanwhile, is an inviting acoustic singalong in the vein of The Grateful Dead’s folkier moments (think “Uncle John’s Band”). The Who also reinforced its powerful pop dimension on the gorgeous tunes “Our Love Was” and “I Can’t Reach You.” Finally, there is Entwistle’s lone full-length contribution, “Silas Stingy,” which anticipated The Small Faces’ 1968 classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.

And honestly, the great stuff doesn’t end there. “Tattoo” is a poignant, even bittersweet song that uses its title subject to symbolize an act of youthful rebellion of which the narrator will be forever reminded. Daltrey is in particularly fine form here. Indicating that Townshend was in a forward-thinking mode, the acoustic arpeggios on “Sunrise” and the electric riffs on “Rael 1” foreshadow Tommy. The only slip on the CD is “Odorono”, which is a bit silly and may have worked better in shorter form as one of the commercials.

At the point in their young career at which they needed to make a great record, The Who went above and beyond the call of duty with The Who Sell Out. The songs themselves were more solid than ever before, and the band milked the LP format for all that it was worth. Unfortunately, “I Can See For Miles” is the only track that has endured to the point of being known to non-Who fans, but at least a half-dozen other songs are among The Who’s best. Fans and critics will continue to bicker over whether Sell Out or Who’s Next is their best album. Even if Who’s Next remains the greatest by the standard of general consensus, The Who Sell Out will always be their most entertaining.

FLASHBACK: A QUICK ONE BY THE WHO

This is my somewhat perfunctory – love that word – review of The Who’s second album. But at least it includes a clip from Rushmore. (originally posted on Amazon.com, December 7, 2006.)

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The Who’s second album falls a bit short of their fine debut, and is redeemed by a handful of slightly above average tracks rather than by great ones.

Some have argued too many songwriters spoiled the record, as all members of the group made contributions. Not surprisingly, Townshend dominates the record. “Run Run Run” and “So Sad About Us” are probably the best of his batch, and the enjoyable but somewhat slight “Happy Jack” was the single and most famous track. (Strangely, it is included only among the bonus tracks on the CD re-issue.)

 “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was his first compostion of epic proportions, and a sign of things to come in the forms of Tommy and Quadraphenia. Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle take turns at the mike with equally good results. This is a great song, but it plays much better on the Live at Leeds CD. It is fleshed out more completely, delivered with deserving passion, and is preceded by some humorous on-stage banter. (Wes Anderson was wise to use a live version – which I think is from The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus – for the Rushmore soundtrack.)

Entwistle began to develop his trademark of writing songs with dark humor and unsettling self-deprecation. On this album, he offers the story of the ill-fated “Boris the Spider” and “The Whiskey Man,” at tale of alcohol-induced paranoid schizophrenia: “Seemingly I must be mad, insanity is fun.”

Moon throws in the instrumental “Cobwebs and Strange,” a showcase for his feral drumming style, and the surpringly affecting “I Need You.” Finally, Daltrey – a very infrequent songwriter – has only one song on the record, the middling “See My Way.” (Oh yeah, there is also a superfluous cover of “Heat Wave.”)

The CD re-issue adds several bonus tracks of fitful quality. “Disguises,” “In the City,” “Man With the Money,” and the characteristically amusing “Doctor, Doctor” by Entwistle – who may well be the star of the record – help make the disc worth listening to in it’s entirety.

But the real problem with A Quick One is that it simply never catches fire. At this point, The Who had shown that they were able to crank out decent singles, and that they had the ability and the inspiration to achieve greater things. However, they had yet to deliver a solid album of all original material. That would change in a big way the following year (1967) with The Who Sell Out. But in the wake of A Quick One, the band still had some work to do before its legendary status would be secured.

FLASHBACK: THE WHO SINGS MY GENERATION

The original idea for the FLASHBACK column was to post these reviews on the same day however many years after I originally put them on Amazon. Sometimes I am off by a few days, as I was with Exile In Guyville and am again with this one. This write-up of The Who Sings My Generation, one of my shorter reviews, first appeared on December 5, 2006.blog_MyGeneration

Forty-one years on, the debut record by The Who is still impressive. Classics like “My Generation” and “The Kids Are Alright” are certainly not to be second-guessed, and most of the other originals give the album plenty of muscle. “The Good’s Gone” and the humorous “A Legal Matter” highlight Pete Townshend’s superb riffing, and in the latter case, voice. “Much Too Much”, “It’s Not True”, and the psychedelia-flavored “Instant Party (Circles)” are fine mod tunes. Finally, the instrumental romp “The Ox” is the clearest indication of the mayhem that The Who were to create on stage, if not ever again on record. The bits of feedback on this track surely perked up the ears of guys like Jimi Hendrix, as well as Lou Reed and John Cale, perhaps just enough to make them realize the potential it could have in their own work. This song – along with “My Generation” – serves to rightly place Townshend and Co. among the forefathers of punk.

(Anyone who is going to read this has seen The Who’s performance on The Smothers Brothers, right?)

However, “La La La Lies” and “The Kids Are Alright” indicate that The Who might also be rightly credited as the originators of another genre: power pop. (Townshend said in a 1967 interview, “Power pop is what we play,” thereby allegedly coining the phrase. But he continued, saying, “What the Small Faces used to play and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ …”)

All of this genre’s elements are in place on these songs – azure vocal harmonies, echoey guitars, plump bass lines, and marching drums. It was this formula that would be adopted by the likes of The Flamin’ Groovies in the 1970s and Guided By Voices in the 90s, bands who were among the very best power poppers of their respective decades.

Also included on My Generation are two James Brown covers. Now, I have quite frankly always found The Who’s claims to be purveyors of “maximum R&B” to be disingenuous at the very least. These covers – “I Don’t Mind” and “Please Please Please” – sound a bit forced, as if they were trying to prove their R&B credentials (not that I doubt their love of the genre, nor the fact that it inspired their sound). That said, there are some good R&B-inspired moments here, such as the opening track “Out in the Street.”

At times, The Who Sings My Generation sounds a bit too rough around the edges for its own good. Granted, full-on Spector-esque production certainly wouldn’t have served the band’s energetic assault any more effectively. The Who’s second album, A Quick One, would prove to be a bit of a holding pattern, but it’s follow-up – The Who Sell Out – would be their triumphant great leap forward. Knowing how ambitious and refined their music would become, their debut sounds almost charming in its youthful recklessness. But whatever its shortcomings, their is no overlooking the fact that the single “My Generation” landed in the mid-60s London scene like a hand grenade, and proved that The Who wasn’t just another rock band. Their influence would expand exponentially over the decades, and as an opening statement, The Who Sings My Generation remains a powerful one.

FLASHBACK: LIZ PHAIR’S EXILE IN GUYVILLE

This is my December 3, 2005, Amazon.com review of the all-time classic masterpiece Exile In Guyville by Liz Phair.

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The Phairest of them all

Exile In Guyville is a landmark record. It is perhaps the biggest musical statement in indie rock by a woman, not to mention one of the first. It is easily the one of the best CDs of the 1990s. And it is one of the greatest debuts of all time.

But Exile In Guyville is more than just a great record in terms of specifics. It is a great record period. Even if the rest of her catalog cannot hold a candle to it, any artist in popular music should be so lucky as to have a record like this as his/her crowning achievement. This is one of those critically revered records for which the reasons for such reverence are obvious, not obscure.

It is not really important to me if this is, as is claimed, a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stone’s Exile On Main Street. The fact that that record obviously inspired her to make this one is good enough for me. And whether this is a “post-feminist” masterpiece is also a moot point, as I don’t think that she sat down to make such a record. I don’t think her intention was to make a political statement, even if by making such an emotionally and sexually explicit record, she ended up doing so anyway. (I know, I said the same thing about The Hidden Cameras CD The Smell of Our Own. Hey, if the shoe fits….) I am more interested in what exactly makes this such a damn fine record, by any standard.

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I remember seeing Liz Phair on MTV in 1993. She was asked by Tabitha Soren, “Are you afraid that people might think you’re a slut?” Obviously, that piqued my interest, but I was still in my tragically unhip classic rock phase at the time, so I didn’t seek out the record that they were talking about. Over the years, I would constantly see this CD referred to as a masterpiece, but I still didn’t buy it. That is until Ms. Phair’s much-maligned 2003 CD was released and she began to get so much press. That was when I decided it was time to hear it. Needless to say, I was immediately taken by it, and never for a second did I ever have to wonder why this was such a critic’s favorite. It was enough that several of the disc’s 18 songs were brilliant, but I quickly realized that almost all of them were. I loved it so much that it may have caused me to like the aforementioned eponymous CD a lot more than I would care to admit today.

As I have made the move from prog-rock junkie to indie-rock fan, I have come to think that any CD outside of the 30-40 minute range better be able to justify the extra time spent listening to it. I tend to believe that any CD over 45 minutes could have and should have been trimmed. Exile In Guyville remains a major exception. I am almost tempted to say that this CD makes me wish more records could be this long and this good. Guyville easily justifies its 55-minute running time. Its tracks run the tempo gamut, and the spare production doesn’t starve the songs. Rather, it allows their details to be revealed over repeated listenings, instead of overwhelming the listener all at once. But producer Brad Wood isn’t afraid to try a few tricks on songs like “Flower” and “Soap Star Joe”. It is surprising Wood did not become a more sought after item in the 90s. Everything on this CD is so perfectly in place that it seems that no one else could have done the job.

Allow me to begin the discussion of the songs themselves by mentioning what I consider to be the two weaker tracks on the disc. Although she continues to perform these songs live, I personally do not think that “Help Me Mary” and “Divorce Song” are as strong as the rest of the record. They are certainly not bad songs, they are simply not as impressive as most of the other ones. And when the other songs are as good as the ones on this record are, the not-so-great moments tend to stand out.

There. Now, it is true that Liz Phair comes across as a sex kitten in heat in some songs, and as a manhater in others. Be that as it may, I think that in some of the slower songs, ones in which the lyrics may not stand out as much, she is able to admit her flaws. While “Girls! Girls! Girls!” has her bragging about how she “takes full advantage” of every man she meets, “Fuck And Run” (aka, “Oops! We Did It Again”) has her realizing that two can play at that game. She is a bit, oh…hypersexual on the songs “Glory”, “Fuck and Run”, and “Flower”, but she never seems like she is playing it up for effect.

After all, she is just as sincere when she is vulnerable, as demonstrated on songs like “Dance of the Seven Veils”, “Canary”, and “Shatter”. And while the Exile On Main Street song-by-song response claim might be a bit far-fetched, she achieves a beautiful Stonesy swagger on “6’1″” and “Mesmerizing”, two of the best songs on the disc. The former song has her insisting that she doesn’t need a particular man in her life, the latter has her lustfully wanting one. (It is easy imagine Mick and Keef having a ball with these songs.)

Phair covers all of the singer/songwriter bases on this record: folk, confessional, spoken word, and rock ‘n roll. And she does each in expert fashion. Her lyrics are literate but not pretentious, explicit but not juvenile. The instrumentation is neither virtuosic nor sloppy. Some songs are great to sing along to (“Never Said”), others are better off in her own voice (“Stratford-On-Guy”).

She is fully formed on this record, and this is a major statement worthy of classic status and to be listened to 30 years from now, at which time it will still be in its own category. Two reviled pop records may have undermined her credibility, but if there is any justice in the world – and one has to wonder sometimes – it will not obscure the fact that the woman who recorded Somebody’s Miracle was also the mastermind behind Exile In Guyville. Granted, she may never revisit the territory of her masterpiece, but that should not cause us to forget that she was once there to begin with.

In my honest opinion, this CD is good enough to raise your standards of what qualifies as a great record. Suddenly, certain records that you thought were great may not sound as good. I am not really sure what would make a person dislike this record. I don’t understand why anyone would not consider it as matter-of-factly great as any other masterpiece of rock music. Some people say that she doesn’t have a “great” voice. Even if I were willing to grant them this (and I am not), my response would be that a “great” voice is not essential to this brand of lo-fi indie rock. I think that even those who love the CD say this so as to not seem too hyperbolic in their praise. The only other explanation I can imagine is that guys see her as a manhater. Granted, she is quite confrontational on several songs, but as I said before, she is just as often able to concede her own culpability.

Ah, the hell with it. I am not going to lend any further credence to those who can’t hear how exceptionally good Exile In Guyville is. It holds its own against any given record, be it Patti Smith’s Horses, Closer by Joy Division, or, well, Exile On Main Street.

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FLASHBACK: SOUND AFFECTS BY THE JAM

My six-year-old review of Sound Affects by The Jam (originally posted on Amazon on November 30, 2006). Damn what an awesome band.

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“Sound Affects is my favourite Jam record”

These are the words of Jam leader Paul Weller. While Sound Affects is not my personal favorite, he clearly has good taste in his own music. Sound Affects was the third in a trio of brilliant, pun-titled records by The Jam. It was also their first collection of all original material.

The #1 double A-side “Going Undergroud/The Dreams of Children” preceded the record’s release, and served as a perfect appetizer for the forthcoming LP. Their fifth record was their most pop-oriented album, including not only 2 hit singles, but a handful of other pop numbers as well. Of course, Weller was not about to leave his more constructively cynical side behind, so there are also several less sunny tracks. But all of the songs are strong and catchy, powered by sharp experimental production and deliberately more poetic lyrics.

Sound Affects opens with the buoyant “Pretty Green,” which features Bruce Foxton’s always superb thumping bass lines, and “Monday,” which offers the album’s first taste of pleasantly faint psychedelia. The punky pop ditty “But I’m Different Now” picks up the pace, breezing by in less than 2 minutes.

Horns adorn “Boy About Town,” another snappy 2-minute number, but the most impressive of these non-single pop songs is “Man in the Corner Shop.” This track shows that Weller was still in Ray Davies-mode, depicting how 3 classes of people interact with each other on a daily basis, with the factory worker envying the shopkeeper, who in turns envies the factory owner. They come together only on Sundays, when all of them kneel before God as – of course – equals (right?).

(Not the official video, but I like it.)

The songs that form the core of the record are “Start!” and “That’s Entertainment.” The former, which was their second #1 single in a row, should sound familiar even to those who have never heard it (Weller once claimed, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that he was thinking more of James Brown than the obvious source).

“That’s Entertainment” reached only #21 in the UK, but this was as an import: it wasn’t even released in Britain as a single. This was a testament to the band’s enormous popularity at the time, and the song has become perhaps the band’s most timeless cut. The lines in this song are one picture-perfect image after another, depicted vividly by Weller’s impeccable British English.

By this time, Weller had earned his place among those who had inspired him (Davies, Townshend, Lennon), and was well on his way to inspiring the next generation of British songwriters, including Morrissey, who did a significantly altered cover of “That’s Entertainment.”

Interspersed among these pop songs are slices of Weller’s brand of healthy cynicism, captured best in the lyrics to “Dream Time”: “Their hate comes in frozen packs bought in a supermarket”. Note how this songs begins with a winding, backward intro, a trick previously heard on “The Dreams of Children.”

There is also the dark, dissonant “Set the House Ablaze,” with its creepy whistling and main riff that was clearly stolen by Bloc Party for some song that I once heard playing in a record store (I don’t know the title). Finally, the largely instrumental “Music For the Last Couple” and the confrontational closer “Scrape Away” highlight the wonderful interplay among Weller, Foxton, and Buckler.

Over the course of their remarkable 5-year recording career, The Jam never stood still or rested on its laurels. Paul Weller was a young man in a hurry, and he took his band through punk, rock, pop, and R&B at a sweeping pace. The Jam never attained the gravitas of contemporaries The Clash, but they were the most popular English band of the punk era.

Albums like Sound Affects demonstrated that The Jam had the pop smarts to afford them such commercial success, and enough attitude, intelligence, and talent to make them one of the truly greatest British bands ever. After five years of being a fan, it is still refreshing to reminded of their greatness each time I delve into their records anew. But still, I won’t hold my breath that any of their albums will appear on a Rolling Stone or VH-1 countdown any time soon.

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The Jam in 1980. This was the year in which Paul Weller and his mates won 10 awards in the annual New Musical Express (NME) poll. It was also the third straight year in which the band won for Best Album, the second of four consecutive wins for Best Group, the second of four straight years in which all three members won for their respective instruments, and first of four wins in a row for Paul Weller in the Most Wonderful Human Being category. (The fourth year in which he won was in 1983, the year after The Jam broke up.)