Culturespill » 2011 » February

Albums to look out for this spring #2: “Collapse Into Now,” R.E.M.

27th February

 

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You can’t blame a guy if collapsing nearly to his death from a brain aneurysm shifts his priorities in life. Former R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry said it felt as if he’d been hit by a bowling ball when he fell to the ground during a live set in Switzerland in 1995. And that’s probably how his bandmates felt two years later when they heard he was ditching the life of a rock star for the life of  a hay farmer–literally. Berry said he was still young enough to try doing something else with his life after “pounding the tubes since I was nine years old.” Trouble was, the band he left behind was still young enough to, you know, keep on being a band.

And so they did. And after the Berry-less lineup dropped LPs like Up, Reveal or Around the Sun, it seemed as if it was time for their fans themselves to feel like they’d been thumped to the ground by a blunt object too. Critics uttered polite murmurs about the “experimental” Up–music critic code for “this kinda sucks but don’t tell them I said that.” The record had its moments–“Lotus,” “The Apologist” and “Walk Unafraid” brandished a bit of that clenched fist the band brandished back in their “Orange Crush” days–but mostly the record washed away in the uncertainty of a band in search of the backbone Berry apparently had taken with him to the farm. “Daysleeper” was the track the label tossed off as the record’s first single only because it was the one song on the album that sounded like something the band had done before. Which is to say it amounted to little more than the work of a band so lost in its pursuit of former glories that they had become virtually irretrievable.

Then came the aimless Reveal, a clutter of dreamy pop numbers that sounded like someone had strapped Brian Wilson to his keyboard and told him to play something that sounded like Peter Gabriel. The Beach Boys, whom Peter Buck and Mike Mills worship,  played somewhere off in the distance of seemingly every track on the record. Tracks like the warmly received (and Grammy-nominated) “Imitation of Life” or “All the Way to Reno” were nice, but “nice” just doesn’t pass the sniff test when you’re the guys who did “Radio Free Europe” and “It’s End of the World As We Know It.” And trying to distinguish one track from the next on the record felt too much like trying to explain the difference between velvet and velour. A few years later, the comprehensive indifference with which fans and critics alike greeted 2004’s disastrous Around the Sun was an appropriate response to an album so starving for ideas it played like a 13-track epitaph.

That’s an awful lot of failure to lay on one departed drummer’s shoulders; it seems more likely that Berry jumped out the window of the burning building his band was about to become–a band out of ideas, in search of the reason it got into this business in the first place, and so satiated by the fame and fortune they’d found in the meantime that songs that once swung with two white-knuckled fists now only flailed with the leathery arms of a drunk down the street from where they’d been. So consider 2008’s fiery Accelerate the “Oh shit!” to their fans’ “So what?” It had been a long time since these guys played with such frothy abandon. Not since the overlooked 1996 gem Adventures in Hi Fi had they sounded so fresh. Peter Buck cut loose for the first time in nearly 15 years, revisiting the guitar-hero mode he indulged on prior masterpieces like “Bang and Blame,” “Departure” or “The Wake Up Bomb.”

The record glowed with the roaring radiance of a sun storm, and if the band intended its rejuvination as an announcement that they were back, Accelerate’s reception proved that indeed they were.The record went to #2 on the Billboard 200 and whipped up a storm of media attention no R.E.M. release had enjoyed since 1998, when the music world wondered what the hell their first album without Bill Berry would sound like.

Now they hope to prove that they were serious–returning with a new LP in Collapse Into Now that’s due out March 8th, and inviting a familiar cast of characters along for the show. Patti Smith, who cut a brilliant duet with Stipe on Hi Fi’s “E-Bow the Letter” and again  on her own “Last Call” the following year, is back with the band this time around on a track called “Blue,” and she’s bringing her band’s long-time guitar-slinger Lenny Kaye along with her. Producer Jacknife Lee, the man at the console on Accelarate, is apparently reprising his role this time around, and we’ll forgive the band its reported collaboration with Eddie Vedder on the record’s first single, “It Happened Today.”

Mills told SPIN recently that the new LP boasts a few more rockers in the vein of its 2008 predecessor, sprinkled with a helping of what he calls “some really slow, beautiful songs” and “some nice mid-tempo ones.” As long as those nice mid-tempo ones aren’t “nice” in the same way that Reveal was, it sounds like R.E.M. may be about to do something they haven’t done in nearly 20 years–put out two consecutive great records.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Introducing: Bastard Lovechild of Rock ‘N Roll

10th February

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You think you know what you’re in for when “Boy You Need Jesus,” the opening track of Bastard Love Child of Rock ‘n Roll’s debut EP, BimBom, erupts with its frenzied delirium of cymbals and slide guitar, vaguely psychedelic vocals that echo like strange voices from the other side of a canyon at night, and a blast of organ that brings it all home with such aplomb you actually wonder if that’s Augie Meyers on the stool.

You think it’s a young band that’s listened to lots of early Zeppelin and White Stripes, digs the stream-of-consciousness abandon of a Neil Young guitar solo, and actually knows what they mean when they toss around terms like “Psychedelia”—that it’s a sacred and glittering temple inhabited by the likes of Moby Grape, The Seeds, or Quicksilver Messenger Service, and not the sorry crutch it’s become for big-label bands groping for any hip cloak to dress their music in.

You would think these things—and on all accounts you would be right. But you also would be tempted to believe that you’ve just surmised the extent of all this Florida duo has to offer—that they’re a pair of young rockers flicking on their lighters at the altar of the long-gone bands they worship, and that’s that. And you would be wrong. Dead wrong.

“Boy You Need Jesus” fades into the second track’s galactic freak-out of synths that sound like a chorus of crying ghosts. One can hear Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright shaking his head in his grave, muttering “Why didn’t I ever think of that!?” The track plays with all the gusto that its epiphanic title promises–“Hallelujah I’ve Been BLORRN Again,” it’s called–and it keeps I Monster’s “Hey Mrs.” chained to the kitchen sink of its ambition, only without the predictability and polish that those beat masters bring to their club-quaking trip-hop.

Several tracks on BimBom play like many songs packaged into one. It’s no secret that most debut EPs document the sound of a young band on the verge of discovering the identity they’re searching for, and, in a way, BimBom is no exception.  The opener’s conventional blues-rock with a hankering for psychedelia gives way to that gorgeous, psych-synth weirdness of “Hallelujah”; “Seven Sisters,” the track for which the band recently completed the video above, calls to mind the haunting soundscape with which Led Zeppelin’s “In The Evening” begins; the shuffling, jazzy licks and percussion of “My Blushing Grape” or “My Poor Delisa” would make just as much sense on some lost Sade record; and the blistering romper “Booty Making Mama Shakin'” glazes its anthemic riffs in a coating of space rock.

“Booty Makin” raises hell with more of the gloriously snotty licks these guys delight in one minute, and dims the lights with the jangling flutters of guitar that call the whole thing softly home the next. The EP is at once bipolar and measured, as self-contained as it is likely to burst. It’s tempting to suggest that Adam Winn and Chris Hess, the brainchildren behind BLORR who prefer the stage names “Cookie Sugarhips” and “Hot Damn Sweet Huckleberry Winn,” have more ideas than they know what to do with, as the record radiates in all directions at once like some sonic solar storm. But by the time the hammering percussion and piercing guitars of its dreamy closer wrap these nine tracks in their fluorescent ribbon, you hear at last the cohesive vision that’s sewn these songs together all along–a vision as committed to looking back at the pioneers that made it possible as it is to thrusting into the future whose road they paved.

This is no typical EP that meanders through a grab-bag of sounds in the hope that something sticks; this is the work of a band that knows what it wants to do and isn’t afraid to do it. And if these nine tracks prove anything for sure, it’s that they’re having a hell of a lot of fun in the meantime.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Albums to look out for this spring: “Let England Shake,” P.J. Harvey

8th February

 

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Courtney Love, who hasn’t a fraction of Polly Jean’s talent, nonetheless managed to say something about P.J. that actually was genuinely interesting: that her breakthrough album Live Through This was the record she’d been waiting for Polly Jean Harvey to make. To listen to Live Through This in 2011 is to hear just how obscenely overrated a record it is–no one could have heard the bullshit through the bluster back in 1994–and Harvey put out a record in To Bring You My Love the following year that kicks seven shades of crap out of anything Love has done since. But even so, her remark about Harvey’s work rings as true today as ever before.

The woman is now eight albums deep in a recording career that has spanned such a broad range of sounds and moods it’s as if she records specifically to defy the notion that there is any particular album she’s supposed to make. If anything is to be taken from the catalog of releases she’s assembled by now, it’s that P.J. Harvey makes only the records she wants to make; and if they don’t sound like something others expect of her, that’s their problem.

From Rid of Me to the brilliant but comparatively overlooked Is This Desire to Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea and 2007’s fascinating (if bizarre) White Chalk, Harvey’s catalog documents a creative restlessness that few of her peers can boast. Each album is such a markedly different experience from the next that it’s as if Harvey roams a new imagination with each release. Just as Stories From the City roared out of your stereo with frothing rockers like “Big Exit” and turned out the lights with the ethereal balladry of “We Float,” the record’s frenetic follow-up, Uh Huh Her, evinced total discomfort with the accessibility of its predecessor. The unyielding grunge of Rid of Me soon gave way to the hook-hungry pop rock of “Angeline.” And the chilling, spare atmosphere of White Chalk yielded  a batch of songs that coated everything Harvey had done before then in a dusting of snow.

Now we have Let England Shake (due out February 15th), a record as unremittingly political as Rid of Me was savage, and a 41-year-old Harvey vowing to wait ten years before the next album if she has to, crowning herself an official “war songwriter” in the vein of “war poets” like Wilfred Owen, and singing of soldiers that fall on the battlefield “like lumps of meat.” Harvey recently told the Financial Times that she has “always been profoundly interested and affected by what’s happening in the world,” but that she never found a way to address that dimension of herself in her songs.

By all appearances, Let England Shake rather definitively marks the moment when she found a way. Recorded in “a 19th century church on a cliff overlooking the sea” with a cast of usual suspects such as John Parish and Mick Harvey, the songs navigate a history of warfare ranging from Gallipoli to Afghanistan. And Harvey reportedly abandoned herself to an insatiable appetite for research before writing these songs, scouring everything from the work of T.S. Eliot and Harold Pinter to books on World War I.

The music this time around is more fully developed than anything on White Chalk yet still, somehow, almost as unsettling (as on tracks like The Glorious Land or Bitter Branches). And her vocals, as always, explore a range from tenderness to rage and never fail to engage no matter where on that spectrum they fall. Let England Shake may not do for her career what Stories From the City did, but it is unlikely to be easily forgotten, either.