Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Innocence Mission Hates Me

Why else would they stop touring completely and yet still post these on YouTube? Karen, Don and Mike: You don't have to play a one-off show in NYC like I've been begging you to; just invite me over to your house for coffee and serenade me for a couple hours. Thanks, your friend Matt.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It Happened Today, Not Yesterday

In my previous entry, I responded to the incoherent ramblings of one Eric Zimmermann, a fine young man who means well, he really does, but lacks the synapses necessary to compile anything resembling a cogent argument, let alone blog about it. Case in point, his latest piece -- which you can find here -- which I merely skimmed. I suggest you avoid reading it while operating heavy machinery or if weeping openly would put you in a compromising position. Also, you can download the two new R.E.M. tracks we've been discussing, Discoverer and It Happened Today, here and here, respectively.

Here is my refutation:

Dear Erin Zimmerberg,

Before we get to your latest adorable but failed attempt at music criticism, I'd like to take a moment to congratulate you on your recent bat mitzvah. By no means would I want to embarrass you, but your journey into womanhood is not to be taken lightly, and I celebrate your achievement in this holy and time-honored rite of passage. I was surprised you didn't post any photos from the synagogue on your blog; Rabbi Remnikoff said you held up very well on your torah, and I expected you to at least share the snapshots your aunt Sheila took with her new PowerShot camera.

No matter. Everyone expresses their joy in different ways. I know your Bubbe took some Flip video of you doing the Electric Slide at the reception, which I'm sure you'll put on YouTube post haste.

Moving on to the musical stylings of R.E.M. and the fantasy world your brain is whisked off to whenever said band is mentioned, I have read and ruminated upon your latest treatise. You contend that rock music is not just a young man's game, so maybe you can enlighten us as to the other rock bands that were still producing essential material into their third decade. While I can rest my case with just four words -- Get On Your Boots -- I have made a list of one band per decade that I consider in R.E.M.'s class when viewed in the context of rock music history, and looked into their output in later years.

The Beatles (1960s)
Even though you've had The Fireman album on repeat for two years now, the actual Beatles disbanded after just eight years of recording. They did release two new tracks 34 years after their first record, on their Anthology collection, but unlike the tripe you seem to think the latest R.E.M. music is, they were forced to jam in guitars, drums and bass over vocals recorded by a man dead, at the time, for more than 15 years. Michael Stipe, on the other hand, has only been dead for five, six years tops. Advantage: R.E.M.

Led Zeppelin (1970s)
A mere 42 years after Led Zeppelin was formed, Robert Plant is again thrilling Grammy voters with roots music I'm sure is just great but have absolutely no time or interest in ever actually listening to. Zeppelin lasted about ten years before their drummer kicked the bucket. Unlike R.E.M., they did not survive the death of John Bonham by producing a modern day classic like the post-Bill Berry masterpiece Up. Instead, they disbanded and Plant and Jimmy Page embarked on solo careers in the '80s only their mothers followed. Advantage: R.E.M.

U2 (1980s)
Get On Your Boots. Advantage: R.E.M.

Of course, the importance of bands and the quality of their later work is subject to interpretation, but I think my point here is clear. And that point is:

If you are still expecting R.E.M. to release flawless, A-1 quality work, essential not only within their own catalogue but, by extension, within the rock music canon, you are, my friend, delusional.

No, Discoverer and It Happened Today are not mind-blowing works of pure genius. But they're halfway decent, which gives them a slight edge on George Harrison's highly acclaimed Cloud Nine album, despite the classic first single, I've Got My Mind Set On You, which, admittedly, set the world on fire. And that gem of a record came out a mere 25 years after the Beatles first unleashed Please Please Me unto the world.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

R.E.M.'s Discoverer (First Reaction)

An acquaintance of mine, Don Zimmerman, writes a satirical blog called, on which he pretends to know something about music. We've had our share of philosophical exchanges -- I highly recommend this one -- and now he has challenged me to an ongoing dialogue during the lead up to, and release of, R.E.M.'s forthcoming album, Collapse Into Now (street date: March 8, 2011).

Here is his opening salvo. I recommend reading it before proceeding to the response below. I also recommend downloading -- for free! -- the new R.E.M. song we discuss, Discoverer, here.


Dear Mr. Zimmer,

Let me first congratulate you on your many fine years of service to major league baseball, especially your championship seasons as Joe Torre's Yankee consigliere. Your services as bench coach provided much-appreciated wisdom and occasional comic relief, and for that I salute you.

Less admirable, though, is your misguided need to compare R.E.M. 2011 to the R.E.M. we both knew and obsessed over some 20-odd years ago. You even contradict yourself by assuming I will list previous R.E.M. albums the new song, Discoverer, reminds me of, in your ill-conceived pre-emptive strike at making a point about it lacking originality, while at the same time going out of your way to reference an R.E.M. track it doesn't remind you of. Both approaches are foolhardy.

Eric, if I can call you by your Internet pen name, I think you are forgetting one obvious, but indisputable fact:

R.E.M. is old.

In fact, the combined age of our three renowned electric minstrels from Athens, Ga., by my rough calculation, is approximately 376 years. And, as I've remarked on more than one occasion, Peter (I-dated-your-grandmother) Buck is, indeed, the motherfucking father of our country.

As hard as it may be to accept, no band of old farts has ever remained as vital as it was 20 years prior, let alone after 31 years, the anniversary R.E.M. will celebrate in April. To expect them to be would be both ridiculous and unfair -- two of the more unsavory qualities in your latest missive.

True, R.E.M. had long been an exception to this rule, making music I'd label essential well into their second decade. But no band is immune to the effects of time, and Michael Stipe would be a pretty immature prick if he still cared about the same things he did when he was in college. There are only so many songs one can write about paranoid schizophrenics attacking news anchors or one's own frustrations with being a media sensation. Eventually one becomes content -- and their art starts to suck.

As R.E.M. fans, we've been extremely lucky. We've only suffered through one truly awful record out of 14. We both know what that record is, and it will not be named here.

Granted, the new track's production leaves something to be desired and the lyrics can't hold a candle to Stipe during his heyday. Still, its chorus of shouts, coupled with Buck's blaring guitar, Mike Mills' thumping bass and Bill Rieflin's driving drumkit, is about as thrilling a moment as one can expect from a 31-year-old band -- and it's not even the first single, which all but a select few have yet to hear.

Discoverer, just because it is not What's The Frequency, Kenneth?, is neither a bad song, nor is it the worst opening cut of their distinguished career.

What it is, to you, is disappointing.

And that's your fault -- not R.E.M.'s.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

RIB's 2010 Album of the Year Nominees

UPDATE: I have debated doing this before but in 17 years I've never done it ... until now. I have added a late-breaking nominee to the Album of the Year list, a record that was released just three days before this list was posted. (Hint: It's nominee No. 3.)


I don't always say this, but I love when I'm able to: It's been a terrific year for music. So instead of rambling on by way of an intro, let's get straight to the five nominees for RIB's 2010 Album of the Year (listed "alphabetically" as they appear on iTunes):


Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs

If you know me well, you've probably heard me speak about seeing R.E.M.'s video for What's The Frequency, Kenneth? for the first time. The video, in a nutshell: A newly bald Michael Stipe makes love to a microphone stand while his band rocks out in front of what is eventually revealed to be a suburban home, projected onto a giant screen.

I appreciated the irony of a band selling its music to suburban kids longing to be just like them, beaming videos into our homes just as many of us were desperately trying to get the hell out.

Still, that was just a four-minute video, and while a lot of bands have written odes to suburbia in various forms, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs is instant canon. It's a deep, nuanced look at growing up in the 'burbs that is both critical and sentimental, the work of a new generation coming into its own, one you can easily imagine emerging from the house in the Kenneth video.

The Montreal rock band has cornered the market on songs about growing up -- Pitchfork suggests a drinking game based on how many times Win Butler sings the word "kids" on this record -- though it's a tad less romantic than it is at times on their debut Funeral. The Suburbs is sometimes adoring, sometimes angry -- and almost always transcendent.

Because growing up is part joy, part pain, part apathy, my first nominee is both a savage takedown and a loving ode. On the album's best song, Sprawl II, Regine Chassagne laments strip malls as far as the eye can see over one of the most infectious, Blondie-like beats you'll hear on an indie rock record. And that's just as it should be.

Broken Social Scene -- Forgiveness Rock Record

Four of the five nominees this year achieve greatness either as tomes on teenage angst, twilight drives into the night, rolls in summer lawns, or welcome disappearances into the woods. The fifth one, Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record, has a wider, in some instances more overtly political scope, one a bit harder to pin down. Still, it's just as much a nominee for this basic reason: It freakin' rocks.

Don't get me wrong, Broken Social Scene's latest by no means lacks depth. There is a heck of lot to absorb here ("forgiveness" being the ostensible theme); like the band itself, the record is a conglomeration of a lot of different participants and ideas, a mix tape that isn't actually a mix tape. Chase Scene is both a thrilling and nerve-wracking promise to fight for one's life (especially jarring after what seems to be its moral opposite in the opening track, World Sick). Sentimental X's is a melancholy ode from "a friend you used to call" who's resigned to an "off and on" love. Ungrateful Little Father is either about deadbeat dads -- or Steve Jobs ("Ungrateful little motherfuck, built you up a brand new breakthrough device").

Still, for me, the record's highlights, though by no means bubblegum pop, are songs I'd play in the car when I wanted to tap on the steering wheel. World Sick is not an uplifting song; lyrically, it's quite the opposite. Yet I found myself singing "I get world sick, every time I take a stand" as if it were a proclamation instead of an admission. Along the exact same lines, Texico B*****s is clearly about what it's about (change the "i" to an "a"), yet it's also a misogynistic breakup song -- with a fantastic beat -- if you want it to be.

Which leads me to my favorite song on Forgiveness Rock Record. Meet Me In The Basement is a tour de force, the opening track on my Best of 2010 mix. But guess what? For a guy who lives and dies on lyrics, Meet Me In The Basement is an instrumental. 

Rock on.

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

You can take my total apathy toward rap and hip hop as a sign that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about when I call Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a landmark record.

Or you can believe me doubly -- since I never would have believed myself had I seen this nomination even a couple weeks ago.

West is an arrogant, self-centered, foulmouthed sonofabitch, which is part of the reason this record is so motherfucking brilliant.

Not only does his bravado provide the theme of the record -- basically the soundtrack to his own superhero existence -- but only that same extraordinary ego could have driven him to attempt to make a record as ambitious as this one. He's made his share of references to Michael Jackson over the years -- there's more than one on this record, and the video for Runaway (filmed in Prague!) was inspired by Thriller --- and, no matter how many times he may deny having called himself the new King of Pop in the wake of MJ's death, well ... this record speaks for itself.

Laura Veirs -- July Flame

As I emailed a buddy recently, I have an intolerable crush on Laura Veirs. But although I've subsequently seen her live and met her briefly, her looks have nothing to do with it; I fell in deep like, sight unseen, the first time through July Flame and my adoration for this album has maintained a more-than-steady burn ever since.

According to iTunes, I Can See Your Tracks is my most-played song of 2010 -- an astounding 41 spins at press time, significantly more than the runner-up -- and it's more than worthy. On the surface, it's a simple folk song expertly played and sung; in reality, it's a heartbreaking song about longing.

In a similar vein, the entire record, start to finish, is filled with simple pleasures, expertly crafted whether they be joyful, sad, or somewhere in-between -- a chest full of treasures with little rival since the heyday of The Innocence Mission. (And if you know me, you know that's quite a compliment.)

Carol Kaye is a fan's tribute to a venerable session musician I might never have Googled otherwise. Life Is Good is about dancing to a band playing with divine fire -- and knowing those around you are feeling the same thing you are. Make Something Good is a simple closing prayer from creator to Creator. And did you know a July flame is a kind of peach?

Shearwater -- The Golden Archipelago

The first time I heard The Golden Archipelago, I was sitting on the deck of a ferry boat headed from Phuket to the island of Ko Phi Phi in southern Thailand. The album cover, too small to completely make out on my iPhone screen in the blinding sunlight, seemed a carbon copy of the view I had across the sea.

Little did I know I was squinting at a photo of Bannerman's Island, which I've passed hundreds of times on the Metro-North train from Poughkeepsie.

What I thought at the time was the perfect metaphor for this album -- new, mysterious horizons set to Jonathan Meiburg's declaration, "You are running from a rising tide, you are castawaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyys!" -- turned out to be a whole lot closer to home.

That's always been Shearwater's strength. On Rook, the band's last record, which won Album of the Year in 2008, there's a song about the death of an undersea leviathan that somehow brings you back to the squid and the whale in midtown Manhattan. On The Golden Archipelago, there's … well, take your pick. Meridian is a long drive into the evening. Hidden Lakes is the icy snowfall of Thor Harris and Kim Burke playing the bells in tandem. And, last but not least, False Sentinel is a plucked string that puts you in a lighthouse on a rainy night, high above the waves, somewhere you're sure you've been before.

The Tallest Man on Earth -- The Wild Hunt

Kristian Matsson is much closer to five feet tall than six, but I've never seen a man and a guitar fill a concert hall the way he did at Webster Hall this year. The Tallest Man on Earth, alone on stage, inspired a packed room to crow along to Love Is All, his and their "oh-oh oh-oh"s putting exclamation points on the best anti-love song of 2010 (with apologies to The Magnetic Fields' You Must Be Out of Your Mind).

Matsson can fill a record, too, as he does on The Wild Hunt. The title track is an anthem for travelers of all kinds. King of Spain is the wind through your hair, feeling on top of the world. Like The Wheel is a prayer for understanding and strength. Burden of Tomorrow is about banishing your demons for love.

I have to admit, my interest in The Tallest Man on Earth was in its infancy that night at Webster Hall, enough so that I found the audience's more than typical excitement prior to the show a bit odd.

But the fever built as he took the stage, a man with a guitar, and pretty soon, I was a believer, too.


Ane Brun -- Sketches
Antony & The Johnsons -- Swanlights
Beach House -- Teen Dream
Belle & Sebastian -- Write About Love
Best Coast -- Crazy For You
Crystal Castles -- Crystal Castles (II)
Damien Jurado -- Saint Bartlett
Horse Feathers -- Thistled Spring
The Innocence Mission -- My Room In The Trees
Jonsi -- Go
The Morning Benders -- Big Echo
The National -- High Violet
Neil Young -- Le Noise
Peter Gabriel -- Scratch My Back
Rogue Wave -- Permalight
She & Him -- Volume Two
Sun Kil Moon -- Admiral Fell Promises
Tired Pony -- The Place We Ran From
Warpaint -- The Fool
Wolf Parade -- Expo 86