Friday, November 18, 2022

REM #1: Murmur (1983)

Release Date: April 12, 1983

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter

Track List: Radio Free Europe; Pilgrimage; Laughing; Talk About the Passion; Moral Kiosk; Perfect Circle

Side Two: Catapult; Sitting Still; 9-9; Shaking Through; We Walk; West of the Fields

One of the most influential debut albums of the 1980s, Murmur introduced REM to the world with a stately grace. 

The iconic opening track "Radio Free Europe" is a clarion call. The repeat play potential of the song is unlimited. It stands in contrast to the earlier single version, which is more punk in delivery and attitude. On Murmur, "Radio Free Europe" is diamond layered with arcane imagery, a technicolor light show of the mind. Stipe's sublime vocal promises something new for all willing to heed the call. 

The anthemic "Pilgrimage" thumps along with Stipe's mysterious vocals alluding to a spiritual journey but not like Chaucer. The grotesque imagery of "two-headed cows" and "broken lips" are contrasted with Berry's adventurous drumming. "Laughing" is irresistibly melodic with Peter Buck's guitar and Stipe's vocal blending perfectly. A snapshot of a mother and her two sons possibly in search of a better situation, finding peace through humor and each other.  

"Talk About the Passion" features more melodic hooks and stirrings of transcendence. "Moral Kiosk" is  opaque and sublime, pushing the boundaries of the pop song's potential. The idea of a moral kiosk, post-religion in its implication, suits the album's allusions to a spiritual quest. "Perfect Circle" is proof pop songs can be beautiful. A lullaby of sorts, also a hymn for a world engulfed with consumerism and ill-shaped opinions.

A wave of childhood nostalgia permeates "Catapult", it's got the drive of a Gen-X TV commercial jingle by way of William Wordsworth. "Sitting Still" is a tossed of track of fragmented lyrics and Byrds like harmonies. "9-9" could be the most cryptic track, expressing an existential unease. "Shaking Through" uses more disjointed imagery, sonically all over the place and it's great. 

"We Walk" is catchy and ominous with references to the French Revolution. "West of the Fields" closes the album and like "Pilgrimage" and inverts and turns spiritual ideas inside out - hinting at an eternal journey - even after death. 

Murmur breathed life into American music during the mid-1980s. With their hardscrabble origins, REM brought a poetic sensibility of a romantic and gothic variety, drifting between forebodings of joy and dread. The songwriting eschewed narratives in favor of expressionism, welcoming to all listeners, interactive by design.

For Albino Carillo (1964-2022)

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Albums of 1972: Al Green: Let's Stay Together

Release Date: January 31, 1972

Produced by Willie Mitchell

Side One: Let's Stay Together; La-la For You; So You're Leaving; What is This Feeling; Old Time Lovin'

Side Two: I've Never Found a Girl (who loves me like you do); How Can You Mend a Broken Heart; Judy; It Ain't No Fun To Me

The Reverend Al Green's fourth LP Let's Stay Together produced one of the biggest soul hits of the 1970s "Let's Stay Together", a number one single on the America charts, a standard in the purest sense. The additional eight tracks on the album are textured with Green's crystalized vocals and a sturdy horn section.

"Let's Stay Together" is the timeless recording that opens the record, a song of devotion and perseverance. "La-la For You" power lies in its understatement in the vocal and the production, precision piano chords and a subtle percussion defying gravity. "So You're Leaving" brings unease and moodiness in contrast to the previous two tracks. The intense, but spare, production is especially prevalent on "What is this feeling?" The intense but steady groove on "Old Time Lovin' brings side one to a close. 

Side two opens with the upbeat "I've Never Found a Girl." The longest track at over six minutes is a meditative version the Bee Gees hit "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Green's quiet vocal is resilient, the narrative evolves in Green's vocals that tell their own story. "Judy" celebrates a new love, while "It Ain't No Fun to Me" is a breakup song ending the record on an uneasy note.

An album for all seasons and moods due to the depth of human emotion it draws upon, Let's Stay Together has aged with grace.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Albums of 1972: Big Star: #1 Record

Release Date: April 24, 1972

Members: Chris Bell (guitar, vocals); Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals); Andy Hummel (bass, vocals); Jody Stephens (drums)

Produced by John Fry

Track List: Side One: Feel; The Ballad of El Goodo; In the Street; Thirteen; Don't Lie to Me; The India Song

Side Two: When My Baby's Beside Me; My Life is Right; Give Me Another Chance; Try Again; Watch the Sunrise; ST/100

I always imagined all three Big Star records as these floating talismans waiting for down on their luck devotees of rock to unearth. To paraphrase the Rolling Stone encyclopedia "there was this band who recorded a few records and vanished, but they synthesized the sound of The Beatles, The Who, and The Byrds" and it was something worth skipping a few days of school to seek out. 

Now that multiple reissues and deluxe releases, books, and documentaries the story of Big Star has been told many times. One must feel vindicated their music's been canonized, but also rueful over a selfish sense of loss. 

As pointed out by many before me, the power pop sound of Big Star may have seemed out of fashion in 1972. Maybe, yet the mystique of Lennon/McCartney still loomed over much of the '70s music scene. Time never moves in a linear path with cultural history. 

Alex Chilton, a teenage sensation as lead singer for The Box Tops, would continue to reinvent himself through the 1970s and Big Star marked a specific step in that evolution. Chris Bell, a prodigy on the Memphis music scene as songwriter and session guitarist, would share a short lived but fruitful collaboration with Chilton. 

"Feel" opens the album with punchy guitar riff that build into lacerating waves of sonic harmonies, punctuated by Bell's soulful vocal espousing truculence and defeat. Defeat edging into despair marks a recurring motif on the album. "The Ballad of El Goodo" lives in such a head space but allows a firm resolve to take hold as well. Chilton sings "It gets so hard in times like these to hold on" transcends being mere self-help prattle, but a mantra of defiance.

"In the Street" creates an indelible scene of youthful exuberance and malaise with Byrds harmonies and Harrison guitar leads. Chilton's "Thirteen" proves the record has way more heft than being derivative of British Invasion. At 2 minutes and 34 seconds, the ballad transcends love song clich├ęs and becomes pure poetic emotion.

"Don't Lie to Me" goes for a more conventionally produced rock sound, a defiance rearing its head as uncompromising anger. Bassist Andy Hummel contributed the baroque psychedelia of "The India Song" conjuring a blissed out atmosphere of stately decadence. 

Side two begins with "When My Baby's Beside Me", an array of delightful hooks that can be taken as pop song parody or pure sincerity. "My Life is Right" hints at a spirituality in a joyful song celebrating connection. 

"Give Me Another Chance" by Chilton begins the acoustic sequence of songs that close out the record. Melancholy and regretful, the Beatles style harmonies add poignancy to the track. "Try Again" glimpses into the cosmic nature of heartbreak. The opulent "Watch the Sunrise" could be a Neil Young closer, sunny ruminations after the dark night of the soul. "ST/100" serves as a coda to the comedown that is the second side of #1 Record

An album of dimming romanticism in the face of long odds, the first Big Star record stands as a metaphysical victory. Bell's sensitive vocals and intricate production skills alongside Chilton's exuberance reign on high 50 years later. 

Friday, July 1, 2022

The Albums of 1982: The Alan Parsons Project: Eye in the Sky

 Release Date: May 1982

Members: Alan Parsons; Eric Wolfson; 

Produced by Alan Parsons

Track List: Side One: Sirius; Eye on the Sky; Children of the Moon; Gemini; Silence and I; You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned; Psychobabble; Mammagamma; Step by Step; Old and Wise

Eye in the Sky was the sixth studio album by the Alan Parsons Project, featuring two of their most played songs "Sirius" and "Eye in the Sky."

"Sirius" serves as trippy prologue suggesting excitement and menace with its synth thumping riffs (Parsons made little money when sports teams began using it). "Eye in the Sky" would've made for an excellent theme for a James Bond film accompanying a Maurice Bender credit sequence. "Children of the Moon" leans into a Sci-Fi prog rock vibe, imagining humans on the moon watching the earth decay. "Gemini" is a two minute New Age hymn of melodic vocals. "Silence and I" is the longest track with a a melodic instrumental placed in between melancholy musings. 

"You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned" is a pleasant enough power pop with surreal imagery. "Psychobabble" questions dream interpretation, "Mammagamma" is pulsating instrumental that's pure cinematic. "Step by Step" also deals with mental health, taking things day by day in catchy soft rock mode. Closing track "Old and Wise" is a ballad musing on mortality and gaining knowledge, bracketed by a syrupy string section. 

An album emblematic of 1982 with its use of studio technology and themes of emotional and spiritual malaise, Eye in the Sky sustains an aura of blissful detachment.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

In Search of the perfect synch . . .


The practice of synching rock albums with movies came to popular attention when fans started playing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. They noted the uncanny connections between the lyrics on the album with what's going in the film. Over the years there's been a small community seeking out the perfect synch - there's websites. It's been pointed out by many that putting any piece music against any visual media and they will start to synch. There's something mysterious about it. Recently, I experimented a little on my own. An important approach is to find an album and a film with similar themes. So play any Radiohead or Pink Floyd album against a dystopian Sci-Fi and you'll start to see connections. Ideally, the synch will reveal multiple layers of meaning within the film and the music. Here are some of the ones I tried.

 (12 Monkeys - Radiohead: Ok Computer- Terry Gilliam's 1995 dystopia dealing with time travel, deadly viruses, secret societies, and madness may be his best film. Bruce Willis stars as a confused and weary man sent back from the future to stop a deadly plague from decimating humanity. Radiohead released Ok Computer in 1997, one of the epochal albums of the decade. Thom Yorke's lyrics are filled with apocalyptical imagery and rock/electronica music mimicking how a machine might compose music goes along quite well with the film. Bruce Willis wondering through a desolate landscape as "Exit Music (for a film)" plays captures the wide eyed melancholy of the movie. 

(The Matrix - Radiohead: Kid AThere are many albums to play alongside The Matrix, ranging from heavy metal to prog rock. Radiohead's Kid A perfectly synchs with Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity, the first line of the film "Is Everything in Place" practically introduces the opening track "Everything In It's Right Place." Placing together two important pieces of art at the dawn of the Millennium hits all the right notes as they move between themes of despair and personal liberation. 

(American Graffiti - Paul McCartney and Wings: Red Rose Speedway) A perfect synch. Paul McCartney's retro 1973 album is romantic and nostalgic, going for the energy of the early Beatles records and the epic sounding latter day Fab Four. Tracks like "Get on the Right Thing "and "When the Night" are ideal with the neon/nighttime energy of the film. Even Paul's maligned hit single "My Love" works well.

(Three Days of the Condor - The Alan Parson Project: Eye in the Sky) - Maybe the most enlightening synch, adding much to the experience of the album and the film with paranoia and surveillance being at the center of both works. "Sirius" is often used by sports teams to pump up the crowd before a game, here as the opening credits roll it has the feel of encroaching doom. Condor plays less as a post-Watergate paranoid thriller and more as a European art film with a Sci-Fi bent when played with Eye in the Sky, especially in the scenes between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. 

(The Shining - The Beatles: The White Album) - My own concoction, an attempt mash up Kubrick with the Beatles, there's a slight historical connection. Kubrick made his home outside of London while the Beatles were in their heyday, they even approached him about directing their adaptation of Lord of the Rings that never went beyond the talking stage. So, the Beatles with Kubrick makes for a funky concoction. As the iconic opening credits roll, McCartney sings about about "snow peaked mountains way down south" on "Back in the USSR," while "Dear Prudence" takes on a more menacing tone as Jack enters the Overlook. John's satiric "Glass Onion" plays during the interview scene. The synch makes both works stranger and even more mysterious.

To sum up, synching albums with movies is fun and makes you see both from a new angle. Perhaps our brains are designed to find patterns, the synch approach to media helps us become aware of how our minds work. 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Albums of 1982: Siouxie and the Banshees: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse

Release Date: 5 November 1982

Members: Siouxie Sioux (vocals); Steven Severin (bass); John McGeoch (guitar, keyboards); Budgie (percussion)

Produced by Siouxie and the Banshees

Track List: Side One: Cascade; Green Fingers; Obsession; She's a Carnival; Circle

Side Two: "Melt!"; Painted Bird; Cocoon; Slowdive

The fifth album by Siouxie and the Banshees, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, continued to expand their post-punk sound into neo-psychedelia. 

"Cascade" opens the record in dark but alluring note, love as both a destructive and instructive. Infectious bass hooks and Sioux's powerful and futuristic vocal creates a electric atmosphere of struggling through fog and woe. The psychedelia of "Green Fingers" creates a Sci-Fi type of power. "Obsession" takes the view of a possessed lover, a set-up for a Hitchcock film. The verses appear to switch point of view from the obsessive one and the one being stalked, but sometimes blurs. Spoken word, sensual, and haunting in delivery the track creates a sensual murkiness.  "She's a Carnival" follows another mysterious woman seducing and poisoning all she meets, the carnival atmosphere of the song adds to the fantastical grip of the record. "Circle" offers searing social commentary:

Pretty girl of 16 - has fun and runs crazy
Ruined girl of 16 -- like mother grows lazy
Next a 16 year old baby -- like mother grows lazy

The song comments on how cycles of abuse and lost potential are perpetuated by parents to children. It takes on a despairing sound the chorus repeats, but there are always off ramps if one has the courage and knowledge to take them. It's also a critique of the nuclear family and how it serves to reinforce bad tradition and patriarchal attitudes. 

"Melt!" is a swinging dark love song, returning to the theme of possession. "Painted Bird" uses bird imagery as a metaphor for human personality. "Cocoon" seems to be a metaphor for creativity, taking refuge for regeneration, "tapping out rhythms." There's a cabaret style to the song through a post-punk approach. "Slowdive" closes the album, emerging from the cocoon and taking on everything. 

A Kiss in the Dreamhouse still sounds modern in sound and theme 40 years later.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Albums of 1982: Kate Bush: The Dreaming

Release Date: September 13, 1982

All songs written and produced by Kate Bush

Side One: Sat in Your Lap; There Goes a Tenner; Pull Out the Pin; Suspended in Gaffa; Leave it Open

Side Two: The Dreaming; Night of the Swallow; All the Love; Houdini; Get Out of My House

Kate Bush's fourth album The Dreaming is rife with dense intensity, possessing its own power. The quixotic opener "Sat in Your Lap" features Bush's versatile vocal styles in a song about the frustrating quest for knowledge and spiritual knowledge. References to world religions, the sense of wanting part of and apart from humanity:

I see the people working

And see it working for them

And so I want to join in

But then I find it hurts me

Youthful impatience meets head on with yearning for wisdom, the quest, the war within oneself continues.

"There Goes a Tenner" tells the surreal tale of a bank heist, a 1940s Warner Bros. gangster flick filtered through a futuristic pop song. "Pull Out the Pin," Bush attempts to tell the Vietnam War from the prospective of one fighting the invading Americans, "I look in American eyes/I see little life/See little wife", confronting the Western armies who only have a vague notion of why they are waging war. The anti-technology ethos of the revolutionary narrator provides the upper hand in a violent and hypnotic song. 

"Suspended in Gaffa" is adventurous with its melodic pianos and use of low brass instruments, similar in theme to "Sat in Your Lap." "Leave it Open" shifts moods from conniving to introspective, the idea of how knowledge changes us and sometimes not for the better, but we must encompass all. Exploring ourselves must be done with caution, bravery, and curiosity. "We let the weirdness in" becomes anthemic. 

"The Dreaming" deals with white Australians using Aboriginal land for nuclear testing and mining uranium. The off-kilter rhythms and instrumentation create another unique soundscape; Bush's frenzied vocal emphasizes defiance and strength directed at injustice. "Night of the Swallow" is a dialogue between a husband and wife with "the troubles" as backdrop providing the song with an Irish ambience, a complex song on gender politics. "All the Love" deals with loneliness, the courage it takes to face solitude. "Houdini" takes the point of view of the magician's assistant, full of suggestive lyrics and mystery. "Get Out of My House" took direct inspiration from Stephen King's The Shining. Told from the hotel's point of view, but the song takes a life of its own. Creating an atmosphere of anger, loss, and fear, it sounds like a message from the beyond.

The ten tracks of The Dreaming are all works of art that stand on their own; as a whole, the album is a labyrinth of sonic landscapes, edgy ideas, and innovative arrangements. Bush's vocals linger and enrich the imagination. Ranging in theme from world politics to the spiritual battles within, a panorama of sound and imagery.

REM #1: Murmur (1983)

Release Date: April 12, 1983 Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)...