R.E.M. – “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996)

R.E.M._-_New_Adventures_in_Hi-FiAs I said in my last post on 90’s music, my middle/high school years were marked by running into a lot of bands by the third or fourth, or in this case, fifth album. As such, I never experienced R.E.M.’s jangly, pop revolution in their first album trio. The first record I purchased was Monster, an album I like a lot more than this. Whereas Monster feels like an album with a coherent concept that was hard wrought, this album comes across as an indulgent inclusion of outtakes into half of a great record. Before I trash a bunch of the tracks, I’ll start with what I like.

There’s a really great album within the album here, and it’s one that could have been released as an EP that would have been, if not mindblowing, then really a solid 90’s genre piece that capitalized on the grittier side of the sleazebag vibe Beck hit on in Odelay. Michael Stipe has several modes, but when he gets menacing alongside some of the country-western guitars and distortion, it creates a bleak vibe to match the album cover artwork. Without further ado, I give you the real Hi-Fi:

  1. How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us
  2. Undertow
  3. E-Bow The Letter
  4. Binky The Doormat
  5. Low Desert

That’s it, man. Right there is all you need from this album. “How the West…” opens with a bizarre narrative that starts in a uranium mine and somehow flashes forward into L.A. (or somewhere like it). I still don’t really get the lyrical progression, but it seems like a kind of alt-narrative of manifest destiny, if that makes any sense. Undertow has some fuzz that pleasantly complicates the general pop refrain, fading out into some seriously good reverb to close the last minute or so of the track.

“E-Bow The Letter” goes full dark-Hollywood, a theme that Stipe would explore further in later records. Patti Smith delivers the backing vocals, doing her best Baby Jane impersonation of the faded ingénue. It might be one of my favorite R.E.M. songs of all time. “Binky” takes a more conventional approach, but the chorus is classic R.E.M., getting a good performance out of the Mike Mills (whose vocals are generally underutilized throughout). Finally, “Low Desert” flashes back to the menace with Stipe as an wandering outlaw, getting out of town just before he ends up in jail. It doesn’t really have refrains per se (just a series of hey, hey’s), but it’s got great lyric writing:

All the ashtrays, cities, and the freeway drives
Broken casino and waterslide
Eighteen-wheeler, payback dice
Gravity pulls on the power line

Jet stream cuts the desert sky
This is a land could eat a man alive
Say you’d leave it all behind

And then boom, you’re done, shaking the dust off your jacket. Sadly, this is more of a hybrid, shoehorning in what sound like too peppy rejects from Monster to round out the album. Perhaps my most loathed early R.E.M. song, “The Wake-Up Bomb,” communicates absolutely nothing that I can discern. I think it’s about being hungover after a “Don’t Stop Me Now” kind of night, but if I heard this song come on when I was hungover, with it’s overly enthusiastic percussion and Stipes screeching delivery, I’d rip my speakers out and throw them through the window. Not only that, it drags on for five interminable minutes. I wrote this entire paragraph during the first four minutes of re-listening to this song.

There are a couple of borderline tracks that might have made the cut. “Bittersweet Me” has a good guitar riff and baseline, but the lyrics are a bit lacking. “So Fast, So Numb” is likewise strong, and borders on that faded Hollywood vibe that “E-bow” mastered. The album closes out with “Electrolite,” which has typically beautiful piano playing from Mills, but it flies in the face of “E-bow” without fully establishing the contrast necessary to make it work against the vibe of the earlier tracks on the album.

Now I’ll bag on the rest. “New Test Leper” sounds like Stipe heard Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder” and translated it to the daytime talk show circuit. “Leave” starts with a ponderous slow guitar progression before blasting into some kind of engineered “wah wah” and repeating the same progression in a higher key with an electric guitar. Stipe borders on rock messiah, stadium filler territory here, channeling the worst of Bono. In further pomposity, there is a track near the end entitled “Zither” that consists solely of a solo using a Zither. I rest my case.

I read that this record was put down during sound check before tour dates. Hard miles on the road, the emptiness of the stadium, and the hollowness of stardom all add positive elements to the stronger tracks. It’s a pity that there was no one to edit out the rest.

Beck – “Odelay” (1996)

220px-OdelayThe first disc I ever spun on my brand new, Nickel-Cadmium powered, rechargeable, refurbished Sony Discman was Pearl Jam’s 1994 album, Vitalogy. That was, by my recollection, the last year my brother Brad lived at home during his final break from college. He had brought home with him his sweet stereo system and speakers that I have yet to eclipse in my personal ownership, and his vast CD collection. I had poured through it, sampling almost every genre of music popular on the college scene, but he moved to the big city and took his CDs with him (sadly, before dirt cheap CD copying technology arrived).

When Odelay came out, I was 13 (going on 14). I bought the album on a trip to Best Buy with my mother and grandmother (before you judge, see the part of the blog where I lived in the sticks and there was no music store in my town). My brothers had somehow pooled their meager earnings to purchase for me a Sony stereo system when I graduated middle school. It had a dual tape deck, a three disc turntable on the top, and a digital AM/FM tuner with 30 presets. I still have it today, and I bring it with me if I’m working (it is now a glorified FM stereo, as the CD player has been broken for years and the tape deck is essentially useless since I no longer have any tapes).


The amount of storeable presets was laughable, since we only got maybe 15 channels on FM, and only about three that I actually cared to listen to: Q101 (these days it plays a strange mix of early alternative and what is loosely called “alternative”), 103.5 (hard rock, now defunct), and 93.1 WXRT (which I equated at the time with old-person rock, but now is my go to).

In retrospect, none of these channels were very good. On occasion, I listened to a song I liked, and bought a really great album, but mostly I just ended up buying a lot of CDs made by bands of marginal quality for about four or five years before I got cable, started watching shows like 120 Minutes, and (ultimately) moved down to college. This was not a very productive period in my music life. I flirted with pointless bands like Alice in Chains, hoping to extract meaning from very thin performances. I got to many of them by the third or fourth albums, after the good stuff was done and over with.

I’m not sure all these years later that Beck was one of those acts, but re-listening to Odelay sure sounds like an album with a high concept, but precious little substance. For what it is, the album delivers on a wide variety of samples, inventive(ly sampled) beats, and definite atmospheres. I’m not sure what the dominant atmosphere is (even now), but “70’s night club with a variety of sleazy characters milling about” seems to capture many of tracks. Let’s just forget about all of those, including “Hotwax,” “Lord Only Knows,” the off-key “Derelict,” and the ubiquitous “Where It’s At” (if we’re ever going to get to some of the good stuff on this album).

“Devils [sic?] Haircut” opens the album and transcends a lot of the rock tropes at the time. The solos, such as they are, are jarring and full of abrasive guitar work. The drum echoes and guitar motif sound borderline industrial, and the track turns somewhat aggressive in a Reznor-esque way with Hansen’s final, distorted, screaming chorus. “The New Pollution” tries to follow in the same suit, but the slick production work and brash saxophone put it back in that 70’s club. It’s really trying to break through, but this track is a major regression in my opinion.

The energy on “Minus” and “Novocane” is still pertinent. On the former, the nonsensical lyrics are not a distraction, but carry the frenetic pace of the song. When it lulls out with a discordant break about 70 seconds in, I get the sense that Hansen is trying to communicate with the listener: “Goddamn dude, I just sent you to fucking space on a rocket ship, give me a sec.” He then returns even crazier, with a backing vocal track that’s going way off the rails, before once again coasting to a halt: “That’s it. You rode it. I’m out.”

That’s what still works for me about this album. The sleazebag vibe, whether this was a “concept” or not, doesn’t come across so hip anymore, especially not after his subsequent two albums where he milked exotica for all it was worth. My love for his forays into hip hop on this album tell me that I had a burgeoning interest in this genre as a kid, but my isolated upbringing in the Illinois countryside without cable television left me precious few outlets for such an exploration. The difference between Beck and hip hop artists that I listen to today: they have more to say than Beck, write lyrics that are clever/socially poignant, and are much more skilled at the delivery.

After all of this, I still have a huge affinity for the album. If nothing else, Odelay is a Herculean fusion effort, where Hansen successfully merges country, folk, rock, and hip hop into an aesthetic. I find the lack of lyrical meaning largely excusable (my favorite band in the universe, Wilco, has plenty of tracks with some crazy nonsense vocals). I can’t see my college age brother listening to this album with his friends and liking it, but much like the access to his CD collection, this album primed me for even weirder musical excursions in the future.

Okay, gotcha, next please

R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

The best songs of 2013

Once again, I publish a list of the best songs of the year. They are all in my “Best of 2013″ playlist on Spotify.

I hedge by telling you that I read fewer reviews than last year and that I had a *large* listening gap over the summer. I also listened to less bluegrass and rap than last year. I was skewed towards indie and (quizzically) electronic this year.

Without further ado:

20. Thomas Rhett – “Beer With Jesus”
19. Ben Howard – “Keep Your Head Up”
18. Cage the Elephant – “Come a Little Closer”
17. Cold War Kids – “Miracle Mile”
16. Phosphorescent – “Song For Zula”
15. MGMT – “Alien Days”
14. Daft Punk, Panda Bear – “Doin’ It Right”
13. Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?” / “R U Mine?”
12. Yuck – “Middle Sea” / “Out of Time”
11. New Politics – “Harlem”
10. Low – “Just Make It Stop”
9. Queens of the Stone Age – “My God Is The Sun” / “I Sat By The Ocean”
8. Phoenix – “Don’t”
7. Waaves – “Sail To The Sun” / “Demon To Lean On”
6. Daft Punk, Julian Casablancas – “Instant Crush”
5. Kanye West, JAY-Z, Big Sean – “Clique”
4. Parquet Courts – “Master Of My Craft” / “Borrowed Time” / “Donuts Only”
3. Drake – “Started From the Bottom”
2. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey”
1. Kurt Vile – “Never Run Away”

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Speedy Ortiz – “Tiger Tank”
Dum Dum Girls – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
John K. Samson – “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”

Copyright Criminals (2009)

Dirs. Benjamin Franzen & Kembrew McLeod, 65 min.

I don’t claim to be a gentleman who knows much about music. In college, I kept my ear to the ground so to speak, did my share of downloading, listened to the local shows on my college radio station, etc. I even made a point of going to shows with bands I had never heard of, purchasing tickets to showcases and actually showing up for the five or six opening acts. I worked long hours affixing barcodes to disintegrating library books at $5.65/hr, but my time was not complete torture as I had my many CD’s that I lugged around all day (bad bad days at work were when I forgot headphones).

Grad school has turned me into an old man recluse who barely has time to watch the odd hockey game on TV whilst simultaneously responding to student emails. As such, I haven’t been to a show in well over two years, and about the closest I get to a showcase is my last.fm account. I wouldn’t even really know who to buy tickets to go see, unless I heard them on Sound Opinions. Likewise, grad school has left me heavily impoverished, and concert tickets no longer cost $14 with $3 beers once you get there. Going to see a band that I marginally like is financially infeasible, and seeing a band that I really want to see is usually out of my price range.

Hence, my relationship with music sadly now involves me sitting at my desk on a Saturday night, writing a blog entry on a film that discusses the legal issues of sampling. F….M….L…..

On a brighter note, Copyright Criminals is an exceptional documentary that actually provides a great deal of information about the origins and legal issues surrounding sampling. However, I highly recommend watching the film, then listening to the interview with Kembrew McLeod on Sound Opinions to get a fuller picture of the issues surrounding sampling and the music industry.

One nagging question that I have always wondered about is how artists can, in good conscience, produce something like “Come With Me” (Puff Daddy, when he was still called that) or “Wild Wild West” (Will Smith). I always assumed that large amounts of cash money payouts combined with Hollywood style hitmaking formulae were the culprit. Turns out that the complicated procedure and large financial obligations associated with clearing samples and avoiding copyright lawsuits have turned musicians into lazy, unimaginative cashgrabbers who latch onto a hook from a popular music hit, then loop it behind their tired ass rhymes. While that doesn’t excuse those songs (nothing can), it does explain a lot about why we don’t see anything inventive done by major label recording artists in the area of samples (e.g. past efforts from Beastie Boys, De la Soul, Greg Gillis, Danger Mouse).

The film itself tries to represent the opposite perspective that artists who sample are stealing from more talented artists, and I’ll give the filmmakers props for trying to show both sides. Sampling is an area where the devil’s advocate seems really out of step with the way art works. While the anti-sampling side ends up looking bad, they are allowed to voice their perspective in a way where they don’t look insane, which is refreshing for a documentary produced in the last decade. You only have to look at Michael Moore to see how documentary filmmakers tend to slam their agenda over the viewers head and use their privileged position as the final editor to make the opposition look like a bunch of fools.


As a side note, I also watched the film Chain Reaction (1996). Even though that film is kind of dated and cheesy, the underlying message of the hyper-commercial nature of capitalism was a decent compliment to Copyright Criminals.