Tag Archives: REM

Enter the Collector: Wither the Album?

I’ve long bemoaned the decline of the physical album in favour of digital formats, because I am a fan of things. For the most part, it feels like the distinction is insignificant, as a majority of my music listening is spent either on my computer or my phone, where the source could be digital or CD without any real discernible difference. But I really like lookin’ at ’em all collected there on my shelf. Flipping through the liner notes or art inside. Organizing them meticulously. Gazing into them as they do me.

It is for this reason that I’m happy to see the tidal wave of ‘archival’ style releases of classic albums that is approaching us. Being 50 years on from the 60s, it’s about to hit big time and it ain’t gonna let up. Led Zeppelin, impatient to reach the big 5-0 has released its first three LPs in a deluxe format to celebrate their 45th anniversary of being recorded. Accompanied with each are the juicy extras – live concerts from the time (eagerly anticipating getting my hands on the ’69 concert from Zep I), demos and songs that never made it onto the albums originally. Extra Zep! Don’t have a 50th anniversary coming up? That’s okay, you probably have a 25th!

A couple years ago, I picked up the rerelease of R.E.M.’s Document on its 25th anniversary, replete with photos, a gigantic poster and a concert from the album’s tour. And that’s the stuff I’m really into. The digital format is no doubt here to stay and has usurped any physical format as the way to check out albums instantaneously now, but these rereleases offer up the context and experience of the album at the time it was releases. Hearing what a band sounded like and what they did with the album they were promoting at the time at live shows is fascinating, not to mention seeing both the publicity from the era and the rare b-sides that were cut that didn’t make it on. That not only allows you to hear new stuff from your favourite band, but new stuff from that specific time period that you love so dearly.

Having things attached to an album other than the music flowing through your ears gives you more to associate it with and spaces everything out so that the material that you already love so much gets a little bit more attention and a different perspective from you. That’s not to say that you don’t appreciate King Crimson if you don’t buy their 13-CD boxed set of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, but having the experience of that extra material might help it from bumping against Madonna, Conway Twitty and Stevie Wonder in your brain as you listen. Physical formats are becoming a collector’s game, so it’s at least nice to see that collectors are being offered something more interesting to collect as the physical-album-buying public becomes ever narrower (I still treasure the copy of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick that I found packaged with a newspaper replicated the original LP cover!).

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Don’t Pass Me By: 5 Songs Sung By Someone Other Than the Lead Singer

It’s nice to see when a band can substitute in different elements while keeping their sound intact – they can swap instruments a la David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” or bring in another musician to liven things up a la The Beatles Let It Be with Nicky Hopkins on electric piano. Sometimes it just takes shoving a different guy from the back of the stage in front of the mic and into the spotlight. Hearing a new voice behind a familiar band can radically change of the feeling of the song or get you to notice a facet of the band that you had never noticed before, not to mention some long-hidden-away vocal talent that was just begging to come to the surface. Presented here are five instances of a different person taking the helm and letting ‘er rip:

1) R.E.M. – Superman

On the grounds that Michael Stipe thought the song was too silly for him to sing, bassist Michael Mills stepped up to allow the audience to hear a but of what happens when R.E.M. has a little fun with their material and covers an old favourite by Texas band The Clique. The melody bounces along in a way that R.E.M. songs rarely do and there’s a totally different, fun energy present with Mills’ rendition (though, admittedly, his singing voice is a lot like Stipe’s, if a little less polished). As the album closer to Lifes Rich Pageant, it adds a little levity to the proceedings, as the band does not do a whole lot of covers on their albums – it feels like a “let’s throw one more on there” and I’m glad they did! Apparently Stipe was not too embarrassed to do harmony vocals over top, so you end up with a very different sound overall as you get a glimpse of the music that was making them excited. Funnily enough, it ended up being one of the singles from the album and received a decent amount of air play.

2) The Clash – The Guns of Brixton

Paul Simonon’s songwriting and vocal debut for the band on their smash London Calling conjures images of rough lower-class resistance “when they kick at your front door”, not just in lyrics but also in the reggae feel of the music and the accent Simonon adopts to sing the song. The rough and angry timbre of his voice suits the sentiment perfectly as he muses on the heinous acts of the local police towards the immigrants there, issuing a warning to them that “you can crush us/you can bruise us/but you’ll have to answer to/the guns of Brixton”, which is fantastically ominous and a reminder that nothing is forgotten. The way the vocal falls to “the guns of Brixton” is where you can hear the narrowing of the eyes instead of producing a big loud chorus, as the whole song is very much uniquely suited to Simonon’s voice – had Mick Jones or Joe Strummer tackled it, it might not have stood out quite so much as the rebellious anthem it clearly is.

3) Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar

Not even in the band, but in the studio next door, British folk great Roy Harper sings vocals on this track about the emptiness of the music industry. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour had tried to record the vocals (both separately and together), but were not satisfied with any of them. In a way, it’s perfect. The song is from the perspective of a record label exec or a manager who’s supposed to be addressing the band, so for the vocals to be by someone else, you really get that sense of someone interfering in the record – “You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people”. He has just the right amount of sleaze in his voice to deliver the faux-fawning patter as he asks them “oh, by the way/which one’s Pink?” as you wonder who the hell this guy is and why he should be strutting in the middle of this Pink Floyd album to chum up to the band. He knows when to keep it conversational and when to stretch the notes out and sounds like a total natural fit. Had it been Waters or Gilmour, it might not have had that visceral, unexpected punch to it.

4) Queen – Good Company

While Brian May’s can be heard on virtually every Queen track – he is approximately a third of the harmonic assault at any given time – his vocals don’t get spotlighted that often, as he was in the same band as Freddie Mercury. On this track from A Night at the Opera, it’s pretty much just his show as, apart from creating an entire Dixieland jazz band from his guitar, he sings about a man gradually losing his friends and loved ones as he gets further and further into his work, providing lead and backing vocals both, which gives it a different feel from when Mercury and Roger Taylor are also in the vocal mix.  Unlike some bands where the vocalists seem to share a lot of similarities, the singers in Queen actually have quite diverse voices that blend well – the song still has that big ‘Queen’ feel, but May has a more nuanced and lower voice than the other two and is a perfect fit for this humble tale.

5) Genesis – More Fool Me

Back in 1973, it was unusual for Peter Gabriel to relinquish the microphone, but they took a chance on giving their young drummer a track or two to sing his song, that drummer’s name, of course, being Phil Collins. Yes, Collins would go on to front Genesis for longer than Gabriel did at the end of the day, but at the time, this was only the second song he’d sung lead vocals on and the first that was over two minutes, and the music being made scarcely resembled what the band would become later. The simple strummed acoustic guitar, along with Collins innocent vocals sound miles away from “Invisible Touch” or “I Can’t Dance”. You could tell right away, however, that the man knew a hook, as this song picks up quite nicely at the chorus and provides a sense of quietude on the sprawling Selling England By the Pound, in both instrumentation and subject matter. This was the initial flag-planting for Mr. Collins within the band that proved he’d be able to step out from behind the drum kit and take the mic (and sound a heckuva lot like Peter Gabriel, quite honestly).

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List-O-Mania: 5 Songs That Are Pastiches of Other Artists

Bands going outside their comfort zone produces some interesting sounds. But bands deliberately imitating other bands makes the situation so much more interesting! Why exactly are they going lengths to ape someone else’s sound? Is it an homage, a rip-off or a send-up? More importantly, do they hit the mark or do they fall short?

The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” might serve as the most famous example, hitting both simultaneously: a loving homage to the Beach Boys right down to the lyrics, which of course substitute the  then-verboten USSR where otherwise would be the good ol’ US of A. Whether it was overtly political or they were just having a laugh at transplanting American music, it creates the interesting effect of hearing a band through someone else’s ears first, at which point it’s then handed over to you. It sometimes can offer a different perspective on an act you already thought you were intimately familiar with! Without further ado, five more examples:

1) R.E.M. – “The Wake-Up Bomb” (T-Rex) (1996)

One thing I don’t think people were except from R.E.M. in the 90s was a paean to glam rock, but then sprawling, hour-plus-long New Adventures in Hi-Fi surprised a lot of people. The lyrics recall in crystalline detail the experience of the young glam rocker of the early 70s who would “practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene”, complete with requisite descriptions of the garish outfits. Despite their staid image, there’s no way this song is emerging from anywhere but experience. Michael Stipe delivers his lyrics with an unusual sneer as he defiantly informs us that “I get high in my low-ass boot-cut jean/I like being seen”, very much expressing the all-too-familiar confidence and vanity of youth – a journey that the band takes right along with him. There’s no subtle textures or nuance to the track, just big swaggering chords and a good ol’ beat to swing around to, with an organ being slammed in the background for good measure. On an album full of introspective and ponderous songs, this one for the extroverts does its job admirably: sometimes you just wanna wear your “metallic sick wraparound blackout tease” and rock the hell out.

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (Bob Dylan) (1966)

While a cover of Bob’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on their first album would suggest a reverence for the folk-rocker’s work, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” perfectly captures Dylan’s new (at the time) electric sound, while lyrically sending him up. The song is stuffed with contemporary references at every line (even in the title), while in between them Simon blows tunelessly into his harmonica. “He’s so unhip, when you say ‘Dylan’, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was!” is perhaps the most telling line as Simon’s lyrics send their barbs at the ultra-hip of the time, whose dialogue is alive with current topics and a myriad of slang terms (“I smoke a pint of tea a day”), but really pay little heed to the intellectuals that preceded them, and are really just playing at intelligence by using obscenely clever words while getting high. The fact that that is followed up with “But’s alright Ma/Everybody must get stoned!” leaves little doubt at who the figurehead. Though it seemed to be a little too pointed to be a pure jest, the fact that his last harmonica solo is punctuated with a declarative “Folk rock!” followed by Simon dropping the the instrument and sullenly stating “I’ve lost my harmonica, Albert…” is enough to make it at least hilarious.

3) The Guess Who – “Friends of Mine” (The Doors) (1969)

It’s nice to know that musicians are listening to the same music that you are. One of Burton Cummings’ idols entering the rock world as a singer was Jim Morrison, and this track makes it very plain. The song runs an exhausting ten minutes, much of which is Cummings repeating “Buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-ay!”, spouting lines of pop culture, personal anecdotes and vague psychedelia as the band vamps underneath on a couple of chords. Not long after that, the band becomes quieter, opening the door to show you Cummings channelling Morrison’s rambling soothsayer persona for the telling of a macabre story Though it doesn’t quite have the conviction of “The End”, I would argue that the climax is even better. In case you forgot of the band’s country of origin, and because they presumably gotta make the ten minutes, Cummings begins to recite In Flanders Fields before changing the lyrics – “To Flanders Field the hippies go!”, he spits. The affection for the Doors’ original material is clear, as the whole band sounds the part, right down to the deft organ work thoughout, the jazz-inflected drumming and even the seeming telepathy of the original band, as they ebb and flow with the vocals just as well. Any ten-minute-long parody song is going to have to be a labour of love.

4) The Beatles – “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (John Lennon) (1968)

Paul McCartney’s attempt to do a basic blues song with a screaming sort of vocal a la Lennon (the genuine article of which can be found on the same album – “Yer Blues”) only contains the words in the title plus “No one will be watching us”, repeated over and over again. Apparently inspired by McCartney seeing two monkeys copulating in the middle of the road while on the Beatles’ Indian retreat, it’s his meditation on “how simple the act of procreation is”*, but might also be saying the same about Lennon’s songs. At under two minutes, the song was never going to have fantastic legs (he’d revisit the idea more fully a few songs later on “Helter Skelter”), but it makes its point and displays a sort of rawness that always seemed to come without hesitation to John and didn’t fit as well with Paul’s more orchestrated songs. Fitting, too, that it makes its home on the incredibly disjointed White Album as the portrait of the band fracturing (only Paul and Ringo recorded the track, at which John was miffed) – why not send up one of your own and try something silly if everyone’s recording in their own little corner?

5) Talking Heads – “The Overload” (Joy Division) (1980)

This one might be a little bit of a cheat, as no member of Talking Heads had ever heard the music of Joy Division before – “The Overload” was an attempt to emulate them as they had been described by music critics. They didn’t get it totally wrong. The song is all gloom and dourness, with a buzzing, impatient guitar in the background and David Byrne intermittently being roused from his sleep to deliver the vocals – you can feel the cold sweat and longest nights behind them (probably the closest the song gets to the actual sound of the band). What sound like submarine signals ping back and forth in the background as a heavy beat trudging a path through the whole proceeding. It’s gloomiest the band ever sounded, but is a welcome experiment to add to their oeuvre.

*Source: Wikipedia’s page on the song, quoted from the Barry Miles biography of Paul, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now

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The Long and Rhythmic Road: Getting Into Rap

It’s never been an easy time with rap and I. Of course, I bought The Marshall Mathers LP when it came out, right around my entry into high school, but it was just an end-in-itself. I never sought out any more like, nor did I follow up with any other Eminem albums. I was into it, and then it was gone just as quickly. I was there for the 2000s rap-rock craze, but it never really did much for me (my Marshall Mathers LP story could apply just as easily to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory). Since that time, rap – much like its cousin in cliche music non-preferences, country – has never really gotten me excited. Every time I heard it, I would just hear the genre as heavy beats, some dude talking fast and saying ‘yeah’ a lot and reciting their own name incessantly. I would never engage with it, as any time I heard any one of those things, I would just tune it out immediately and say “oh, rap.”

Of course, when at odds with a genre, you just hear the worst in it. You pick out those things you already know you don’t like, and that just reinforces the feeling. It doesn’t help that you’ve probably decided that you dislike the genre based the most popular iterations of it, which is what you would probably hear of it most often, as you’re not going to be seeking out something you don’t think you’re going to want to listen to.  I’d made the decision previously that I didn’t like it and really didn’t feel the need to revise it for the longest time.

It’s not that I hadn’t encountered sort of the basic elements in a different context, with rapid-fire lyrics (for rock music) delivered mostly for emphasis on rhythm rather than melody in amongst my usual listened-to bands – R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” or Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door.” come to mind. I never ventured further, as I just thought them to be neat extensions and experiments of the bands I was listening to rather than something to explore in isolation. The first crack in the armour came with Radiohead’s most recent effort, The King of Limbs. Though there isn’t any rapping on it, whole album is based on wonky rhythms – chopped up drum parts by drummer Phil Selway re-arranged as such as to need two drummers to play the tracks on tour. After a few cursory listens, the rhythm bug got its hooks into me and I couldn’t get enough of it (in fact, this is also what drove me to start making music, realizing  I could generate some pretty good beats with my computer to build on top of).

Now having that solid basis in beat appreciation, there was something more to be found in the rap world for me, but it was still rough going. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” was the example that I frequently brought up to people. I love the backing track – the instruments, the vocals, the hook, the beats, everything that was going on in the background totally had me hooked. At which Kanye actually came in and started rapping and it all fell apart for me. All it felt that it was doing was dulling the impact of the rest of the song. I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t have been just let be. The problem was that I was still refusing to engage with it as rap. I was trying to listen to it as a pop song or some such and then this rapper kept intruding. I was willing to acknowledge the skill in crafting the song, but that was about it. I still wasn’t ready for rap.

There may be a bright light, however. I recently re-listened to the Doomtree album No Kings, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of things. I think I’m ready to actually listen to rap for what it is rather than what I can appreciate from the view of another genre. I am into the hooks big time, but starting to appreciate the actual rapping that comprises the bulk of the songs. Take a song like “Bolt Cutter”, which reads like a radical manifesto – “my baby gave me a bolt cutter/we like to break in/and reclaim all the spaces they forgot they had taken” – a fact I had never paid attention to before. The rapping during the verses serves to colour in and give a reality to the idea that is only hinted at in the chorus, much as the instruments in most songs do. I’m beginning, too, to appreciate the variance in rhythm and flow that each of the rappers in the group brings to the table, especially when stacked up against one another in the same song, not to mention the impact a second or two of silence from the rapper can have on the rhythm.

It’s taken me awhile, but maybe I’ve listened to the right combination of songs, or maybe the time is right now for me to start to appreciate rap on its own terms. Luckily, Doomtree has seven members, all of whom have solo projects, so I feel I’ll be off to the races fairly quickly as my knowledge about the genre expands.

“E-Bow the Letter”

“A Wolf at the Door.”

“All of the Lights”

“Bolt Cutter”

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Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I don’t give a damn: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead

For a dude who has an eye towards a solid knowledge base of rock music, it took me a long time to get around to The Smiths. First off, someone told me that Morrissey always sounds like he is yawning when he singing, which I couldn’t NOT hear anytime I heard a track he was singing on. Secondly, I’d sort of sussed for myself that The Queen Is Dead was the preferred album of the knee-huggers in the corner with the too-big sweater set, which really isn’t my deal. Specifically, I thought that their entire oeuvre sounded like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, which is a two-minute slice of jangly twee pop on this album which works fine for its length, but I figured a whole album of that would be too cute by half. I kept my distance for awhile.

They are frequently included, however, in the discussions of best 80s bands and guitarist Johnny Marr seems to be as venerated as much as, if not moreso, than Morrissey (he played on Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and No One’s First and You’re Next, among other collaborations with bands comprised of young Smiths fans). I eventually decided that it was me the problem was with and that Strangeways, Here We Come was a cool album title, so I scoped a track off of that (“A Push and A Rush and the Land Is Ours”) and found myself pretty engaged. I figured the next step was to get into an album, so I picked myself up a) their only album at HMV I was at that wasn’t a compilation and b) their seminal album, The Queen Is Dead.

After a single grande olde English chorus of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightly”, the band launches into the title track and they are, if I do say so myself, rocking out! Mike Joyce pounding on the toms in anticipation as Marr sends out a few electric washes from the guitar to get everyone in the mood before hitting the ground running. To my surprise, Morrissey doesn’t start off entirely introspective. He does state that “Life is very long/When you’re lonely”, but has a few ideas as to why that might be and takes aim at what he sees around him driving the rampant loneliness of 80s Britain with the aggression of the band backing him up, the bass never staying in one place for too long, in fear of being found: “Passed the pub that saps your body/And the church who’ll snatch your money/The Queen is dead, boys!”

After that first song, I was ready to pick up whatever the Smiths were putting down, as I found that my assumptions about them were totally wrong – they are a much more versatile band than I gave them credit for. Knowing what they have in their quiver, I was just happy to see what they chose to notch. It turns out I didn’t even give “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” a fair shake after I paid closer attention to what the rest of the band was laying down underneath Morrissey’s foppish vocal on that song. Not that the band needed to rock out to get my attention – I just didn’t mark their versatility when I dismissed them early on.

I also noticed they bore more than a passing resemblance to one of my favourite all-time bands, R.E.M. It’s the conversational tone of the lead singers reporting on the state of the world and how it affects them, combined the the guitarists’ knack for creating textures and atmospheres with intricate picking and sliding, making a quiet, ‘busy’ sounds to ably back-up and harmonize the vocals instead of a big loud one. The Smiths of course with a big dollop of Britannia on top, whereas R.E.M. deal chiefly in Americana.

Now that The Smiths and I are getting to be fast friends, it’s time to hit up that discography. Wait…four albums? Only four? Oh well. Such are the surprises that hit when a band gets a decent amount of fame over a short period of time – their reputation grows much larger than their body of work could hope to. Simon & Garfunkel only had five albums. Ditto The Police. Hell, The Sex Pistols only had one! Nevertheless, I think it’s time to turn my attention to the rest of Strangeways, Here We Come which, as it turns out, was their swan song.

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