Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Within Your Reach

What if the Beatles released proto-metal “I Want You” or proto-punk “Come Together” in 1963, six years before those tracks ever came out and a million and six years ahead of their time?

What if R.E.M. offered uber-ballad “Everybody Hurts” or the stunningly gorgeous “Nightswimming” in 1984, eight years prior to when they actually came out?

What if The Who did “Love Reign O’er Me” in 1965, right alongside “I Can’t Explain?” What if U2 offered up “Zoo Station” in 1982 as part of October? What if Bob Dylan decided to dial up “Idiot Wind” in 1963 right next to “The Times They Are A Changin’?” What if Bruce Springsteen included “Dancing in the Dark” on his second album?

The notion of each seems nuts, doesn’t it? Because it is. None of those bands/artists were ready for such an evolutionary jump at those points in their careers. They had to grow into themselves, get comfortable in their styles and structures as they introduced themselves to the public and honed their sound. They had to mature before they changed; perfect as the 1963 Beatles were, they still had plenty of room to (to put it in “Cowbell” parlance) explore the studio space in the years to come and add levels and layers to their sound. And there is, naturally, overwhelming evidence that they did just that. Same goes for R.E.M. and The Who and U2 and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

The early incarnations of those bands/artists just weren’t at a place yet where they needed to do the things they would come to do in the ensuing years. It’s just the natural order of musical artists who are in it for the long haul.

So. With all that in mind. I have a question.

How the hell did this happen in 1983?

The reverb. The production. The aching tenderness in his voice. The hoodlum poetics. Those are all things that came to define The Replacements’ sound and came to define Paul Westerberg as the standard bearer post-punk and the godfather of so much of the alt-sound that followed in the 90s.

Only that wasn’t where they were in 1983. It just wasn’t. “Within Your Reach” sticks out like the sorest of sore thumbs amidst the trashy and loose-limbed (and lipped) excess of Hootenanny. It’s not a diamond in the rough, because Hootenanny is a wondrous album that showed just how for real the Mats were. No. It’s more like a diamond in a bucket of unrefined gold.

Nothing the Mats were doing at the time gave any clue they were capable of something like “Within Your Reach.” It sounds like nothing else on Hootenanny. If you listen to the CD it is immediately preceded by “Mr. Whirly,” which alternates between being an insolent thrash stemwinder and a Beatles send up. And it is succeeded by the worldless country raunchromp of “Buck Hill,” where the whole band yells something that sounds like “Buck Hill!” at the climax only I don’t think they’re shouting “Buck Hill!”

And then considering it's also on the same record as the riotous "Lovelines?" The punk-screech mayhem of "Run It?" The iconic sonic blast of "Color Me Impressed?" No. To quote a certain Minneapolis band that grew up right along side them, it makes no sense at all.

It just doesn’t fit, “Within Your Reach.” It’s a relic from a time that hadn’t happened yet, something that even could have seemed out of place on the much more mainstream and (occasionally) subtle Pleased To Meet Me three years later.

It doesn’t fit. Yet it does. Perfectly. It’s the shot out of left field to end all shots out of left field, and it’s not at all an overstatement to say it’s kind of like if “Come Together” showed up on A Hard Day’s Night, right after “I Should Have Known Better” and right before “If I Fell.” And nonetheless “Within Your Reach” is one of the best songs the band ever did. Just like “Come Together” was for the Beatles. Maybe not the best, but one of them, for sure.

It doesn’t fit. Yet it fits perfectly. How the hell did they pull that off?

Possible answer? They—and only they— were The Replacements.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Homeward Bound

There aren't many musicians as accomplished and distinguished as Paul Simon. Only by teaming up with a singer as angelic as Art Garfunkel could he be considered the "lesser" vocalist in any group. He, like Joni Mitchell, quickly became as or more interested in odd chords, voicings and changes than lyrical explorations. And his backing musicians were never less the creamiest of the cream of the crop. But like Eric Clapton post-Cream/Blind Faith, he never really collaborated with a musician who could truly push him as only a legitimate equal could.

Which brings us to the following clip. I don't know the backstory of how or why Paul Simon invited George Harrison to join him on Saturday Night Live, but the pair played a pair of songs, both of which are gems. George was never the strongest singer—it's no insult to say he was no Lennon or McCartney or Garfunkel—but his rough, nasally voice blends gorgeously with Paul Simon's much purer croon. But even more than the pleasant novelty of his different timbre, it's the freedom of his phrasing that lifts this performance into the realm of something truly special.

As the hours and hours of early live Beatles performances make crystal clear, George could not only harmonize beautifully, but he could do so—as could they all—with impossibly perfect timing, all three singers synchronizing absolutely flawlessly.

He doesn't do that here, not even close. Instead, he feels free to lag a bit behind the beat at times, and add little flourishes here and there. And although I'm not enough of a Paul Simon scholar to be able to state definitely, I'm pretty sure this is one of the very, very few times any of his post-Garfunkel partners felt free enough do so. Which, of course, he should have. Because here's the thing: Paul Simon is a hugely important musician, and insanely talented and accomplished. And he can stack his catalog up against absolutely anyone in the history of the music with confidence.

Except that George could pull out "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Taxman" and "If I Needed Someone" and so on and so forth and oh by the way I was in the fucking Beatles did I mention that? And he wins.

Now, I get the impression that George would sooner have pulled out one of his own molars than actually do or say any of that. But the point is, of course, that he didn't have to. There was never any need to, 'cuz everyone always knew it at all times.

Which is how you get a performance like this. George's verse is ever so lovely, the way he plays ever so slightly with the melody, although, really, it's more the way his phrasing is so very him. The way he toys with the dynamics here and there, getting softer or louder, and his timbre, getting rougher or smoother, and most of all the way he sings the title the second time after Simon joins in again, the little roulade he drops, is just subtly spectacular. How he weaves in and out of Simon's vocals so's just...well, listen.

Just check out that "oooh...sweet!" look Paul gets on his face at 2:30, as George plays his little blues run to close things out; it's clear Simon himself knows something special just happened.

Monday, February 25, 2013

If I Needed Someone

So today would have been George Harrison's 70th birthday.

One of the more unlikely twists in the Beatles saga—even after it was clear by late 1964 that the group was the real damn deal—was that George somehow did the not just improbable but damn near impossible and managed to become a legitimate songwriting peer of the greatest pair of songwriters in rock history. By the time of the White Album and Abbey Road it was undeniable—you can't seriously argue "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" aren't the equal, at the very least, of anything else on that brilliant album—and yet for my money, with the handy benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it was clear far earlier, when his finest Rubber Soul song stood proudly shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such masterpieces as "Norwegian Wood," "Nowhere Man," and "Girl" and quite frankly showed "Michelle" up.

And the lads required all of one take for the basic track, and then about an hour the next session to add all the vocals. I mean just stop it. There's being the best and then there's just rubbing it in.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hey Jude rehearsals

How. Have. I. Never. Seen. This?

As John himself admitted, years later, no matter the interpersonal tensions, whenever they started to play together, it was always great.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: I Wanna Be Sedated

"There are six of 'em. That's why they're called the Sex Pistols. And they all sleep in the same bed." 

I was an unusually gullible kid, but even at 11 years old, this didn't sound right to me. For one thing, I saw how "six" and "sex" were related, kinda sorta, but...yeah, no, I was pretty sure, with all the wisdom of a Catholic school sixth-grader, that the "sex" in their name was all about, well, sex.

But they sounded pretty shocking and gross, all the same—I may not have bought the pseudo-homonym thing but everyone in one bed? Sure, could be—as did the entire punk scene. In 1979, punks weren't really much of a presence in suburban verging on rural Connecticut—I mean, we were still finding the notion of hippies hiding in the woods a terrifying thought. (True story.) So the few photos I'd seen of punks, combined with the whispered tales, were powerful juju. (Never mind that the final Sex Pistols show was already a year in the past at that point.) And not in the way it was for others I've known, who heard similar stories and were immediately dying to listen to the stuff. No, what I heard about punk simply scared me the hell away.

I was a hardcore Beatles/Stones/Who fan back then, with lots of Bowie, Clapton, Springsteen, Floyd, Zep as well. Punk? Thank you, no. Not for the likes of me, that stuff. My tastes were more refined. (Well...I did like Aerosmith and the Doors. Back then.) None of that barbaric punk fare.

And that's how it went for the next many years. Not a note of punk defiled my pristine ears. Until the day my brother came home from college and played a song that...

"What...what is this?" I asked.

"The Ramones," he said casually.

But...but...but...I thought. The Ramones are...punk

This was punk? This couldn't be punk. Punk was nasty and scary and stupid and gross and this...this was awesome.


And that was that. I mean, it wasn't, not really. It was still years before I investigated the likes of the Dead Kennedys, for instance—and, oddly, quite a bit longer before I acquired Nevermind the Bollocks, an album I was literally a bit scared to put on and which preceded to rip my ears off the first time I heard it and which I still think is maybe the most underrated classic masterpiece ever from the most underrated major band ever. And although I took 20 years off from listening to almost all the artists of my youth, I never really turned my back on (most of) them.

But it was those four misfits from Queens that not only started me down that wider, far more varied and interesting path, but in the meantime prepared me for the likes of R.E.M. and the Replacements, which to a kid from suburban verging on rural Connecticut in the mid-80s had some stuff that pretty damn punk. Which is why, despite later finding other Ramones songs I may prefer in many ways ("Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," I do so love you), "I Wanna Be Sedated" will always have a very special place in my heart. The insanely goofily fun lyrics, the catchy melody, the ringing non-guitar-solo-guitar-solo? Punk or no—and punk it is—it had me at hello. And then they hit first the key change and then the "bam-bam-bam-bam" section, the clouds part and a mighty hand emerges holding the third tablet which reads only "LET IT ROCK." And it's clear how these guys are simply part of a line that stretches forward to Nirvana and Green Day and back to the Beatles and Elvis and Hank Williams and Robert Johnson and it is good.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Smells Like Teen Spirit

So. Kurt Cobain would have been 45 years old today. There've been lots of posts about him today, from running old, little-seen clips, to using aging software to show what he might have looked like.

But one of the first things I always think of when I think of him is the mischievous look he gets around 0:27 here. It's not their greatest performance of their greatest song, but it's pretty damn great anyway. Krist Novoselic appears typically hammered, Dave Grohl attacks the drums like literally no one else—save possibly Animal—ever had before (including, yes, even the mighty Bonham), and Kurt himself seems to want to sorta phone in the performance...but keeps forgetting himself and accidentally being transcendant.

He should have been around longer. But, jeez louise, what he gave us in the meantime.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Hero In Me

I confess I really don’t know too much about Jeffrey Gaines. Aside from the fact that he can sing well and is pretty darn handsome.

Moving on.

I heard him first in the early 90s when pals Steve and Tim were suggesting that I give a listen to his self-titled debut album, which he released in 1992. It was relatively gentle rock-n-roll, in that it was heavy on heartfelt lyrics and populated by songs that if they weren’t ballads, they were mid-tempo at best. And his subject matter was deeply personal—eschewing fatherhood, losing love, missing out on big chances in life for fear of failing. Heavy (and somewhat heady) stuff.

By and large it worked. The album isn’t perfect, but at its best resembles the kind of confessional writing that artists like Seal and Tori Amos specialize in. His songs are largely based around him and his acoustic guitar, and while some production pervades the recordings, his lyrics and his messages of longing and loss tend to take centerstage.

His cover of Peter Gabriel’s glorious “In Your Eyes” may be his best-known song—somewhat odd for a singer-songwriter—but it’s that first track on his first album that wins the slot on today’s Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday – Jeffrey Gaines – “Hero In Me”

The song is three verses built around a simple chord progression, using the same narrative pattern for all, and it grows in volume into a splendid chorus each time before retreating quietly at the start of the next verse. Lyrically the song is fascinating; it’s about being afraid to take the chances you feel you should be taking, being afraid to fail and/or afraid to move on, and instead choosing to stay put and simply think about what might have been.

Each verse of the song examines a different person going through this personal state of abeyance—an old man filled with regrets who has “lived as long as he possibly can” (an amazing little piece of writing, BTW), a young woman who is too concerned about what others may think to make a decision, and a couple that has been crushed by the inertia of a doomed relationship (“She’s lost her sparkle, he’s lost his fire”). No one in this song is anywhere close to being happy.

But as each verse winds into the pre-chorus, Gaines makes an unusual writer’s choice by turning the focus back to himself, and conveying to the listener that these people’s problems are, in fact, his problems. The sudden transition is a gutsy move, but he is consistent and clear enough for it to work.

And as I grow older
And there’s so much that I do not know
I’m drawn to those who are bolder
And go where no one dares to go

And then comes the chorus, where “Hero In Me” really gets its amazing shine. It builds on the same lovely basic chord progression with a lush but tasteful amount of orchestration behind it, and the narrator leaves no doubt he is painfully aware of his inability to move. Yet still can’t do anything about it, so he simply chooses to embrace his denial. And the result is sad, lonesome poetry.

And I sleep
And I dream of the person I might have been
And I’m free again
And I speak
Like someone who’s been to the highest peaks
And back again
And I swear
That my grass is greener than anyone’s
Until I believe again
And I wake
And this dream fades away and I face the day
And I realize
That there’s got to be some hero in me

“Hero in Me” is a song that could have drifted into wishy-washy naval-gazing and nothing more had it not been for the deft restraint Gaines shows in his storytelling. The song ends unresolved—by the time he sings “There’s got to be some hero in me” for the last time nothing has changed about the narrator or any of the characters he sings about. But there isn’t a hint of “woe is me” in the writing. It’s more a tale of “these are the things we do to ourselves.”

Beauty in music doesn’t always translate into happiness; indeed, some of the most beautiful songs that we have fallen in love with are terribly, desperately sad. (Examples are everywhere: “Yesterday,” “As Tears Go By,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “For the Good Times” and a personal favorite look at despondency, “Memphis.") 

In “Hero in Me” Jeffrey Gaines has expertly crafted a sad song and a beautiful song, a tale of people wrapped in their own loneliness—distant, hopeless, crushing loneliness—and with no chance of ever emerging. But the beauty is in how he tells it, and how he allows us in as we listen, hoping he’s not talking about us.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

18 Lovely Love Songs We Love to Love

You know. For Valentine's Day.

Here are our offerings of our favorite of the love song genre. Not all happy, not all sappy, but all indeed involving the "L" word. Our 18 favorites, to be exact.

Why 18? Because 19 would be ridiculous.

18) “Angel Eyes”—John Hiatt: This was the first dance for my wife and me at our wedding. Such a perfect tale of the underdog winning out. - DT

17) “Black Eyed Susan”—Paul Westerberg: What says "romance" more than a guy serenading a young junkie? Weird choice, I know, but the tenderness with which Westerberg treats the girl, while never shying away from the very real problems, gets me every time. And, of course, it's a lovely recording, suffused with that very late night/early morning feel from the very first sound. — SP

16) “If I Had $1,000,000”—Barenaked Ladies: Not-so-deep down it really is a pretty simple love song, all these things one would do for the woman (or man) he/she loves. And “I’d build a treefort in our yard; you could help, it wouldn’t be that hard” is just so adorable. – DT

15) "Martha My Dear"—The Beatles: Potentially the single most misogynistic song in the rock and roll catalog becomes instead an unbelievably sweet paean to the various kinds of love when you discover that Paul was (mainly) singing to his beloved sheepdog. Silly? You bet. But also overflowing with the kind of joy that can't be faked. — SP

14) “Because the Night”—Bruce Springsteen: No one said love couldn’t be desperate. This isn’t candies and flowers love. This is using your last dime at the payphone to desperately call her and tell her what you need to tell her love. – DT

13) "Wonderful Tonight"—Eric Clapton: Sure, it's overplayed to death. So what? Get past the fact that you've heard it a few hundred times more often than you'd have liked and you find a gorgeous melody caressing some of the sweetest lyrics ever, one of those few gushy gushy love songs that's not cloying. (And not just because the song's autobiographical and he was actually annoyed by how long she was taking to get ready when he wrote it...although, yes, that makes it even better.) — SP

12) “Golden Lady”—Stevie Wonder: “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life” is better known and equally brilliant. But Stevie never wrote a more beautiful song. And just think what a mouthful that statement is. – DT

11) "Freak Scene"—Dinosaur Jr: J Mascis seems to be one of rock's great misanthropes, which ain't no small feat. And yet this ode to his long-time, vitally important yet troubled friendship with bassist/singer Lou Barlow ("Sometimes I don't thrill you, sometimes I think I'll kill you, just don't let me fuck up, will you? 'cuz when I need a friend it's still you.") stands out as one of their sweetest songs, as well as the crunchiest rock and roll on this list. — SP

10) “The Luckiest”—Ben Folds: When you know, you know. Even if you’d never met, you still somehow know. Ben and his piano deliver the goods without lapsing at all into cheesiness. – DT

9) "Oh My Love"— John Lennon: The loveliest melody Lennon ever wrote—you heard me—set against an impossibly delicate musical backdrop, with his piano and George's guitar spun together like the most fragile gossamer, all married to simple lyrics that sound like an ancient Buddhist koan. — SP

8) “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”—Bob Dylan: Even when everything falls apart, love remains. “I’ll see you in the skies above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love” is a stunning sentiment. - DT

7) "The Heart of the Matter"—Don Henley: ...really? Don Henley? Hey, even a blind pig and all that, and in this case he found an Italian White Alba truffle. — SP

6) “Unsatisfied”—The Replacements: Sad as hell, to be sure. But you can only write something this lost and lonely if love was once there, and once meant an awful lot to you. – DT

5) "I've Been Waiting"—Matthew Sweet: In which the Brian Wilson of the post-punk era creates a simple love song that puts its hooks into your skin from the first moment and never lets go, pristine harmonies, funny lyrics and a searing guitar solo combining to perfectly encapsulate aurally the feel of new love after a long, lonely spell. — SP

4) “Woman”—John Lennon: Maybe not his most poignant love letter to Yoko (that would be “Oh My Love”) but it's his last one, and maybe his most direct. And that matters. A lot. – DT

3) "Two for the Road"—Bruce Springsteen: When Springsteen, long-time famous loner, invites someone along for the ride, you know that ain't an offer extended lightly. That the guy who wrote "Born to Run" seemed to finally be advocating for the deep-seated need for a partner ("I didn't see it coming but, girl, now I know it takes one for the running but two for the road") actually made me reconsider my plans for life. — SP

2) “All My Loving”—The Beatles: Sweet, pop, heartfelt and perfect. The Beatles have about 60 that would qualify for this list. I choose this one. – DT

1) "God Only Knows"—The Beach Boys: Simultaneously the most romantic and the most realistic take on love from a band still generally best known for their simple songs of fun, fun, fun. "If you should ever leave me, well, life would still go on, believe me." Bwah? No, no, no. That's not how love songs are supposed to go. "The world could show nothing to me, so what good would living do me?" Ah...there 'tis. Yes. If you leave me, I'm not going to just curl up and die, victorian notions and Harlequin romances to the contrary. But I might as well, since I could never, ever be happy again. Yeah. That. That's love. — SP

Friday, February 8, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Weather With You

Favorite Song Friday kicks off today with a question.

Whither Crowded House?

Shouldn’t they have been huge?

Granted they came about at a time in the late 1980s when glam/Aquanet rock ruled the roost, but still, they had the pedigree and the talent to shine through any era of musical darkness.

For starters, they hailed from Down Under at a time when things from Down Under were pretty popular. Sure, Men at Work had already come and gone, but Paul Hogan had thoroughly (if inexpicably) enraptured America by this time with his “Crocodile Dundee” movies, and even something or someone called Yahoo Serious had broken out as a multi-media star. Australia and New Zealand, they were happening places at the end of the Reagan era.

That’s where Crowded House came from. New Zealander Neil Finn, the front man, joined with Australians Paul Hester and Nick Seymour (and later Neil’s brother Tim) to form a band that seemed to have it all. The songs were catchy and bright, and even when they slowed it down for the ballads there was an easy hummability to it. They employed Beatle-ish harmonies as few bands of that day could. They knew how to write meaningful lyrics—sometimes funny and sometimes quite obscure, they always fit in with the quirky sensibilities the band clearly felt at home catering to.

Hell, they even had an impressive past—the Finn brothers had been responsible earlier in the decade (and even a little before, I think) for post-punk forerunners Split Enz, a gonzo little band that traversed the lines between prog and new wave and was responsible for one of the most irresistible songs of the 1980s or, frankly, any decade: “I Got You.”

Crowded House’s eponymous debut came out in 1986 and it was among the first CDs I ever recall listening to. And I will insist today and tomorrow and forever that few bands ever began their recording career as audaciously as this band did, where from the very first moment the music begins (with leadoff track "Mean to Me")  Neil Finn owns the room, belting out with nothing else around him, “She came alllllll the way from Ameri, she had a blind date with destiny...” From that moment you began to listen, Crowded House was exciting and delightful and begged you to hear more.

It’s their third album (and arguably their best), 1991’s Woodface, that delivers to us today’s installment of Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday – Crowded House – “Weather With You”

“Weather With You” is one of the most unusually structured songs I have ever heard. First and foremost it really is more like three different songs in one, and each movement is somewhat detached from the other. Which is not uncommon when listening to, say, a song by Yes (think “And You and I” or “Starship Trooper”) or something else in the prog variety. But a 3:45 radio-friendly song? Much more unusual.

The song begins with a vaguely Eastern tint to it, a loping and curious beat that doesn’t give much of a hint as to where the song is headed. Particularly once the cryptic lyrics start:

Walking ‘round the room singing ‘Stormy Weather’
At 57 Mount Pleasant Street
Well it’s the same room but everything’s different
You can fight the sleep but not the dream

The second movement section of the song kicks in with a much more deliberate signature, one that seems more in touch with the band’s new wave roots. Its one consistency with the first part of the song is something that quickly becomes one of the song’s trump cards: the airtight harmonies of the Finn Brothers. Even though the lyrics, again, don’t give much of a clue as to what is really going on.

Things ain’t cookin’ in my kitchen
Strange affliction wash over me
Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire
Couldn’t conquer the blue sky

The writing is really kind of exquisite, even if it doesn’t make much sense, with an interior meter and rhyme scheme that helps to build a tension that makes us truly curious as to what’s coming next.

And then, we’re back to part one, those Eastern inflections in the guitar line taking us back out of the more standard rhythm and into, yet again, more strange but highly enticing images:

Well there’s a small boat made of china
It’s going nowhere on the mantelpiece
Do I lie like a loungeroom lizard?
Or do I sing like a bird released?

The “Huh?” factor hits record levels as the Finns sing those gorgeous final two lines, and then, in astonishing fashion, the song instantly launches into the third and final part. It turns on a dime and brings us to a place where everything we have invested in this song pays off in spades.

The third section, which also serves as the chorus, somehow, someway perfectly resolves the first two by simply delivering to us glowing pop splendor. This final part, where the song’s title at last comes to the fore and where we will remain until the song is over, is a magnificent and soaring affirmation, with sweet bounding chords backing the Finn Brothers as they sing over and over again the same odd but, somehow, wonderfully fitting lines:

Everywhere you go
Always take the weather with you
Everywhere you go
Always take the weather

They sing the verse through twice, and then pause for some spooky instrumentation, before coming back in full tilt with another eight-line reading that makes “Weather With You” indelible and infinite. A final run-through of the chorus, first from Neil in near a cappella mode and then finally with the full band joining in, ends the song with an almost redemptive joy.

Again, the beauty of “Weather With You” is how all three parts somehow work together and ultimately blend seamlessly into a fully realized (albeit very much offbeat) love song. No answers are given as to what a china boat has to do with it, or where Mount Pleasant Street might be, or why we're involving Julius Caesar at all. But we don’t really need to know, do we? Because like with all great music, the finished product is all that matters, and we get it. Somehow through all the obliqueness and the stylistic irreverence of what we just heard, we get it.

A song like "Weather With You" (not to mention other magnificent tracks from throughout their career like "Distant Sun" and "Better Be Home Soon" and their first and biggest hit, "Don't Dream It's Over") really make me wonder why Crowded House wasn't bigger, why they weren't, say, one of the bigger and more popular bands of the 1990s.

But like the magic of "Weather With You," the answer is something we likely won't find. And likely don't need to.

“Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you.”

Sounds good to me. Whatever it means, it sounds so, so good.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

R.E.M. and the "What If..." Game

What if Elvis sought help in 1970 or so and was able to live as long a life as a recording artist as, say, Johnny Cash?

What if Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain had made it past 27? What might their music over the 10-15 years that followed have sounded like?

What if Buddy Holly lived to see 23?

What if the Rolling Stones actually acted like they gave a shit starting in, say, 1973 and running up to present day? Or at least through the 80s?

What if ABBA hadn’t made that deal with Satan and instead had focused on selling farming equipment?

And the biggee—what if John Lennon wasn’t killed? Would/could those rumors of a Beatles reunion have come to fruition?

It’s a fun one, to be sure, and can lead to hours of fun parlor game-type scenarios. What would that next Beatles record have sounded like, if they took the best of everything they were doing as solo artists? What would SMiLE have sounded like had Brian Wilson been able to keep himself together, or if Mike Love had been left in a shallow ditch outside Bakersfield in 1964 and therefore rendered unable to question, undermine and torment Brian for all those peak creative years? What might the follow-ups to Electric Ladyland and In Utero have sounded like? And on and on.

Here’s one Scott and I have kicked around. Not quite possessing the gravitas of a Beatles reunion or a long-lifed Elvis, but still, an interesting one.

What if R.E.M. had called it quits when Bill Berry left the band?

That would mean the band would have existed from 1980 to 1997, and would have offered a career discography of 10 albums, plus an EP (Chronic Town) and a collection of B-Sides (Dead Letter Office). It would have placed their overall output somewhere in the ballpark of The Who (pre-Keith Moon death ) and not far from that of The Beatles. It would have made for quite a full career, that is to say.

To many, including the two of us here at Reason To Believe, R.E.M. kinda did cease to exist as R.E.M. after Bill’s departure following the 1996 album New Adventures in Hi Fi and the ensuing 1997 tour. Yes, they produced some fine music (“Imitation of Life” is one of the best songs they ever did, and any band would have loved to have “Daysleeper” and “The Great Beyond” in its canon). And they always conducted themselves well in that they never short-shrifted the fans or, really, gave way in terms of integrity. They toured, they released albums and they kept themselves out there as an active, relevant part of the scene. All cool.

Two things:

1)     Once Bill Berry left they simply weren't as good. Tried and true and earnest and all the rest, but just never again quite as good as they were. They never produced an album without Bill Berry on drums that outdid or equaled anything they did with Bill Berry on drums. And Lord knows they tried—five full albums followed his departure.

2)      Pre-1997, this was a band, in the truest and rarest sense of the word – they were as fine an example of the “sum of the parts” equation any band that ever lived, including the Beatles and U2. (The list of bands that never changed parts during their full run—sorry Pete Best, but I’m afraid you don’t count—is ridiculously short). And R.E.M. made such an amazing effort over its career to focus on the band—every song credited to Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe speaks wonders to that—that it really is hard to imagine an incarnation of R.E.M. that didn’t include one of these four members.

So. In this “What if…” scenario. Let’s say New Adventures in Hi Fi was in fact their final album. It would have been quite a final record, to be sure, as it was by all accounts at least a B+ effort, very possibly even higher (I for one grade it as a 4 ½ star album, using the tried and true Rolling Stone 5-star system, which would mean it’s right around A- range).

New Adventures represents much of the very best of what R.E.M. did; it can be looked at as a sort of offbeat career retrospective with its 14 songs. In some ways it plays almost like a “Greatest Hits" album made up of entirely new material, if that makes sense.

It had shout-backs to their early baroque southern gothic style (“Undertow,” “Be Mine,” and the piano on “Electrolite” even loosely evokes “Perfect Circle.”) It had the melancholic moodiness that came to define their early-90s sound (“New Test Leper,” “E-Bow the Letter”). It had glam-infused ragers that would have been right at home on Monster (“The Wake Up Bomb,” “Leave”) and guitar-heavy windups that easily recalled the best of Life’s Rich Pagent (“Departure”). And it had the mid-tempo folk-flavored sound that, jangle or not, became R.E.M.’s brand (“Bittersweet Me”).

So as a parting shot from arguably the greatest American band in rock-n-roll history, it had it all.

And if we play this scenario out to the fullest…what if “Electrolite,” the final song on New Adventures, was the last we ever heard of the band?

Hold that thought for a quick digression.

Whichever way you look at the end of the Beatles career, either by the last album they ever recorded (Abbey Road) or the last album they ever released (Let it Be), no band will ever offer a farewell to their fans the way the Fab 4 did. Whether it was John remarking at the end of “Get Back” that “we hope we passed the audition,” or the entire band joining behind Paul at the end of “The End” for “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love to make,” a more perfect or poignant departure will never be offered. It’s just not possible.

R.E.M. would have come close, though, with "Electrolite."

20th Century go to sleep
Really deep—we won’t blink

Your eyes are burning holes through me
I’m not scared
I’m outta here

That’s how “Electrolite” ends.

Imagine if that was the last we ever heard of R.E.M. Bidding farewell to the century that made them, announcing in their always cool and somewhat oblique way that they are not of the next century, that’s it's been real but…bye y’all. We're outta here.

It almost seems by design to be intended that way. Michael Stipe repeats the final line, sans band, at the very end—“I’m outta here,” his voice echoing alone in the studio.

Not at all unlike the way things started more than a decade earlier, when "Radio Free Europe" opened up Murmur and introduced R.E.M. to the world with a two word declaration,  “Decide yourself.” The first echoey words we ever heard from Michael Stipe, at the very beginning of the very first song of the very first album R.E.M. ever offered, were those. “Decide yourself.”

We did, of course. We decided we wanted them to stick around for a long, long while.

R.E.M. bucked convention for its entire career. From the early muted lyrics to the ending that came 31 years later with a press release (seriously, in rock-n-roll, who does that?), to crediting every single song to all the band members to eschewing band cover photos to never once being knocked off their trajectory of doing the kinds of music they wanted to be doing. They did things their way, from beginning to end. And that it indeed one of the most basic things we love(d) about them

But if a career that began with “Decide yourself” had ended with “I’m outta here?”

As Papa hisself once offered with his own unique ending, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Friday, February 1, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: too late to turn back now

The mind goes strange places as you're drifting off to sleep. I was thinking of the song I was going to write about this Favorite Song Friday when one of the following songs suddenly popped into my head, the first time I've thought of it in quite a while. It led to one of the others which led to the final, the first time I'd thought about the connection between the three, songs I love by three different artists, two of whom I like and one I really don't. And now it's all this.

I'd never heard of David Ackles until a few years ago, when his 1972 album, American Gothic—produced by Bernie Taupin—got a rave write-up in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Elvis Costello and Elton John gushed to each other on Spectacle, the EC talk show, about how great Ackles was. And it turns out Phil Collins was a huge fan, too, so what more recommendation did I possibly need?

I was so excited when I finally scored the album. And then it turns out he's not for me. He's very good, I guess, but when I later learned he'd gone into musical theatre after his recording career stalled, it made sense: that's what his stuff sounds like, like a singer-songwriter doing musical theatre. And since that's maybe my least favorite genre, it wasn't likely we were ever going to connect the way I'd hoped.

With one exception. "Waiting for the Moving Van" knocked me out the first time I heard it and has continued to ever since. It's still got that show tune vibe but without the big production, the lyrics are the focus... and, my God, the lyrics.
The front door has that noisy hinge I never did repair.
You used to hear it late at night and meet me on the stair.
Well, I work the daylight, now; I'm always home by six.
Now, there's lots of time and nothing left to fix,
Except the things I am trying not to think of while I can,
Waiting for the moving van to come.

The false bravado at the end, when he claims he's got so much to plan and do to get ready for his new life, when it's clear to everyone except him—and probably even him himself, deep down—that it's just a front, and that he's got nowhere to go and nothing to do and no one to see, is just heartbreaking. Because who hasn't been there? Even those of us lucky enough to have never really been there have been close enough for jazz.

The death throes—or, in the case of "Waiting for the Moving Van," the wake, I guess, maybe the sitting shivah—of a relationship is usually sad, maybe even tragic. But that doesn't begin to touch the horror of Okkervil River's "Savannah Smiles."

I like Okkervil River. I both love and hate "Savannah Smiles." Love it because, well, it's amazing. Hate it because I find it hard not to cry when I hear it—and I wish I were exaggerating. It deals with a father stumbling upon the diary of his daughter, home for a visit, and discovering to his bewilderment, shock and horror, that she's become an adult movie star.
Photos on the wall—she's my baby, she's my baby doll
Is she someone I don't know at all? Is she someone I betrayed?
It's a grey day in the fall and the radio's singing down the hall
And I rise to turn it off 'cause all I'm seeing is her face age eight 

My God, the ticking of the clock in the background and the melody mirrored on a child's toy xylophone as he desperately tries to figure out what he did or didn't do that could have possibly led her down this path is just...I can't even. I can't even.

And we're ending with the song that kicked the whole train of thought off, since it's positively cheery by comparison. Another relationship is dying or dead but this time the singer's raging against the dying of the light...or, more accurately, crooning warbly his resistance with the kind of nimble wordplay I normally dislike but which here seems wonderfully elegant and appropriate.
I haven't seen you in ages but it's not as bleak as it seems
We still dance on whirling stages in my Busby Berkeley dreams

The tears have stained all the pages of my True Romance magazines
We still dance in my outrageously beautiful Busby Berkeley dreams
Sure, he's lying to himself even more bluntly than the singer of "Waiting for the Moving Van" but he's doing it so darn defiantly and so gosh darn romantically. If a relationship has to die a painful death, best to paper it over with a fancy façade, I think. Illusion is what keeps us going, and sweet is better than bitter.