Sunday, June 22, 2008

R.E.M. (MSG, June 19)

Back in the early nineties, Michael Stipe would talk in interviews about hanging out with the late River Phoenix. He would usually bring up that River always wore his sunshades inside, as if River was trying to hide. Or to keep the world out.

For the last half dozen times I've seen R.E.M. live over the past 7 years, Stipe has worn his Daryl Hannah replicant makeup. It, for all intents, served the same purpose as River's sunshades. This Thursday, he left it off.

In fact, Stipe at Madison Square Garden didn't --

- Strip

- Mope

- Read his lyrics from a nightstand

What he and Peter and Bill (and Scott and Bill) did was rock. Rock a very large room for two hours. It was great. And it was very different than the R.E.M. shows we'd been used to.

The post - millennial concerts up until now all seemed to be (in retrospect) performed almost in defense of the material on Up, on Reveal, on Around the Sun. Throughout, the band was trying to conjure a moment of transcendent beauty with new songs like High Speed Train, or Falls to Climb. R.E.M. wanted to prove so badly that they still had it. And everyone had just shown up for a rock concert.

And that disconnect, between people in their late twenties and thirties, who associated the music with their youth, and the band on stage who desperately wanted late career legitimacy (the kind U2 enjoys in thier third decade of performing) directly lead to the Stipe & Co. of old. I'm a serious fucking lyrical master -- see my music stand. I'm a record company whore -- here, I lost my shirt. I'm deep -- you can't see my eyes. And maybe I can't see you.

Needless to say, that's all disappeared. On Thursday, the house lights were up more than they'd ever been, and you felt like the band really saw the audience this time. And the audience really saw them. Accelerate was a reinvigorating album (and tour) on so many levels. Foremost, it redefined the band: R.E.M. is a quirky, unpretentious, ridiculous, angry, political rock band. The most important word is "rock". It's good to have you back, boys.

(image from workinpana)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Album of the Year race heats up

We'd like to write about the neat-o Mountain Goats cartoon we got from Brianna or speculate about the fact that the Innocence Mission just posted on their Web site that "Right now we are recording some new songs. We hope to have a record finished later this year" - but we really would be remiss if we didn't get a word or two up about the two records that have been wearing out our stylus and/or sucking the last bit of juice out of out six-year-old iPod as it makes its way toward retirement (it's eligible for a full pension on July 11), starting with:


So if you've received an email from us anytime in the last year-plus, you've noticed the phrase "There's something singing in the ice" at the bottom. That's a Shearwater line, from their last album, Palo Santo, which has been praised to the skies on this blog.

Well, if you've gotten an email from us in the past two days, you might have noticed that our signature has changed. The new line - "Look with century eyes till they make you go blind" - is from Shearwater's new one, Rook. Jonathan Meiburg, the lead singer/songwriter, formed the band with Will Sheff, as a side project to Okkervil River. For their first couple albums, Sheff and Meiburg were co-leads - until Palo Santo, when Meiburg was given the reins and the band soared. So much, in fact, that Meiburg left Okkervil to devote himself fully to Shearwater.

We're glad he did.

Okkervil River is a good band (the Stage Names was one of our favorite records last year), but Shearwater is a great band, and they prove Palo Santo was no fluke by releasing a record that somehow is even more beautiful. We're not gonna say it's better or worse overall, just that it is a worthy follow-up. Rooks and Century Eyes grab you on first listen, but slower songs like The Hunter's Star, The Snow Leopard and I Was a Cloud keep you coming back. The first track, On the Death of the Waters, is about a shipwreck and, just before reaching a dramatic climax musically, Meiburg sings, "Turn your bow to the biggest wave/but your angel's on holiday/and that wave rises slowly/and breaks!" and his voice obscures the words enough throughout to make you want to print the lyrics and read along. Doing so proves our bird-lovin' friends are now firmly established as one of the best bands of this decade.


Speaking of the decade's best, it's going to take quite a lot in the next year and a half to unseat Will Oldham as this decade's best songwriter. The winner of the 2003 Album of the Year has been extremely prolific and has now released three records that are as good, if not better, than his winning effort, Master and Everyone. (He's also become somewhat of an accomplished actor, and yes Becca, we've developed a serious man-crush on him to boot.)

Lie Down in the Light could be his best yet. We read somewhere that this is an upbeat, countrified anti-I See A Darkness, and we agree. The songs are celebratory - "you remind me of something, the song that I am, and you sing me back into myself...and dancing goes on in the kitchen until dawn, to my favorite song that has no end" - and every one is a winner, packed with lines to treasure. Though it's still so new, Oldham has another old-friend record under his belt.


So back to the title of this post. It's always great to have so much to choose from, especially this early on, when we think of the year's best. Palo Santo finished second in 2006, Oldham's The Letting Go was third. Despite the competition, we think top 3 finishes for both artists are certainly not out of the question in 2008.

Sunday, June 01, 2008