Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stop and Smell the Roses

R.E.M.'s new single, Mine Smell Like Honey, is now available on iTunes. As usual, my sparring partner Eric is up in arms. Let's see if we can talk him off the *(&?!*%^@#( ledge already.

Dear Eric,

Usually, your monologues are a monument to ignorance and illiteracy. This time, while those traits are present as usual, your commentary takes on a new quality: desperation.

You seem to want, so terribly, for me to tell you that you're wrong, that Mine Smells Like Honey is indeed classic R.E.M., that the band is on top of its game, that Stipe & Co. still represent the very pinnacle of rock and roll. You compare Collapse Into Now to the latest record by Arcade Fire, an A-list band in its prime, and you wonder why Arcade Fire's songs sound better to you than R.E.M.'s new ones do.

I'm sorry to disappoint, but you're absolutely right. Arcade Fire is a better band than R.E.M. is right now. I feel like a broken record on this, and perhaps I am, but The Suburbs is Arcade Fire's third record. Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.'s 15th. There simply is no real basis for comparison between the two, and holding one up to the other is sheer madness. You're dooming yourself to disappointment and despair -- but to what purpose?

What do you gain by holding R.E.M. to such an impossible standard? Moreover, why does R.E.M. have to be the best, most important band in the world for you to love them? You've discussed on Facebook the possibility of shutting down your site -- a site devoted as much to the early history of the band as is it dedicated to the present -- because the band's recent output no longer thrills you like it did 20 years ago. But I think you owe it to yourself to relax your standards a bit. Imagine listening to the new songs and finding joy in them instead of disappointment. When I listen to Mine Smell Like Honey, I'm not anticipating the sudden realization that Collapse Into Now is gonna end up as the 2011 Matty Album of the Year. It's Arcade Fire's turn to vie for such honors. And yet I can still put new R.E.M. on and feel good about it. The new record isn't the be all and end all of my music collection -- nor does it need to be.

As much as you might want me to, I can't convince you that the new songs are good and I can't force you to like them. I'm a pretty stingy, stubborn critic myself. But in my initial disgust over Around the Sun, I realized in horror that my worst fears had come true -- R.E.M. was no longer truly relevant. At first I was angry, bitter, resentful -- and all around a pretty miserable son of a bitch on certain message boards. But, as the weeks and months passed, I came to terms with it -- and, like many things in life, the worrying was far worse than the reality. I've since found new artists to take R.E.M.'s place on the pedestal, and ever since, I've been perfectly fine winning small battles with the band, without worrying about the greater war.

In other words, a new R.E.M. record doesn't need to be Monster. I'll never be 16 again, and R.E.M. will never be 14. And that's okay.

At the same time, I feel reasonably confident, if not wholly convinced, that there is no way in hell Arcade Fire's 15th album will be as good as R.E.M.'s 15th. In fact I'd consider it a worthwhile wager that Arcade Fire will never even release a 15th record. You may consider that a good thing, but I disagree. I'd much rather have a decent bunch of songs to look forward to -- I've been playing the tracks from Collapse Into Now nonstop for weeks, singing along like I actually was 16 again -- and the new set of happy memories that go along with them, than be limited to their no-less brilliant back catalogue.

For this reason among others, I consider myself fortunate to be an R.E.M. fan. I think if you accepted reality, you'd feel fortunate too.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

R.E.M. Warms A Cold, Cold Heart

My ongoing conversation with continues today with the unveiling of a new R.E.M. song, Oh My Heart, which you can now hear at NPR's website.

I suggest you listen to the song -- and peruse Eric's surprisingly positive reaction -- before you read my response below:

Derek Sanderson Zimmermann,

It's nice to see you've recently become a fan of my favorite band, R.E.M.

I promise, as you set forth on your new adventure, that you won't be disappointed by the great majority of the band's back catalogue. If you're looking for something lovely and brooding, Automatic For The People is a good starting point for the casual fan, as is its Grammy-winning predecessor, Out Of Time. There may even be a song or two you recognize on those records from your favorite pop station back in the early '90s.

Perhaps you caught a verse of Shiny Happy People as you feverously twisted your FM dial in the hopes of hearing Kris Kross' anthem, Jump, which saved your ass on your first day of junior high, when you inadvertently showed up at homeroom with all your clothes on backwards. Or maybe The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite was sandwiched between a CeCe Peniston song and Eric Clapton's Tears In Heaven, to this day the most touching expression of love for a 4-year-old who fell to his death from a window ever to hit Top 40 radio -- as well as your first real foray into "grownup music."

I, and the reader(s) of, look forward to your thoughts on such hits as Losing My Religion and Man On The Moon; I suggest, as a fun experiment, that you post your immediate impressions when you finally hear them, so the blogosphere can experience the raw sensation of discovery along with you.

Moving on, I applaud your positive response to Oh My Heart, despite your caveats, which I will address now. I happen to agree that Oh My Heart is a strong song, and, while yes, it may have been better had the band recorded it during their Stipe-as-master-crooner, Out Of Time-era heyday, that would have actually been impossible, as the song hadn't yet been written.

As for the lyrical reference to Houston, well, I would agree with you wholeheartedly if it weren't for the simple fact that the lyrical reference actually works here. It revisits a character and a time, updating a memorable phrase with its aftermath. That's very different from simply adding "part two!" to the lyrics -- which, by the way, is essentially what Metallica did for the song The Unforgiven II, their follow-up to another classic of your youth that helped shape you into the music fan you are today.

In all, I think we agree that Oh My Heart is a solid effort. I'm not sure if it is, as you assert, the best of the three tracks we've heard so far, but for me, that would be more of a compliment than it is for you. Still, I'm glad to have you on board. If you have any questions about the band, please don't hesitate. I suggest you try to see them on their next tour -- they put on a fantastic show, and I have a feeling you'd become a great enthusiast of their live oeuvre.

Love always,

Saturday, January 01, 2011

RIB's 2010 Album of the Year:
Laura Veirs, July Flame

This year's race for Most Important Album, at least in my mind, came down to two records: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Of those, the overwhelming edge goes to Kanye, who so brilliantly transcended his own genre he easily won over a hip hop hater like myself.

But there's just one thing: My Album of the Year isn't intended to be given to the year's Most Important Album. It goes to my favorite album. And that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was Laura Veirs' July Flame.

Kanye West's record was, and is, a megaton of fireworks and a landmark achievement that deserves all its accolades -- I picked it as Unwinnable's Album of the Year, after all -- but no record has meant as much to me as July Flame, which stayed fresh, spin after spin, all year long, finding new ways to hold onto me at every turn.

I bought July Flame when it came out last January, and it's been the record I've listened to the most just about every month since. While it only appeared on a few other people's year-end lists -- I know, because I've been looking for it -- it doesn't matter. July Flame tops mine.

Song after song is its own tiny treasure. I Can See Your Tracks is about knowing what path to avoid, and resigning yourself not to take it no matter how much it hurts. The title track treads similar ground, though this time it's about reaching out instead of falling back. Life Is Good Blues is about finding the right dance partner, while Summer Is The Champion is about rolling around in the grass with her (or him, if you're Laura Veirs). Carol Kaye is a fan's ode to a musical hero. Make Something Good, as I wrote in my nomination entry last month, is a prayer from creator to Creator -- a mission statement for an artist (or a human) of any stripe.

Each of July Flame's songs is so perfectly realized it stops mattering that the record lacks both the bravado and ambition of Kanye West's masterpiece. After all, an Album of the Year doesn't have to want to be an Album of the Year. Sometimes it's just right, as it is with July Flame -- start to finish, a record that feels like home. And that's something you can't measure intellectually.

Most Important is a title to strive for; Most Loved is something far less tangible, and, at the same time, all the more valuable.