Tag Archives: R.E.M.

In Defense of R.E.M.’s “Monster”

 

As I mentioned yesterday, Popmatters wrote a piece on “10 Albums That Supposedly Suck But Don’t”.  I was surprised to see that R.E.M.’s Monster made it to number two on that list. I had no idea that the album was considered to be that bad. That being said,  the loud and noisy Monster probably came as a shock to fans who discovered the band a few years earlier with their acoustic-based Out of Time and Automatic for the People. 

A bit of history and perspective, then. R.E.M. had spent most of the 1980s building up an impressive body of work – the run of albums from Murmur to Document is among the best in rock and roll. They came along at time when rock and roll seemed stagnant, and all but invented alternative rock on the college radio circuit. Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sounded were influenced by The Byrds, but Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery and lyrics were refreshing as they were confusing. They were more fragments than a cohesive thought. On the first few albums, his vocals were virtually impossible to understand. Every single album from the 80s sounded completely different. Their debut, Murmur was murky and understated. 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction was an exploration of the myths of the old South. Document turned up the volume a bit but still retained their core qualities. 1998’s Green was their version of Led Zeppelin III – rockers counter-balanced by acoustic ballads.

With Out of Time and Automatic for the People, R.E.M. achieved global super-star status, but no one could accuse them on selling out. In the hey-day of grunge, the band went the exact opposite route – soft and introspective. The band was proving that you could achieve a high level of success, while still maintaing critical acclaim. So it seems inevitable, that Monster would receive a back-lash. Though I have to ask because I was 13 at the time of its release, what is so poorly received then?

Certainly, Monster is the strangest of all the R.E.M. albums cut with original drummer Bill Berry. Its full of distortion, feedback, cackles and hisses, echoed vocals, and Prince-style falsettos. It’s also the first album where Michael Stipe  focuses on sex, a subject he seemed to avoid for a long time. Monster is the band’s attempt to try something different after delivering two subdued albums in a row.

The main problem with this is that even though R.E.M. could occasionally rock, they’re not rockers. They’re a bit of our of their element and songs such as the noise-laden “Circus Envy” and the electronic-vocal enhanced “King of Comedy” have not aged well. Michael Stipe’s falsetto on “Tongue” while laughable upon release, sounds embarrassing now.  When Stipe name-checks Iggy Pop on “I Took Your Name” it sounds hollow.

Yet, the album has plenty of merits. (Unfortunately, the awful cover isn’t one of them.) “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, perhaps the album’s best known song – shows they could match rock with melody. Peter Buck offers one of his best riffs, pushing the song along with a menace and crunch. Mike Mills and Michael Stipe give a fantastic vocal interplay, which has always been one of R.E.M’s secret weapons. Elsewhere, “Bang an Blame” has a unique echo guitar riff which blasts out of the speaker only to fade into the background before coming back again. The highlight of the album is the guitar-only fury of “Let Me In”, an ode to Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain. It’s one of the best R.E.M. ballads only with the amps turned up to 12.

Some of the criticism of Monster might be just. I’m not so sure the sell-out label applies, especially if you listen to the album as a whole. While not as brutal as Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (which came out the same year) Monster may seem like it was written as an attempt to get rid of the some of the casual fans. Although if this is the case, it’s odd considering that they launched a massive world tour to promote the album.

Still, Monster is not an unlistenable album and in the history of R.E.M. its not one of their worst detours into weirdness.

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What’s Your Favorite Album Of The Year So Far?

Since it’s now June and we are officially about half-way through 2011, I’d thought I’d take a look at some of the albums that have been released so far.  For me, so far the best album is a tie between Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues and My Morning Jacket’s Circuital.  What do you think?  Any good ones I missed?  (And I’m not counting Gaga just for the record.)

 

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10 Glaring Omissions From The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame

The rock and roll hall of fame is known for excluding numerous bands and artists over the years.  Here’s a list (in no particular order) of artists that are eligible, but currently not in the hall of fame.

Joy Division

With just two albums Joy Division influenced generations of artists from the early U2 records to The Killers.  Emerging from the punk scene, they were one of the first groups of that era to take the lo-fi esthetic of punk and emphasize mood and texture rather than sheer energy and bombast.  Ian Curtis’ cold baritone and lyrical fascination with isolation and despair  was a perfect mix for the icy, atmospheric music found throughout Unknown Pleasures and Closer.   And no matter what you think of the genre, it’s hard to think of Emo existing without Joy Division.

Television

Television more or less invented post-punk taking cues from the Velvet Underground.  even though they began their career just as the punk scene was beginning to explode in New York City in the mid 70s.  Guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd circumvented the traditional roles of lead and rhythm guitar, specifically on such songs as “Marquee Moon”, which often led the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca to anchor the songs.  What’s even more profound is the lack of blues influences, which even the more avant-garde and wild groups (like The Velvet Underground) had used as a blue-print.  While U2’s The Edge gets most of the credit to popular audiences for the extensive use of delay pedals, Verlaine was perhaps the first to really explore it.

Brian Eno

To many Brian Eno is just the guy who worked with U2, David Bowie and Coldplay.  As a producer and a member of Roxy Music, he certainly deserves recognition, but his solo albums have proved to be extremely influential as well helping to popularize minimalism.  Eno is often credited with coining the term (and also creating) “ambient music” – low volume music which is meant to change the listener’s perception of the environment around them.  His collaboration with David Byrne  1981’s My Life in the Bushes was one of the first records with extensive use of sampling.

Gram Parsons

There are so many alt-country artists on the scene, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what exactly constitutes the term.  But Gram Parsons was a true pioneer.  He welded together his love for traditional Country & Western into the emerging rock scene in a way that was not only groundbreaking, but also respectful to its original source. Country-rock never sounded as glorious as it does on GP and Grievous Angel.  While Parsons never had huge success, his influence can be felt on many records by The Rolling Stones, The Black Crowes, Ryan Adams and Wilco among countless others.

Toots and the Maytals

Bob Marley is more universally known, why omit Toots and the Maytals, one of the key artists in reggae?  They might not have had the big names songs that the wanna-be white dude with dreads plays in his dorm, but they might be more consistent.   The band had some of the best harmonies found in reggae, particularly on such as “Sweet and Dandy” the immortal “Pressure Drop”.  It also doesn’t hurt that Toots Hibbert has often been called a Jamaican Otis Redding for his soulful, tender vocals.

Emylou Harris

Emylou Harris has one of the best voices in rock and country music that is gut-renching and aching as it beautiful and angelic. So it’s no wonder she has been a go-to back up singer for artists such as Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, John Denver, and Ryan Adams among others.  Like her mentor Gram Parsons, Emylou Harris helped make traditional country cool for a rock audience.  And like many of those artists, Harris has a restless musical soul with consistently great records (Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner in particular).

Son House (Early Influence)

Thankfully the Rock Hall inducts early influences from artists who pre-dated rock and roll.  If you can include Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Lead Belly where the hell is Son House? Torn between his spiritual upbringing (he grew up wanting to be a preacher) and the secular and profane delta music, Son House embodied the Blues like no one else before or since.  Son House’s rhythms provided blueprint for hundreds of artists Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson to most recently The White Stripes.

The Faces

While The Faces aren’t as well known (or influential) as The Rolling Stones, they’re torn from the same cloth.  If you want dirty, sloppy rock and roll for a bad-ass party, The Faces are an essential soundtrack.  And like The Stones, you can feel the sweat and sheer joy from the performance. It’s hard not to want to get up and dance when listening to songs like “Stay With Me” and “Too Bad”.  A Nod Is As Good as a Wink To a Dead House is an undisputed classic in straight-up rock and roll boogie.  It’s also proof that, despite his cheesiness now, Rod Stewart was once pretty fantastic.

The Smiths

If you can include R.E.M. in the Rock Hall, you also have to include their British contemporaries, The Smiths.  Like Peter Buck, The Smith’s guitarist Johnny Marr favored a clear ringing style of guitar that was under-stated but brilliant.  The Smiths’ jangled, melodic, alternative rock with Morrisey’s articulate and literate crooning style was a direct anthesis to the synth-pop that was over-taking the British music scene at the time.   Like Joy Division, The Smiths had a huge influence on Emo, providing the soundtrack for many alienated and confused teenagers.

Harry Smith (Non-performer)

It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of The Anthology of Folk American Folk Music (aka The Harry Smith Anthology).  Prior to this collection, many of these recordings would otherwise go unnoticed and be lost in time.  The Blues, Folk and Bluesgrass music culled from Depression-Era America, directly resulted in the Folk-Revival off the late 50s and early 60s.  Simply put, without Smith’s archival the Coffeehouse perfomances in Greenwich Village probably wouldn’t have existed.  And who can imagine music without that?

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Pogues Show Tonight & New REM Album

 

The Pogues – Fiesta

Tonight, I’m going to see the Pogues in DC, for what I believe is the 6th or 7th I’ve seen them.  It will definitely be an awesome time, as I ranked them #5 on my Top 20 Concerts of All time. I may try and update before the show, as I downloaded a WordPress App for my phone the other day.  I haven’t used it yet, so we’ll see how it goes.

Also of interest, REM’s latest album Collapse Into Now comes out today.  I’ll probably write it about later on during the week.

R.E.M. – Uberlin

 

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5 Rarity/Unreleased Collections

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series 1-3


The Basement Tapes had already proved that Dylan had a tendency to leave some of his best material in the vaults – which I’m not including because I could write an entire post on the subject.  This is certainly true on this first installment of his famous Bootleg Series. “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Talking John Birch Society Blues” rank among with some of his work from the 1960s.  Elsewhere, “Blind Willie McTell“, “Foot of Pride”, and “Series of Dreams”  show that no one could write a song like Dylan, despite decent but not earth-shattering albums such as Infidels and Oh Mercy. But for me, the real revelations comes from alternate versions of familiar songs.   The original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” opens up like a novel becomes even more poignant and devastating than the original.  “Idiot Wind” loses some of its bite from the scathing version found on Blood on the Tracks, but the sting is worse.  Dylan seemed more wounded here than the possessed.  “If Not For You” gets some extra help from George Harrison – who would later take this arrangement for his own cover of the song on All Things Must Pass. Many artists would kill to have songs Dylan just seems to leave on the cutting-floor.  And this isn’t even my favorite installment of the Bootleg Series – that would go to Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs.

The WhoOdds & Sods


I admit to not having listened to Odds & Sods in a few years until the other day since I’ve come out of my Who-phase.  This was one of the first of these collections that I bought.  In high school, I was obsessed with The Who – they’re the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst.  The original material is interesting and worthwhile for Who fanatics.  The kid’s story of “Little Billy” is a  anti-smoking ditty with some of Keith Moon’s best drumming.  The Lifehouse center-piece “Pure and Easy” has border-line pretentious existentialist lyrics, which is saved bv the music which contains some of the Who’s best 1970s harmonies and a pretty awesome fade-out.  But the real highlight of the set comes from the early R&B covers including frenzied versions of “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Leaving Here”.  With these versions The Who rightfully secure their infamous “maximum R&B” tag.

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise


I don’t have Tracks, so I can’t comment on that particular set.  But The Promise, unlike a lot of similar collections is a full-realized work albeit in different ways then its spawn, Darkness on the Edge of Town.  While there is some of the bleakness on The Promise (particularly the title track) many of the songs show Springsteen’s affection for early rock and roll and pop songs from the 1960s.  The backing vocals on “Gotta Get That Feeing” recall some of the early Phil Spector singles.  “Wrong of the Side Street” is rocking fun in the best possible E-Street Band way.  The inclusion of Springsteen’s version of “Fire” and “Because the Night” are a nice addition, but Patti Smith’s version of the latter remains the definitive version.  What is most interesting about The Promise though is that Springsteen ditched some of his most accessible work here in favor of the more challenging songs found on Darkness. What would his stature be like if he had released some of these songs between Born to Run and Darkness?  It’s hard to say.

Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs


Lost Dogs is a collection that won’t bring any converts to Pearl Jam.  But it does contain some stellar material that showcases Pearl Jam taking on a wide variety of styles thats not always apparent on their proper albums.  The Howard Zinn inspired “Down” is one of their catchiest songs.  “Alone” is Ten-style rocker that should have replaced “Deep”.  Surprisingly for Pearl Jam there are a lot of songs that are pure fun.  Guitarist Stone Gossard takes lead vocals for the crunchy rocker “Don’t Gimme No Lip” which has very few words outside of the title.  “Whale Song” contains some cool guitar effects to recreate the sound of whale calls.  And then there’s “Dirty Frank” a ridiculous ode to one of their bus drivers.

R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office


By no means a great collection and Peter Buck admits as much in the liner notes.  But I have a soft spot for this collection since it was one of the first ones of these I owned and it introduced me to the Velvet Underground with three covers – “Femme Fatale”, “There She Goes Again” and “Pale Blue Eyes“.   Like Lost Dogs, R.E.M. show their playful side here with the surf inspired “White Tornado”, and the hilarious “Seven Chinese Brothers” alternate take, “Voice Of Herald” which finds Michael Stipe singing lyrics off of an old Christian LP.  A must!  Worth having because the CD version contains their first LP Chronic Town.

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Preview of R.E.M.’s “Collapse Into Now”

I’m getting pretty excited about R.E.M.’s upcoming album Collapse  Into Now. 2008’s Accelerate was a return to form, after about 10 years of three abysmal albums (1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and 2004’s virtually unlistenable Around The Sun).  While I loved Accelerate when it came out, its break-neck speed which was refreshing at the time has proved to be its achilles heel.  R.E.M. is at their best when their songs are moody and reflective even in their rockers.  Accelerate in its urgency left little room for the listener to enter into the songs.

But the songs off of Collapse Into Now that have been leaked or officially find R.E.M. entering a territory both familiar and new.  “It Happened Today” sounds like something off of Out Of Time – except better than almost all of the songs combined with the exception of “Losing My Religion”.  Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sing through while Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, and guest vocalist Eddie Vedder spend almost two minutes in a wordless harmonizing chant that never ceases to be boring.  “Mine Smell Like Honey” sounds like an Accelerate out-take, with its blasting guitars.  Yet it’s more accessible in its melody, and a reminder than the interchange between Mike Mills and Michael Stipe is a force to be reckoned with.  The psychedelic “Discoverer” might be the weakest of the three tracks I’ve heard, but it’s still very good. Stipe’s chant of “Discoverer!” in the chorus might of course be a live-highlight.

If these three tracks are any indication, Collapse Into Now might be a latter-day R.E.M. classic, as opposed to just a very good R.E.M. album like Accelerate.

“It Happened Today”

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Nostalgic 1994 Songs: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

In 1994, I may have been branching out my musical tastes, but R.E.M. was still my favorite band. During the summer, radio stations claimed that the band would release a “rock album”, after two acoustic-based albums (Out of Time, and Automatic For the People).  Naturally, this excited me as I was a big fan of Document.

In the fall, the stations announced that the lead single of Monster, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” would soon be played.  I had to hear this song before the album came out.  This would be the song, that would make the kids in my class understand why R.E.M. was so important, so good.  It had to.  By the DJ’s descriptions of it being a big loud rock song, everybody would listening to it.  R.E.M. would be cool to 7th graders.  I wanted to be the kid that told everybody that I had been listening to them for years.  I was already talking about how great the song was before I even heard it.

As fate would have it, it seemed everybody else had heard “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” before me.  Listening to the radio in the car while my mother drove me home from school was the only way I could tune in, waiting excitedly for the song to be played.  Time, unfortunately was not on my side.  Just as we were about to ride home, DJs announced that the song would be played after the commercial break. In the morning, as we drove to school, they announced that it had just been played.

On a trip with my parents one Saturday afternoon, I listened intently in the back seat of my dad’s truck waiting for the moment when I could finally hear the song.  This would be it.  But as we drove further up into the mountains, the radio station began to fade.  Luckily, I could still hear some music through the static.  It wasn’t ideal, but I could deal with a radio cutting in and out.  Further we drove, and the DJ proclaimed that “the new R.E.M. single would be played in the next 15 minutes”.  My eyes widened, and I prepared my ears for rock heaven.

I forced myself to listen through songs I actually liked.  None of it mattered.  And we kept on driving through the mountains, and then the radio completely cut out.  This couldn’t be happening. Not to me. I could have cried.  Why did this have to happen to me?  For about 10 minutes or so, there was silence from the radio.  My mom who knew I had desperately wanted to hear the song, told me it would come back on in a minute.  A few minutes later, the radio finally did come back in.  The DJ declared that they had just played “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”.  I had missed it.  Again.  Would I ever hear the song?

I never did hear “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” before Monster came out.  The first time I heard it was when my older brother, home for the night, brought over his copy.  I closely stared at orange cover with the image of the black bear for several minutes before finally popping it in the CD player in my parents’ living room.  It was late, but my mom let me stay up late to listen to the album.  I couldn’t play it too loud so I put my ears to the speakers and closed my eyes.

In a second, Peter’s Buck distorted guitar-riff came through the speakers.  It was glorious. It was loud and thick.  Even the rock of Document hadn’t prepared for me for this.  Michael Stipe‘s vocals were pushed to the background.  I could barely understand a thing he sang, but it didn’t matter.  By the time, it slowed down for a second, I finally caught my breath.  And then came the solo – a backwards wah-wah break in the middle of the song. I didn’t know that Peter Buck could play like that, and at the time it seemed like the ultimate guitar-solo.  After the song finally ended, I replayed it twice before playing the rest of the album.

R.E.M. had done it. They had returned to rock after years of dabbling in a softer-style. For years, Monster was my favorite album of all time.  It’s probably one of the few albums that I know every single note by heart.  As the years went on, I stopped listening to it obsessively.  Now I don’t even count it among my favorite R.E.M. albums.  I think I wore it out too much, eventually becoming bored with it.  It’s still a pretty good album, but I’ll still list “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as one of their best.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

 

 

 

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