Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Oh, right. The City Paper comes out a day early this week because of the holiday. Here's a column.

Friday, November 18, 2005

My beloved Art Brut recently finished their U.S. tour, sadly bypassing Philadelphia on their itinerary. Fortunately, though, they recorded a fine radio session at NJ's WFMU that you can hear here. Thanks to Jim Slade for directing me to this. (Also, looks like Art Brut's site has been given a nice redesign.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A CD review (scroll down some), a song review and a pick this week.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

It's not looking good...

for Arrested Development. It's sad, but I'd rather see it go while it's still funny, then have to endure a painful and prolonged decline into irrelevance. Hopefully in time it will be remembered as one of the four or five most perfect sitcoms ever, and its relatively brief shelf life will only burnish the show's reputation as startlingly filler-free. Rest in peace, Michael, G.O.B., et al.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Influential Albums from My Misspent Youth
4. R.E.M., Automatic for the People (1992)

This has never been my favorite R.E.M. album. That position has been held over the years by Document, Murmur, Reckoning, sometimes even New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Yet Automatic, still much-beloved by many, is worth pondering, over 10 years after its release.

At the risk of coming off nostalgic or rockist, Automatic now feels (for me anyway) like one of the last hurrahs of the Rock/Pop Album as a Big Statement and central cultural artifact. The album captivated a sizable amount of critics and buyers in its time. It felt like a cohesive, complete statement. Not every track on the album was equally great, but every track felt like it was there for a reason. Also, Automatic was a maturation in the best way possible; not one in the sense of losing a sense of risk or nerve, but in the way the album confronted big, sobering issues (most plainly, death) head-on and clear-eyed.

Not that Automatic was the only album at the time that was received as a complete work. You could possibly say the same about concurrent releases (give or take a couple years) by U2, Arrested Development, Nirvana, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Public Enemy, Counting Crows, and Pearl Jam. But we’re talking about this album now, because it represents R.E.M. at a moment when they were, somehow, the right band at the right time. Not everyone liked them, but they seemed capable of uniting a fairly diverse crowd – the preppies, jocks, misfits and all their parents too. Also, muted, acoustic-based albums weren’t – I don’t think – known to sell in mass quantities in 1992. After this album, they were probably more likely to. This of course means you can trace a lot of crap music back to R.E.M., but that’s an argument that never goes anywhere. Name me a great band that never wound up spawning a bad one.

The other thing that sticks out when I listen to this album now, though, is just how weird the singles are. The one song that seemed an obvious single, the guitar-heavy “Ignoreland,” never became one, although I believe AOR stations latched onto the track. The first single “Drive” was lurching and spooky, with a lush string section (arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones) and an electric guitar riff Peter Buck said was a tribute to Queen’s Brian May. Another single, “Man on the Moon” has since had all of its nuance sledgehammered out, thanks to the band’s many sludgy arena renditions and a god-awful movie ostensibly inspired by the song. Listen to the original version, forget about the Andy Kauffman angle, and the song’s delicate mystery returns. To this day, does anyone know what that business about Mott the Hoople and Monopoly is all about?

And then there’s “Everybody Hurts.” Listen to those chords, that rhythm. This is pretty much a doo-wop song, people. Forget the generational angst. Maybe this song became one of R.E.M.’s biggest hits by crossing over to Boyz II Men fans.

Other songs stick out: Listening to “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” now, I realize that the song is pitched right at the edge of Michael Stipe’s vocal range, and he sounds very strained and unnatural as a result. “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Sweetness Follows” and “Nightswimming” have aged considerably better, thankfully. “Try Not to Breathe” might still be one of my favorite songs of theirs.

So why don’t I consider this my favorite R.E.M. album? Maybe because it tackles those big themes – memory, regret, death. Some of my favorite albums go to those same places. But R.E.M. just aren’t a Big Theme band for me. I like them best when they’re being oblique and mysterious, when they’re occupying shadows most jangly guitar bands wouldn’t even think to inhabit. Automatic, for all its subtle moments, still overdoes it in the grandstanding department. Of course, that’s probably what helped make it such a popular album in the first place.

(Next in this series: The Kinks’ UK Jive, or Another Kinks Essay?)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Here is the latest column. Currently, something appears to have gone a little funny with the web design. Skip the first paragraph. Seriously, you won't be missing anything.
UPDATE: Okay, it looks fine now.