R.E.M. is a band written off by some as having tumbled too far down a rabbit hole it dug deeper and deeper with every post-Bill Berry release. Though the albums that followed the drummer’s 1997 retirement included many great nuggets (Walk Unafraid, Imitation of Life, All the Way to Reno), their records’ increasingly esoteric production finally resulted in a popular backlash with 2004’s impenetrable Around the Sun. The songs were still there on that album, they were just shrouded in a listless sound that no longer resembled R.E.M. In fact, a re-working of some of the ATS material for 2007’s Live brought a few of the moribund tracks back to life.

The ATS backlash resulted in 2008’s Accelerate, an album that saw R.E.M. charge at listeners at a breakneck pace. Far from ramshackle, however, the collection of short, crunchy, not-overproduced songs re-energized the fan base. That the band would look to its early IRS-era material for a revitalization made sense; it was no surprise how well the new songs tucked in with the old, as evidenced by 2009’s Live at the Olympia in Dublin, a recorded rehearsal of unfinished Accelerate material and classics before a live audience.

If Accelerate was their “great comeback,” what would come next for R.E.M.? The answer is Collapse Into Now, a fine collection of 12 tracks that captures the texture of the band’s late-80s through early-90s period as effectively as Accelerate mined from their earlier history. CIN is not just a time warp to the successes of Green, Out of Time or Automatic for the People, however. The new material sounds modern and like the natural next step forward from Accelerate; R.E.M. gives one look back to the stylings of its previous release before moving onward. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a veteran band’s new work to its past instead of look at it on its own merit, but that’s the natural by-product of a long and prolific career that’s kept fans wonder where the next destination would lie. After CIN, it seems R.E.M. has settled into doing what they do best – writing and recording great R.E.M. songs.

1. Discoverer The opening guitar and singular bass drum beat fire off the star of CIN like a shot across the bow. While the crunchy pre-chorus keeps one eye on Accelerate, the chorus veers into a new direction with Michael Stipe’s yelping of track’s title. It’s stark enough to engage the listener and pique curiosity of what’s to come.

2. All the Best After the initial electric buzz of amp static, the band kicks in like gangbusters with Mike Mills driving bass combining with Peter Buck’s guitars to build an intensity that peaks with each chorus. Two tracks into CIN and R.E.M. are still attacking the ears as if they’re in Accelerate mode.

3. Uberlin The third song marks the point where CIN departs from Accelerate. The echo on Stipe’s “hey, now” at the beginning of the song recalls Automatic’s Drive., as does Buck’s baroque-sounding acoustic guitar, but the new track has a certain momentum lacking in the older one. The bridge draws texture from the Imitation of Life’s bubbly synths. Here, R.E.M. blend their classic and contemporary stylings to create, not surprisingly, the album’s best song.

4. Oh My Heart Fans of Peter Buck’s mandolin, rejoice! The that that gave The One I Love (along with numerous other tracks, such as Green’s You Are the Everything) its signature, pastoral touch returns on CIN’s fourth cut. Thematically, Oh My Heart seems like a follow up to Accelerate’s Houston, as if the listener is getting the second installment of a story.

5. It Happened Today If Uberlin is the best song on the CIN, It Happened Today may be the most infectious. After getting down in a groove on the previous two tracks, R.E.M. raises spirits with the light acoustic guitar and pounding bass pedal before the song really lifts off with handclaps and tambourine. “It happened today, hip hip hurray” may not be Stipe’s finest lyrical moment, but any notion that insightful lyrics are a must-have get blown away at the 1:30 mark when all words are sidelined in favor of layers of ahhhs, ooooohs and mmms by Stipe, Mills and special guest Eddie Vedder. What’s a more appropriate way to harness E.V.’s vocal prowess than to capture some of his indecipherable, warbled crooning? Fan of Yellow Ledbetter may say there isn’t one.

6. Every Day is Yours to Win R.E.M. sound as if their playing in an echo chamber with Stipe’s vocal and Buck’s methodical arpeggios bouncing endlessly over the horizon while rhythm section given the listener something to grab on to. Though probably the slowest tempo of all the songs, the bridge lightens it up a tad and keeps it from going sad sack.

7. Mine Smell Like Honey The opening drum roll signals that the rollercoaster ride is going to careen upward. The crunchy chords give way to a transcendent chorus where Mills shows off his vitality in the harmonies department. This sounds like it could be a modernized track off of either Reckoning or Monster, an impressive feat given the gap between those two albums.

8. Walk It Back This piano-driven ballad again revisits Automatic and could even suffice as an uplifting coda to Everybody Hurts. Try these two tracks together for an astonishing listening experience.

9. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter Here lies perhaps the only throwaway on CIN, and it’s a good throwaway at that with a charging tempo and crunched up guitars. The guest appearance of Canadian-born musician Peaches on backing vocals doesn’t really add much but doesn’t distract, either.

A note on sequencing CIN flows masterfully. The album has the right combination of rocker, mid-tempos and ballads and the listener never becomes fatigues by any of them; it all flies by in a fast 40 minutes. Credit goes a veteran band and producer Jacknife Lee for this. What some may consider a detail, but here the proper sequencing elevates the album and lets it work as a whole while letting its individual parts shine.

10. That Someone Is You The tenth track is pure power pop with punky energy, catchy harmonies and a stick-in-your-head lyrical rhyme in the form of Sharon Stone Casino, Scarface Al Pacino, ’74 Torino. At 1:44, it’s over before you’re ready to stop nodding your head. One criticism is that there are great guitar fills that are a little buried in the mix that would’ve really shone had they been turned up a notch.

11. Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I There’s no real connection, but perhaps this song will R.E.M.ind you of Neil Young’s Pocahontas? That may be too far a stretch, and the two sound nothing alike. In any case, R.E.M. starting cooling down the album with this cut as we drift into the final track.

12. Blue There’s a lot going on in CIN’s finale. Layers of down-tempo acoustic, reverb-drenched electric, descending bass a deliberate beat set a roiling canvas for Stipe’s spoken word riffing. There’s some trememdous imagery in the words. R.E.M.’s final vocal guest, Patti Smith, floats above the din, then delivers the songs final line before the track, and the album, swirls to its climax . . . only it doesn’t. A surprising coda of Discoverer fades in through the chimes and ends CIN on a sonically brighter note and brings everything back home again. It’s this reprise that sets the stage for the listener to hit “play” and start the ride once more.

Rock and roll history is no stranger to feuding brothers. Examples from the past five decades include Ray and Dave Davies (The Kinks), Rich and Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes) and, more recently, Nathan and Caleb Followill (Kings of Leon). Greatest among these pairings may be Manchester’s Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis, whose verbal and physical wars have thrilled fans and filled tabloid sheet for the better part of two decades, not mention powered some of their generation’s finest rock and pop songs. The intensity of the Gallaghers’ feud should have served as ample warning of their eventual parting, which came to be before a late 2009 show in Paris after the elder Noel walked out on the band. Oasis, the vehicle for the Brothers Gallagher’s music, was no more.

Not one to remain on his laurels, Liam immediately rallied remaining Oasis members Gem Archer, Andy Bell and Chris Sharrock around a post-Oasis project. Though early rumours hinted the Noel-less group would continue under the old moniker, the group decided instead on beginning completely anew; a new name and new songs but the same old swagger.

Enter Beady Eye, the curious name selected by the group that suggested that, without Noel as the guiding influence, perhaps a Liam-led outfit would be quickly led off the rails. Beady Eye certainly looked like Oasis-sans-Noel, but what would it sound like without Noel’s golden pen? Some feared an album filled with songs of Little James or The Nature of Realty caliber, throwaway tunes contributed by Beady Eye’s members to previous Oasis albums. Once news that producer Steve Lillywhite (War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby) signed on to the project, however, hopes rose a bit. Bring the Light, Beady Eye’s first release, a free download, was met with mixed reviews. Fans praised its Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano lead while critics were wary of its repetitive, simple structure. Four Letter Word followed as a video release. The up-tempo rocker was more Oasis-like in a The Shock of the Lightning kind of way, and was positively received. The first proper single, The Roller, received wide acclaim for its catchy chorus, sweet harmony vocals and Gem’s infectious piano. With each released track seeming to be an improvement over its predecessor, expectations continued to grow until their album, Different Gear, Still Speeding was leaked in mid-February.

What makes Beady Eye’s first effort so compelling is how it completely dispels any fears of Oasis-lite. After Noel’s walkout, many simply hoped that “Liam’s band” wouldn’t embarrass themselves in spectacular fashion. Then, as the advance tracks piqued more and more interest, fans and the curious alike began to believe there was a chance the group could be relevant. That the album far exceeded the meager hopes of many is either a pleasant surprise or a result of the underestimation of Liam & Co’s contributions to latter-day Oasis.

Different Gear, Still Speeding is a good record on its own merit, not just in comparison to how some feared it would turn out. It is not without flaw, however, as some of the tracks miss the influence of a gifted and experienced songwriter such as Noel. In the best case, this keeps a good song from being a classic. In the worst case, the song simply stalls out goes nowhere.

It’s safe to say that Beady Eye caught everyone off guard, and we’re the richer for it.

1. Four Letter Word The first track offers a great, though misleading opening to the Beady Eye era. It may be more visceral than anything in the Oasis catalog and Liam’s defiant vocal seems dug from his early days. It gives the listener a somewhat false impression that the band are all rockers, however, as this the most fast-paced song on the set and things mellow out, tempo-wise, going forward.

2. Millionaire This Andy Bell offering is perhaps the most un-Oasis like song on the record, and that’s a good thing. The slinking acoustic guitars, loping bass and off-kilter delivery by Liam make this one really stand out as Beady Eye’s most original composition.

3. The Roller Though derivative (of John Lennon’s Instant Karma), this Heathen Chemistry holdover is the best pop song on the record. It has all the right ingredients: pleasant sounding piano, tasteful guitar fills and solos, head-bobbing rhythym and Liam’s best version of his aforementioned hero. The video for The Roller is also inventive; shot in the cold, you can see the musicians’ breath as the play and sing. Nice touch.

4. Beatles and Stones Surely you’re not surprised that Liam would write a specific song for his heroes, right? Don’t be confused by the title because this song owes more to the Who’s My Generation than anything by its namesakes. What keeps it from descending into parody, however, is drummer Chris Sharrock’s breakdown in the bridge.

5. Wind Up Dream Though very simple, this track is saved from being a throwaway by various studio dressups such as auxiliary percussion, harp solo and even proper “Wooooooos” and “Ahhhhhhhhs” from Liam.

6. Bring the Light This underachiever could have been better served by either a) a smarter guitar solo or b) a more distinct chorus or bridge. As it is, it just goes on and on and, while promising at parts, seems to fade away into background noise. The female backing vocals are a nice detour, but the seemingly 4,000 “baby c’mons” leave the song dangling at the end. (One note: I was curious to see how Beady Eye would do this one live without backing vocalists. Check out their Abbey Road session here.)

7. For Anyone This may be the album’s most efficient two minutes. Liam’s melody, sung in his higher register, melds perfectly with handclaps and a couple layers of simple, delightful acoustic guitars. Think Songbird. This track rivals The Roller as Beady Eye’s best pop song.

8. Kill For a Dream Beady Eye sure likes to sing about dreams, don’t they? Though this Standing on the Shoulders of Giants-era soundalike is undistinguished among its peers, it does offer some of the more interesting lyrics on the album. One could interpret the track as a peace offering to Noel (I’m here if you want to call, etc.), which is made all the more interesting because it was penned by Bell. Of course, this makes perfect sense since Liam would be too pig-headed to write it himself, yet his delivery suggests that a mended fences may not be impossible.

9. Standing on the Edge of the Noise Though sporting the best title of any of the songs on Different Gear, Still Speeding, the ninth track gets a tad too literal and fades into the background with loads of distorted guitar and effects-washed vocals. This one is the biggest let down on the album.

10. Wigwam Things start humbly with a bass-powered riff before beginning to ascend with Liam’s high octaves and a few “sha la la la las.” Then it morphs into a Sgt. Pepper-esque bridge before Sharrock brings the listener back to earth with a simple yet perfect snare feature. By the time Liam repeats “I’m coming up” a dozen or so times, we’re floating with him and and ready for the extended Hey Jude outro. Beady Eye’s at their most Beatle-y here, and they draw just the right amounts from all the right places.

11. Three Ring Circus This track is better than it sounds following Wigwam. While that may be a backhanded compliment, listening to it in isolation does it a more justice. There’s some Revolver-like guitar and the round on the chorus is a great flourish that works well in the live cut. It’s not one of the strongest tracks, but not absolute filler, either.

12. The Beat Goes On Another raid from the SOTSOG sound template gives this one plenty of spacial texture; you’re up in the clouds with Liam’s when he singing about the “gig in the sky.” This will be the second single and should be a solid offering, hopefully paired with a raucous B-side.

13. The Morning Son The closer seems like it written along with For Anyone, only in this case the track was afforded the full compliment of studio enhancements. Though simple and effective, it builds much like (though not quite as satisfyingly as) Wigwam. We achieve liftoff with fuzz bass into a sweeping bridge. While Liam’s doubletracked vocals are a beautiful way to end, this track, among all the others, could’ve become transcendent with Noel’s touch, even if it were just his vocal melding with Liam’s at the end (imagine that, Noel singing backing on a Liam-penned tune?). This song is Beady Eye’s flawed masterpiece. Whether its borrowing from Quadrophenia, or even Oasis’ last albumDig Out Your Soul, the sound of waves washing up on a shore is a fitting come down from Different Gear, Still Speeding. Beady Eye is the real deal, and fans should be hopeful for more to come in the future.

Not only is the E Street Band tighter than ever, not only are the arrangements of the songs more muscular than ever, but Bruce sounds better than ever.

Not only is the E Street Band tighter than ever, not only are the arrangements of the songs more muscular than ever, but Bruce sounds better than ever.

After seeing Bruce and the E Streeters Monday night, I was too tired and emotionally drained to compile this report for Tuesday. I understand why it’s called “Boss Hangover.” It’s not even correct to say you’ve “seen” the Boss, more like you’ve “lived,” as I did during 2 hours, 55 minutes of unrelenting, unstoppable rock and roll.

The set list (below) was outstanding, with plenty of old nuggets mined from Boss’ bottomless goldmine to go along with cuts from the new album Working on a Dream. My personal highlights: 1) the T-Rex-like Seeds, which I developed a new appreciation for after only hearing the Live 1975-85 version; 2) The Ghost of Tom Joad, which featured a robotic guitar solo that left me wondering whether or not Nils Lofgren is the muse behind Buckethead; and 3) The E Street Shuffle, the seminal oldie I did not expect but was delighted to hear.

Max Weinberg’s son, Jay, manned the drum kit on the first 10 tracks, and brought a new ferocity to the E Street Band – especially during Radio Nowhere. Jay’s style is the opposite of his pops’, though both are power drummers. Where Max wastes no motion, exerting maximum force on each strike, Jay’s arms fly about as if he were a Keith Moon disciple.

In hindsight, perhaps the most memorable thing about Bruce’s performance was that his voice had near perfect range and clarity. Not only is the E Street Band tighter than ever, not only are the arrangements of the songs more muscular than ever, but Bruce sounds better than ever. After listening to Live in New York City (nearly 10 years old at this point), I’ve decided his voice is better now.

Boss shows always seem to have a vibe that’s equal parts carnival and big tent revival. On Monday, Bruce easily slipped between the roles of carny barker and pentacostal preacher while screaming out his eternal question to the masses, is anybody alive? (surely a rhetorical question by this point) or preaching about tearing down a house of doubt and building a house of hope. Whether or not his message carries beyond the sound soaked walls of whatever arena he’s in, Bruce’s message never fails to inspire those with them.

Speaking of inspiration, the angry politics that fueled the Bush-era Magic tour were gone this night. Though the songs covered familiar territory, overcoming adversity and hard times, the mood was one of joy and celebration that at least the healing can now begin in a post-Bush America.

I didn’t think I could ever see a better show than I did when I saw Bruce and E Street on the Magic tour. I’m left thinking the same thing in the wake of Monday night’s experience.

Setlist and photo above taken from Backstreets:

Badlands (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Radio Nowhere (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Outlaw Pete (w/ Jay Weinberg)
No Surrender (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Out in the Street (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Working on a Dream (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Seeds (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Johnny 99 (w/ Jay Weinberg)
The Ghost of Tom Joad (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Raise Your Hand (w/ Jay Weinberg)
Good Lovin’
Prove It All Night
The E Street Shuffle
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
I’m on Fire
Kingdom of Days
Lonesome Day
The Rising
Born to Run

Encore:

Hard Times
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Land of Hope and Dreams
American Land
Bobby Jean
Rosalita

Italicized tracks were requested by the crowd via signs.

Interesting read

March 29, 2009

Courtesy of Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, a complete rhetorical incineration of the AIG exec that lamented his lost bonus.

Here’s a particularly incendiary volley of pyrotechnics:

First of all, Jake, you asshole, no plumber in the world gets paid a $740,000 bonus, over and above his salary, just to keep plumbing. Second, try living on a plumber’s salary before you even think about comparing yourself to one; you’re inviting a pitchfork in the gut by even thinking along those lines. Third, Jake, if you were a plumber, and the electrician burned the house down — well, guess what? If you and that electrician worked for the same company, you actually wouldn’t get paid for that job.

I’ve really come to enjoy Taibbi after following his 2008 campaign contributions to RS.

The new album will be called 21st Century Breakdown

The new album is called 21st Century Breakdown.

I knew Green Day’s follow up to 2004’s acclaimed American Idiot (well, unless you’re counting their recent release Stop Drop and Roll!!! under the pseudonym The Foxboro Hot Tubs) was due in ’09, but I didn’t know it would as soon as May (no specific date yet).  It seems the trio will continue the storytelling style used on Idiot, though I’m guessing this may be a more structured venture since there are to be three distinct parts, or suites.

Rolling Stone did a review of the first six tracks here, which is not really helpful sans audio clips. It’s still a somewhat interesting read and it seems the band, according to RS, drew on a plethora of influences including AC/DC, John Lennon and Queen (Green Day recently covered Lennon’s Working Class Hero for a benefit and closed out shows on the Idiot tour with We Are the Champions). Bassist Mike Dirnt also told RS the songs speak to each other the way they do in The Boss’ Born to Run. If that’s even remotely true, we’re going to be in for a treat.

Hopefully some audio will make the rounds soon.

Update May 13, 2009: Listening to the new album right now. It’s streaming on Rhapsody in its entirety (though there are some ads to deal with). So far, as awesome and epic as advertised. Can’t wait until Friday; I plan on nabbing the Target special edition w/bonus live tracks.

The Wrestler as allegory

February 9, 2009

We're down on one knee just like The Ram. But, also like him, the desire to keep pressing on persists.

We're down on one knee, just like The Ram. But, also like him, the desire to keep pressing on persists.

That Mickey Rourke essentially is Randy “The Ram” Robinson has been repeated ad nauseum. It isn’t so much much surprising for me that the historically troubled star of The Wreslter pulled off The Ram so convincingly as it is intriguing to see him lay it all on the line for a character so close to heart. Isolation, failure and listlessness are nothing new for The Ram, or Rourke, and that causes viewers to cheer for him that much harder in and outside the ring, on of off the big screen.

Curiosity as a long-time pro wrestling fan drew me to Rourke’s spectacle of a broken down, washed up former star, but what kept my attention was The Ram’s battle with his demons – an estranged daughter, failing health following years of physical and drug abuse and a dwindling fan base craving ever more barbaric displays. In the midst of all this, The Ram tries to recapture past in-ring glories, make ends meet and pursue a romance with Cassidy, Marisa Tomei’s single mom-come stripper. He can’t have it all. It’s amazing how much of the damage is self-inflicted. The Ram’s ultimate choice is irrelevant, though. It’s his struggle to choose that drove the story for me. Does The Ram address past mistakes? Pursue new paydays? Make the relationship work?

The Ram’s battle resonates because, to me, it’s a microcasm of what America has become. Our society is like The Ram in the wake of the Bush presidency: i) relationships are politically strained at home and abroad, ii) painfully deferred costs in infrastructure, health care and education are coming due and iii) self confidence is shaken by a weak economy. We’re down on one knee, just like The Ram. But, also like him, the desire to keep pressing on persists.

Music has a role in telling The Ram’s story, as well. Bruce Springsteen penned the title track for the film after Rourke’s request. That song, which appeared as a bonus track on the Boss’ dynamic Working on a Dream (see my review, below), captures the spirit of the film perfectly with the line “I always leave with less than I had before . . . I can make you smile when the blood it hits the floor.” Rourke also asked Axl Rose for permission to use Guns N Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine in the film (Axl obliged as the two have a friendly history, including Axl thanking Rourke in the liner notes of GNR’s 2008 release, Chinese Democracy). When The Ram enters his climactic match to the tune, it’s a powerful nostalgic device used to evoke better times in the past, for Rourke, for The Ram, and for America.

boss1

The Boss makes an early statement on Obama's America on Working on a Dream

It’s interesting that Bruce Springsteen would title one of his new songs Tomorrow Never Knows. Certainly, tomorrow has arrived – as evidenced by the fact that we now live in Barack Obama’s America – and yet we don’t know what the day holds. John Lennon didn’t know either in 1966 when he implored us to “surrender to the void” in his own Tomorrow Never Knows. Though he instructed us that “love is all, love is everywhere,” this teaching fell by the wayside as corruption, war and excess brought the curtain down on the 60s.

Having grown up in that period, Springsteen seems to will his listeners not to let it happen again on Working on a Dream, the new record that continues his 2000s renaissance alongside the E Street Band, less one member following the 2008 passing of organist Dan Federici. “I’ve seen strong hearts give way to the burdens of the day” he sings on My Lucky Day, emphasizing that good intentions don’t always yield good results – probably referencing his endorsement of John Kerry’s failed bit for the presidency and the Vote For Change Tour.

On Tomorrow Never Knows, the line “You and me, we been standing here my dear, waiting for our time to come” comes across as vindication for the new generation of American leadership, Obama at the helm, tasked with leading America out from underneath the rubble of the Bush years and across the minefield he left behind. During the election season, change was the order of the day, and The Boss was active in bringing that change to Washington: his endorsement of Obama was early and strong, he played numerous campaign events and fundraisers and his new album acts as the first statement on Obama’s America by one of America’s great voices.

Working on a Dream is the ray of light that cuts through the gunpowder gray skies Springsteen depicted in Magic, his 2007 effort that came to us in the depths of the previous administration. On that album he tried to convince his lover, and himself, not to worry about the dark present – “we’re livin’ in the future and none of this has happened yet,” he sang at the time. Now, tomorrow has become today and cautious hope accompanies it – “I’m working on a dream, though it can feel so far away, I’m working on a dream and our love will make it real someday.” A line Springsteen couldn’t use in his previous album makes perfect sense now in the title track.

Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, in Morning Glory, his own homage to Lennon’s  Tomorrow Never Knows, said we all “need a little time to wake up.” It seems we should heed this advice as we awake from the dream Springsteen, among countless others, worked hard to deliver and move to better our waking lives. Tomorrow doesn’t know, but we’re glad it’s here.

The ignominious first post

December 6, 2008

I am stuffed from dinner – a grilled t-bone that was really of porterhouse proportions. My plan is to now lie on the couch and digest some lipids.

A steak very much like this one now sits in my stomach, slathered in peptic acid.

A steak very much like this one now sits in my stomach, slathered in peptic acid.

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