Sunday, May 31, 2020

Album Reviews # 76 R.E.M. - Green

Second R.E.M. album review on here in a few days. The reason for this is that I've recently joined a listening group on Facebook called Temporary Fandoms where a group of fairly like-minded music enthusiasts listen to artists back catalogue album by album and then discuss their reactions to what they've heard together. Simple concept but a very good one for those with great enthusiasms in this direction.

We are currently working our way through R.E.M.'s recordings. Already through the first week, which includes most of my own personal favourites and now onto the bands middle career, where they conquered the world in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Up to the point where two of them almost died and drummer Bill Berry left, effectively in retrospect  sounding their death knell as a majorly significant force, although they kept cash tills ringing both as recording and touring artists until their ultimate demise about ten years back.

I'm going to find the second week of records extremely interesting as I haven't really listened to any of them all the way through for almost twenty years with the exception of Automatic For The People which is still a highly regular visitor to my turntable and I imagine always will be.

So why don't I listen to Green, Out Of Time, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi anymore? They're all decent to good records, although individual songs might turn me off. R.E.M. after all didn't put out a bad album for at least the first twenty years of their career, though you could more easily argue that perhaps they did after this point. The ultimate answer to why I don't listen to them certainly says more about me than them, but thanks to Temporary Fandoms, I'm catching up now.

So to Green. When I considered listening to it again a few days ago and looked at the song titles there was very little that encouraged enormous personal relish at the prospect. I actually thought, OK I look forward to hearing Get Up and Orange Crush, and Pop Song '89 is fine R.E.M. mid-period by numbers, but I can do without the rest. But I've listen to the album a number of times over this weekend, and somewhat changed my opinion. It's a much better album than I remembered.

 When it comes down to it, what I think subconsciously put me off listening to this album for so many years although I completely love the band is that this record and Out Of Time the one that followed it marks the high level of mid career navel gazing on the part of lead singer Michael Stipe, before he pulled himself together for Automatic and started singing something consistently worthwhile again.

Evidence for the prosecution Re:Michael Stipe navel gazing on this record. You Are The Everything, World Leader Pretend, Wrong Child, I Can Turn You Inside Out, Hairshirt. If I focus on the production and overall sound and texture of the songs I'm fine, if I focus on the lyrical concerns I think, 'Pull yourself Michael. This is not all about you. You must have been a very irritating child.'

Eventually on my repeat listens I managed to put these slightly unkind thoughts to the back of my mind and focus again on the texture of the record. I realised it was quite gorgeous. If you can forgive the band the whacky, and deeply irritating Stand, one of their first really big hits, (and frankly I still find it difficult), there's much here to marvel at and respect.

Get Up and Orange Crush remain my favourites. Get Up has always reminded me of The Beatles phenomenal pop knack, R.E.M. had plenty of that over the years too. Orange Crush, about the American government's Vietnam War Agent Orange war atrocities, may well be up amongst the most exhilarating Rock songs about something utterly hideous ever written. It's a breeze.

But the record has plenty of other pleasures to experience. You Are The Everything and World Leader Pretend are lush and verdant. Turn You Inside Out is the nearest the band ever came to sounding like Led Zeppelin to my ears and though it's an odd mix, it works for the course of the song. I Remember California is prime time R.E.M. atmospherics.

And best of all, and the treat I take away from this particular listening immersion is last track titled Untitled. No wonder I never really bothered to listen to it before. If a band can't be bothered to give their song a name, why should an audience be bothered to listen to it? But I have now and can report that it's quite wonderful in every respect.

So I haven't listened to this album for over twenty years but I'll listen to it plenty from now on. I recognise it now as one of their best and can even put up with Michael scrutinising his navel at great length over the course of the record. There are still some horrible moments. 'Let my machine talk to me' on World Leader Pretend is a quite ghastly lyric. Someone should really have talked him out of it. Elsewhere he and the band get many things just right. On balance Michael, I forgive you. Sure that will please him.

It Starts With a Birthstone - Albums For May

A strange month music wise this one. There seemed to be far less music releases. Still, I came across ten pretty decent ones.

It Starts With a Birthstone - Songs For May

The Wanderers Soundtrack # 8 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles

Song of the Day # 2,331 Dope Lemon

The Wanderers Soundtrack # 7 Chantays

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Songs Heard on the Radio # 373 Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett Lockdown song coming out of my radio.

Album Reviews # 76 R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant

First loves are the strangest things. You never quite shake them off, try as you might. Musically, R.E.M. were very much my first love. There were dalliances beforehand. Like girls whose eyes you meet across the classroom and flutter your eyelashes at but take things no further.

But R.E.M. were the real thing. With R.E.M. and myself we consumated things, if that's not too much information. They felt like a personal discovery, a complete revelation when I first bought and utterly immersed myself in Murmur when it came out in 1983. The thunderbolt as they say in The Godfather. They soundtracked the important years between 18 and 21 for me and I've never ever quite got over what they meant to me, not even now. I probably never will. They're in my DNA. I could easily write a book about my enduring relationship with them, probably entitled R.E.M & I. Trust me, it wouldn't be as bad as it sounds.

They left me, I didn't leave them. In retrospect, they left me between the making of Fables of The Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant,  between 1985 and 1986, curiously just as I was embarking on my first real and really important love affair. I didn't notice it at the time, I still continued to buy their records on the day of release, listen to them on repeat, avidly follow everything they did, said and was written about them in the music press. Up until 1996 really. That band had a remarkable run. But from 1986 the relationship was not quite so special, we didn't walk quite so hand in hand. And as I said, it was R.E.M's eyes that wandered, not mine.

It was inevitable really. They were never a band for standing still. At this point they were ready for wider horizons, bigger venues, higher chart positions. You can hear it with even a cursory listen to Lifes Rich Pageant. They're a finely honed Rock machine.Years of relentless touring had led to them more than paying their dues and they were ready and fully deserving of payback. Pageant sees them beginning to haul in their chips, to count their winnings. No one could possibly resent them that moment.

Not that there's much wrong with the record. It's a very good but not great album. If I made a list, it would probably be my fifth favourite album of their's. Behind the first three magnificent statements of intent, Murmur, Reckoning and Fables and their mid-career masterpiece Automatic For The People. It has some of their very finest moments, as a band they're clearly flying and the production, from Don Gehman, gives them a clarity, immediacy and approachability they'd never managed before.

So what's my beef with the record? Like I said it has some of their very greatest songs. The first four on Side One; Begin The Begin, These Days, Fall On Me and Cuyahoga. the first two on Side Two: Flowers Of Guatemala,and I Believe. Swan Swan H. Underneath The Bunker and Superman.Two likeable curios, but nothing more than that. And well, that's it really.

What in my book prevents Pageant from being the masterpiece it could so easily have been, are the three remaining tracks. Hyena, What If We Give It Away and Just a Touch. They're old songs, in the case of the latter two, several years old. All three must have been considered and deemed not up to scratch for inclusion on previous albums. Frankly they're still not up to scratch, state of the art production and new-found clarity notwithstanding. They're not fit company for the truly first rate new songs they're sharing record space with here. A rare misstep for a band that had made very few up to then for me. A rare look backwards when they should have kept forging forwards.

This doesn't stop the fine moments on this records from being very, very fine ones indeed. For much of the album the band are flying, almost literally. Most importantly, you can hear Michael Stipe clearly here, for the first time really, you can hear his lyrics, there's no restraint in the delivery, he sounds devishly confident, as frankly do the rest of the band.

This is the moment that it's clear that R.E.M. are ready to embrace their fate, to become bigger and in some ways better, (perhaps better in marketplace ways  as much as aesthetic and artistic ways), and for one strange but definite moment a few years down the line, the actual biggest and best band in the world. For a band which came from where they came from it was a remarkable achievement indeed. Particularly as they continued to maintain the strange, murky, and yes enigmatic quality which had marked them out as special in the first place.

So Pageant is no sell-out. The band never did that really although you could pick out certain songs later on when they blotted their copybook and risked their credibility to a perilous degree. But it was the beginning of the necessary compromise that they needed to make in order to make the break from the essentially cult concern they had been and become something else.

I don't resent them for it. I continued to love them. I always will. They'd provided the soundtrack to my youth after all and continued to do so, well into my adulthood. They're a quite magnificent band. Lifes Rich Pageant is a wonderful record. It's just not quite, not quite the record it might have been. Nevertheless, I recommend it, almost wholeheartedly.

The Wanderers Soundtrack # 5 The Four Seasons

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 47 The Groundhogs - Split - Recommended by Mark Ratcliffe & Stuart Maconie

Song of the Day # 2,318 Don Nix

The Band style reverie. From 1976.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Wanderers Soundtrack # 3 The Four Seasons

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 45 Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica - Recommended by David Lynch

Song(s) of the Day # 2,316 Jetstream Pony

The eponymous album from Croydon / Brighton combo Jetstream Pony slots into an immediate and recognisable groove that you know instinctively it's never likely to stray from. Given that the band are made up of members who also have Wedding Present, Popguns, Trembling Blue Stars and other less well known but bands of similar stripe on their CVs, its hardly surprising. This is C-86 shambling, indie fare.

Thirty years and more away from this I find it difficuly to get really excited by stuff like this, unless it's reignited with genuine vim and fire like recent releases by En Attendant Ana and Strawberry Generation. That's not the case for the most part here but nevertheless it's all fairly pleasantly diverting for a single play, though I doubt I'll be coming back for more.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Wanderers Soundtrack # 1 The Four Seasons

The Wanderers a 1979 film directed by Philip Kaufman is not the finest teenage Rock and Roll films ever made. Pitching its tent some way between American Graffiti and The Warriors, it's diverting, but hardly essential. Where it does excel is in its soundtrack, which is one of the finest every made. Documenting that strange, but strangely exciting period between Elvis enlisting and going to Germany and The Beatles arriving on American shores it's thrill packed from start to finish. The next three weeks here should give testament to that.

Song of the Day # 2,314 Able Tasmans

Thirty year old Flying Nun.

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 43 Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky - Symphony Number 6 'Pathetique' - Recommended by Vini Reilly

More Tim.

Tim Burgess - I Love The New Sky

Tim Burgess has become so ubiqitous of late, not least on here, where I'm drawing to the close of a long series dedicated to his taste and famous friends, that it's almost tiring, Lockdown has seen him hosting a series of much publicised listening parties and he has a new album I Love The New Sky just out to boot and it's so choc full with all the qualities that make him who he is, for better and for worse, that it's almost difficult to know where to start.

Burgess is almost a gift to the likes of me with a quirstless thirst for the new and exciting cultural ephemera as well as cherry picking the best of what has gone before. While his non-stop enthusiasm for all of this is in many respects admirable and infectious, you might also sometimes wish he'd give it a rest. There's something of the eternal adolescent about his relentless positivity and desire to cover all bases, this album could certainly do with some cosidered pruning, (it could lose the last two songs quite happily for starters), but then again that would not make it Burgess product.

So, while this is perfectly worthwhile stuff, it's also rather exhausting. I Love The New Sky is on the surface as inclusive as the man's Twitter parties, a set of twelve songs that speak to themselves as well as to their audience. The songs are faultlessly melodic and chirpy, in deep love with the wells they draw upon without particularly replenishing them. There's plenty of opportunity to trainspot the sources his magpie eyes lock on and pilfer from before moving on to yet another glittering prize his heart is set on.

Because this is the musical equivalent of the Vinyl Adventures book that I'm in the process of chronicling on here. You're in the company of someone intent on telling you about each and every record in his vast collection as well as namedropping each and every one of his famous friends and itemising ths backstory of their friendship. An inveterate list-maker and anecdote teller. Burgess's nearest equivalents are probably Bobby Gillespie and Cameron Crowe, both of whom have a tendency to do the same although in a rather less likable and more self-regarding manner.

This record is certainly likable, even when it strays into to the ridiculous, (as it does frequently if I'm honest). When Burgess performs a song about Warhol, so he can mention Liz Taylor for example, (because the deceased are on his list too), or when he asks you which your favourite Cure album is. He plumps for Pornography by the way, although he adds that it could be any one of three. This is a record with more than enough going for it that you may wish to return to. There are plenty of good songs on here. How often you'll want to listen to it all the way through is another matter. Because if you do, you're likely to need a long lie down by the time you get to the end of it.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Goofy Greats # 21 Tommy James & the Shondells

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 41 George Jones & Tammy Wynette - Golden Ring - Recommended by John Cooper Clarke

Good for John Cooper Clarke. The most hilarious and consoling dysfunctional marriage record ever released. Jones and Wynette got divorced before the album came out.

Song of the Day # 2,312 Lucern Raze

Lucern Raze runs the PNKSLM Skewed Garage recorl label. His new record International Breakdow comes across as a mixtape, highlighting his latest collaborations. It's raw, immediate and exciting. Almost like Link Wray meets Black Lips meets Hinds with beats. Here's one from it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Goofy Greats # 19 Ohio Express

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 39 Pick-a-Dub Featuring King Tubby & The Barrett Bros Arranged by Keith Hudson Recommended by Richard T. Kirk

Song(s) of the Day # 2,310 Fiona Apple

A useful rule of thumb of where records stand in the overall scheme of things, (at least for America), is The Best Ever Albums site, where the listings for past and present records are decided by the users themselves.

In recent weeks Fetch the Bolt Cutters the recently released new album from Fiona Apple has made its way to the top of the charts for 2020 above the latest records from The Strokes, Tame Impala and Grimes. It fits in with records Apple has released previously in being non-conformist, fussy and endlessly idiosyncratic but evidently this particular offering has hit a specific nerve.

She isn't quite an artist without precedent. You might hear echoes of Rickie Lee Jones, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, Laurie Anderson even Suzanne Vega at various points but Apple has certainly quietly carved out her own territory over the course of her career. 

The record might take a few listens for you to decide whether it's really one for you. But it's immediately arresting and marks itself as one to return to in order to form your own evaluation. All power to her elbow. I suspect I'm open to its angry, determined, percussive powers of persuasion.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

George & Paul

On holiday in Tenrife, 1963. Photograph from Astrid Kirchherr.

Goofy Greats # 18 The Olympics

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 38 The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers - Recommended by Nik Void

From Modern Studies to Modern Lovers. Don't find their name prosaic though. It fits. One of the best Rock and Roll records ever made. Remarkable, given that these songs are essentially demos.

Song(s) of the Day # 2,309 Modern Studies

It often takes me a while to get round to listening to new records by bands with prosaic names. I tend to wonder if they put so little thought and energy into naming themselves whether their music is really going to be worth listening to. Such is the case with Glasgow via Lancashire Modern Studies and their latest The Weight of the Sun. Finally got round to it and it's certainly worth a listen.

It's a solid if not spectacular album. Locating itself somewhere between The National, Cowboy Junkies and modern folk. It's smooth and considered. There wasn't sufficient here to get me through the whole album but it's certainly a record with some fine tracks that many will gravitate to so I give you three from it should you wish to do so.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Songs About People # 1,125 Lee Majors

Beastie Boys do one for Six Million Dollar Man.

Perfumed Genius - Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

There's an inhaled breath at the beginning of the latest Perfumed Genius album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately which is telling and affecting, though not hugely surprising. You know where you are with this particular artist. Mike Hadreas, (because it is he), has form in this respect. It's immediately clear what you're getting but you might as well enjoy this hugely narcissicistic form of expression and dive in anyway.

We're in the realms of melodrama and experienced pain of the most gorgeous, melodic but deeply felt sort. File it next to Rufus Wainwright, John Grant, Anthony & The Johnsons and Ezra Furman in your record collection if you don't order these things alphabetically. File it next to Lou Reed, who was the king daddy of this kind of musical expression. This is a very American kind of yearning. Of being beaten up in the locker halls for perceived difference by confused jocks and going back home and not seeking revenge in a violent form but instead in interiority and artistic expression.

This is an extremely rich and layered product. We all know at this point of time that things are getting complicated in terms of human expression, so the arrival of this record is both timely and welcome. It's familiarity doesn't lessen its value or impact. Hadreas has been here before, but now he seems keen to iron out the creases he might have been known for previously for commercial impact and consumprtion. Drawing on similar classical impulses as the contemporaries and equivalents mentioned in the previous paragraph but making sure this is a deeply personal statement at the same time.

I'm only on my second play of the record but already it seems like the most extravagant and gorgeous indulgence. Of course this is a sexual statement. That factor is blatantly clear from the most immediate contact with its textures, but this is not a forbidding or exclusive album in any respect. In fact it's one of the most inviting and immediate albums I've heard this year. It also sounds hugely commercial to me. It's just a shame that it's being released at a point where the general public can't go into record shops and exchange currency for rich, expressive product in the manner we're so used to. Never mind, there are other ways to consume, or at least divulge. This is incredibly good. It repeats on former glories but adds new and unexpected layers to that rich experience.

Goofy Greats # 17 Lovin' Spoonful

Tim Burgess: Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco: # 37 John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure - Recommended by Dennis & Lois

Song of the Day # 2,308 Babe Ruth

Friday, May 15, 2020

Parsnip - Adding Up

A small treat in these difficult times is the release of Adding Up, a new EP from Melbourne's Parsnip.
This band is a small wonder and I've featured them on here before. This comes relatively hot on the heels of their debut album When The Tree Bears Fruit, which I listed on my rundown of my favourite records of the year last year.

The four songs here build on the good work put in their. Parsnip's recipe is fairly basic. Sixties Garage, but poppy not fuzzy, day-glo colour, relentless positivity. Childlike wonder. Short and sweet. What's great to hear is how they're managing to find ways to make this simple formula work for them well and keep things fresh at all times.

The four songs here are all small gems. One of them is quite delightfully called Crossword Cheater. one of them steals the riff from I Can't Explain quite blatantly. It doesn't matter at all when put to such good use. Parsnip show us new ways to have old fashioned fun here.

Goofy Greats # 14 Little Richard

Song(s) of the Day # 2,305 Toner

Another recommendation of a new one from Darren Jones. In his words Nineties Slacker Rock. That's what it is. It's strength, but also its limitation. Worth a listen to remind you of those days if nothing else.