Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Paul Simon: There Goes Rhymin' Simon

Release Date: May 5, 1973

Side One: Kodachrome; Tenderness; Take Me to the Mardi Gras; Something So Right; One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor

Side Two: American Tune; Was a Sunny Day; Learn How to Fall; St. Judy's Comet; Loves Me Like a Rock

Paul Simon's third solo album is a collection of catchy tunes, both observational and introspective. "Kodachrome" falls into that category, a standard of FM soft rock. "Tenderness" is a sleepy but direct plea for mutual understanding in a relationship. "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" is wonderfully arranged, blending Dixieland with pop. "Something So Right" is poetical expression of self-realization. "One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor" sounds inspired by Randy Newman with its opaque, whimsical narrative. It's impossible not to hear "American Tune" as a follow up to Simon & Garfunkel's "America", a mostly apolitical approaching middle age moment of reckoning (yet poignant). "Was a Sunny Day" borders on parodical folk, "How to Fall" spins childish fable, while "St. Judy's Comet" is a slightly neurotic lullaby, and the popular "Loves Me Like a Rock" ends the record on a jaunty note. There Goes Rhymin' Simon is impeccably eclectic record that goes down easy.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

REM #8: Automatic For The People

Release Date: October 5, 1992

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

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: Drive; Try Not To Breathe; The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight; Everybody Hurts; New Orleans Instrumental No. 1; Sweetness Follows

Side Two: Monty Got a Raw Deal; Ignoreland; Star Me Kitten; Man on the Moon; Nightswimming; Find the River

Automatic For The People is considered by many REM's best album. Released a month before the 1992 Presidential election that would elect Bill Clinton, the record is both looking back and exploring how to move forward. With the band entering their 30s and the musical landscape in flux, they made an impassioned effort to push their sound to its limits.  A philosophical album as well, many songs deal with mortality, memory, but also living.

"Drive", like the opening track Murmur "Radio Free Europe." is a clarion call, a displaced anthem with references to the past and present aimed at young people, performed in Stipe's opaque style with a big production with a string section. On "Try Not To Breathe" Stipe takes on persona of a dying woman imploring her family not to worry, a heavy track full of drone and poignancy.  

"The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" has Stipe inhabiting another character, a recluse (possibly a fading rock star) enjoying solitude and the mundane. References to consumer brands like Nescafe and Dr. Seuss create a blissful setting, the production adds an epic quality (also dated now with the recurring image of the pay phone). 

"Everybody Hurts" is perhaps the most straight forward ballad REM had recorded up to that point. With an iconic video and powerful lyrics with the majestic production, the song transcended the band. The swampy "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" serves as a welcoming coda to "Everybody Hurts." The sublime "Sweetness Follows" is another meditation on mortality, ending the first side on a dirge. 

"Monty Got a Raw Deal" is (probably) about the life of actor Montgomery Clift (1920-1966), or in a larger sense the fate of celebrity (works as a companion to the Clash song "The Right Profile"). "Ignoreland" condemns the course of America under the Reagan-Bush regime, the non-confrontational stance of the media, and mentality of the "Super US Citizen." The issues mentioned in the song have not gone way, but more amplified. "Star Me Kitten" is a complex love song, full of drone and droll humor.

Written as a tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), "Man in the Moon" paints a phantasmagoric portrait of the recent past. Major historical figures are referenced alongside cult heroes like Kaufman and the wrestler Fred Blassie, and of course Elvis, who Stipe playfully mimics. The iconoclastic nature of Kaufman, finding humor by exploring the edges, takes on a prophetic meaning.

"Nightswimming" is another ode to solitude, with a simpler arrangement of piano and strings. "Find the River" ends the album on a note of continuity with its metaphorical river journey, encapsulating many of the ideas on the record.

Automatic for the People solidified REM as a musical force for the 1990s, an album of great depth, of its time, but also one of universal themes that seamlessly project into the 21st Century. 

A 40-minute interview with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills on the making of the record:

Friday, June 9, 2023

REM #7: Out of Time

Release Date: March 12, 1991

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

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: Radio Song; Losing My Religion; Low; Near Wild Heaven; Endgame

Side Two: Shiny Happy People; Belong; Half a World Away; Texarkana; Country Feedback; Me in Honey

After an exhaustive tour in 1989 in support of Green, REM kept a low profile for a few years but returned with another massively successful album in 1991, Out of Time. Eclectic and more introspective than Green, the record solidified REM as a musical force for the '90s.

"Radio Song" opens the album with melodic hooks and mass media commentary, with hip hop artist KRS-One providing backup vocals. "Losing My Religion" became REM's biggest hit to date, with an iconic video that got constant airplay on MTV. The title was according to Michael Stipe a Southern expression for a heart breaking, the soul-searching lyrics made it perfect anthem about angst and young adulthood. "Low" is more of a hypnotic pop song, the barebones arrangement amplifies the talents of the entire band: Berry's moody percussion, Mills playing a haunting organ, Buck with a catchy riff, and Stipe's distinct vocal performance. "Near Wild Heaven" was written and sung by Mills is more of an upbeat love song with echoes of '60s pop. "Endgame" is an elegant instrumental, a dreamy psychedelia piece.

Another hit single, "Shiny Happy People" featured Kate Pierson from the B-52's on vocals, was on the surface readily made for Sesame Street (according to Stipe the lyrics were inspired Chinese State propaganda after the Tiananmen Square protests). A controversial song in the REM canon, but it shouldn't be. On "Belong" Stipe sings in spoken word lyrics, returning to familiar themes of family bonds and freedom. "Half A World Away" blends classical with pop, thematically similar to the previous track. "Texarkana" is a Gen-X Americana, while "Country Feedback" continues in sojourn mode. "Me in Honey" manages to evolve into an uplifting rocker to end the album.

Out of Time is a confident, and at times, great record. The band was meeting and experimenting with the challenge of achieving (and being) a mainstream success. With a mass audience ready to embrace them, REM was starting to transcend their college rock sound and becoming a cultural force through their own music and personas. 

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 Rem...