Friday, May 3, 2024

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #1

Release Date: November 9, 1976

Members: Tom Petty (vocals, guitar); Mike Campbell (guitars); Benmont Tench (piano, organ); Ron Blair (bass); Stan Lynch (drums)

Produced by Denny Cordell

Side One: Rockin' Around (With You); Breakdown; Hometown Blues; The Wild One, Forever; Anything That's Rock N Roll

Side Two: Strangered in the Night; Fooled Again (I Don't Like It); Mystery Man; Luna; American Girl

The eponymous debut by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sustains itself on catchy riffs and Petty's confident vocals. They are confident rock and rollers, letting the songs speak for themselves, and clever enough not to overstay their welcome. 

"Rockin' Around (With You)" opens the record on a minimal riff with a retro doo-wop sound, lyrically simplistic, but knowing. "Breakdown" is another effective riff with Petty's iconic delivery ideal for FM radio. "Hometown Blues" also channels early rock, perfect for the jukebox. Petty pays tribute to mythical woman on "The Wild One, Forever." It would work on a Springsteen record, but Petty's twangy delivery takes it a level above pastiche. Appropriately titled, "Anything That's Rock and Roll" would fit in on a Ramones record, but Petty seems to have a direct line to the foundations of Rock.

"Strangered in the Night" imagines a violent racial confrontation, not so much social commentary, more a reflection of reality in 1970s America. "Fooled Again (I Don't Like It) is rooted in the blues, and heavy on atmosphere. "Mystery Man" digresses into country rock, musically "Luna" is the most complex track. Recorded July 4, 1976, "American Girl" quickly became enshrined as a classic. Mystery surrounds what inspired the song; the lyrics encapsulate Petty's longtime fascination with exuberance and darkness of American identity. 

A strong debut for its no frills approach and steady determination.  

Sunday, March 17, 2024

The Albums of 1973: Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy


Release Date: March 28, 1973

Members: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Bonham

Produced by Jimmy Page

Side One: The Song Remains the Same; The Rain Song; Over the Hills and Far Away; The Crunge

Side Two: Dancing Days; D'yer Mak'er; No Quarter; The Ocean

Houses of the Holy proved to be Led Zeppelin's most eclectic record yet -and their most melodic. 

"The Song Remains the Same" begins the record on a rapturous note, both hard rocking and ethereal. Like "Stairway to Heaven", "The Rain Song" relies more on mood and atmosphere to great effect. "Over the Hills and Far Away" leans into the folkish side of the band, Plant's vocal and Page's riffs repeatedly crest and build. "The Crunge" was considered by some an attempt to channel James Brown with somewhat mixed results, an interesting experiment, nevertheless. 

"Dancing Days" revels in its bacchanalia ethos, "D'yer Mak'er" merges the Zeppelin sound with reggae and remains a classic rock staple. "No Quarter" is one of Zeppelin's most ominous tracks, merging synth-heavy prog-rock with a foggy dystopian atmosphere. "The Ocean" closes the record, more of a throwback to the earlier sound of the band, a joyful swagger with the band at its creative peak. 

Houses of the Holy sounds so fully realized and confident, all members of the group showcasing their skills as individuals and as a potent unit. 

Friday, November 24, 2023

REM #15: Collapse Into Now


Release Date: March 7, 2011

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Produced by Jackknife Lee & REM

Track Listing: Discoverer; All the Best; Uberlin; Oh My Heart; It Happened Today; Everyday is Yours to Win; Mine Smell Like Honey; Walk it Back; Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter; That Someone is You; Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I; Blue

Collapse Into Now was pre-determined to be the final REM record, in a mutual decision to disband. The album features a variety of tracks calling back to different eras of the group's history, often referencing older songs. There's also a sense of time passing, the lingering message throughout is one for posterity, many of the songs are addressed to "the kids." 

"Discoverer" recalls the more muscular sound of Monster from 1994, and the sentiment going back to Murmur's opening track "Radio Free Europe." The power pop of "All the Best" has a one more for the road vibe, "it's just like me to overstay my welcome." "Uberlin" offers fantastical daydreams with neo-psychedelia sound.

"Oh My Heart" is one of REM's most poignant songs, told from the viewpoint of someone returning to New Orleans amidst the devastation left by the storm. "It Happened Today" is baroque pop, commenting on the nature of interpretation. "Everyday is Yours to Win" offers a compassionate message to someone in despair at the state of the world - evoking a lullaby. 

"Mine Smell Like Honey" offers subtle sarcasm on ego, "Walk it Back" is piano driven and a meditation on time passing."Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" is punkish and juvenile by design. "That Someone Is You" is guitar driven, mocking a sophomoric rant by an adolescent. "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" muses on celebrity and cultural obsessions. The final REM track "Blue" features Stipe giving a spoken word poem, with Patti Smith providing back-up vocals, always a influence on the band since the beginning, then the fadeout goes into a reprise of "Discoverer."

Collapse Into Now is a fitting farewell. REM began as a fledgling college band in Athens, Georgia and climbed their way up from a cult band to mainstream success. Through it all, they stayed true to progressive ideals and avoided becoming the walking cliché so many rock bands become. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

REM #14: Accelerate

Release Date: March 31, 2008

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Produced by Jackknife Lee & REM

Track Listing: Living Well is the Best Revenge; Man-Sized Wreath; Supernatural Superserious; Hollow Man; Houston; Accelerate; Until the Day is Done; Mr. Richards; Sing for the Submarine; Horse to Water; I'm Gonna DJ

Accelerate marked a return to guitar driven rock for REM in what would be their penultimate LP.

A punk infused opener, "Living Well is the Best Revenge" also has a politically charged bent, "Man-Sized Wreath" continues in a similar vein, a song full of swagger mocking the idea of swagger and the political rhetoric of the post 9/11 era. "Supernatural Superserious" swerves into pure power pop mode, an observational look at American youth. "Hollow Man" may reference the T.S. Eliot poem "The Hollow Men", which envisioned futuristic men as violent and empty, but the REM song pushes against the sentiment. "Houston" offers subtle commentary on post-Hurricane Katrina climate in America, "if the storm doesn't kill me the government will." "Accelerate" is a moody rocker with a positive energy. "Until the Day is Done" throws scathing commentary at Big Business and all it represents in 21st Century America, especially timely in that it was written just before the 2008 crash. "Mr. Richards" satirizes a certain type of "W" era warmonger, preaching the merits of an aggressive foreign policy to callow youths. "Sing for the Submarine" is a surreal interlude, Stipe in perfect form delivering a dream soliloquy. "Horse to Water" is punk poetry, "I'm Gonna DJ" ends the record on a defiant and jubilant note. 

Accelerate was well received. The smooth production often masks the incisive political commentary, adding more depth to the record on repeated listens. At 34 minutes, it's also the shortest REM record. They undoubtedly sounded rejuvenated, a band still with something to prove. Not a classic by any means, but certainly a late career triumph. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

REM #13: Around the Sun

Release Date: October 5, 2004

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Additional Musicians: Scott McCaughey (keyboards, percussion); Ken Stringfellow (keyboards); Q-Tip (rapping on "The Outsiders); Bill Rieflin (Percussion); 

Produced by Pat McCarthy & REM

Track Listing: Leaving New York; Electron Blue; The Outsiders; Make It All Okay; Final Straw; I Wanted To Be Wrong; Wanderlust; Boy in the Well; Aftermath; High Speed Train; The Worst Joke Ever; The Ascent of Man; Around the Sun

"Leaving New York" opens Around the Sun, a poignant ode to New York City with melancholy post-9/11 subtext. Lyrically, the song speaks to the leaving the city and the end of a friendship. The electronica fused "Electron Blue" remains a favorite of Michael Stipes he described as a futuristic song that came to him in a dream. "The Outsiders" begins as a synth-pop song and ends Q-Tip providing a rap as a coda, which speaks to the political frustrations and inertia of the Bush era. "Make It All Okay" continues on in a similar vein speaking to miscommunication in a fraught relationship. 

"Final Straw" was written as a protest song about the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but avoids topical references in favor of an oblique Socratic dialogue. Cultural and political disillusionment are expressed a bit more forcefully on "I Wanted to Be Wrong, Stipe sings "everyone is humming a song I don't understand." 

"Wanderlust" lightens the mood, with Stipe inhabiting a poetic wanderer in modern America, possibly imagining a reincarnated Kerouac. "Boy in the Well" conjures early REM with its minimal production and flickering Americana. "Aftermath" offers hope through gaining self-knowledge, REM at their stateliest. Atmospheric and moody, "High Speed Train" may actually work better if seeing it performed live. "The Worst Joke Ever" speaks to creativity and malaise. "The Ascent of Man" injects some much needed soul to counter the overcast mood of the record. "Around the Sun" ends the record on an upbeat note, promising to keep seeking for the answers as long as the world's still going. 

The album cover art features REM as fading shadows - and that suits Around the Sun. All members admitted to being bored and frustrated during the making of the record, sales were moderate, while reviews were tepid. The post 9/11 world, especially for idealists and Progressives, brought on disillusionment, and here REM flirts with succumbing to it, but not quite. The record can be read as a warm hug to their fans, pointing the way through introspection. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

REM #12: Reveal

Release Date: May 14, 2001

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Additional Musicians: Scott McCaughey (keyboards, percussion) Joey Waronker (drums); Ken Stringfellow (keyboards)

Produced by Pat McCarthy & REM

Side One: The Lifting; I've Been High; All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star); She Just Wants to Be; Disappear; Saturn Return

Side Two: Beat a Drum; Imitation of Life; Summer Turns to High; Chorus and the Ring; I'll Take the Rain; Beachball

By 2001 REM had achieved carte blanche in terms of their career. They were a rich rock band with total creative freedom and a loyal fan base supporting their tours and buying their records. Their legacy was set in stone. Musically, rock and pop no longer commanded the youth market like in decades past. The way consumers were interacting with music was in flux with the internet becoming a Wild West for free downloads and with streaming just around the corner. Part of REM's new mission was assuaging their fan base through reissues, live albums, and collections of unreleased tracks. 

New albums were no longer the centerpiece of a REM's existence, with them becoming cottage industry on their own. Reveal is a stellar album, less experimental than Up, yet seemingly tailor made to be what one would expect from REM. But a subtle unease traverses through the slick lyrics and hypnotic melodies. 

Like most REM tracks, "The Lifting" benefits from multiple listens. Written as a prequel to "Daysleeper" from Up, it's about an office drone who once had high ambitions about life. With its dreamy pop intro that could open a Cardigans song, but there's an emphatic frustration with the character, a figure who imagined a life of color, but it's still black and white. It also contrasts dreams with mundane nature of life, drawing a comparison to " A Day in the Life." 

"I've Been High" applies a retro '80s pop sound, with recurring REM imagery of water, the sky, and falling. "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna be a Star)" follows a familiar character, a young woman trying to break into show business, musically it feels like a spiritual sequel to "Man on the Moon." Michael Moore directed the playful video for the song, following REM as they visit a Catholic High School in Brooklyn and mingle with the students. 

"She Just Wants to Be" could possibly be about the same character from the previous song, a track celebrating experiencing the world, but also complicating the sentiment. "Disappear" follows a world- weary character on other side of the spectrum of the young person in the precious song, always on the elusive search for meaning and finding nothing, eventually preferring to leave the world. "Saturn Return" continues in a similar vein, the lyrics are labyrinthian with Stipe's haunting vocal and the rich soundscape creates a sublime mood. 

Some have read "Beat a Drum" as a tribute to Bill Berry who left the band to become a farmer, weary of touring and shaken after a brain aneurism, Berry chose the quiet life. The song's themes of transcendentalism also draw parallels to Emerson and Thoreau. "Imitation of Life" could be read as the band satirizing themselves, with its overtly sweet optimism. "Summer Turns to High" also revels in darkly sweet imagery, with hints of Pet Sounds. "Chorus and the Ring" is lyrically the most adventurous. A melancholy resignation sustains "I'll Take the Rain." "Beachball" ends the record on a low key vibe in a jaundiced vision of paradise. 

Musically and lyrically Reveal offers everything one would expect from REM, bright melodies, and sublime lyrics. I marginally prefer Up because of its less constrained style, there's an uneasy insularity on Reveal, a safe record in the best possible sense. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

REM #11: Up

Release Date: October 26, 1998

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Additional Musicians: Scott McCaughey (keyboards, percussion) Joey Waronker (drums); Barrett Martin (drums)

Produced by Pat McCarthy & REM

Side One: Airportman; Lotus; Suspicion Hope; At My Most Beautiful; The Apologist; Sad Professor; You're in the Air

Side Two: Walk Unafraid; Why Not Smile; Daysleeper; Diminished; Parakeet; Falls to Climb

With the departure of drummer Bill Berry, REM continued on as a trio, employing a handful of session musicians on keyboards and percussion. Up was recorded throughout 1998, with members working more as individuals and exploring electronica sounds under the influence of Radiohead. Barely on speaking terms at times, it took a three-day retreat in Idaho for the band to air out their differences and deciding whether to continue. 

Up opens with "Airportman", a gently melodic soundscape of electronica, influenced by Krautrock. "Lotus" introduces the spiritual themes on the record, with its surreal lyrics and pop-electric sound. "Suspicion" is in a neo-psychedelic mode, with stream of consciousness lyrics, in one of Stipe's most evocative vocals yet. "Hope" borrowed its melody from Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne", lyrically the song is directed at someone unsure if they should go in the science or religion route in trying to make sense of mortality.

"At My Most Beautiful" is a pristine piano ballad inspired by Brian Wilson. Aural waves and reverb sustain "The Apologist," with its moody themes of compromise and control. "Sad Professor" is a character sketch of melancholia similar to REM's earlier interest in eccentric characters. 

"You're in the Air" is a love song, baroque, and haunting thought Stipe's vocal. "Walk Afraid" marinates in existential angst, a secular prayer. "Why Not Smile" drowns in earnestness and honesty, which makes the sentiment even sadder. "Daysleeper" offers poetic reflections on modern life, globalization eating away at the soul of Gen X, prescient in its sentiments and somewhat reminiscent of "Fakin It" by Simon and Garfunkel. "Diminished" is the longest track at six minutes, lyrically ambitious with more wordplay and striking imagery, in the fadeout Stipe performs a fragment of "I'm Not Over You." 

"Parakeet" is a metaphorical in how we can trap ourselves, "Falls to Climb" brings the introspective themes of Up to a proper conclusion. 

Up offers a variety of dreamy melodies and rich themes. Musically, REM was updating their sound with elements of Brit Pop and electronica, while maintaining their thematic preoccupations on life and how to live it. Stipe continued to expand his vocal range, often inhabiting the characters in the songs. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was their farewell to the 1990s, Up had them looking forward to the 2000s. Record sales declined in the US, but the record performed better in Europe. With their days of mainstream success behind them, Up signaled REM was settling into becoming a niche band. 

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #1

Release Date: November 9, 1976 Members: Tom Petty (vocals, guitar); Mike Campbell (guitars); Benmont Tench (piano, organ); Ron Blair (bass);...