Monday, March 31, 2008

Down Is The New Up

In the comments to my post on Reveal, 2f's says he's looking forward to my comments on Up.

Up was an album by a band trying to reinvent themselves after losing a key member. It's R.E.M.'s ..And Then There Were Three. Instead of replacing Bill Berry with another drummer and continuing to do what they were doing, R.E.M. embraced the late 90's electronica fad, with more emphasis on keyboards and drum machines, but no matter how hard they try to make it something else, it still sounds like an R.E.M. album.

When I listen to Up, I always wonder why I don't listen to it more, but takes a lot of patience to listen all the way through. One challenge is that it's a really long album, with 14 songs that don't fit on one side of a 110 minute cassette. Another challenge is that there isn't a lot of variation to the sound, and my favorite songs ("Lotus","Daysleeper","Walk Unafraid","At My Most Beautiful") are tracks 2,5,8, and 11, which leaves two tracks in between them. Up is like a really strong EP with about seven filler tracks. It still creeps into my top ten in my final ranking (below), ahead of Monster, Reveal, and Around The Sun, but well below their peak.

Here's my R.E.M. album ranking, as of 3/31/2008. My month of listening elevated the status of Green and Out Of Time and dropped Fables and Reckoning, but the other albums are roughly in chronological order.

1. Murmur
2. Automatic For The People
3. Document
4. Out Of Time
5. Green
6. Fables of the Reconstruction
7. Reckoning
8. Lifes Rich Pageant
9. New Adventures in Hi-Fi
10. Up
11. Monster
12. Reveal
13. Around The Sun

Thirteen albums in 25 years is quite a run, since Bruce Springsteen and U2 have only released eight studio albums since 1983 (if you don't count Rattle & Hum, which I don't). This pace was helped by releasing an album a year from 1983-1988. Album #14 Accelerate comes out tomorrow. It leaked on the internet a couple of weeks ago, and I've only heard three songs. It's supposed to be a return to form (whatever "form" is), and even though a part of me is still skeptical, I'm going to buy the CD tomorrow, my first time purchasing an R.E.M. album on the first day since New Adventures. I'll probably post my first impressions after buying it, but I'm kind of R.E.M.'d out after this month, so it might take me awhile to fully digest Accelerate.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I got a basketball Jones

After picking all four of the final four teams in the NCAA Championship (it was all four top seeds but still!), my bracket is now in the 85% bracket on ESPN. It's a combination of picking favorites in a year when favorites did well and not knowing enough about college basketball to be tempted by underdogs.

Picking the final four correctly combined with my alma mater making the finals in the CBI (a best-of three series against our former MVC rivals Tulsa) made this a good week for me to start following college basketball. Maybe there's something to that sport after all?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Reveal This

"If you’re a music fan who has 15 artists you follow, and one of them kind of takes a nose dive — well, that’s disappointing, but you’ll move on. But to us this is everything that we do."
-- Michael Stipe in the Sunday NY Times, 3/30/2008

Anyone who's been following ye olde blog this month has probably found my routine of reviewing R.E.M. albums on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which leaves me something else to write about during the other four days of the week. Now I have two more albums, and only one more day in the month. Forgot to account for Dead Letter Office! I guess that's not one of the "official" albums, even though I treated it as one. Mea Culpa.

The two R.E.M. albums left in alphabetical order are Reveal and Up, which are two thirds of their weak post-Berry triumvirate. I'm the biggest R.E.M. fan I know (6'2" and 220lbs if you're wondering), and even I can't rally behind these three albums. Listening to Reveal after Reckoning (as I did during my morning and evening commutes yesterday) makes someone wonder how these two albums, twenty years apart, are by the same band. But they really aren't.

When I listened to Reveal, I liked "Imitation Of Live","All The Way From Reno", "She Just Wants To Be", and... that's it. Three songs out of twelve. The Reveal album would have made a good maxi-single. In food analogies, it's like a really bland dish that you try to rescue with spices, but after you've added coriander and mustard seed and paprika, it tastes even worse than it did originally. The songs are under-written and over-produced.

Here's a quote by Peter Buck from the same NY Times article, on R.E.M.'s new album Accelerate. "Of the 14 records we’ve made, I think 12 of them are pretty close to this one". I think Reveal is one of Peter's two runts of the R.E.M. litter, along with Around The Sun. These are the only two of their albums that I've had to work to get all the way through.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Dead Reckoning

Here's R.E.M. in November 1984, performing a medley of "Moon River" and "Pretty Persuasion" on BBC2's Old Grey Whistle Test.

We're slowly approaching the end of the R.E.M. alphabetical discography and today's album is Reckoning, which has the same title as an acoustic live album by the Grateful Dead. There are quite a few parallels between early R.E.M. and the Dead: Both bands built up a grassroots following through constant touring, had a network of dedicated fans who traded bootleg recordings of live shows, and had a strong bond with their fans.

Reckoning isn't my favorite R.E.M. album, but 1984 is definitely my favorite year for R.E.M. concert recordings. 1984 R.E.M. is like 1978 Springsteen: Darkness or Reckoning might not be their strongest albums, but both artists were at the height of their rock power during the tours, and were still playing venues that were small enough that there was a bond between the bond between the band and the audience at all the shows.

The one Reckoning tour show I saw in person at the NIU auditorium in DeKalb IL in the Fall (early October). The show was on a Sunday night, and I found out that R.E.M. were playing by reading it in Rolling Stone on Thursday. I took a two hour bus ride from Peoria to DeKalb, by myself, without having a clue where the concert was, or if it was sold out. I figured the show was somewhere on the NIU campus, so I could find it by blindly wandering around campus when I got to DeKalb.

I found the concert (at the university theater), paid my $6 general admission, and saw one of the best concerts I've ever seen, with the dB's and R.E.M. When Peter Buck told everyone to register to vote so we wouldn't get four more years of Reagan, most people cheered, even even though DeKalb is just a few miles from Dutch's hometown of Dixon. That concert was like a secret meeting of Young Democrats from Reagan Country.

After the concert, I was grabbing something to eat at McDonald's near campus (there weren't many places to eat after 10pm in DeKalb!) and the group at the other table were talking about tonight's concert, and how it compared to last night in St. Louis, or Friday in Carbondale. "I like that new 'Auctioneer' song -- why didn't they play that tonight?". I thought I was dedicated by taking a two hour bus trip by myself to see the show, but here were people following R.E.M. around the Midwest, just like Deadheads.

At the half-dozen R.E.M. shows I saw in the Midwest between 1984 and 1987 (DeKalb, Chicago, Champaign, Iowa City IA, Bloomington IN), I started seeing these same faces who would go see the band wherever they played. After that show in DeKalb, I discovered that people would even record the shows and swap the tapes with other fans. In the pre-internet age, this involved replying to ads in the back of Goldmine or Rolling Stone and getting someone else's trade list for yours, then deciding what to trade, then trading it. There was a lot of legwork, but I developed a lot of pen pals via tape trading.

When I traveled to DeKalb two years later to see R.E.M.(on the 1986 Pageantry tour), they played the NIU fieldhouse, tickets were $12 each, and the place was packed. The little college band that could were becoming big rock stars, and the age of showing up at the venue on the day of an R.E.M. show was coming to a close, unless you brought a tie-dyed kaftan and a hand-written "I Need a Miracle" sign. There was a guest appearance by Gary Zekely (the guy who wrote "Superman") that was filmed by MTV, and there are some videos from the show on the youtubes. It was an "arena rock" show at a college gym.

I have about 80-100 R.E.M. live tapes from the early-mid 80s sitting in a big shoebox that I almost never open. The tapes, like most of my cassettes, don't get played very much, but I don't think I'll ever get rid of them. I keep wanting to digitize the best of them, but that would involve sitting through the hours of recordings to find the good one. Plus I think magnetic decay starts to set in after twenty years. Right now the tapes next to my Apple \\c and my old textbooks as souvenirs of my college years. "Have I ever told you kids about the Eighties?"

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bad times never seemed so good

Rich Harden is a world-beatern the MLB baseball video game for my Sony PSP. He throws 100mph fastballs with pinpoint control, so he can strike out anyone without having to resort to off-speed pitches as long as you keep it from the middle of the plate. High fastball, outside fastball, fastball in the hands.. one strike, two strikes, three strikes yer out! The average performance for video Rich Harden is a complete game two-hit shutout with 21 strikeouts.

Unfortunately the real Rich Harden usually makes four starts each year, goes on the 15 Day DL with a "strained shoulder" in mid-May, and is never seen again until the following year. But yesterday at the Tokyo Dome he looked like the Harden I know and love from the video game world, dominating the Red Sox for six innings and salvaging a split in the two game Japan Series.

It's foolish to base an entire year on two games, but if Rich Harden can stay healthy and the A's play as well for the rest of 2008 as they did for these two games, they might not be as bad as everyone fears. They may even contend. Hope springs eternal at the start of the baseball season.

The A's were the "home-team" for the games in Tokyo, but the Sox got the home locker room, most of the crowd was pro-Boston, and they even played "Sweet Caroline" during the 7th inning stretch, just like in Fenway Pahk. And even though it was an A's home game, they played neither Kool nor The Gang after yesterday's win, like they would have at McAfee Coliseum. This apparently made the A's feel like second class citizens, but in major league baseball, it's fairly obvious the Yankees and the Red Sox are up here, and the other 28 teams are down here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Out Of Time

My next R.E.M. album is 1991's Out Of Time. Which is another album, like Green, that I don't listen to as often as I should. This is R.E.M.'s "mainstream" album, the one with multiple Grammys and top ten hits ("Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People"), and probably their top seller to date.

R.E.M. didn't tour behind Out Of Time, so a lot of the songs weren't ever performed live, and they only put one of the songs (guess which one?) on their 2003 In Time best-of, even though there really isn't a single dud on the entire album. And it ends with two of my favorite R.E.M. songs ever ("Country Feedback" and "Me In Honey"). "Losing My Religion" has been a little overplayed over the last 17 years, but it's really a phenomenal song when you listen to it in isolation. The KRS-One cameo on "Radio Song" grates a little, but it sounds like the greatest thing ever compared to Q-Tip's cameo on Around The Sun. "Texarkana" may be a note-for-note rehash of "The Voice" by the Moody Blues, but that's okay because it's a great song that very few people know. The easiest way to stump a bunch of know-it-all pop geeks is by covering a Moody Blues song.

Lots of people don't like "Shiny Happy People" and the band as almost disowned it (other than to perform a special Sesame Street version, "Furry Happy Monsters") but I think it's great for what it is.  If Trent Reznor can make an entire career being gloomy and dour ("I hurt myself"), what's so wrong with R.E.M. being relentlessly optimistic and upbeat for just one song? Absolutely nothing.

After listening to Out Of Time, I might need to re-rank my favorite R.E.M. albums to put it somewhere in the top five. It doesn't strike the same emotional wallop, but I think that, song for song, it may be better than Automatic For The People. They're both great records, so it's mostly like declaring your favorite ice cream flavor. It all depends on your mood. And today I'm in an Out Of Time kind of mood. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pooray Boru

The baseball season kicked off this morning at 3AM PDT with the first of a two game series between the Oakland Athletics and World Champion Boston Red Sox in the Tokyo Dome. As eager as I am for baseball to start, I did not get up at 3AM to watch this game, but I did get up at 6AM PDT to catch the exciting end of it.

The A's were expected to play the Washington Generals to Dice-K and the Harlem Globetrotters in these two games, but they usually play the Red Sox fairly close. They won the season series last year, and have a better Spring Training record this year (which isn't that relevant -- just throwing out HillaryStats(tm) in the A's favor) so the games should be competitive. The A's were also supposed to play the Generals role five years ago for a series in Japan against Ichiro and the Seattle Mariners, but those games got sidelined by the start of the Iraq War.

Even though (spoiler alert) the end of today's game didn't turn out the way A's fans would have liked, it was competitive to the end, which is all we can ask for. I'm standing by my prediction that it's going to be a lot of fun watching those pesky young Athletics this year. We'll see how that plays out when they're ten games under .500 in mid-June and battling the Rangers for last place, but they're a lot of fun to watch in late March.   

Monday, March 24, 2008

New Adventures in R.E.M.

Next up in my R.E.M. lineup is New Adventures In Hi-Fi. This album was mostly recorded during soundchecks on 1995 the Monster tour, and is often marked as the start of their artistic and commercial decline, but some people see it as the last great R.E.M. album since it was their last one with Bill Berry and the last one produced by Scott Litt.

When I listen to New Adventures now, I like it a lot more than Monster or anything that came after it, but it's not without it's flaws. One problem is that it seems a little long (both the album and individual songs) and a little unfocused and off-the-cuff, but that can also be seen as a good thing. There are about five or six songs on the album as good as anything R.E.M. has ever done, and definitely better than the albums that came after it (two of which I still have remaining in my queue -- so much for alphabetical order!).

Before the release of New Adventures In Hi-Fi, R.E.M. signed an $80 million long-term deal with Warners that was one of the top music business screw-ups ever, according this article in Blender.

I don't buy that for numerous reasons. Even though R.E.M. were at the end of their U.S. commercial viability in 1996, they still sell well in Europe, are still a major concert draw, and are a nice long-term "prestige artist" for a major label to have. Signing R.E.M. was nowhere near as much of a screw up for WEA as signing Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey was for Sony around the same time. Those contracts were like Sony throwing money away.

WEA signing R.E.M. was kind of like the SF Giants signing Barry Zito to a lucrative long-term contract last year. Barry probably isn't going to regain his 2002 Cy Young form, just like R.E.M. albums won't sell umpteen gajillion copies like they did in the early 90s, but they're both steady performers who help the team they play for.

Barry Zito is going to start 30-25 games a year, win 12-16 of them, and finish each year an ERA around 4.00. He's not a world-beater anymore, but he's a solid major league pitcher. It's not his fault the Giants are paying him $100M to do that, and it's not R.E.M.'s fault that they got $80M to do what they do. "Don't hate the playa, hate the game" as the kids say.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bracketology Bunny

After the first two rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, my bracket is in the 79th percentile of everyone on ESPN, and I'm leading our office pool with 12 teams in the sweet 16. I picked two regions absolutely correct and the other two half-right.

The benefits of "picking chalk", with a few selective upsets.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

School of Rockism

I made one of my rare ventures out to clubland last night to see
School Of Language at the Hemlock Tavern

School of Language is the current solo project of David Brewis of Field Music, who are currently "on hiatus". David recorded School of Language's debut album Sea From Shore by himself, but has a drummer and bass player with him to perform the songs live. I saw Field Music two years ago at the Bottom Of The Hill, before their album was released in the US and was instantly charmed by them. Their two discs are some of my favorite things of the past few years, so I had to go check David Brewis's current lineup.

School of Language is more experimental and less poppy than Field Music. Sea From Shore isn't as immediately accessible as Field Music or Tones Of Town, but it has most of the same songcraft so it's not just David's self-indulgent solo project. The set was kind of short, because there's only one School of Language album, and they didn't answer requests for Field Music songs.

Their one non-album song was a cover of Roxy Music's "If There Is Something" which was posted on Pitchfork a while ago. The one upside to a short set was that I had more than enough time to make the final BART train before midnight, even after engaging Mr. Brewis in a "you rock, dude!" fan to artist chat after their set. He's kind of a shy guy, and I'm not super talkative myself, so it wasn't a very long conversation.
Me: "Great set. You rock dude!" David: "Thanks very much."

The opening act the Evangelicals (a Flaming Lipsesque band from Oklahoma) brought a smoke machine for their set, which was kind of silly, because the performance space at the Hemlock is tiny and enclosed. This engulfed the entire place in smoke for the rest of the night. At least they didn't bring their Great White pyrotechnic show to the Hemlock.

Friday, March 21, 2008

There's a murmur in the air

The concept of "desert island discs" is a little anachronistic when people can carry hundreds of albums in the palm of their hand, but if I ever were stranded on a desert island with just five or ten albums, one of those albums would be R.E.M.'s Murmur.

When Murmur came out in 1983, it was so far out of step with prevailing trends in music (drum machines, synths, MTV) that it was almost like music from another planet. And 25 years later(!), when many popular albums from 1983 like Thriller, Synchronicity, and Let's Dance sound silly and dated, Murmur still sounds timeless and mysterious. And it will still sound timeless and mysterious 25 years from today.

It's kind of hard to write anything meaningful album albums like Murmur, since its appeal is so emotional. Even after hundreds of listens, I'm still not sure what most of the songs are about. I still remember the review in Rolling Stone (now online) which described it as "darkness shot through with flashes of bright light". It was that review that caused me to buy a cassette of Murmur , which has to be one of the profoundly life-altering moments of my musical life. I felt like these guys from Georgia had made an album just for me.

Up to that point, I'd always felt I was born twenty years too late, since all my favorite music was from the mid-to-late 60s. Murmur had a lot of that 60s sound that I liked (jangly guitars and bass and drums), but still sounded current. "Retro-sounding but forward looking" as one review said. Anyway,
Murmur is one of my favorite albums ever full stop, and if it's not one of your favorite albums then you suck.
The End.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Five f--ing years

There were NO weapons of mass destruction.
There was NO link between Sadaam and Al Quaeda.
It is NOT a War on Terror.
There was NO Axis of Evil or Coalition of the Willing.
We are NOT fighting them over there so we won't fight them here.
We were NOT greeted as liberators.
There was NO "Mission Accomplished".
The insurgency was NOT in its last throes.
It was NOT just pockets of dead-enders.
4000 lives is NOT a "small price to pay".
Iraqi Freedom is NOT within reach.
It was NOT six days or six weeks.
It was NOT even six months.
Try six years.

Bush Was Wrong.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sweet Monster Headache

R.E.M. with Dan Rather on Letterman, 1995

My next R.E.M. album is Monster, which is another one of their albums I don't listen to that often. The album was heralded as their return to "rock" after Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, and it does rock, but most the songs sound exactly the same, so it kind of grates over the course of 45-50 minutes.

When I was a kid, I used to call it "headache music". One of the earliest albums I bought with my own money was Desolation Boulevard by The Sweet. I remember that I liked all the songs on DB when I listened to them one at a time, but I would get a headache if I tried to listen to the whole album from start to finish, because they all sounded exactly alike.

Monster reminds me a lot of Desolation Boulevard, both in the way it sounds (somewhere between glam and grunge) and the way it hurts my head to listen to the entire album from start to finish. The only songs that stand out are "Strange Currencies" (essentially a shorter version of "Everybody Hurts") and "Tongue" (a faux-soul number where Michael sings like Roland Gift), which are my two favorites. The others are just one big stretch of distorted guitar and tremolo/vibrato. In other words, headache music.

The main reason I don't listen to Monster very much is that I don't get a lot of enjoyment out of listening to it. And the title of the leadoff single was stolen from Game Theory.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Picking chalk

I haven't been following college basketball much this year, because my alma mater didn't even qualify for the NIT (we're playing in the inaugural CBI, for the 16 best teams that didn't make the NCAA or NIT), so for my this year's NCAA tournament bracket, I'm picking all the top-seeded teams in each region (North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, and UCLA) to the final four.

This is what gamblers call "picking chalk". I picked some early round upsets, but my elite eight is all the #1 and #2 seeds, and my final four is all the #1 seeds. My bracket last year ended up worse than picking chalk, so this year I decided to go with the favorites across the board.

Here are my tournament picks for this year.
Final Four: North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, UCLA
Finals: North Carolina, UCLA
Champion: UCLA

First Round Upsets: Arkansas over Indiana, Davidson over Gonzaga, St. Joe's over Oklahoma, St. Mary's over Miami, Kent St. over UNLV

Monday, March 17, 2008

All part of lifes rich pageant

Next up in the R.E.M. train is Lifes Rich Pageant

I rate this one somewhere near the middle of the pack of R.E.M. albums. I think it's the weakest of their IRS albums, and it's dogged by Don Gehman's uber-80s production, but it's certainly more energetic and exuberant than their recent records. The band obviously had a lot of fun making the album.

The first half (like the first half of Fables) is super solid, but they kind of ran out of material in the second half, which is why they had to dig through their back catalog of unrecorded chestnuts ("I Believe" was a re-worked Fables outtake, "Hyena" dates from the Reckoning era, and "Just A Touch" and "Give It Away" are from their prehistoric days), loopy covers ("Superman") and on the fly genre experiments ("Underneath the Bunker"). All these songs are at least interesting, but it's fairly obvious that R.E.M.'s constant album/tour cycles had taken their toll on their songwriting.

This makes the omission of outtakes like "PSA (Bad Day)" (which was recorded for Pageant but not released until it was revamped the In Time compilation in 2003) all the more puzzling. Maybe that song didn't fit the flow of the album.

The main lesson I learned from Lifes Rich Pageant was that it was okay to like The R.O.C.K. The album was recorded at John Cougar Mellencamp's studio with his producer, and they even covered "Toys In The Attic" for one of the B-sides before it was legal for post-punk bands to non-ironically cover "pre-punk" rock. It was even a few months before Aerosmith were "re-discovered" by Run DMC. Some hipsters decried them for courting the mainstream when the album came out, but even twenty plus years later, Lifes Rich Pageant still sounds like an R.E.M. album, even with the beat up cars and guitars and drummers going Crack-Boom-Bam!       

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I've stopped listening to NPR until after the Democratic race is over, since I can't handle the constant unchallenged spinning by Hillary Clinton's spokesmen whenever she loses a state("The momentum is ours..We've won more in big states! Obama is on a downward spiral!").

So this story had me ROTFLMAO (as the Web 2.0 kids say).

There seems to be a desire by the media to keep this race "tight", even though it really isn't. Look at this AP story on the final delegate counts from the Iowa caucuses.
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democrat Barack Obama expanded his fragile lead in delegates over rival Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday, picking up at least seven delegates as Iowa activists took the next step in picking delegates to the national convention...
Counting Iowa's results Saturday, an Associated Press delegate tally showed Obama with 1,610 delegates and Clinton with 1,496.
How is a 114 delegate advantage in mid-March a "fragile lead"? Sounds more like an "insurmountable lead" to me. As it stands now, Hillary Clinton's chance of winning the Democratic nomination is only slightly better Bush's chance of being elected to a third term.

And they can both only be accomplished by changing the rules.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I want my GOLTv!

I rolled out of bed today at 8:20 to watch the Liverpool-Reading game, only to discover that FSC was suddenly "not authorized" on my cable system. I switched the channel to GolTV to check on the Bundesliga match (Hamburg vs. Dortmund) and saw that I wasn't authorized to watch that channel either.

Watching live soccer on Saturday and Sunday mornings is one of the highlights of my weekend! I started watching the premier league a couple of years ago when I got digital cable and discovered FSC, then late last year I discovered GolTV. It's another all-soccer channel that shows games all the time, including live matches from the Mexican League, German Bundesliga and Spanish Premier League (La Liga) every weekend. GolTV is broadcast in Spanish, but you can receive it in English by setting the SAP button on your cable box. Now even if there's absolutely nothing on television, I can always tune to GolTV for a few minutes of Real Madrid vs. Valencia or Pachuca vs. Americas or some other batch of guys in blue and red jersey kicking a ball back and forth in some part of the world.

And now Comcast was trying to deny me one of my life's simple pleasures. I called their customer service this morning to discover that FSC and GolTV were just moved to the "sports tier", for $5 more a month, along with the NFL Network and NBATV and a few other sports channels (Fox College Sports, ESPNU). Curiously interesting that they chose to make this change on a Saturday (an EPL/La Liga/etc. match day and the day before selection Sunday) when they could get the most sports addicts to pay for it. From the sound of the customer service rep, they'd been fielding quite a few of these calls this morning.

Five bucks a month is just a little more than a pint of Fuller's at the Englander (where I'd have to go watch the EPL games if they weren't on my TV) and a drop in the bucket compared to the $120 I already pay for cable (internet and TV) so I opted to get the sports tier. The upside is that I now have the NFL Network, the NBA Network, and many more channels, and the downside is that I'm contributing five more dollars every month to the evil cable company. 

At least I have my FSC and GolTV again. I'm going to make a point of cancelling the sports tier after the FA Cup final in May, and won't reorder it until the Premier League resumes in August.

That's fifteen whole dollars that Comcast won't get from me!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Metallic Green Bees

Anyone who's a fan of an artist with a big back catalog has to have certain albums that they don't find the time to play that often. For me, that album is R.E.M.'s Green. I don't dislike it, but sometimes I almost forget it's in their catalog. Before this week, my Green CD probably hadn't felt the joy of laser playback more than once or twice in the last four years. I listen to all the IRS albums fairly regularly (every few months), and Automatic and Out Of Time, but never find myself pulling out Green very often.

Now that I've listened to the album three times in the last two days, I'm starting to realize the errors of my ways. It's the missing link between Document and Out Of Time mixing the rock of the former with the pastoral folky sound of the latter. For the longest time, I thought the four "emphasis tracks" ("Pop Song 89", "Stand", "Get Up", "Orange Crush") were the weakest tracks on the album. Now I love the way that these uptempo rockers mix with the quiet folky numbers. A couple of the songs like "The Wrong Child" and "Hairshirt" are a bit too lyrically over-earnest (something that plagues the past few R.E.M. albums), but they match well with the Big Rock Anthems. And the Big Rock Anthems now come across as over-the-top parodies of big Rock Anthems. The music box solo in "Get Up", the wah-wah solo on "Stand", the megaphone on "Orange Crush". They're almost like parodies of big, major label rock songs.

One of the thing I like best about Green was that it was the last R.E.M. album to have quality B-sides on the singles. All the singles from the album (besides "Stand") had cool cover tunes on their flip sides. The b-side of "Stand" was a throwaway instrumental called "Memphis Train Blues", but they put their cover Iggy Pop's "Funtime" on the b-side to "Get Up", Suicide's "Ghostrider" on the b-side to "Orange Crush", and added Syd Barrett's "Dark Globe" on the 12-inch version. They also covered Television's "See No Evil" on their 1988 holiday fanclub single.

These were all songs that they covered live, and the studio versions were recorded live in the studio. The Green tour was also last R.E.M. tour where cover songs featured prominently. They didn't tour behind their next couple albums, and after that, they had a huge back catalog and didn't need to rely on cover songs. Here are these four covers in all their live-in-studio glory. All aboard for funtime!

Green covers by R.E.M.
Dark Globe (Syd Barrett)
Funtime (Iggy Pop)
Ghostrider (Suicide)
See No Evil (Television)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Number Nine

If you're going to be a cog in a corporate monolith, at least be a cog in a corporate monolith with the chutzpah to run ads like this one.

"I am not a number, I am a free man!"

Between the Governor's sleazy hooker scandal and their Jr. Senator's scorched earth presidential campaign, it seems like New York Democrats are all modeling themselves after Republicans.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Further Fables

My next R.E.M. album in accordance with the alphabets, is 1985's Fables Of The Reconstruction, which I listened to today during my morning commute.

In my entry for Document I said that it was tied for Fables as third or fourth favorite R.E.M. album. The best way to resolve this deadlock is by listening to the albums back to back to determine which one I like more. Now that I've done that, I think Document is a stronger album musically, but Fables still resonates stronger with me.

I was living in the UK and taking summer classes at TVU in West London when Fables came out, and listening to the album now takes me back to that time of my life. I was staying in a communal house straight out of The Young Ones with a friend from high school and a couple of people I didn't know. There were some things I liked about staying in England, like being able to drink in pubs at 19, but on the whole it was a very strange place, and nothing like the halcyon vision of "studying abroad".

Listening to Fables was one of the things that kept me from getting too homesick that summer. R.E.M. recorded the album in London in the winter of 1984/85 with legendary producer Joe Boyd, and sounds like an album made by a band in a place they'd rather not be. Most of the songs explore the myths and legends of the South and the band's interpretation of them. The album title is circular ("Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables") as it's printed on the jacket, which gives it multiple meanings. The sound is deep and murky, either by choice or by accident, which shrouds the whole album in mystery. It's not as immediately accessible as their other albums, but definitely rewards repeat listening, like a long simmering Country Captain Chicken. There's a food equivalent for every R.E.M. album.

Fables is one of those albums I have to listen to all the way through to fully appreciate, so it's a good one for my 45 minute commute. When I listen to the CD these days, it seems like all the strongest songs are on the first half (A Side) and things tend to level off on the second half (Another Side). It's like they were halfway through a great album and gave up after "Can't Get There From Here" and buried all the weaker songs at the end. I have the 1993 "IRS Years" reissue with all the B-sides as bonus tracks, which was kind of redundant since they were also on the reissue of Dead Letter Office. I listened to DLO before Document, so I've had my fill of "Bandwagon", "Burning Hell", and "Crazy" the past few days.

Next in line is Green which is an album I don't dislike, but don't listen to that often either. I haven't even bothered to import the CD to iTunes yet!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The magiq's in the musiq

Has anyone else taken emusic's Music Intelligence Quiz?

My final score was 168/180  which qualifies me as a "Musical Magician".   
Musical Magician (145-180 points)
We doff our collective hat to your prodigious mind. You are a musical czar, with a profound knowledge of every genre and era. You met your current flame at a concert and, come to think of it, most of your friends too. You're always looking for the chance to pass on recommendations, knowing that if any of your disciples buy your suggestion it will change their lives the same way it has yours. Your love of music is genuine and deep and you match that passion with intellect. Because of that – let's face it – you're also the person that some folks love to hate. But who cares? Let's see their record collection! At this point, one can only take advantage of new ways to discover music and brush up on any obscure genres one might have missed.

Cool.. Where's my wizard's hat?  Their questions are pretty basic and simple, so anyone reading this could be a "musical musician", even without cheating. Questions like "how many symphonies did Beethoven compose?" are almost the musical equivalent of "who's buried in Grant's tomb?". You figure it has to be a trick question. One of the two questions I whiffed on was the one about Coldplay. Who cares what their song "Yellow" is about? I the hell sure don't.

But if you get every question correct, I think the message should say something like "Nice job, Mr/Ms 'Lookup the answers in another browser tab while taking the quiz'. You're a regular Cheaty McGooglepedia!"

Monday, March 10, 2008

Document Exhumed

Next in alphabetical line for my R.E.M. immersion is 1987's Document.

I blogged about this album on it's 20th anniversary and it's probably my third or fourth favorite album of theirs after Murmur, Automatic, and possibly Fables. It was the record that "broke" them commercially, breaking the Billboard Top Ten and spawning a top ten single. "The One I Love" entered the Top 40 the same week as the Dead's "Touch Of Grey" and peaked at the same position (#9).

Document was the first R.E.M. album produced by Scott Litt, and seems like a conscious effort to tighten their sound for wider commercial appeal. The BBC/VH1 Seven Ages Of Rock documentary on the "U.S. Alternative" said the album was "proto-grunge" that set the stage for bands like Nirvana. I've never heard that before, but Document was a bit grungier than the R.E.M. albums before it.  Apparently Litt and the band were aiming for something closer to their live sound, and they succeeded at that.

Strange as it may sound, Document was one of the albums that fueled my interest in classic jazz. I liked Steve Berlin's sax solo on "Fireplace", which apparently came about when they told him to sit back and play something like John Coltrane. Peter Buck said this in an interview in the Tower Records Pulse magazine interview where he listed Coltrane's Giant Steps as one of his "desert island discs". I was reading this at Tower Records so I browsed over to the jazz section and picked up the tape of Giant Steps for $4.99. Tower Records was a godsend in the pre-internet days. All the records you could ever need, in almost any genre, all in one place.

When I listen to Document these days, it's a little disheartening that a lot of the songs are still topical and apropos twenty plus years later. Instead of a period document of the Reagan years, it's still a picture of right here right now. In fact, things were more innocent back in the late 80s. Arms for hostages? Pshaw! It's not like Reagan started an illegal war in Central America and kept U.S. troops there for five years. There were a lot of silly things about the 80s (like mullets and acid-washed jeans) but I'd still take RWR over GWB any day.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tungsten carbide drills?

After a series of stirring upsets this weekend, your FA Cup final four are.

West Bromwich Albion
Cardiff City and

The 9th place team in the Premier League and three teams who are currently 4th, 14th, and 19th the Championship (aka Second Division).

Barnsley continued their Cinderella season by beating Chelsea 1-0 (after beating Liverpool a couple of weeks ago) and Portsmouth followed up by knocking off Manchester United 1-0. Then Cardiff City (who aren't even from England!) beat Middlesborough 2-0 today to continue the fairytale weekend. It was a great weekend for giant killers.

The last cup final that didn't have one of the EPL's "big four" (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, or Chelsea) was in 1991, but none of those teams will be there this year. It's been the year of minnows and winnows (winnows?) in English soccer. This is why the FA Cup is so cool!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Just a Touch

I bought a new (actually a reconditioned) 16gb iPod Touch yesterday. It's a big upgrade from my old nano: a larger screen, and twice the capacity, and the entire internet (including youtube) in the palm of my hand.

It was a used unit with some parts missing like the USB 2.0 cable (which I have already) and the sucky Apple earbuds. They also hadn't wiped the previous owner's content off. He or she had fewer than 60 songs (mostly by Timbaland and Nelly) and a couple of videos in some Eastern European language. Right now I've synched up all the music I would ever need to listen to, which only filled 12gb of the 16gb. Now I just need to learn how to transfer videos from DVD.

In order to separate the Touch from the iPhone, Apple initially did not include the Mail, Weather or Stock apps in the iPod touch, but they're all available now as well as many other Apple and third party apps now that they're opening the SDK. An iPod touch is now just like an iPhone, without the "phone". I don't need these applications since I use webmail (the mobile Gmail works pretty well on the touch), don't have many stocks, and can tell the weather by looking outside. You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.

Maybe someday I'll learn the touchscreen well enough to compose and submit an entire blog entry on my new iPod. Right now, it's taking me long enough to just enter my username and password into gmail, and enter search criteria on youtube. This was the first youtube video I saw last night on my Touch. Even crummy bootleg footage like this looks nice on a 3.5 inch widescreen.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

March Madness

For everyone following the Democratic Presidential nomination, Slate's delegate calculator is a lot of fun to play with.

This 2008 Presidential race is a lot like the final five minutes of a basketball game where one team has a 1,573 - 1,464 lead, but can't close the deal because the other team won't go away, despite being 109 points down with only 661 points left on the table. It may be possible to go on a 384-277 run in the last five minutes or 12 races, but it's likely. They're mostly just hoping to get close enough to rig a few superpoints in their favor. All the winning team has to do is run out the clock and protect their lead.

Yesterday on NPR's Morning Edition, Hillary Clinton aide Harold Ickes mentioned that pledged delegates are not formally bound to vote for the candidate they're elected to support. He went on to say that super delegates (he called them "automatic delegates") will "choose the candidate with the best chance in the general election" no matter who is ahead in pledged delegates.

This proved two things to me:
(1) This race will go all the way to the convention
(2) Clinton aide Harold Ickes sounds like a sleazebag.
With an appropriate surname. Ick!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Automatic For The People

Today's album in the alphabetical R.E.M. odyssey is 1992's
Automatic For the People.

"Automatic For The People" is the motto of Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods in Athens GA. It's also the title of R.E.M.'s eighth album which lots of fans (including this one) rate as one of their best. Weaver D's mission statement is "to provide delicious fine foods at an optimally set price that is pleasing to both the customer and us". R.E.M. definitely lived up to D's motto on this album.

Or to continue with the R.E.M. food, if Around The Sun is like mashed turnips, Automatic For the People is Southern comfort food. It's a song cycle about life and death and the passage of time (I cribbed that from Matthew Perpetua's essay on stereogum's AFTP tribute Drive XV) where each track explores a separate theme. Comfort food for the soul.

The best food equivalent for Automatic For The People is southern fried chicken. Maybe mock fried chicken made with "tofu and gluten", in honor of that Simpsons Thanksgiving episode where R.E.M. played in Homer's garage. This famous 1984 photograph by Laura Levine of the members of R.E.M. eating at another Athens eatery (Walter's Bar-BQ) shows that they were not always vegetarians. This picture hangs on the wall at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame cafeteria and shows them all eating barbecue. Maybe it's just "tofu and gluten" smothered in barbecue sauce.

There was an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 in the early 90s where the characters all went to an "R.E.M. concert" as part of the plot. The only problem was that this was during the period when R.E.M. weren't playing live. I always mark that episode as the symbolic "jumping of the shark" for 90210. Plus Luke Perry and Jason Priestly playing high school students. "I'm late for homeroom." You're like ten years late for homeroom, dude!

Since most of the songs on AFTP were focused on life and mortality and R.E.M. didn't tour behind the album, this fueled a lot of speculation (whatever "internet rumors" were called before Al Gore invented the internet) that Michael Stipe was not in good health. Stipe wasn't doing a lot of promotion for the album, and hadn't yet "come out", but his orientation wasn't a huge secret to anyone who followed the band. In late 1992, the lead singer for the Manic Street Preachers said he hoped Michael Stipe "would go the way of Freddie Mercury" which I don't think meant bravely coming out to confront the horrors of AIDS. This was neither the first or last time that a British pop star made an idiotic statement to get his name in the papers.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Chicken Curry Captain

Another recipe, this time for chicken curry captain (aka chicken curry kapitan). The name came when some 19th century British captain asked his Malayan manservant what was for dinner, and the servant's answer was "chicken curry, captain".

I always thought this was a Southeast Asian recipe (here's a recipe by my Canadian alter-ego Spicy Steve), but I saw Rachel Ray do this 30-minute meal on the Food Network calling it a "Southern" (U.S.) dish, so now I'm confused.

Most Southern versions don't use coconut milk, and substitute bacon grease for oil, which really sticks to your ribs (and arteries). No matter the origin, this is  a yummy dish that's simple to prepare, and even easier to eat. Halfway between chicken gumbo and chicken curry, and the combination of applesauce and raisins is a wonderful cure for "irregularity", if you know what I mean. Here are the directions.

Chicken Curry Captain
4 chicken thighs
2 to 3 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ginger powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 cup applesauce (unsweetened)
1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup coconut milk

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add curry powder, ginger powder, and cayenne pepper and stir until fragrant. Add bell pepper, onion, and garlic. Cook and stir 5 minutes or until tender. Place vegetables in slow cooker. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken; cook 5 minutes per side or until browned. Place chicken in crockpot. Pour broth, yogurt, and coconut milk into skillet. Cook and stir over medium-high heat, scraping up any browned chicken bits from bottom of skillet. Pour liquid into slow cooker. Add tomatoes and applesauce. Cook on LOW for 6hrs.

Serve with white rice and garnishes, including (but not limited to) chutney, nuts, raisins or other dried or fresh fruit, chiles, sliced scallions, whatever you have on hand.

A nice variation on chicken rice from both hemispheres of the globe.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Another Trip Around The Sun

It's hard to have a thirteen course banquet where you love every dish. There's always bound to be something you don't care for, like mashed turnips or something. Your choices are to either get them out of the way first, so they won't pollute the other dishes or to push them to the side and eat the other things you like. But no matter how hard you ignore them, those mashed turnips will still there. The other choice is to get the turnips out of the way first. That way you can look forward to eating the tastier dishes later.

Around The Sun is the mashed root vegetable of R.E.M. albums. So instead of going through their albums in chronological order and saving the mashed turnips for last, I'm going to go through them in alphabetical order, and get the mashed turnips out of the way first. Around The Sun is a lot like mashed turnips. Not terribly yucky, just not very distinctive. It doesn't sound bad in the background, as a side-dish, but if you try to listen more carefully, there just isn't a whole lot of there there.

I saw R.E.M. live shortly after this album came out and even wrote an internet review. I liked the concert quite a bit, but couldn't really get a handle on the new songs. At that point I still hadn't picked up ATS, and it wasn't until about a month later that I finally succumbed and picked up a cheap copy. A few of the songs ("Leaving New York","Aftermath","I Wanted To Be Wrong") aren't too bad, but the steady stream of samey mid-tempo songs gets tiring after awhile.

Of the thirteen R.E.M. albums, Around The Sun is my least favorite by far. It was the first of their albums with a title named after one of their songs, so hopefully it's just a coincidence that their upcoming album Accelerate also has a song called "Accelerate".  So far, there hasn't been a decent R.E.M. album with a title track, but every rule has an exception. 

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Acceleration Countdown

R.E.M.'s new album Accelerate comes out on April Fool's Day, so I've decided to spend this month of March listening to their thirteen previous studio albums and writing my thoughts about them here.

Thirteen albums (not counting compilations) in 31 days comes out to one album per 2.38 days which gives me enough time to blog about other things, and more importantly, to clear my palette with other music between listening to R.E.M. albums. I'll probably listen to them on CD (either at home or in the car) to avoid skewing my stats.

Matthew (fluxblog) Perpetua has been intermittently writing about every one of their songs in his Pop Songs 07/08 blog, and Ninety Nights has been counting down to Accelerate with one short video per day for the 90 days from 01.01.08 thru 04.01.08, so I'm trying to join the fun.

With that in mind, I've changed my blog heading to (what might be) a lyric from an early R.E.M. song. Just preparting to start my R.E.M. immersion.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Sad All Over

Mike Smith 1943-2008

He was two weeks away from seeing his Dave Clark Five inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. It's like Buck O'Neil all over again.

Fates and licensing (the greediness of a the drummer who named the band after himself) have conspired to keep the DC5 albums out of print, so they aren't as well known these days as they should be, but they had six top ten hits in the USA between 1964 and 1967, more than any British band besides the Beatles.

There isn't a whole lot of decent DC5 performance footage on youtube (just lots of pictures of records going around), but here's their first and most famous U.S. hit (the one that finally dethroned the Fab Four's number one stranglehold in early 1964) as covered by Ms. Suzi Quatro.

Dance in peace, Mike Smith.