Friday Flashback: Murmur by R.E.M.

Yesterday–April 12, 2018–was the 35th anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s debut LP. I wrote a review of it for Amazon.com on December 11, 2005. Here it is. [As with all of my Friday Flashbacks, it has been edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual accuracy etc., but the content is unchanged.]

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. 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).

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Photo by Chris Walter

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 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 [click for my Amazon.com review] the distinction of being the first alternative record. To me, Crazy Rhythms sounds different enough than 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 Christopher Columbus–is immeasurable.

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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 bands they loved, Murmur marks a point when 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 [click for the 2017 interview that I did with him and Marti Jones] 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.

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Friday Flashback: Something Else by The Kinks

Before I had the honor of writing about music and nonfiction for actual publications, I posted reviews of my favorite albums on Amazon.com. I have reposted some of them on this sadly negelected blog in the categories of Amazon Flashback and Amazon Reviews. Inspired by Pitchfork’s Sunday review feature, I have decided to begin reposting my Amazon reviews on a regular basis. Since Pitchfork’s selection was Something Else by The Kinks this past Sunday, I figured that I would make it mine today. (Save for edits for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and factual accuracy, the pieces will appear exactly as they originally did.)

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Britpop Ground Zero

In late 1960s, rock ‘n roll began to outgrow “Satisfaction,” “Love Me Do,” and “You Really Got Me.” Not only did bands become more socially and politically aware, they became more ambitious and eager to experiment. For their trouble, many of the great bands from this era–such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Beach Boys–were rewarded with not only a secure musical legacy, but healthy financial benefits as well. The Kinks, who were banned from the US between the crucial years of 1965 and 1969, received neither. They had a handful of successful singles, but their LPs went almost completely unnoticed by record buyers.

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Fortunately, the pendulum has swung, and The Kinks are now recognized as a major influence on subsequent generations of British rockers. To quote Mick Jones of The Clash, “As far as The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who are concerned, we don’t really hear that much about The Kinks. But they’re just as important, you know.”

While the influence of The Beatles and The Stones spreads across the entire spectrum of popular music, that of The Kinks and The Who is most obvious in the punk (British and American) of the late 70s and the Britpop of the early 90s. Like Newton and Leibniz’s independent but nearly simultaneous invention of calculus, the fuzzy power chords of these bands’ 1964-5 singles laid the groundwork for punk, while assertions like Pete Townshend’s “hope I die before I get old” and Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”–a B-side that appeared 10 years before The Ramones’ debut–were philosophical proto-punk manifestos.

In the late 60s and early 70s, both bands turned toward catchy, melodic pop songs whose influence would be heard in everyone from The Jam and XTC to Blur and Pulp. And the career trajectory similarities don’t stop there: The Kinks and The Who could also be credited–or, if you prefer, blamed–for inventing the rock opera/concept album with their 1969 releases Arthur and Tommy (although The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow was released a year earlier than both). In the late 70s and early 90s, British groups would be inspired to sound like these British bands who had influenced them, rather than like the American artists who had influenced the British bands of the 60s.

Something Else by The Kinks was arguably the first full-length instance of what would be called Britpop a quarter-century later. (Or maybe it was Face To Face. Take your pick.) The proto-punk and American R&B elements of their first records were less salient on this record, having been replaced by a “distinctly British” blend of marching drums, slow to mid-tempo rockers and ballads, and primarily acoustic–but nonetheless rocking– guitars. Furthermore, the themes moved beyond boy loves girl to musical snapshots of schoolyard jealousy, sibling rivalry, disappointed in-laws, bittersweet solitude and, of course, underachieving circus folk.

It is one thing for a record to culminate in a one-two punch or trio of great songs, but quite another for it to start off with a right, left, and uppercut. That is what we get on Something Else. With the Stonesy thump of “David Watts” (later covered in a faithful if perfunctory manner by The Jam), the quirky, melancholy folk of “Death of a Clown,” and the thinly veiled allegory “Two Sisters,” this record wastes no time getting started. And it is hardly on cruise control before closing with “Waterloo Sunset,” a feather in the cap–if not jewel in the crown–of 60s British pop.

After the 1-2-3 punch that opens the record, things slow down a bit with “No Return,” which, like the similarly hazy and dreamlike “Lazy Old Sun,” shows that while the Kinks were not a psychedelic band or a bunch of hippies, they were clearly not impervious to the atmosphere of Swinging London. The same can be said of the hilarious “Harry Rag,” which humorously mocks the idea that anything is bearable if you’ve got the right stuff to take your mind off of it. “End of the Season,” sung by Ray in a mock lounge singer voice, is another highlight, and the music hall ditties “Tin Soldier Man” and “Situation Vacant” contribute significant personality to the record.

Then there are Dave Davies’ songs. I am a great fan of underdogs and unsung heroes, and I think that it can be said that Dave wrote at least one great song for every dozen or so that Ray did (see Dave’s The Album That Never Was for examples). The absurd folk of “Death of a Clown,” which reached #3 in the UK, is proof enough: “The trainer of insects is crouched on his knees/And frantically looking for runaway fleas.”

But Dave also contributes the steady rockers “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” and “Funny Face.” Hence, Something Else was for Dave what Revolver was for George Harrison. (The weakest track on the record is probably Ray’s “Afternoon Tea.” While its subject is quintessentially English, it hardly makes for compelling listening in this case.) And it would be a travesty to not give props to Nicky Hopkins for his superb piano and harpsichord work.

The bonus tracks on the 2000 reissue are far from the throwaways meant to entice completists that such tracks often are. First of all, Dave rears his underrated head with “Lincoln County” and the excellent “Susannah’s Still Alive,” which was a hit single in its own right. And Ray’s songs–especially “Autumn Almanac,” “Wonderboy,” “Polly,” and “There’s No Life Without Love”–are as good as anything to be found on this or any other Kinks record of the era.

It may be a bit unfortunate that this rerelease is in mono, for it is tempting to say that the stereo version packs more punch. But that is ultimately a matter of taste, and the fact is that this is a fascinating collection of songs, sounding very much like a product of its time–perhaps somewhat charmingly dated–and yet still unlike albums by the band’s peers. These elements combine to create a precious gem of the British Invasion, one which would itself spawn the gems of future British Invasions.

THROWBACK: MEAT IS MURDER

I posted this review on Amazon.com on March 11, 2007, exactly seven years and 11 months ago. Today, on this, the day of the 30th anniversary of its release (February 11, 1985), I repost it here on BlakeMadsBlog.

The Smiths’ second album of new material is essential listening for an unlikely reason: it contains some the band’s most mediocre songs. Now, “mediocre” is a relative term of course, considering that we are talking about the greatest band to emerge in the last quarter-century, i.e., since The Jam broke up in ’82. It isn’t that Morrissey’s voice sounds bad (how could it?), or that Johnny Marr’s guitar playing is less than tasteful. It’s just that somehow the words and the music just aren’t as great as one would expect.

Most of the tracks on this album are not particularly well-known ones. However, “How Soon Is Now?” pops up in the middle of the American issue. This is one of the band’s best-known and best-loved songs. It is not, however, one my personal favorites, if for no other reason than it is over six-and-a-half minutes long. For a group whose music is informed by classic pop ideals, The Smiths sure have a tendency to let their songs run a bit too long. This is especially to the detriment of the closing tracks. The nearly 7-minute “Barbarism Begins at Home” is quite good, as is the title track (even if it is a bit, dare I say, ham-fisted), but they just go on forever, and therefore lose some of their impact in the process.

Other than “How Soon Is Now?”, the only song that will be familiar to neophyte Smiths fans is the excellent single “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, which includes the fathomlessly clever line “It was dark as I drove the point home.”

Not surprisingly, The Smiths are more successful with shorter songs. “What She Said,” “Nowhere Fast,” and “Well I Wonder” are the album’s best songs. “I Want the One I Can’t Have,”on the other hand, expresses what was even by this point in his career a pretty trite Morrissey sentiment. And I still haven’t mentioned the opening tracks, “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Rusholme Ruffians.” Sadly, there isn’t really much to say about them, apart from that they sound a bit juvenile and uninspired. (Although the “Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame” riff on the latter is a nice touch).

Given the excitement that had built up around The Smiths by 1985, it is not surprising that Meat Is Murder entered the UK album chart at #1. Fans were certainly justified in their expectations for the album, and were right to rush out and by it. Unfortunately, the material on the album proved to be disappointing by any standards. Fortunately, it was not enough to bring down the band’s hopes, as they re-emerged in the finest form of their career with their next release (The Queen Is Dead). While Meat Is Murder is not essential in the all-embracing sense of the term, it is worth hearing for that very reason. After all, every great band has at least one album that demonstrates what they sound like at their not-so-great. In the case of The Smiths, that album is Meat Is Murder.

THROWBACK: MARQUEE MOON BY TELEVISION

This coming Monday (5/12), Television is playing at the Paradise Rock Club. So I figured, why not revisit the review that I posted on Amazon.com in February 2004? No reason at all!

A decade on, I would say that I stand by all that I wrote about this highly revered album. But remember, I was 10 years younger when I wrote about it.

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Truly Unique, but Not Equally Great

This CD is difficult to review. For one thing, its reputation precedes it. It is universally hailed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, so that might predispose the listener to read greatness into it. For another, it is difficult to classify. It has its moments of catchy songcraft, but it is certainly not pop. And it is NOT punk, neither in sound nor in attitude. At best, it is punk by association: Richard Hell (click for my review of his autobiography) was an early member, Malcolm McLaren offered to manage them, they played at CBGBs, the LP was released in 1977, Tom Verlaine wrote and recorded with Patti Smith, etc.

The whole of Marquee Moon generally does not follow any sort of obvious conventional structure, and it is more easily contrasted with than compared to other CDs of its era.

Finally, there is nothing obviously terrible about the CD, nor anything obviously and consistently great (except for the guitar work). So the album is very much a one-of-a-kind affair, and might be described as a warped sort of post punk or new wave. It is thoroughly unconventional without being particularly radical (although that may be a radical achievement in itself). However, uniqueness does not entail greatness, and in the case of Marquee Moon, the uniqueness is much more apparent than the greatness.

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So what is it that is so great about this CD? Well, it is impossible to not be impressed by the inspired and majestic guitar work. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine trade off of each other with intuitive artistic ease.

They might be accused of showing off because it sounds so good, but this is one of the least pretentious guitar showcases that I have ever heard. It is virtuosic, but in a professional, unflashy way.

One cannot help but feel that beauty and grace with the instrument just comes naturally to them. Snotty and snarling riffs, ringing arpeggios, bright cascading scales, and wild and crazy solos adorn every song on the CD.

Richard Lloyd (left) and Tom Verlaine with Lou Reed

Richard Lloyd (left) and Tom Verlaine with Lou Reed

Unfortunately, the guitar work is the best part of every song, and the other components suffer a bit at its expense. Tom Verlaine’s voice is not great, but it is at least nicely off beat and it suits the material well enough. But the lyrics are often a bit too obscure, and one must not mistake obscurity for profundity (which is largely lacking on this record). Verlaine may have been a poet, but he wasn’t a great one.

Moreover, the emotion of each song seems a bit calculated, but that may be, in part, a downside of the naturally good guitar playing.

Still, the lyrics to “Venus”, “Guiding Light,” and “Torn Curtain” are quite beautiful. And the title track is stunning.

All of that said, however, I would certainly not discourage anyone from at least listening to this CD. Its uniqueness is itself refreshing and rewarding to the patient listener. Moreover, the weight of its reputation is lifted by repeated listenings, and once that happens, the listener is able to hear it for what is it: a fine, ambitious, and largely unpretentious record. Some of the songs are better than others, but none of them sound out of place. The CD plays very well as a whole, and should be listened to in a single sitting. And the influence of the album’s NYC cool is plain to see in bands like The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

BUT STILL, Marquee Moon‘s greatest asset is its uniqueness, and while that may not translate to an equal level of greatness, it still proves the validity of the effort.

And enough people have heard something all-around spectacular in this record, and it is worth taking the chance that you may be one of them.

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Left to Right: Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, Fred Smith

(One last thing: There have been tests done in which each participant is shown three lines of obviously different lengths. S/he is asked to pick the longest one. When s/he picks the obviously longest one, s/he is told that most people picked a different one. Then s/he is asked if s/he wants to change his/her mind. Many participants do. What’s my point? This: if I were to call this CD “punk,” I would feel like one of the people in the study who changed his mind, i.e., like someone who said something he knew to be false just because everyone else did.)

THROWBACK: WHO’S NEXT

Little did I know when I posted this on April 12, 2006, that exactly eight years later I would be going to see Simon Townshend — whom I had just interviewed for The Somerville Times — at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

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THE WHO’S GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on April 12, 2006)

For many, the end of the 60s came with the break-up of The Beatles in April 1970. For others, it came shortly before that, at the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. Or, in the political world, it may have occurred in 1968 – which author Jules Witcover called “The Year the Dream Died” – with the election of Richard Nixon.

But whether it was marked by a musical event or a political event, the fact is that at some point the glorious 1960s ended, and not simply by virtue of the fact that it eventually became the 1970s. The 60s were defined as much by attitude as they were a calendar.                                                                                                      blog_TheWho   

Released in 1971, Who’s Next was Pete Townshend’s farewell to the previous decade, and all that it encapsulated. 26 years of age when the record was released, Townshend had survived the first five years of his band’s career with both massive popularity and the accompanying scars to show for it. Who’s Next sounds like the result of a songwriter who had taken stock of his life and the world around him, and in doing so, cleared his mind and soul enough to make his greatest album to date, and probably of his entire career, even 35 years on.

 

And while it was initially intended to be an ambitious concept album like Tommy and Quadrophenia, the finished product ended up achieving an epic scope at least as great as its predecessor and successor.

The most obvious eulogies for the 60s come at the very beginning and very end of the record. While just two years earlier The Who was rocking Woodstock, the disc’s opening track “Baba O’Riley” finds them surveying the wreckage of a “teenage wasteland.” Such a masterful phrase brings to mind unmistakable images of the site of a cultural milestone which had probably not yet recovered from from the event which was a generation’s last hurrah.

On the other end of the record, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is more straightforward in its recognition of the end of an era. The new boss – Nixon – is the same as the old boss – Johnson, and the parting on the (political) left is now parting on the (political) right. Yet there is still hope, and thus the prayers that “we don’t get fooled” again. (Yeah, I know that I am focusing on events in America, but if only Pete Townshend knew at the time what awaited the US in the 1970s.)

In between these bookends, Townshend seems to be putting himself together emotionally – “getting in tune,” as he might say – with some of his very best songs as the result. The fact that Roger Daltrey never sounded better certainly doesn’t hurt. (I mean really, who knew the guy could sing so well?) These songs are divided between straight-ahead rock songs and slower ballads, the latter featuring the always superb piano work of – who else? – Nicky Hopkins. Bassist John Entwistle also contributes his morbid black humor on the genuinely great song “My Wife.”

“Going Mobile” also references the ethos of the previous decade, with its wah-wah guitar solo and its air-conditioned hippie gypsy protagonist. I am guessing that Townshend may have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this one. Then there is “Behind Blue Eyes,” a virtuoso performance by Townshend and Daltrey, with the latter flawlessly capturing every iota of the former’s vulnerability and anger, and probably tossing in a bit of his own while he was at it.

 

This song and the equally beautiful “The Song Is Over” are the most plaintive songs in the band’s repertoire. “Bargain” and “Love Ain’t For Keepin’,” meanwhile, are classic Who rock songs.

Who’s Next tamed and perfected the elements that had made The Who one of the greatest and most popular bands of the 60s. Without being the lead vocalist, Pete Townshend proved himself to be as capable of composing in the singer/songwriter mode as any of those who were famous for doing both.

Roger Daltrey, as mentioned, sounds spectacular, and more like a great singer than he ever did. (Not that he ever sounded bad, but here….whoa.)

John Entwistle and Keith Moon

Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, who made up The Who’s infamously combustible rhythm section, keep themselves finely in check on this record, and earn their spurs by being more musical, rather than more rackety, than ever. In short, each member of the band emerged sounding like rock ‘n roll musicians, rather than rock ‘n roll players. And lyrically, one should obviously not take Townshend seriously when he claims, on “Getting In Tune,” that he “can’t pretend there’s any meaning hidden in the things I’m saying.” This is a classic rock CD that you will continue to appreciate long after you have outgrown classic rock.

The Who would create five more records over the next decade of their career, each, alas, bringing diminishing returns. After breaking up in 1982, they would eventually come together solely for the sake of lucrative tours.

But perhaps such tours are the band’s reward for being a great singles band (“Substitute,” I Can’t Explain”), albums band (The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Quadrophenia), and one of the loudest and most influential rock groups ever. Who’s Next will forever survive as a testament to everything that was great about this band.

(Having said all this, however, I am still a bigger fan of The Kinks, who were — as Pete and Roger themselves have acknowledged — a major influence on The Who. Too bad that there will never be any chance for them to charge $200 per ticket.)

THROWBACK: SETTING SONS BY THE JAM

The Jam was the best British band of the late 70s and early 80s. Let’s be done with that debate. No, they weren’t as punky and rebellious as The Sex Pistols or as “look-how-badass-I-am” as The Clash. But they were the best.
Sure, some think that The Jam’s popularity undercuts their cred. But sometimes it happens like that: sometimes
the best band of a given time and place is also the most popular one. Not very often, but sometimes. Between 1977 and 1982, thanks to The Jam and the British record-buying public, it did.

blog_Jam-Setting-SonsWith 9 Bonus Tracks, This Is The Jam’s Finest Hour

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on March 13, 2005)

The Jam’s November 1979 release Setting Sons is generally considered to be one of their 3 best albums. Inexplicably, however, it is also considered to be the weakest of those three. The only reason for this seems to be that it is neither All Mod Cons (its predecessor) nor Sound Affects (its successor), their other two great albums. Sadly, this underrating of Setting Sons obscures the fact that it contains some of the band’s best material and one of their finest singles. (Why only one? Because the 3 other brilliant songs from this era were released as singles but not featured on albums.)

Much of the underrating of Setting Sons can be attributed to the overrating — in hindsight — of All Mod Cons. The greatness of that album is probably confused to some extent with its significance.

AMC was their great leap forward, and proof that their sophomore slump would not cause them to flunk out. So the importance of this album should not be underestimated, but neither should its greatness — bountiful though it is — be overrated.

Setting Sons was a highly anticipated album. Not only was it the follow-up to The Jam’s breakthrough, it was also preceded in the eight months prior to its release by two top 20 singles — “Strange Town” and “When You’re Young.” While these songs would not appear on the new album, they did confirm The Jam’s status as one of the more important bands in the UK at the time. When the album was finally released in November 1979, it reached #4 in the UK (and #137 in the US) and was accompanied by the band’s highest charting song to date, the explosive #3 single “The Eton Rifles.”

It had been reported prior to release that the album would deal with the concept of how 3 childhood friends had changed as they became adults after a modern-day English civil war (described in the song “Wasteland”). In essence, it was to be a Weller-generation version of The Kinks album Arthur, or: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. (The two albums do make very good companion pieces.) About half of the 10 songs on the record addressed this theme directly. But when listened to as a whole, only the first and last tracks — the latter being a cover of “Heat Wave” — seem to have nothing to do with the intended concept.

Some have criticized Setting Sons  for being too “mature”, but since Paul Weller was only 21 when the album was released, perhaps “precocious” is a better word.

The album kicks off with the gleefully playful — yet somewhat cynical — “Girl On the Phone.” Then come the songs that form the core of the album’s theme. The songs take on such issues as dissolving friendships, aging, war, and selling out. The anti-war track “Little Boy Soldiers” is particularly good, pre-dating the Falklands War by a few years and also containing the eerily prescient line “God’s on our side and so is Washington.” (I don’t know if Margaret Thatcher ever said that, but Tony Blair probably has.)

The remaining songs contribute to lesser degrees to the album’s theme. Foxton’s finest composition, “Smithers-Jones,” is basically The Jam’s version of The Kinks’ song “Shangrai-La,” with its tale of a middle-aged man who has worked his whole life only to see it amount to nothing. (It also has an instrumental nod to The Kinks’ “Victoria” at the end.) “Saturday’s Kids” vividly depicts the misadventures of contemporary British youth. Finally, “The Eton Rifles” is plucked straight from the papers, with Weller railing against snotty students’ disrespect for workers.

Musically, The Jam is a formidable trio of players, and the fact that they are not virtuosos is part of their strength. Paul Weller is an extraordinarily capable guitar player. I know that does not sound like particularly high praise, but it is. He knows exactly how to craft his guitar work so as to give each song the distinctive flavor that made The Jam so unique. Be it chords, riffs, or solos, the patented Jam sound springs effortlessly from Weller’s fingers, and never for a moment does he sound like a show-off. Bruce Foxton’s bass playing is good enough to qualify him as what Jake Burns–his current band’s lead singer*–calls him: “one of the all-time greats.” His trademark ominously punky bass lines give the perfect touch to “Private Hell” and “The Eton Rifles,” and his punchy, more straightforward playing fills the space beautifully on “Girl On the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids.” And while rock critics will forever struggle to find a non-perfunctory way to compliment drummers, the fact is that a band as energetic yet focused as The Jam needs the perfect timekeeper to speed them up and slow them down. Rick Buckler fits this role to a T. [*Foxton was a member of Stiff Little Fingers when I originally wrote this.]

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The Jam (l-r): Rick Buckler, Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton

Paul Weller sings from several points of view on Setting Sons. At times, he is the 21-year old who he was in 1979 (“Girl,” “Rifles,” “Soldiers”). At others, he is an adult singing in the first person (“Thick As Thieves,” “Burning Sky,” “Wasteland”). Finally, he is sometimes someone slightly older than himself commenting on the grown-ups around him (“Private Hell,” Foxton on “Smithers-Jones”). The loss of ideals as one grows older is of particular concern to Weller: “we watched our ideals hopelessly unwind,” “ideals are fine when you are young,” “the smouldering embers of yesterday.” It is the loss of such ideals that leads to unhappiness later in life: “we’re no longer as thick as thieves,” “We’ll watch the rain fall/Tumble and fall/Just like our lives”.

This unhappiness takes the forms of broken friendships, unhappy marriages, alienation from family, and unsatisfying work. While ideals may seem helpless in the grip of hard reality, it is only by sticking to them and making them a reality that one can avoid being stuck in a “Private Hell.”

In the songs described above, Weller is singing from perspective of another person. He does so beautifully, but hearing him sing from his own perspective is always a unique treat. He is at his cynical and punky best on “Girl On the Phone,” “The Eton Rifles,” and “Saturday’s Kids.” “Girl” has Weller commenting on how his fame has made him so recognizable that even a girl who he cannot identify knows his “leg measurements and the size of his cock.” In “The Eton Rifles,” Weller caustically spews his disdain for privileged students, ridiculing on their love of rugby, their ties and crests, their brand new shoes, and their “untamed wit.” He knows damn well that the ivory towers will not protect them forever.

“Saturday’s Kids,” meanwhile, finds Weller singing in a whimsical (and less cynical) tone about a group of youngsters he may be too old to be part of now, but to which he will always belong in his heart. He gets all the details right: the boys with their beer and football (soccer) games, the girls with their cheap perfume and discos, and their parents with their Capston non-filters. (And let’s not forget the “v-neck shirts and baggy trousers,” which come off in the backs of cars with predictable results.)

The influence of Ray Davies clearly trumps that of Pete Townshend on this record.

The 2001 CD re-issue of Setting Sons features nine very valuable bonus tracks. Individual singles were released as many as 8 months prior to and 4 months after the release of the album. All three of them — “Strange Town,” “When You’re Young,” and “Going Underground,” their first #1 single–are all included among the bonus tracks. Also included are the wonderful “The Dreams of Children” — the double A-side of “Going Underground” — and two indispensable B-sides: a version of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” and the brilliant “See Saw” (the B-side of “The Eton Rifles”). The latter is particularly valuable not only because it is probably The Jam’s best non-political, Who-inspired pop song, but because the only other place it is available on CD is the 5-disc box set. The re-issue is topped off by “Start!”, the #1 single from the forthcoming Sound Affects LP.

All things considered, this version of Setting Sons is an ideal first purchase for a Jam newcomer. It captures one of the greatest post-Beatles bands ever at their youthfully energetic but tightly focused best.

The newcomer could also opt for Snap! or Greatest Hits for a career overview, but for a snapshot of a terrific band at their peak, the 2001 re-issue of Setting Sons cannot be beat.

THROWBACK: THE BEST OF BLUR

A Great Place to Start (and an Equally Bad Place to Stop)

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on February 6, 2004)

Blur is both a great singles band and a great albums band. The Best of Blur focuses on its prowess as a singles band, and in this regard might more correctly be called “Blur’s Greatest Hits.” (If I may split hairs, it seems to me that a CD called “Greatest Hits” should include pretty much only hit singles, while one titled “Best of” should more fully represent the artist’s “best” material, including hit singles and album tracks.)

Blur (l to r): Damon Albarn, Alex James, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree

Nit-picking aside, The Best of Blur serves as a perfect model for a worthwhile (and worth the money) compilation. First, with 18 tracks, it features about three-quarters of the singles that charted in the US and UK, plus one well-chosen album cut and a new song for good measure (the fact that about a half-dozen chart singles are missing is indicative of what a successful band Blur was in the 90s). Moreover, the content of this disc leaves no question as the overall quality of Blur’s output.

Finally, while this can only be realized in hindsight, The Best of was released at an ideal time, as the recording of Blur’s 2003 release Think Tank would mark the beginning of a new era for the band.

The most obvious shortcoming of this disc is that it slights Blur’s superb second CD, Modern Life Is Rubbish, by including only one of its tracks, “For Tomorrow.” The most inexplicable omission would be the the proto-Britpop single “Popscene”, but the singles “Chemical World” and “Sunday, Sunday” are also missing.

As it happens, however, this weakness is turned into a strength by leaving room for the inclusion of three tracks from its more experimental (i.e., less poppy, more personal) sixth CD 13. Here’s how that works: “For Tomorrow” serves as a great teaser for the Modern Life CD, which is brimming with great tracks, and should be owned by anyone who likes what they hear on The Best of. Moreover, 13 is not the place to start for someone who is being introduced to Blur.

Hence, the disc both whets the listener’s appetite and fills his or her plate. If the tracks from 13 don’t quite click with the listener (and there is no reason why they shouldn’t), at least he or she will have three of the best tracks from that CD here. And the absence of the singles from Modern Life gives one all the more reason to buy that CD, which anyone with more than a passing interest in the band – or in good music in general – should do anyway.

From Blur’s other discs, you basically get all the singles: two of the three from Leisure, all four from Parklife (plus the album track “This Is A Low”), three of the four from both The Great Escape and Blur, and all three from 13. (Two of the missing singles, “Stereotypes” – from The Great Escape – and “M.O.R.” – from Blur – are included in live versions on a limited 2-CD edition.) Also included is a decent new track,”Music Is My Radar,”
which sort of foreshadows – for better and for worse – the direction Blur would take on its next studio album.

While some of the hits are better than others, none of them are sub par as songs, and they all belong on what is likely to be the first Blur purchase for many listeners, especially American ones.

And while some may complain about the non-chronological order of the songs, the sequencing actually does a very good job of accentuating both the variety and continuity of Blur’s catalog.

The bottom line is that a compilation should be practical: it should serve as an introduction to encourage you to buy more by the artist, or it should be comprehensive enough to prevent you from having to buy anything else. That said, The Best of Blur is unlikely to save you any money, but it will make you happy to spend the extra that you do. If this is the place you start, it is unlikely to be the place that you stop. There are simply too many terrific songs on the band’s studio discs for any compilation short of a box set to be truly comprehensive. All the same, this is a great compilation to have even if you own the other discs, as it puts almost all of the band’s hits in one place. (I had four other Blur CDs when I bought The Best of. Modern Life, Parklife, and The Great Escape are also great places to start.)

Clearly, The Best of Blur succeeds at being a model compilation. Now, does this model compilation contain great songs? In a word, yes.

For the most part, it is catchy, distinctly British pop, with sophistication, some keen social commentary, and an impressive amount of variety considering that it contains music recorded in a span of less than a decade. The songs are alternately entertaining and poignant, and usually both. In short, this disc is an essential chapter in the history of British popular music.

Sure, the lyrics may not always be terribly profound, and there may be one too many “na na na” or “la la la” sections to fill space, but if that were a crime in pop music, then many artists would have to plead guilty.

But reviews of the individual records is the place to talk about the songs, and if you are interested in checking out Blur for the first time, I assume that you are reading those as well. At the same time, however, you are probably wondering if this compilation is worth investing in. Put it this way: the songs on The Best of Blur are the ones that made this group one of the most popular British bands of the 90s. As a whole, they suffice to show that while Blur may not be as great as The Kinks or The Jam (and that is too tall of an order for any band to fill), they are truly their worthy heirs.

Long Live Blur!