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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

8. R.E.M.: Accelerate

I was so proud to be an R.E.M. fan when Accelerate was released in 2008. Is this album their best? Not at all...and by a pretty good distance. It's just that, even though the band steered clear of pinning a label on the sound of Accelerate, the hype about R.E.M.'s return to their old sound surfaced prior to its release. And so, the wait was on...was it true? Would R.E.M.'s new album be a departure from their recent, rather underwhelming work? I was skeptical, because U2 had released How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb a few years earlier under the guise that it was a rock album ("It's taken us twenty years...but this is our first rock album" -Bono, from the DVD documentary U2 and 3 Songs). U2 are one of my favorite bands, and my goal is to keep things positive in my posts, but it was false advertising. Atomic Bomb was not a rock album. I count about two and a half songs worth of "rock," thank you very much. So, based on R.E.M.'s previous three albums, Up (1998), Reveal (2001), and Around the Sun (2004), and the disappointment of believing U2's earlier hype, I was preparing for más decepción.

The band, themselves, were not happy with their previous record, Around the Sun, going so far as to admit that "if [they made] another bad record, it's over." However, R.E.M. had delivered the goods when Accelerate hit the record stores! Right out of the gate, "Living Well is the Best Revenge" reminds R.E.M. fans of what once was (circa 1986-1987). "Man-Sized Wreath" and the album's first single, "Supernatural Superserious", would fit perfectly amongst the songs of Green from 1988. "Hollow Man" follows with verses reminiscent of Out of Time (1991) or Automatic for the People (1992) and a chorus that takes the listener back even further. The album lags a bit after the first four songs (though the songs "Accelerate", "Until the Day is Done", and "Horse to Water" should also be given a round of applause), but Accelerate, the album, satisfied me, a big R.E.M. fan who'd felt something was missing after drummer, Bill Berry, left the band in 1997.

I'm a fan of several bands who have been plugging away for twenty to thirty years (U2 and The Cure spring to mind). Naturally, people grow, band-members change, dynamics change, goals change, and, inevitably, the music changes. Because I'm one who's steeped in nostalgia, I often hold onto that original sound...the sound that drew me in years and years ago...and I'm sometimes (more often than not) disappointed with new music from experienced artists. R.E.M.'s Accelerate is an album that did not disappoint. They tried hard to get back to the sounds that earned them a huge devoted fan base, and I feel they really succeeded. Now, hopefully the recently released Collapse Into Now can grow on me. Here's "Living Well is the Best Revenge" live from Austin City Limits.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

7. Pixies: Doolittle

It was April, 1989...22 years ago this month...that The Pixies released Doolittle. Have you heard it? If so, honestly, you don't need to read any further. You know exactly what I'm going to say. If you haven't, here's the link you need. Now buckle up!

This is the second full length album from The Pixies (always a bit awkward deciding whether to say "Pixies" or "The Pixies"...whether to capitalize "PIXIES" or not...they probably don't care either way, and would simply giggle at my indecisiveness). It follows another great album in 1988's Surfer Rosa (which many Pixies fans claim as their favorite...however, I believe that might just be because of Doolittle's commercial success...something Surfer Rosa never achieved, keeping it more underground). Combined, the two albums easily make up the band's strongest work.

Fifteen songs...twelve of which are under three minutes.  Black Francis (as he was known at the time) fought for this concept. He took his producer to a record store, pulled Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits from the rack and said, "If it's good enough for Buddy Holly..." I happen to love a good two minute song. It always leaves you wanting more...and if it happens to be no good...that's's over quickly. In the case of The Pixies, each song is a gem and a half!

The album begins with the incredible "Debaser", a song based on Salvador Dali's 1929 surrealistic film Un Chien Andalou (the line "slicing up eyeballs" stems from an early scene from the film)...followed by a song, "Tame", that would become the epitome of their sound...loudQUIETloud. This sudden loud to quiet dynamic would be extremely influencial to several bands, most notably, Nirvana, who, upon completion of the writing of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" believed it sounded too much like The Pixies, and that people were "going to nail [them] for this". "Wave Of Mutilation" and "I Bleed" follow respectively, and then comes the song "Here Comes Your Man". "Here Comes Your Man" has been described the perfect pop song, showing the versatility of The Pixies, both lyrically and musically.

Soon after, we have "Monkey Gone To Heaven", one of the best Pixies songs, highlighting the biblical influences in the songwriting (you can also hear it in "Dead" and "Gouge Away'). Y'know, I'm seriously going to run out of space before praising this album as much as it deserves. I should mention "La La Love You" is a cult favorite, and "Hey" is another fantastic song.

This album, Doolittle, voted as #226 on the list of all time greatest albums by Rolling Stone, and as #2 all time by the UK magazine, NME, is jam-packed, straight through. It laid the groundwork for 90s rock, and the band, itself, even influenced existing legends such as David Bowie and Bono. Doolittle continues to sell well today, reinforcing its status as one of the greatest albums ever, and The Pixies reunion this past decade has gone a long way toward influencing a younger audience...thankfully!

By now, you must be dying for it, so here it is...actually, it was difficult to pick one video to attach here. I went with "Monkey Gone To Heaven"...enjoy!

Friday, April 22, 2011

6. Tom Waits: Nighthawks At The Diner

Saying Tom Waits is a good storyteller is the equivalent of saying that Diego is pretty good with animals and zip lines. Waits is one of America's greatest singer-songwriters. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of this year with his typical humor, stating, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work it's a bad thing."

We are currently enjoying the twilight of a career spanning over four decades, and there's tons of music to choose from, but I've chosen to highlight his 1975 double album, Nighthawks at the Diner. Recorded in front of an intimate studio audience, Nighthawks showcases Waits's storytelling prowess to its full extent. He is a wordsmith to the highest degree, paying such close attention to the details of everyday life. On Nighthawks, Waits spends the evening cracking jokes, singing his songs, and explaining the stories behind the songs. There are 18 tracks on the album, but seven of them are one to three minute introductions which is where he's free to entertain off the cuff (though, to be sure, much of the intros are rehearsed). For an hour and a half he dishes his stories stuffed with line after line of wonderfully explicit descriptions...employing metaphors, alliteration, personification, vivid verbs, you name it...if only my 4th grade writers could take a little trip down Waits Lane.

Take these quotes for example: On one's state of mind after a night out--"It's kind of around 2:30 in the morning...and you've been standing on the corner of 5th and Vermouth..." Or the simple movement of the moon--"...Looks like a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon rollin' maverick across an obsidian sky." The intro to "Eggs and Sausage" has Waits describing the food at some of the one and two star eating establishments he's frequented--"...[my] veal cutlet came down...tried to beat the s**t outta my cup o' coffee! ...Coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself!" Finally, in "Emotional Weather Report", Waits describes the state he's been in since she left him by saying, "Tornado warning issued for the western region of my mental health," and "...the extended outlook for an indefinite period of time 'til you come back to me, baby, is high tonight...low tomorrow...and precipitation is expected."

Side one and side two of the double album are superb...including "Emotional Weather Report", "Better Off Without A Wife", the eleven minute "Nighthawk Postcards", and the marvelous introductions that accompany the songs. The show does lull a bit after halftime, but he closes it out with the great story of "Big Joe And Phantom 309" (written by Tommy Faile and originally performed by Red Sovine in 1967...also, perhaps the influence for the character "Large Marge" in Pee Wee's Big Adventure?) and the five minute closing (where he bids farewell with the phrase "I gotta go see a man about a dog"). Here is a video of Waits performing "Eggs And Sausage" on the Mike Douglas show in 1976 courtesy of VH1. The video is long (9:30) because it includes the post-performance interview in which the chain-smoking Waits has some fun answering Douglas's questions...but young Tom seems pretty nervous as well. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

5. The Cult: Love

The Cult began in England in the early 80's as The Southern Death Cult;
a post-punk, goth rock  band with a heavy Native American influence. They then dropped the "Southern", and by 1984 had toned down the gothic connotations of their name by calling themselves, simply, The Cult.

Prior to 1984, The Cult relied upon their goth rock influences (such as Bauhaus and Theatre of Hate) for their sounds. They altered that sound for a very cool album called Dreamtime, and then, in 1985, released the album Love.

Love is the first of many albums from 1985-1986 you'll read about on this blog. Maybe the music was better, maybe not, but my ears were opened for the first time during this period. In 1985 my brother, Jeff, opened a Staten Island nightclub called The Ferry Club, and DJ Mark the Spark played amazing sets of music that blew crowds away. As an eager, yet musically naive was "Nirvana".

Songs from Love were played in clubs alongside the synth sounds of the day, yet the Love songs swirled with a 60's psychedelia. There were no keyboards of any kind...and how often did you hear guitar solos in nightclubs? No songs epitomize this time in The Cult's history like "Rain" and "She Sells Sanctuary". There was a sense of pseudo-mysticism about the band...similar to The Doors (in fact, Cult frontman, Ian Astbury, was reportedly offered the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's 1991 movie The Doors, but turned it down). It really set them apart from bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode, Secession, and Heaven 17. It didn't make them better, just made them stand out. Unfortunately, their sound didn't stand out enough to Americans.

It was the desire to make it big in America that forced the transition into the final career change...hard rock. Over the years, Love has sold well (over two and a half million copies), but, at the time, America wasn't catching on. The Cult felt a change to a harder sound was due. They toured with bands like Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, and Metallica and produced some more good albums including 1987's Electric and 1989's Sonic Temple (both of which America loved)...but that was it for the sounds of Love.

Sidenote: In May, 1987, The Cult should have been the opening act for Billy Idol at Madison Square Garden, but that show was canceled thanks to an asbestos problem. Billy Idol then went and played The Limelight, while The Cult played an impromptu show at the Ritz. I went with some high school friends and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. It was their Electric tour, but the set had its share of Love songs as well.

I used to say, "Wanna know how good an album is? Try finding it in a used record store." Well, reissues and remastering have made that test obsolete, but there was a time when you couldn't find a previously owned copy of The Cult's Love...because it was an absolute keeper.  Here's "She Sells Sanctuary" to help you enjoy your day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

4. The White Stripes: Elephant

"This album is dedicated to, and is for, and about the death of the sweetheart." These words, taken directly from the liner notes of 2003's Elephant, the fourth disc from The White Stripes, represent the basis of their loose concept album.  The idea being that we now live "in a disgusting world of opportunistic, lottery ticket holders caring about nothing that is long term..." Somewhat true, yes? This album, however, bucks that trend and should be treasured for years to come.

I remember hearing "Seven Nation Army" for the first time. Like much of America I had no experience with the first three White Stripes albums other than the great "Fell In Love With A Girl" from 2001's White Blood Cells. I enjoyed that song immediately, but the Lego-animated video by Michael Gondry is what made me stand up and take notice.  (Click on the song title to watch's incredible.) I put "Fell In Love..." on a mixed CD for Chelo who was living in Arizona at the time and was receiving CD's from me in the mail every other week. This one had twenty-something songs with the word "Girl" in the title. Anyway, I was excited to hear more from The White Stripes and the release of Elephant was right around the corner. I don't listen to the radio or watch MTV (not that they play music anymore anyway), so I hadn't heard anything prior to opening the package. Popping that disc in the stereo and hearing those first seven notes...let's just say "Seven Nation Army" could never be confused with any other song. And it's just the start of one of the most amazing albums of all time. 

The album reached number six in America (though it debuted at #1 in the UK...why do they always seem to know something we don't?). Rolling Stone slotted it at number 390 in its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time...gravely underrated! They did say it was the fifth best album of the decade and pegged "Seven Nation Army" as the sixth* best song of the decade. However, Elephant, an album created by two musicians (Jack White being one of the greatest guitarists of all time), using no computers in the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering is downright nasty. It's thick, and fuzzy, and pissed-off, and stunning, and is worthy of a spot in any discussion of the best albums ever. Here's the video to "Seven Nation Army" to get you through the day.

*Is there any word in the English language more difficult to say than "sixths" in two-sixths? Try pronouncing that word correctly...nope...try it again, but say it slowly this time.

3. Talking Heads: Speaking In Tongues

So many bands are making comebacks these days...and I'm surprised all the time by bands performing near me that claim to have never broken up (although I hadn't heard a peep from them in twenty years). I've been excited to see a few, but I usually let them roll through town without opening my wallet or calling the babysitter. However...I've been wishing on stars and on birthday candles...snapping turkey bones, chucking pennies into fountains, waiting around until the digital clock displays 11:11, and pulling eyelashes out of my face...all in the name of a Talking Heads reunion.

Speaking In Tongues (1983) is the fifth album by Talking Heads. It followed a two year hiatus, during which, each of the band members successfully went their separate ways. Upon returning to the studio, they recorded a great album that became overshadowed about a year later when its more famous cousin, the live/greatest hits package that is Stop Making Sense hit the market. Speaking In Tongues is an extremely fun party album. I'll admit that the previous sentence is meant for the 40-something reader as many younger readers might not agree. It was "club worthy" at the time ("Back in myyy day!"). It's filled with infectious African beats and nonsensical lyrics. David Byrne admits that, in general, the music was written, and the lyrics were simply created to fit.

It's incredibly surprising to me that this album's lead song, "Burning Down The House", is the only American Top 10 hit for the band. It's followed by "Making Flippy Floppy"...a relatively unknown song so good, it's almost as if "Burning Down The House" is its intro, and the "Making Flippy Floppy" anchors the danceability of Speaking In Tongues and, in 1983, helped it cross over into new territory.  The album peaked at number two on the dance charts for six weeks. "Girlfriend Is Better" and "Slippery People" follow for a near perfect side one (that's in vinyl-speak).

The album closes with "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)", one of the most enjoyable songs to grace your eardrums. Interesting sidenote...I saw David Byrne in Portland years ago and the setlist was nearly nine tenths Talking Heads (I think 18 of the 21 songs were from Talking I guess I'd be ok if they never reunited).  He closed the show with "This Must Be The Place", talking over the melody for nearly ten minutes about...Baltimore, where he spent much of his childhood, before breaking into the actual lyrics. This beautiful song receives much, much play in our house as it's one of Chelo's favorites as well. Need proof of its hypnotic powers?...Here's the video. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2. The Strokes: Is This It

I was all set to talk about the new disc from The Strokes, Angles, which came out in March this year.  I had been eagerly awaiting its arrival as this band hadn't recorded an album since 2006's First Impressions of Earth. Listening to Angles, though, reminded me of how incredibly amazing their 2001 debut, Is This It, really is. Angles will have to wait until a later post as Is This It takes center stage today.

Bands such as Kings Of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, The Libertines, and Arctic Monkeys might not have existed and been successful if The Strokes had not reinvigorated the idea that rock n' roll is supposed to be a blasty-blast.  Is This It was at or near the top of every major poll naming the best albums of 2001. It's also been tabbed as one of the greatest albums of all time by both Rolling Stone and all, way too many accolades to name.

The album starts off slow and with a super bass line in the title track and then "The Modern Age" picks up the pace and lets us hear how The Velvet Underground (an obvious influence) might sound today. The Strokes are one band that allows you to hear their influences, yet reminds you every second how original they are. "Barely Legal" is the first of many Strokes songs that sways you with a rollicking, sing-song chorus. Another stand out track follows in "Someday"...a fun story and another great chorus: "Oh my ex says I'm lacking in depth/I will do my best/You say you wanna stay by my side/Darling your head's not right...".

"Hard To Explain" was the album's first single and must have been a big hit in The Killers' households as they tried their best to recreate this sound on their 2004 debut album, Hot Fuss. "Last Nite" was another one of the original singles and "Take It Or Leave It" closes the album with a bang...Julian Casablancas chanting the title with frenzied spirit. The worst part about this whole experience is that it only lasts about 36 minutes.

Please listen to this album and tell me how much you enjoyed it.  I can't imagine anyone being disappointed...Have you ever been misled by this blog before? I've included the video for "Someday" for your listening/viewing pleasure.

1. Death Cab for Cutie: Plans

Death Cab for Cutie's fifth album, from 2005, has a special place in our home. I forget when we became fans of DCfC, but it wasn't long after the release of this disc. The eleven songs on Plans flow together beautifully, and we immediately followed this purchase with the purchase of a box set from Barsuk Records including each of their previous eight discs and ep's...we were captured.

On February 20, 2006, our son, Sebastian Bex, was born. We went to the hospital around 5:30 in the morning and he was born at 10:40 PM.  In planning this day, we knew music would play an important role. Many, during this stressful/wonderful time, might choose the sounds of a rain forest...or some relaxing, new age, ethereal pan flute for hours...something that would just fade into the background.  Well I say this...always: What's the sense of broadcasting music if the goal is to not hear it? We played Plans over and over and over again that day. I kept offering to put something new on, but the truth is both Chelo and I enjoyed this disc, in its entirety, every single time it repeated.

The standout tracks on this disc include "Crooked Teeth" (which really stands out as the only typical, upbeat pop song), "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" (which received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance in 2007), and Sebastian's absolute favorite song, "Soul Meets Body". Perhaps it's because he heard it 27 times on the day he was born, but to this day he asks me to sing it to him each and every night...and, I gotta say, I'm no Benjamin Gibbard, but I do a pretty good job. One of Sebastian's favorite moments came in June of 2008 when we took him to McMenamins Edgefield to see Death Cab for Cutie...on an expansive lawn with a blanket and picnic basket in tow. Ask him now and he'll say it was the ice cream and french fries, but it was memorable nonetheless. I've added the original video of "Soul Meets Body" for you to enjoy.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Intro: Music is What Feelings Sound Like!

Hey there! Welcome! My name is Marc (as you might've guessed after reading the title). I'm just one guy enjoying music (someday I hope to be two of them). My musical tastes have grown and refined over the years. Beginning with the AM radio days (Jeez...who sang "Sexy Eyes"?...Dr. Hook?), it's a couple of decades-worth of life spent enjoying music as often as possible. There's so much music upstairs right now and so many feelings enclosed in those plastic jewel cases and album sleeves...Words cannot describe how happy music makes me...and yet...I plan on giving it a shot.

As the title of this post suggests, music is what feelings sound like. From the authors of the lyrics and the composers of the melodies to the recipients of their art, music is written to express feelings. Victor Hugo said, "Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent." My wife, Chelo, says, "Marc, turn that down!"...a bit of a contrast of quotes, but she did end up winning the blog title competition. Needless to say, she would like it to remain a bit more silent in our house. That's not to say she doesn't enjoy music. It just helps me get my ultimate point across: I enjoy listening to music...a whole lot.

Every week, I'd like to post reviews of some of my favorite albums from some great artists. Some you may know and some you may not. If you know of which I type you can nod your head as you read and maybe it will spark you to pull that old disc/album off the shelf once again...relive some feelings from long, long ago. If reading this weekly gets you to try a new artist...that'd be great! Either way, feel free to leave comments as I'd love for this to be a place for discussion amongst friends.

Thanks for taking the time to participate in my writing. Check back each week for album reviews and stories.