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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

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Buzzards,” Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos

14th December

 

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“I’m never gonna break your heart, not unless I have to,” Richard Edwards howls over the booming guitars and drums of “New York City Hotel Blues,” one of Buzzards’ highest moments. Clearly Mr. Edwards and the rest of the Indianapolis gang he calls “Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos” has decided he has to, as many tracks throughout Buzzards will split your heart with the fine blade of their chamber pop hooks and blunt one-liners. Some of these songs will scratch your eyes out; others will cry them dry.

The second track, “Let’s Paint our Teeth Green,” sounds like The White Stripes banged heads with R.E.M. somewhere in the halls of the studio it was recorded in. It’s a bruising crunch of guitars and hissing percussion that drips with pop hooks. The whole gorgeous mess drives Edwards’s screeching vocals to the end of the song like a truck crash on an icy road at night, accompanied along the way by backup vocals that sound like a chorus of blackbirds.

It is only fitting that on the first line of the next track, the aforementioned “New York City Hotel Blues,” Edwards declares that it “seems like the only way out’s through the back.” By then you’re three songs deep in an album that’s dug its claws so deep into your imagination you might never get them out, and it does start to feel as if you just paid to enter a black light ballroom where the guy stamping hands at the door will only let you out for a drop of your blood. But what else would you expect of an album whose song titles span a range from hilarity to horror—“Let’s Paint out Teeth Green,” ‘Tiny Vampire Robot,” “Earth to Aliens: What Do You Want?”

An adrenaline that calls to mind Bloc Party or The Long Winters ignites the appropriately titled “Freak Flight Speed,” while “Tiny Vampire Robot” dims the lights with an ethereal little ballad that brings to mind something from a Mazzy Star album you haven’t thought about since you were15 and pissed at your parents for making you take that stud out of your tongue. Other tracks, like “Claws” or “Earth to Aliens” channel the raw and aching beauty of Magnolia Electric Co.’s finest moments (think Songs Ohia).

But the star of the baroque production that is Buzzards happens to be its quietest moment, a spare and harrowing track called “I Do” that brings the album to a close. The stripped-bare ballad offers no more than one man’s dusty vocals and his guitar drowned in the dark matter of the song and resembles Radiohead’s devastating “Exit Music (For a Film)” from OK Computer. Although Edwards’s anguished delivery comes closer to the fragile and lowdown vocals of Jeff Tweedy than it does to the demon that Thom Yorke tickles on “Exit Music.” (And no, Richard Edwards doesn’t hope that you choke.)

Margot and friends are striking while the iron is hot, already prepared to drop their next record,  an acoustic EP called Happy Hour at Sprigg’s, on January 14th.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Roky Erickson: He’s Comin’ Home After All

31st March

Roky

“I’ve gone through three changes: first I thought I was a Christian, then I was the devil, and then a third one where I know who I am, and I feel like an alien.”
— Roky Erickson

Call him “The great lost vocalist of Rock ‘N Roll.” Call him “The Unknown hero of Rock ‘N Roll.” Around here, though, we call him the haunted howling wolf of psychedelia. These are just a few of the countless expressions of praise rightfully lavished upon underground legend Roky Erickson, the man responsible for the skull-cracking mayhem known as The 13th Floor Elevator back in the 1960s and, for a far less memorable minute, in the early 1970s after Roky was released from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Austin, Texas.

The band’s demise in 1973 was hardly surprising; they had hit a few minor snags along the way. A couple of members had to be booted for doing too much speed. Then their lead guitarist, Stacy Sutherland, became hooked on heroin and was subsequently murdered by his wife–that there’s a snag if I’ve ever heard one. If that seems like a harsh penalty for pumping the magic juice, though, you might want to keep reading.

The tragic B-movie horror flick that is the life of Roky Erickson, truly one of Rock ‘N Roll’s unsung pioneers whose influence has been explicitly noted by an array of bands that includes R.E.M., The White Stripes, Patti Smith, ZZ Top, The Butthole Surfers, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and goth-rock Gods The Cramps, among many others, reads like a page torn out of the bible your grandpa keeps in a drawer by the bed with his gun. I’d say that it sounds like a movie, but rumors of a biopic about Roky were dashed when Jack Black literally called him to say that he “couldn’t handle the part.” No shit, jack. That’s why he’s Roky fucking Erickson.

More Roky

No one’s really sure exactly what turned Jack Black off to the role, but there are plenty of possibilities. Maybe it was the electro-shock treatment forced on Roky at Rusk. Maybe it was the mind-numbing doses of Thorazine they choked him with, or those beatings at the hands of assholes in uniform there. Black was a sensible choice for the role, though, given that Roky’s anthem, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” was featured in the film that Black made his name in, the brilliant John Cusak flick Hi-Fidelity. If you think you’ve never heard “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” by the way, please kindly come out from under your rock and turn on the radio. Or watch this video (cheater).

So what foul offense did he commit to be beaten, electrocuted, drugged and caged, you ask? Simple: he took a single twist of weed on a drive through Mount Bonnell in Austin one day in 1969. Given the band’s aforementioned propensities for speed, heroin and murder, the cops, naturally, took an interest (can’t those bastards take a joke?), and then they took Roky in. Varying reports exist on exactly how many joints he’d packed that day, actually, but in a 2005 interview with Paul Drummond, Erickson insists the Cops’ story that he tossed a vial of pot out the window of his car was a load of horseshit and that they planted the evidence:

Erickson: Well it doesn’t seem right that I would through out a vial of grass into the weeds and a Policeman would stop and set his flashlight on it and get it .

Drummond: Are you saying he planted it?

Erickson: That sounds real good.

We’re sure it does, Roky. Real, real good. Just as it sounded good when he was busted loose from Rusk the night an “electric jug player” named Tommy Hall “took the door off the hinges with a screwdriver and snook me out of the hospital,” as Roky puts it (and all this time you thought “snook” was a fish!). And that’s where the nightmare began, really: the torture inflicted from the outside became the more inescapable torture within him: a prolonged bout with acute schizophrenia that left him to drown out “the awful noises” in his head by sitting at home amid a multitude of blasting televisions. Soon he was publicly announcing that a Martian inhabited his body, a claim that actually begins to make sense when you watch the documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which premiered at the 2005 SXSW Film festival, and listen to friends of his say things like “anyone who tried to have a conversation with him understood that he was not of this world.” Maybe Roky wasn’t kidding.

Roky & The Explosives

And neither are the legions of loyalists who shower him in thunderous ovations at his many recent live shows, particularly at the sizzling performances he’s been putting on with veteran garage rockers The Explosives. It’s clear that Erickson has no interest in cashing in on dated glories, as he rocks just as hard on signature tunes like the scorching metal rant “Two Headed Dog” or “It’s a Cold Night for Alligators” as he does on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” gems he produced despite the crippling onslaught of mental illness. For a guy who dropped out of high school rather than conform to code by cutting his hair, such willful defiance of a condition that has silenced so many great voices is characteristic of the kind of determination that enabled him to write hundreds of songs while cooped up at the State Home.

Not to be confined by any particular sound or label, Roky explores a range his hard-nosed rock reputation doesn’t always credit, as gorgeous ballads like “Starry Eyes” or “You Don’t Love Me Yet” elicit as many sing-alongs from crowds as anything else he’s done. With The Explosives, though, even the gentlest ballad is transformed into the most sneering rocker, as on this rendition of “Starry Eyes” from a gig in Stockholm last year. But it’s the banalities of Roky’s new life after schizophrenia and a disastrous deterioration under the care of his mother that might be the grandest miracle of all: he has a driver’s license for the first time in decades, owns a car, and even votes.

 

Trailer for “You’re Gonna Miss Me” Documentary

Much of his comeback–both on stage and off–is in thanks to his younger brother Sumner, who won legal guardianship of him in 2001 and reversed his mother’s support of Roky’s refusal to take prescriptions for his paranoid schizophrenia. His teeth had undergone severe decay and he was living in federally-subsidized housing, depending largely on the kindness of friends and strangers to get by (especially for those sweet cream ice cream malts he loves so dearly–he once traded the rights for several songs with Doug Sahm for nothing more than a milkshake, exactly the reason why his brother had to help him dig out of a tangle of grossly exploitative royalty deals that left him penniless). Then the cops came back to bust him on a bogus charge of mail fraud; yes, Rocky was taping neighbors’ mail to his walls, but furious.com reports that “He had been collecting and distributing mail for two neighbors, but when they moved away Roky continued to collect but no longer distribute. When police came to his home they found it all unopened and some of it taped to his walls.”

Roky & His Bro

Roky & His Bro

Only since Sumner’s lucky day in court has his brother Roky really taken back his life, keeping his mind in check with medication he should have been taking all along, delivering more public performances than he’d done in decades, and even recording new music. Now Roky’s got a web site and tour dates (a gig in new Orleans is coming up on April 30), and the web is abuzz with reports of the most unlikely rock ‘n roll resurrection since the last Jim Morrison sighting. Hell, you can even find the guy on MySpace. Chicago Public Radio reported last year that long time 13th Floor devotee Billy Gibbons, singer and guitarist of ZZ Top, is rumored to be doing an album with Roky that may see the light of day this year, further confirming that what would be the twilight of any other rocker’s career is actually Roky’s second dawn.