Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Whistle as the wind blows..."

R.I.P. R.E.M. One of two or three of the most formative bands in my life, and although I was sorely bummed to hear that they had decided to call it a day (to quote directly), after some thought, I was fine with it. Although they haven't put out dross lately, neither has their recent output been staggering.

Now, simply because I can, and I'm that kind of blogger (witness, oh, just about everything I've written here), here's my short takes on R.E.M.'s output, and what you should listen to at least once before you write it off.

Chronic Town - Never heard all the way through. But those short 30-second teasers sure sound fun. I may pick it up, just for the fun of it now. It certainly sounds like nothing else out there at the time...even amongst their fellow Athens comrades, R.E.M. sounds original, mature yet green behind the ears.

Murmur - I'm one of maybe two or three R.E.M. fans in the world who just doesn't get this album. "Perfect Circle" is, indeed, perfect and complete in its incompleteness...spidery and delicate, mysterious and soothing all at the same time. Bill Berry once said that to him, R.E.M. never felt like a band until they performed this song for the first time; for him, this is where it all coalesced. And I dig "Laughing," too...I mean, how many singers, no matter how literate, would ever write a song about Laocoon? But otherwise, I just don't get the adulation this album garners. "Talk About The Passion" is wimpy and boring. "Radio Free Europe" is also yawn-worthy. (The Hibtone recording is more kinetic and scads better, but still not awesome.) And don't get me started on "Moral Kiosk."Just like Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, this one is easier to appreciate than love. And yes, it still sounds like nothing out there, existing in its own unverse. Mumbling and arpeggios never sounded so cryptic. But that's no reason to think it's the best album of 1983, or one of the top 10 of the 1980s (both inexplicably averred by Rolling Stone).

Reckoning - Son of Murmur. But perhaps a bit better. Sue me for being obvious, but "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" and "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" were two of my favorites from the early years. And "Harborcoat" was more exciting than anything on Murmur. (It did take like three decades to finally comprehend why "Seven Chinese Brothers" was so great, though, when I heard the Decemberists nearly duplicate it exactly with "Calamity Song.") The tone was still the same, though, and most of the songs remained inscrutable.

Fables of the Reconstruction - Very transitional. All of a sudden, the production became a lot cleaner, even as Michael Stipe's mumbles remained. But the excitement on Reckoning was suddenly suppressed and subdued and uncomfortable. I mean, any album that leads off with such a tense and unsettling song as "Feeling Gravitys Pull" can't be happy (even if that song is pretty excellent). And even the easier-going songs like "Green Grow the Rushes" have an undercurrent of unease. Best song: "Wendell Gee," a beautiful tearjerker about a misfit who somehow dies by entering a tree whose excavated middle he replaced with chicken wire. When the wire turned into lizard skin, the tree collapsed on him. Seriously. It doesn't get much weirder than that.

Lifes Rich Pageant - R.E.M. clears its throat, throws off all the murk, the overgrown kudzu, the mumbling, and the pristine mystery, and dives headlong into full-blown rock and roll. Thank GOD. This is one of their best two or three albums, and the best of their early years. Optimistic, passionate (not just "talking about the passion," but finally living fully in it), idealistic, loud, and messy, here is where I'd recommend anyone who hasn't gotten into early R.E.M. should start. Even if it's not particularly representative of anything earlier than that, it's better. Best songs: "Begin the Begin," "These Days," "Fall On Me," "Cuyahoga," "I Believe," "What If We Give It Away?", "Swan Swan H," "Superman."

Document - And R.E.M. remains bad-ass. Even clearer enunciation and production, more approachable songs, and the boldest, most political record yet. It's a shame that the second side kinda sucks (exceptions: "The One I Love," [yes, really], and the frenetic "Lightnin' Hopkins."), but the first side is damn near unimpeachable.

Eponymous and Dead Letter Office - The end of part 1 of R.E.M.'s career (basically, their contract with IRS Records). Eponymous is the greatest hits (with the aforementioned Hibtone recording of "Radio Free Europe," a cleaned-up "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," and a cheesy version of "Finest Worksong" with unwelcome brass. Dead Letter Office is R.E.M. clearing out its back pages, B-sides, outtakes, and random paraphernalia. Instructive and often amusing, particularly when the band drunkenly slurs "King of the Road" or performs "Voice of Harold," which is really Michael Stipe singing the liner notes to some gospel perfomance, set to "Seven Chinese Brothers." Also discloses some of R.E.M.'s influences (Aerosmith, Velvet Underground). Even more worthy now that Chronic Town has been appended to it.

More to come later...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

At least no one spilled a drink on me, right?

How to feel like Martha Dumptruck:
  • Go out on the town to do karaoke.
  • Forget to tell friends you're going out.
  • Find out that the bar you went to suddenly has a vastly different crowd.
  • Don't drink. (Alcohol, that is.)
  • Pick one of the most middle-of-the-road, boring songs you can think of to sing.
  • Sing it...ah, okay-like. Not fabulous.
  • Get tired of the spot.
  • Leave and go to another karaoke spot...this one at a watering hole with an established clientele.
  • Order more non-alcoholic drinks, and get the eye (not the good kind) from the bartender.
  • Feel sheepish, and order what you think is the smallest dessert on the menu to ease your qualms.
  • Freak out when you get a behemoth of a dessert. (Yes, you do have to eat it all, says your inner Jewish mom.)
  • Sing "Miss Chatelaine" by k.d. lang. In her register.
  • Once you're done, have the drag queen who is hosting ask you where you tucked your balls. (Let me reiterate: a drag queen is asking you this.)
  • Walk off and finish eating your huge slice of cake.
  • Notice that only one other person there seems to be eating, and it's rabbit food.
  • Did I mention no friends around? At all.
At least I can take solace in the fact that eventually, Martha ended up spending a fun evening of movies and popcorn with Veronica. Self-effacement, sweetie darlings. I do it all for you.

I'm torn.

I'm allergic to sensitive chick music. (Is that harsh? Oh well.) Now, by this, I don't mean goddesses like Aretha. Nor powerhouses like PJ Harvey. Not even the gentler, and yes, sensitive but still kick-ass singer-songwriters like Carole King or Joni Mitchell. All of them RULE.

Heck, I could make this easy: Lilith Fair. Pretty much says it all, right? There is a LOT to be said about empowering women, and I'm all for it. But Lilith Fair was pretty soporific, no? One of the many reasons why the '90s sucked. The following are kryptonite to me (with a few scattered song exceptions here and there):

Natalie Imbruglia
Lisa Loeb
Sarah McLachlan
Paula Cole
Sixpence None the Richer
The Cranberries
The Cardigans (yeah, even though they were college radio darlings)
Natalie Merchant (on her own...10,000 Maniacs had some good stuff)
Tori Amos

So there's the soundtrack to my personal hell. Here are the few exceptions from off the top of my head:

The Sundays - Reading, Writing and Arithmetic was a pretty good album. It made for a smooth, inoffensive transition to me to liking the Smiths (which I swore I would not, could not, should not like or even expose myself to back in high school, because only faggots and weirdos listened to the Smiths, right? UGGGH...). "Here's Where The Story Ends" was captivating; Harriet Wheeler's voice mesmerized me, the video was super cool, and I could gaze at David Gavurin for hours - and did. In private, of course. And yes, I know that these guys were largely responsible for the list I made above. But as Nirvana (and the Pixies before them) proved, the fount can be awesome, while everything else that follows sucks.

Frente! - I never got into their version of "Bizarre Love Triangle." But that's not a prerequisite to liking them, right? Marvin the Album was super fun. "Accidently Kelly Street" was a cute and bouncy kidlike ditty. Best line, from "Cuscutlan": "And I don't wanna die/I'm as innocent as anybody/I don't even know how to spell 'revolutionary'/Jesus in the sky." A long-lost...well, maybe not classic, but it sure is worthy. Those guys deserved a larger audience.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Get It While You Can - Janis Joplin

Ten years ago today, I had just finished the most amazing weekend with a guy who had suddenly entered my life just three weeks prior. He was wonderful, sweet, caring, generous, funny, a blast to be around, and what was really cool, he really really liked me! We met at a bar - pretty standard. But when we met, we both were celebrating being single, free, and fabulous!

Um. Oops. What they say about love hitting exactly when you're not looking for it? Yeah. Exactly.

Some drunk guy, whom we've never seen since, introduced us on the dance floor. He seemed happy to dance with anyone and everyone, and while he was elsewhere, I grabbed Mr. Man and started chatting with him off the dance floor. And a half hour later, I had a date set with him two days later!

Mr. Man (who was then working for the airlines) told me he was going to see Madonna in L.A. on September 14th, and wanted to offer me a second ticket. Oh...and then he offered to fly up to Portland (where I was living at the time), pick me up, and fly me down to L.A. first class for the weekend! Yeah. He had me.

Until September 11th hit. So much for flying. So instead, still determined to see Madonna and each other, we drove - him from Denver, me from Portland. And we met at the Ramada in West Hollywood and spent one fantastic weekend together. Madonna wasn't half bad, either...especially when she stopped in the middle of the concert to affirm our decision to go ahead with our lives and have fun, damn what those terrorists may have tried to do.

As I left, I had a whirlwind of emotions and uncertainty hit me. He's in Denver! You're in Portland! Long distance relationships don't last! You're in the middle of med school! Med school relationships don't last! What are you thinking? But finally, I just thought, "You know what? Fuck you. I've got a really good feeling about this guy, and I want to pursue things with him."

And right there, on I-5 headed north, came this amazing song on the radio by Our Lady of Southern Comfort. Needless to say, it fully affirmed exactly what I was thinking. And ten years later, Mr. Man and I are still going strong. God bless Janis Joplin. RIP.