Monthly Archives: September 2009

Pearl Jam

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Everytime a Pearl Jam album comes out, my life tends to be in flux.  For the past decade, a new Pearl Jam album has been connected with change.  And perhaps, that is why despite the fact that they can be incredibly brilliant and also incredibly frustrating, I keep coming back to them.  

When Binaural came out  in 2000, I had just started my freshmen year at college.  I had trouble adjusting to college life, and making new friends. Everyone seemed to have their own little cliques, and I never seemed to be part of any of them.  When I wasn’t studying for my classes, I was usually listening to music as I always was, and still do.  2000, was the year that PJ beginning issuing their bootleg series, and I must have bought at least 8 that fall.  While their performances were awe-inspiring there was a certain sadness in the new songs that spoke to me.  I wasn’t sure what “Nothing As It Seems” was about, but that’s how I felt about college – “it’s nothing as it seems.”  “Light Years” may have been about a friend’s death, but to me it represented the old life I left behind before college.  I actually find it hard to listen to Binaural to this day – I like many of the songs, but those feelings I had in college come back whenever I hear that record.  

Fast forward to 2002.  My junior year in college was probably my favorite year.  I finally made friends, and I also turned 21.  Riot Act, is probably my least favorite Pearl Jam album though it does contain some great songs.  But, much of the album was very political, and at the time, Pearl Jam was one of the few outspoken artists against the Iraq War.  As one of the few students on a Catholic campus who was against the war, I knew how they felt.  I was alienated by some fellow students because of my stance.  I felt like the narrator of “Save You”: And fuck me, if I say something you don’t want to hear, fuck me, if I care.

2006’s Pearl Jam was supposed to be a return to form for the band after years of weird, strange turns.  In a sense it was.  It was the most direct music they had made in a decade.  So here I was, I had just finished my first semester at Grad School, and having trouble learning to use Adobe InDesign.  My program was a combination of writing and graphic design, and I was more used to writing.  “Life Wasted” pretty much summed up my outlook: Oh, I erased it, a life wasted, I’m never going back again.   It took a while, but I eventually did learn the Creative Suite, and went on to graduate this year.  And I actually enjoy design as much as I do writing.  Perhaps, it was a return to form for me as well.

So Backspacer came out last week.  I might be the biggest changes and challenges in my life at the moment.  (Or perhaps it might not seem that way in a few years.)  I have to search for a new apartment, I’m in between jobs and things just to seem to be piling up.  But again, Pearl Jam comes out with something I need.  “The Fixer” is all fixing your own self, and being positive with being cheesy.  It’s unusual for Pearl Jam to be happy, but I’ll take it.  

Pearl Jam aren’t my favorite band, but one thing is for sure: They are always there when I need them.  When I put on any of their albums, as Eddie Vedder sings: I’m gonna see my friend, I’m gonna see my friend.  



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Is My Music Snob Card Revoked?

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Should my music snob card be revoked?  I pride myself on being a music snob.  I tend quite a bit of “popular music”.  It’s just in my nature.  With a few exceptions, if I do like something that has “mass appeal” I say that I like it “ironically”.   

Yet, something strange happened in the summer of 2009.  I found myself liking (sincerely) a pop-star.  At first, I tried to convince myself I liked her as “guilty pleasure”.  But something about Lady Gaga intrigued me.  Was it that “Poker Face” was just so damn catchy?  That couldn’t be it.  I never downloaded a catchy song by a current pop artist off of Itunes before.  And I certainly never listened to a song like that some 30 times.  

Then it hit me.  Lady Gaga for all of her radio and media domination at the moment, is downright weird.  I think it’s the weirdness that appeals to me.  When I first saw The Rolling Stone cover she did a few months back, I wasn’t sure what to think.  The wild pink fro.  The bubbles she was wearing for a “dress”.  It almost looked like she was in utero.  Yet, there was something interesting about it.  Whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t “sexy” in the conventional sense.  And that is what made it awesome.

Perhaps, Lady Gaga is the first icon of a new kind.  “Post-sexual”?  I’m not sure.  But the lightning bolt on the image above is pure David Bowie.  With “Ziggy Stardust” Bowie played with the conventions of a transvestite.  So is Gaga playing a woman posed as a man posed a woman?  

Some may accuse her of being “calculated” and “fake”.  Perhaps.  But I tend to think she really is that weird.  Even if she was not famous, she would still be off the wall. The difference is that people would think she was a freak instead of a  new of type of pop-star.  

Back to the music though.  My girlfriend bought me “The Fame” recently.  And I have to say, I’m throughly enjoying it.   The songs are mostly typical pop songs in format.  Performance wise though, they are different and perhaps unconventional.  For one thing her songs seem soaked in irony and excess.  Yet, there is something believable about her performances because she is so weird.  

Plus any girl that takes Kermit the Frog as her date to the Video Music Awards (I refuse to use the acronym) is okay by me.

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Update

More coming soon.  I promise.

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R.E.M.

Last summer when I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to see R.E.M. with me and some friends, she was surprised that I liked them. “That’s a very odd band to like for a music snob,” She told me.  If you only know R.E.M. by the way of “Man on the Moon”, “Shiny Happy People” or “It’s The End of the World”, then I suppose this could be true.  And with a mediocre output for a decade until last year’s “Accelerate”, I could somewhat agree.  But the truth is, for their first five albums, R.E.M. were pretty much the coolest band on earth.  And two decades later, these five albums still resonate.  Somehow, R.E.M. managed to sound ahead of their time, and outside of their time.  

In grade school, while all of the other kids in my class were raving about whatever was on the radio, I was obsessed with R.E.M.  Growing up as the youngest of five kids, my older siblings exposed me to the music they listened to.  Always wanting to be like them, I automatically thought whatever they liked they was cool.  I spent Friday nights watching their tour -documentary “Tour Film” believing Michael Stipe to be a god.  R.E.M. remains to this day, one of the few artists whose entire catalogue I know by heart.  

As I got older, and began cultivating my own musical preferences, I began to grow tired of R.E.M.  I wanted to find my own musical identity, and at the time, I considered R.E.M. part of my childhood.  It also didn’t help that around this time, R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry quit the band, and they went on to release a series of uninspired albums.  

A few years later though, a curious thing happened.  As my music snobbery unfolded, it also began to include R.E.M. for entirely different reasons than childhood nostalgia.  I began to understood the group’s importance, and how weird they were in the mid 80’s.  No one sounded like R.E.M. in the 80’s.  

“Murmur”‘s murky atmospheric sound is still haunting all these years later. Does it really matter what Michael Stipe is singing about?  Even as he mumbles his way through the album, you believe everything he sings even though you know he may not be sincere.  Or at the very least, he never reveals himself in any of the songs.  With “Reckoning” R.E.M. got even weirder.  Apparently the album was meant to sound like their live shows, and it shows.  Gone is the murky sound, and they play almost every single song like a punk rock version of the Byrds.  Nearly every song is played with an urgency, yet Peter Buck still relies on his chiming Rickenbacker to power the songs.  “Camera” may one of their best ballads.  Written as an ode to a dead friend, the songs feeling doesn’t rely on Stipe’s lyrics but rather his  heartfelt vocals and the band’s melancholy restraint.  

For all my love of R.E.M. I never  “Fables of the Reconstruction” when I was kid.  It lacked the urgency of “Reckoning”, and didn’t have the bombast of it’s follower “Lifes Rich Pageant”.  Yet, the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it.  I tend to think of it was their “Bob Dylan” album.  Not so much in terms of lyrical themes or song-writing, but the approach.  Like Dylan had done when he recorded “The Basement Tapes”, R.E.M. were digging deep into Americana whether they knew it or not.   “Driver 8” was a song about trains, and “Wendell Gee” was an ode to an old man who died in their hometown of Athens, GA complete with a bango.   Although the album is actually titled “Fables of the Reconstruction” it’s also alternately titled “Reconstruction of the Fables”, which adds a whole new twist to the album and it themes.  In a  way, “Fables” marked the end of an era for R.E.M.   With the follow-up “Lifes Rich Pagaent”, Stipe cleaned up his vocals and his lyrics became more direct.  Yet ,it was still R.E.M.  

Even when they became of the world’s biggest bands, they still managed to maintain their integrity and identity.   Upon first listen, I liked “Accelerate” because R.E.M. was back after years of sub-par albums.  Is it their best?  Nope.  But it’s certainly a very good R.E.M. album, which makes it better than a lot of other albums.

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Beatles Remasters (Part 2)

I didn’t buy “Abbey Road” afterall.  (That’s coming, though.)  But I did buy “Revolver” (I only had the partial album for some reason) “Help!” and of course “A Hard Day’s Night”.   Consensus?  Amazing.  The sound is pretty much everything I expected, and more.  I must have listened to “Tomorrow Never Knows” at least 8 times today.  It sounds richer, and fuller.  I also heard sounds in the mix that I never heard before.  

One of the highlights for me, has been Paul McCartney.  I’ve always been a big fan of him, as I think he’s one of the few absolute geniuses in rock and roll.  That being said, it sometimes can be easy to forget how great of a bass player he is.  With the remasters, there’s no doubt.  The bass is thick and full, giving a new life to the songs that I’ve heard hundreds of times before.  There’s also a lot of subtleties in the vocal harmonies, that I’ve either never heard before, or with the new mix have become more prominent.  

Most of all though, I’m glad there’s a new wave of Beatlemania in the air.  The world is never going to get another band like the Beatles.  (More on that later, as I’m working on an entire entry on that.)  Sometimes my music snobbery gets in the way, and I feel obligated to only like lesser known bands.  Or sometimes I dismiss smaller groups for getting big and gaining a new audience – like Kings of Leon.  

But the Beatles proved you can have it both ways.  You can make interesting and amazing music, and still connect with a mass audience.  My only issue?  I wish I had been there.

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Beatles Remasters

I’m not usually into remastered albums.  As a teenager, I bought a remastered Who album, and was appalled by the fact that Keith Moon’s drums were actually turned down on the remaster.  Who thought that was a good idea?  Since then, I’ve been kind of hesistant to buy any remasters.  That and I’m also opposed to the “loudness” wars.  

That being said, I am quite excited about the Beatles remasters.  All of the articles I’ve read on the remastering have praised the care and commitment that has taken place.  One of the things that has impressed me, is any “mistake” that was considered part of the performance is kept in.  This is the kind of reverence that Beatles fans appreciate and deserve after all these years.

Most of all though, it’s another chance for a new generation to check out the Beatles.  Their #1 collection is the number one selling CD of the decade so far, and for those who might only know the Beatles by their biggest songs (genius as they might be) it’s about time for them to check out all of the albums.  

So which album am I going to buy first?  That’s a tough choice.   While, I love the scope of “The White Album”, I’m not sure if I’m ready to splurge twenty plus dollars yet, on another version of “Revolution # 9”.  (Which by the way, I’m appalled by Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 5 Worst Beatles Songs, and it was not included.)   No matter what though, I always tend to go back to “A Hard’s Day Night” and “Abbey Road”.  

For me, “A Hard Day’s Night” is their first masterpiece.   There  are always arguments that “Rubber Soul” was the beginning of their experimentation, proving that the Beatles could be more than a “pop” group.   But could you ask for a more perfect “pop” album than “A Hard Day’s Night”?  Didn’t think so.  There’s a certain joy in their performances that would be lacking later.  You can tell their enjoying their moment, and that in turn leads to your own enjoyment of the album.  I also think it’s Lennon and McCartney working together at their best.  

“Abbey Road” on the other hand is the exact opposite.  On this album, you have a fractured band who know they are bigger than their personal differences.  While they Lennon and McCartney do bring their forces together on the “suite” at the end of side two, it’s clear who wrote what song.   It’s also the culmination of everything great about the Beatles on one album: you have the loud rocking songs of the “White Album”, the scope and ambition of “Sergeant Pepper”, and the melodies of their early albums.  

They may have better songs on other albums, or more influential albums, but “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Abbey Road” sum up  everything great about the Beatles for me.

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