Friday, September 30, 2011

Missing R.E.M. Already

NOTE: this post is free from R.E.M. song title puns. Read on with confidence.

I once said I would only own two R.E.M. albums, Murmur and Dead Letter Office. I expanded that to include Eponymous when that was released because "it had all the songs I liked from the other albums", and is still one of the best "greatest hits" records by them or anyone else. It expanded again to include Out of Time, and the last R.E.M. record I ever bought was Monster, back in 1994. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is a great pop song with a bit of an edge. I guess I liked them more than I wanted myself to believe that I did. I'm not sure why I held them at arms length. It wasn't snobbery.

So the news came down last week that Stipe, Buck & Mills were hanging it up as an entity after all this time. It's easy to forget that R.E.M. was once a huge band, one that, for me, was the definition of "alternative" music, alongside synth bands like New Order. "Alternative" used to be basically just independent college rock, back when there was such a thing. I digress, and could write much more in that topic, and probably will sometime.


As I remember it, I discovered Murmur through the girlfriend of one of my best friends in high school. Andrea had great taste in music. She was also at least partly responsible for introducing us to the Violent Femmes, more quirky guitar rock. I have this vague memory of hearing Murmur in her car. I knew of R.E.M. and had seen a couple of videos, but it was the snare pops at the beginning of "Radio Free Europe" and the simmering shuffle of the song that exploded when it reached the chorus that really got me.

The whole album ebbs and flows in tempo and tone, from the bounce of "Laughing" to the gorgeous barroom piano that anchors the wistful temper of "Perfect Circle". It's fun to think of these four kids making this music in a small college town in Georgia, becoming torchbearers for independent music.

Dead Letter Office is a collection of b-sides and outtakes, one of the first records of that kind that I had ever come across.

So, what did I love about Dead Letter Office? The playfulness. The joy. The liner notes by Peter Buck that detailed the little stories behind the songs - something else I didn't see much of, and surely didn't expect from R.E.M. He wrote about how much better they thought Pylon were, how some songs were throwaways or reworkings of other songs - he was writing about how they made their music, who their inspirations were (one Lou Reed and two Velvet Underground covers). I felt *close* to the band, a feeling I didn't much get from the likes of The Cure or New Order, whose music I loved, but didn't speak directly, literally to me in that manner.

I was jealous of R.E.M. once, or at least the feelings they provoked in a girlfriend of that era. Sara loved Stipe, and I think that I recall her telling me that she got to hang out with them after one of their shows in Denver. I didn't seethe, however, it was more of a "I want to be that" sort of feeling. Not to get the girls necessarily, but to inspire that kind of devotion. Sara had impeccable taste in music. I felt like I had one up (musically) on most of the girls I had dated up to that point, but Sara knew a lot of really cool bands, and we both shared a connection to the music that we loved.

I was listening to "Perfect Circle" on a rainy day a few years ago, and that got me to thinking of her. I wrote Avenue to her and that song..

R.E.M. also inspired my band Tucker during our contract negotiations. We had been offered a deal by an independent label - seven records. Seven! That seemed like a lot in the mid-90's, when indie bands put out a couple of records on a small label and then jumped to majors when the dollars were flashed. Geoff, the guy who I started the band with, pointed out that R.E.M. did seven albums for I.R.S. I pondered that for a minute and realized that yes, we were much more of a band like R.E.M. - a long-haul band, a band with depth and breadth and important songs and silly songs and camaraderie - and I even had a black Rickenbacker 360 with a white pick guard!

Unfortunately for Tucker, R.E.M. outlasted us as a band by 6 albums and 17 years.

I stopped listening to R.E.M. with any regularity after Monster. I slagged them pretty badly around the turn of the century, saying that they were pretty much irrelevant. Sour grapes, perhaps? Maybe. I did read a lot of people's comments to the effect of "R.E.M. was still together?" when the news broke last week. I knew they were still together - I actually kind of dig their new album - but they hadn't been relevant to me in years, unless you count Stipe's turn as an angry reindeer in Olive, the Other Reindeer. (Brilliant, by the way, both him and the show)

But in listening to one of the Marc Maron WTF podcasts last week, I realized that R.E.M. were who they were, and they are who they are, and their relevance to me isn't important. What's important is that they were still creating music, being artists, playing shows. They continued to strive. But now, instead of pushing too hard, they're easing back - all the way back. There's plenty of life for them left to enjoy.

I have a feeling that I'll be going back and listening to a lot more R.E.M. in the coming months, to hear what I missed. Because I know I missed something just by not giving them a chance. They have my respect for being who they were for 31 years.

Those kids grew up a long time ago. Perhaps it's time I did, too.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

ThURGHsday! #2 - Wall of Voodoo

URGH! was released in 1982, the same year that Wall of Voodoo's Call of the West came out - the record that contained the MTV hit "Mexican Radio". It's doubtful that URGH! provided any sort of popularity bump to Wall of Voodoo in the time leading up to that single's release, but the video in URGH! is a great showing of the band's stage presence, specifically singer Stan Ridgway. Always kind of an odd duck, he puffy-cheek sings, wanders around the stage, and lays down a supporting keyboard riff. More angular than their previously mentioned hit song, "Back In Flesh" is textbook early-80's postpunk New Wave music, mixing keyboards, guitars & drum machines. Also check out the classic non-sequitur interstitial before the concert footage:

Back in Flesh

My favorite part: The "you can't tell me what to do...screw you!" end to the back & forth breakdown two-thirds of the way into the song.

Where URGH! They Now?

If you lived in a city with an alternative radio station in the mid 80's, you probably remember Stan Ridgway's "Camouflage", a Twilight Zone episode in a song. If you were a huge music geek & Police fan like me, you remember his collaboration with Stewart Copeland - "Don't Box Me In" - for the movie Rumble Fish. I don't think I ever saw the movie, but I love the song. Stan is still creating and performing, although not as Wall of Voodoo, but he has done a reunion concert (without any original band members).

Speaking of original band members, guitarist Marc Moreland was the inspiration for Concrete Blonde's "Joey", a song about being in love with an alcoholic. Unfortunately, Marc died in 2002.

And more Wall of Voodoo/Concrete Blonde trivia: After Stan left WoV, he was replaced by Andy Prieboy, who later wrote of one of Concrete Blonde's loved songs, "Tomorrow, Wendy".
Last ThURGHsday! - The Police, "Driven To Tears"
Next ThURGHsday! - Toyah Willcox, "Dance"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Seth MacFarlane has a swing jazz vocal record out?

Ok, stay with me here: Seth MacFarlane...the guy from Family Guy, American Dad, etc...has an album of swing jazz tunes a la Frank Sinatra called Music Is Better Than's a straight take, not a goof...and it's *good*.

Did *not* see that one coming.

Seriously, check out "Something Good" (from the Sound of Music), "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" (from the Music Man) or the tracks he recorded with Norah Jones or Sarah Bareilles.

Huh. Ya learn somethin' new ev'ry day.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Amalgams and crashups

So I'm listening to The Hunting Accident's "Big Mistake" (recommended by @jessiesawriter on Twitter) and the beginning guitar reminds me of the opening of 38 Special's "Hold On Loosely" until the drums start, and then it reminds me of The Cars. Until the guy starts singing, then it reminds me of Baltimore's Put-Outs.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Today is ThURGHsday!

Every Thursday, I'm going to write a post about a band from the movie URGH! A Music War. One band per week, in order of appearance, discussing the song and what it meant to me in the context of the movie, and what it means to me now.

URGH! is, in my opinion, one of the best concert films out there, ever. Very little production, just the cameras, the fans, and the bands.

The movie opens to the cracking snare hits of "Driven to Tears" by The Police, grainy shots of the crew setting up for the show, and then cuts to the performance of the band as the lyrics start. Sting is wearing his sleeveless Beat shirt, Andy Summers rocks a suit, and Stewart Copeland styles in his t-shirt and 70's-style gym shorts, keeping time.

When I was younger, it was never one of my favorite songs, but I've heard it so many times live (just on records, not at shows) that I realize how crucial of a song it is to their set. I did see them once, live, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. I had waited so many years, and I was not disappointed - especially not in that gorgeous setting.

This song is a good draw to the movie, a very popular band, but playing an album track instead of a single, which fits the movie because from here it's all indie bands, punk bands and one-hit-wonders, except for the Go Go's, they were pretty big back then as well. The Police were one of my favorite bands at the time that I first saw URGH! I was still pretty young but there was something about the music the three of them made. Stewart remains one of my favorite rock drummers. I know plenty of people who don't like how he plays, and most of them are drummers themselves. Doesn't matter to me.

Great beginning to a great film. Enjoy.

P.S. - The linked song above is not the URGH! version, but the live version from the Police box set. As always, purchasing from the iTunes store with those links helps support Your Older Brother. Thanks!


Monday, September 19, 2011

City & Colour's "Hello, I'm In Delaware"

Just heard City & Colour's song Hello, I'm In Delaware on the station and *man* is it a gorgeous tune. Kind of reminds me of Bourgeois Tagg's "I Don't Mind At All", in a way.

I really like both songs. :)

And I mostly listened to "I Don't Mind At All" on a mixtape I had, and whenever I hear the guitars ringing at the end, I still hear the beginning of the next song on the tape, "Haunted" by The Pogues, from the soundtrack to the movie Sid & Nancy.

Funny how songs stay linked in your memory like that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

First things first...

Hello new readers! My name's Sam, and I'm here to write about music. I don't think I have better taste in music than anyone else, I've just been a fan and performer most all of my life and figured that I would start writing about it: records I like, experiences I've had, shows I've been to, bands I'm into - pretty much anything I can think of that's related to music.

What kind of music? All kinds! I like pretty much everything. I used to say I liked everything but country and opera, but in college, I was on the receiving end of a one-two punch that wiped out that assertion.

The first punch came in my electronic music class. We were watching a film that showed some people going through the steps of attempting to electronically reproduce a section from the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's "Magic Flute". To start with, the myth behind that piece of music is impressive. The legend is that Mozart was angry with his sister-in-law who was to perform the piece and wrote it to be very difficult to perform, thinking she would fail and be embarassed. Upon the staging of the opera, she performed flawlessly and Mozart was elated. Unfortunately, I can find no substantiation of this story. :) The film we watched detailed the challenges in recreating the piece electronically from scratch, shaping the soundwaves and the attack & decay of the notes, and then adding touches to mimic the rough edges of the human voice - humans don't produce pure tones. Anyway, the short of it was that the film impressed upon me the range and versatility of the human voice. My aversion to opera melted away in my elation, much like Mozart in the myth, when I found that the genre is a celebration of voice.

(The video below is the entire scene in the original German, the vocals start at 2:12. The most amazing part to me comes around 2:50-3:00)

The second punch was rather unexpected as well. My sister and parents were fans of country music. I was a college music indie snob and wouldn't have any of it. They were particularly fond of Garth Brooks, the biggest star in country at the time. I dismissed him out of hand as well. One vacation I was home with the three of them and they wanted me to watch the Garth Brooks concert that was on TV and I relented because I didn't have anything better to do. What ended up surprising me (aside from his vocal talent) was the showmanship he displays. He's having *fun*, and he wants his audience to have as much fun as he is. The video below showcases some of that. I think it's from the video special I watched. You can see that it's the early 90's in the clothes & hair, and some parts are cheesy (lady, don't grab his butt...), but the man can put on a show, you have to agree.

So now, I don't rule out any type of music. I'm sure I can find something to appreciate about anything you throw at me. It might take some digging, or repeated listens, but I'll get there. :)

A bit more about me - I was a college radio DJ, which I have fond memories of as the purest form of entertainment. It was like listening to a bunch of records with your friends, none of whom happened to be in the room with me. My radio name was Sam The Butcher (it's a Brady Bunch reference). I've also been in a few bands, and I'm proud of the work I've done with them. Below is a picture of me in the studio recording with the best band I was in, Tucker.

So please, feel free to comment, agree with me, disagree with me - whatever you like. Let's just talk about music.