Monday, July 31, 2023

REM #10: New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Release Date: September 9, 1996

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

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us; The Wake-Up Bomb; New Test Leper; Undertow; E-Bow the Letter; Leave

Side Two: Departure; Bittersweet Me; Be Mine; Binky the Doormat; Zither; So Fast, So Numb; Low Desert; Electrolite

Recorded over the course of their 1995 tour in support of Monster during soundchecks for their shows, New Adventures in Hi-Fi finds REM at the peak of their powers. The sound is REM at their most bold and melodic. A panorama of styles are on display: power pop, punk, New Wave, and jangle rock.

"How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us" opens the record on a reflective note, MIke Mills contributes a hypnotic piano that centers the song along with Stipe's cryptic vocals, "The story is a sad one told many times/The story of my life in trying times." End of century themes are a recurring thread on the record - and the opening track hits an ominous tone at the height of Pax Americana '90s.

"The Wake-Up Bomb" is punk-rock-pop track driven by Buck's guitar, Stipe channeling a manic character, perhaps an extreme version of himself, who wants to accomplish everything fast:

My head's on fire and high esteem
Get drunk and sing along to Queen
Practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene
Carry my dead, bored, been there, done that, anything

"New Test Leper" opens with "I can't say that I love Jesus/That would be a hollow claim" and satirizes hollow evangelists dominating the airwaves demanding money and offering deranged hope. "Undertow" features blistering guitars, the narrator confronts his mortality without looking for solace from religion, a defiant secularism. 

Patti Smith, a major influence on REM, joined Stipe on backup vocals on "E-Bow the Letter."  At seven minutes, "Leave" closes side one, with more pulsating guitars and driving synth, the lyrics tell of an intense journey of self-knowledge and a drive to escape the past.

"Departure" pays homage to Cheap Trick, with Stipe channeling mid-70s Todd Rundgren in his vocal. "Bittersweet Me" is another rocker, REM at their best with introspective lyrics that builds. "Be Mine" is more stripped down and builds into a romantic ballad. "Binky the Doormat" borders on Dadaist imagery , "Zither" a subdued instrumental. "So Fast, So Numb" is a surreal pop song directed at someone involved in drugs and leading a chaotic life. "Low Desert" channels the early REM sound, a travelogue of being on the road.

The record closes with one REM's greatest songs, "Electrolite." Stipe spoke of wanting to write a farewell to the 20th Century and a tribute to Los Angeles, inspired by driving along Mulholland Drive. The lyrics namecheck icons of American cinema James Dean. Martin Sheen, and Steve McQueen. Mills contributed the sublime piano track, melancholy and triumphant. The song's closing verse:

Twentieth 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
I'm not scared
I'm outta here

REM allowed themselves go epic on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but the exuberance running through it was tempered by a sense of finality. In some ways, it's the Abbey Road of their catalog, a record showcasing the best aspects of the band coming together, channeling both the past and future. Rumors were swirling the band was about to break up, and it would be the final REM record with the original lineup. Bill Berry announced his departure the following year. REM continued as a trio until they officially disbanded in 2011. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Stevie Wonder: Innervisions

Release Date: August 3, 1973

Produced by Stevie Wonder

Side One: Too High; Visions; Living for the City; Golden Lady

Side Two: Higher Ground; Jesus Children of America; All in Love is Fair; Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing; He's Misstra Know-It-All

During the 1970s, Stevie Wonder released one incredible album after another, playing most of the instruments and seamlessly shifting between soul, rock, funk, and jazz. Innervisions belongs on everyone's record shelf.

"Too High" opens the album, a mellow funk song with hints of psychedelia, the story of drug addict in love with an ingenue who's also an addict. "Visions" is even more mellow, imagining a utopia, "where hate's a dream and love forever stands." Understated in its power with its subtle hypnotic melody evoking the moment between wakefulness and sleep. "Living for the City" won two Grammy's, tells a tragic story of a young Black man making his way to New York City as part of the Great Migration only encounter the harsh reality of a racist justice system. "Golden Lady" is a jazzy love song, with Moog and synth, ending side one. 

"Higher Ground" opened side two, another classic that hit #1 on the R&B charts, is a spiritual journey sung with angst and resignation. "Jesus Children of America" is a meditative prayer on the state of 1970s America. "All in Love is Fair" is a more of a pop standard, it became a hit for Barbara Streisand the following year. "Don't You Worry "Bout a Thing" is effortlessly catchy, recovering from the slightly annoying intro (a man tries to impress a woman with worldliness). "He's Misstra Know It All" describes a con-artist, possibly a corrupt politician. The track build gradually from one of foreboding, then gradually bringing the figure down to one of inconsequence. 

Musically, Innervisions is close to perfection, it holds up through an infinite number of listens.. 

Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy


Release Date: July 1973

Members: Denny Dias (guitar); Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (guitar, pedal steel guitar); Walter Becker (bass, harmonica, vocals); Jim Hodder (percussion); Donald Fagan (piano, vocals)

Produced by Gary Katz

Side One: Bodhisattva; Razor Boy; The Boston Rag; Your Gold Teeth

Side Two: Show Biz Kids; My Old School; Pearl of the Quarter; King of the World

Steely Dan's impressive second album Countdown to Ecstasy features their trademark of pristine arrangements and superior musicianship. Lyrically, there's a cinematic flourish with all the tracks spanning many genres from film noir, Sci-Fi, satire, and regionalism. 

"Bodhisattva" has the hallmarks of 50's jukebox rock record by way of a John Coltrane record. The song satirizes trendy 1970s Eastern spirituality on the West Coast. The metaphorical, xylophone punctuated "Razor Boy" creates a mood of dread and exhaustion. Heavy, infectious riffs on "The Boston Rag" describe a figure who may be a petulant child or part of an underworld. "Gold Teeth" is more of a jam track, the electric organs and frantic guitars conjure a heady atmosphere.

"Show Biz Kids" stomps along with a hypnotic chorus and describes surreal scenes in Las Vegas. "My Old School" goes for more of a straightforward narrative, describing a 1969 drug bust at Bard College when Donald Fagan was arrested, Watergate conspirator and Nixon associate G. Gordon Liddy made the arrests. But the girl who turned them in is the central figure of the song, a track could easily be mistaken for a pleasant nostalgia trip. "Pearl of the Quarter" describes a New Orleans scene, more sentimental than the rest. "King of the World" describes a post-Nuclear War world, musically like a '70s Dystopian film soundtrack. 

Musically and thematically adventurous, Countdown to Ecstasy can be read in a few ways, a snide response to prog rock, a proto hipster record, or a series of private jokes. 

Saturday, July 1, 2023

REM #9: Monster

Release Date: September 27, 1994

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

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: What's the Frequency Kenneth; Crush With Eyeliner; King of Comedy; I Don't Sleep, I Dream; Star 69; Strange Currencies

Side Two: Tongue; Bang and Blame; I Took Your Name; Le Me In; Circus Envy; You

Monster marked a shift in tone and sound for REM. Released in 1994 and recorded over the course of several months while touring, the album takes a sardonic look as pop culture amid mid-90's euphoria, but with dark forebodings ahead. America is presented as a grotesque carnival of parasites and obsessives.

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" opens the distorted guitars that appear throughout the record. Inspired by a "post-modern" incident in 1986 when CBS news anchor Dan Rather was accosted in Manhattan by two men who claimed to be time travelers, repeating over and over "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" One of the men was convicted of shooting and killing a stagehand for the Today Show, under the delusion the media was controlled by evil forces. REM used the incident to satirize cultural critics/academics trying to understand the younger generation. Cryptic lyrics like, "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy" and Stipe's staccato delivery result in a hybrid of New Wave and Sci-Fi. 

On "Crush With Eyeliner" takes on the persona of a stalker infatuated with a model, uncertain if he's in love with her beauty or fame. Performed in a 70's glam rock song in the style of T-Rex and David Bowie, Stipe menacing on the refrain, "I'm the real thing." "King of Comedy" follows up in a similar vein, commenting on the exploitive nature of show business and the perpetual greed. "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is both conniving with a nefarious narrator. "Star 69" sounds more like '80s REM, referring to a parasitic relationship, an essential part of any tabloid narrative. "Strange Currencies" could be a sequel to "Everybody Hurts", but more hopeful and cathartic. 

On "Tongue" Stipe sings in a falsetto accompanied by piano, soulful in its own unique way. "Bang and Blame" sounds like REM doing their own rendition of a Nirvana song, Stipe and Cobain were friends and were considering making a record together. "I Took Your Name" muses on the fragility of identity in a hypermedia plane, a song suited for the social media age, Peter Buck's riffs ripple like a ZZ Top tune. "Let Me Down" is both stripped down, slightly derivative. "Circus Envy" continues in a punkish style with swampy guitars. "You" ends the record on a properly discordant note, brimming with ambivalence. 

REM rose to fame by ignoring the trends and embracing their insularity (up to a point). Monster revealed them being influenced by the music going on around them, spurring some of their most iconic songs. Every band that hit mega stardom will inevitably make a record about the surreal nature of fame - and Monster is that record for REM. 

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);...