Monday, May 25, 2015

R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)



"I've seed de first en de last...I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin'."

The above comes from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, not at all coincidentally the original title of R.E.M.'s third album, which in the end received a name equally indicative of its concern with the Southern identity. It's a circular title; it can be Fables (as in Uncle Remus) of the Reconstruction or it can be Reconstruction of the Fables, but in fact it is both infinitely, a title that goes on forever and is reproduced as such on the nearly incomprehensible album sleeve. The flexibility may be pretentious, as may be Michael Stipe's description of the album's sound: "It reminds me of two oranges being stuck together with a nail." The things adorning the heart of the record are clumsy and confused, but that is a natural result of a strength in atmosphere and surrealism that perhaps even the band itself didn't fully understand. Musically, this is one of the few rock albums of its period in which everything seems studied, devised, proper, all to serve a central idea: the immersion into Heaven and Hell, sound and fury, comfort and terror of the Deep South.

The South is a place of secret histories, the antithesis of the entirely human nature to gather and store knowledge of the outside. It is the last place in America where reality can be completely overtaken by eccentricity, willful isolation, de-evolution. It would be pointless to elaborate extensively on how R.E.M.'s Fables is not just a Southern album (recorded in London, in fact) but an album about the South... the definitive writing has already been done by Marcus Gray, in his "About the Place Where You Live" chapter of It Crawled from the South. Nevertheless, the issue is impossible to avoid in a record so dominated by Southern images and characters, by the highest level of disorientation achieved by any American band.

"Feeling Gravitys Pull" may have little to do with Faulkner, but it remains the random shreds of rantings and ravings of a deluded man beyond help, the necessary entrance to an alternate universe. "Driver 8" and "Auctioneer" are train songs, the box cars pulling out of town. "Maps and Legends," "Good Advices," and "Green Grow the Rushes" are Appalachian folk songs. "Life and How to Live It" is a song about a bizarre, deeply racist man who split his house into two halves and wrote a book (Life: How to Live) about his philosophies. "Old Man Kensey" and "Wendell Gee" are both also about deep South weirdos, the former a dogcatcher who used to hide in a coffin and scare children, the latter a man who ran a car dealership and whose entire family dominated the businesses of the tiny town of Philomath, referenced in "Cant Get There from Here." The entire experience is a dream, not accidentally. The first words spoken on Side One are "I fell asleep," the random information sliding in and out of the speakers (and the sensory overload of the end of the opening track) are evidence of the degree to which the band and the producer Joe Boyd fought for a completely heightened, disarming experience; after the more haphazard Reckoning, the band has returned to the mystery of Murmur with a newfound tendency toward the macabre that would remain untapped for the rest of their career.

Michael Stipe described the musical inspiration as "someone with an old tape recorder recording an old man with a fiddle, with a woman in the background with her hand on the stove." The juxtaposition of this with the dirty Tom Verlaine guitar of "Feeling Gravitys Pull," the New Orleans funk of "Cant Get There from Here," and the unfiltered electric terror of "Old Man Kensey" is only superficial; all three songs present conventionally youthful entrances into deeply unusual but identifiably ancient ideas, the central notion behind rock & roll in the very beginning. Fables is a far more difficult recording than Murmur, for reasons that may at first be tough to determine: Listen to the sparkling production and harmonies of "Maps and Legends," so far from the earlier album's mud and mush. But the band has been taken over; not content to merely make an impression, they are now performing. The overpowering chorus of "Maps and Legends" is alien, stunning, unexpected even years later. Its power is nearly subliminal; the listener is overwhelmed, a feature inherent in one gorgeous song that becomes increasingly important as the album progresses. The glory of "Maps" and the two other pure folk songs, "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Good Advices," is in their simplicity of emotion, in which lies an improbable elegance. The majesty and mystery of "Legends" would be remarkable enough even if not complemented by the sing-song grace of the two later songs. "Advices" is amusing and offhanded, but "Rushes" is a masterpiece of sorts, perhaps not on a scale with "Maps and Legends" but certainly impressive in its fusion of distant worlds with the bracing clarity of feeling in the bass, guitar, and harmony vocals.

On "Old Man Kensey," a remarkable piece of fully tangible atmosphere, the lyrics are fine (as studied below), but the story is told well enough by the performances, not even so much the music. The way the guitars and bass are presented offer the strongest case for Kensey as a breathing human, the precise double tracking of the guitar line evocative of a long-ago whisper from David Byrne: "Someone controls electric guitar!" R.E.M. defines performance art here, a point driven home by the way that Fables stands apart from everything else in their catalog; all of them are performances, and all are entirely convincing.

Michael Stipe is perhaps on an equal level of importance here with Mike Mills and Peter Buck (something that would change with Lifes Rich Pageant, which owes much of its greatness to Stipe), but his vocals are what truly sell the record. On many of the songs, he calls to mind an early lyric (from "Pilgrimage") that mentioned "speaking in tongues." Perversely, Stipe dominates several of the songs because he is himself dominated by the music, his body and mind taken over until what he sings, rather than what he says, is a direct product of what circles around him, unadorned by conscious thought, entirely informed by rawness of emotion. "Life and How to Live It" is the most soaring example, an exhilarating and horrifying song that finds both Stipe and the listener gradually taken over by the beautifully sustained intensity that builds and builds until an explosion of babbling ("the air quicken thicken tension build and then suddenly"), at the point of which it is verifiable that Stipe and the audience are feeling and experiencing exactly the same thing, an identification established in "Maps and Legends" that becomes almost unbearable when confronted with the cathartic devastation of "Kensey." It becomes difficult to separate the music from oneself, to distinguish the otherworldly environment -- real as it is -- from one's own. "Spooky gospel" was how the band described it then. "Spooky gospel" it remains, and the speaking in tongues continues with the deliberately unpleasant, uncompromisingly bleak vocal line of "Auctioneer (Another Engine)," a song of rolling around in agony, a song of being tied to the tracks, of certain doom, of the darkest of dread.

Indeed, the problem of Fables of the Reconstruction is ultimately that the band can't keep up with Stipe. Everyone is in unison at first, but as in many other cases, the formula breaks down on the second half; it seems wasteful for themes and structures to be established with such care only to be eventually ignored. Two of the strongest songs on Side Two break the album's mold uncomfortably. On vinyl, it might be easy enough to overlook this, with "Can't Get There from Here" easing the audience from a familiar world to an alien one, but on CD, the lack of space between is crippling, even after the threatening "Kensey." "Feeling Gravitys Pull" has already set the scene; after a recording as evocative and intriguing as "Old Man Kensey," an equally brilliant but far more lightweight song like "Can't Get There from Here" simply can't keep up the pace, not even so much because of the R&B influence as because of its affecting of an outsider rather than an insider perspective, and the strong separation of listener from narrator, a line that was blurred and destroyed by "Maps and Legends," "Old Man Kensey," and "Life and How to Live It" in an impressive feat of performance and storytelling.

Every song on the first half shared a sense of menace, even the single "Driver 8," a haunting thematic "summing up" of the album. There is no such string tying together the rest of the material. "Green Grow the Rushes" is bleak but comfortable, "Good Advices" weird but hardly disconcerting. "Kohoutek" is completely divided from the rest of the album, an atypical love song, except on the point of the vocals. While not bad, it is doomed to be indistinct in this environment. "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" is an unworthy rock diversion despite the intrigue of the vocals, the album's own "Second Guessing." And "Wendell Gee" is the album's only note of absolute fakery, though it made a fine single and contains the album's only moments of charm, but more ominously its only moments of sap, despite some unforgettably disturbing images of chicken wire and appealingly incomplete backwoods phrases of almost barbaric nature ("he was rare to give respect"). Clever as it is, it doesn't do half as much work as the best songs on the record, saved narrowly from schlock by the exquisite hollering of Bill Berry (not the cloying banjo solo by Peter Buck, the opposite of the charm of "Rockville," recalling the type of material a band that had never been to the South might play to imitate the sound of the region). The lamenting a dead but kind-hearted weirdo may be more pleasant than the lamenting of the insanity of a live one, but all of the emotion in "Wendell Gee" is processed and secondhand. The same cannot be said of "Life and How to Live It" or "Old Man Kensey," both of which strive so completely for the direct transference of trepidation if not fear, disorientation if not insecurity. The effect may be colder, but the stronger achievement is clear.

However, "incomplete" is an important description because it is so accurate an articulation of why Michael Stipe's lyrics (when they are important) work so well. These are more direct narratives than anything on Chronic Town, Murmur or Reckoning, but Stipe noted correctly that they are by no means conventional story-songs. They don't have a beginning, a climax, an end. They are "a slice somewhere out of the middle." This is what gives the random imagery, the folky portraits of characters and behaviors in a strongly traditional oral-storytelling flavor, its power and its genuine nature. "Old Man Kensey" and the antihero of "Life and How to Live It" sound like people who actually exist (which they did), not pawns forced into a balladeer's one-dimensional stories (like, for instance, the story of "Wendell Gee," who in fact did not die until ten years after the song was written). It's interesting to note, too, how vital the interplay is between Stipe's singing and his words. When read, the lines "Those who know what I don't know, point to the yellow, red, and green" and "Keep these books well stocked away and take your happy home" have no meaning, make no impression; when he sings them, they are standout moments of tongue-rolling beauty and satisfaction, of comfortable sing-song invitation. The sense of melody provided by Mills plays an equal part, but it's highly evident on this record how much a knowing, intelligent vocal performance can enliven a seemingly useless line into something sublime. It would be easy to misread this as a criticism of the lyrics; in fact, it's a compliment to Stipe's intrepid genius as a writer, his understanding of the three-way interactions between lyric and music and vocals, of what sounds good not on paper but when sung.

Stipe fills "Driver 8" and "Can't Get There from Here" with witty southern terminology but takes each song, very similar on paper, to entirely different places, and ensures that every word of "Life and How to Live It" adds to the urgency. "Wendell Gee" may be a fun but empty exercise in cushiness, but it does hit a note of genuine feeling in the simple line "There wasn't even time to say goodbye," which rings woundingly true despite all else. None of this is to suggest that Stipe always makes the right decision. His character portrait of Old Man Kensey is almost oppressively evocative and Roald Dahl scary, listing the occupations Kensey "wants to be": A dog catcher, a sign painter. But he can't be these things; first he's got to learn to read, or count. In a throwback moment of apparent panic, Stipe adds that Kensey also "wants to be a goalie." A goalie!? That feels false, as if the opposite of the mentioned bit of "Wendell Gee" that defies criticism. It's the only second of disappointing self-conscious doubt in a song that otherwise maintains itself perfectly.

R.E.M. had broken with their regular producers and their regular location to make this album with Boyd in England, and they nearly broke completely, according to legend. The band later shunned the album, but if not their best, it may easily be their most fascinating, certainly in the way it is seeped in legends and harsh realities of the Deep South, a region of endless fascination, stories winding up and down through centuries, beautiful and ghostly and surreal. So completely was the band taken over by these ideas, it invaded everything up to their promotional handouts (a tour poster from the time features a chilling Southern Gothic woodcut-type image of a man filling his family's turn-of-the-century vehicle with petrol). The only criticism of any real significance for this album is the way it sets up so many ideas that have potential to stretch and expand the boundaries of a rock LP, then forgets most of them. In practice, it isn't a major problem, but on their next two records, R.E.M. offered songs that could easily have repaired it. With "Swan Swan H," "King of Birds," and "Oddfellows Local 151," Fables could have been nearly perfect, despite Stipe's statement that "Oddfellows" was a "debunking" of Fables. That may have been the best case for its inclusion. Myth-making is the essence of rock & roll, but there is equal vitality in the destruction of those same myths.

As such, Fables cannot be described as kaleidoscopic, but it's as strong a statement any band could make on myth making and myth destruction, and the equal importance of each. They had taken "spooky gospel" as far as it would go, as far as it will ever go. The album precludes the need for more like it, because it is a work of such conceptual exploration and depth that it can offer a permanent sense of discovery.


[Originally posted elsewhere in 2005.]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Back in class again: January 2015 albums

Delving into the back catalog; sorry this wasn't posted sooner.


Seventh Tree (2008)


At the time this was released I was very high on Goldfrapp's two previous (and much glitzier) albums, which didn't really prepare me for this complete reversal of technique, though in retrospect it's hardly out of nowhere. "A&E" is still one of their worst, most pandering moments of baldfaced stylistic ripoff, but I sort of like some of the bleak cabaret stuff now. Eventually they would master this style with the far bleaker Tales of Us; the strongest song here is clearly "Happiness," which is better in a bootlegged Rex the Dog remix from '08.


Music for Men (2009)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * This extremely focused collection of thirteen unstoppable disco bangers never quits; it's, at last, the perfect application of this odd trio's perverse, trebly format and Beth Ditto's titanic voice to joyous, explosive music that fits it. The main vinyl release consists of a set of 12" singles and that's more than appropriate, so convincing is the sense of throwback to an era of glorious, beautiful decadence that now translates as a kind of unfettered freedom. "Men in Love" is the cheerful promiscuity anthem of the century, "Pop Goes the World" and "Dimestore Diamond" the democratic statements of purpose assuring that the band's new, utopian dance-music-sex-romance revolution is all-encompassing; nearly all of the rest (other favorites: "2012" and "Heavy Cross") are splendidly, engagingly filthy. Their best by far, and one of the best dance albums ever released by a rock band.


Game Theory
Tinker to Evers to Chance (1982-90)


Scott Miller's verbose power pop is clearly distinctive and unusual but, despite the lineage and tragedy, the band and their songwriting come off as flat to me. Most nerdy indie rock can likely be traced back here, but everything feels so subservient to the cerebral words and the scramble to fit them into the songs that the emotion doesn't reach.


Hospitality (2012)

RECOMMENDED * Compared to the wonderful follow-up Trouble, this is a bit fluffy -- hookier, sweeter, thus more ordinary in the landscape of alt-rock. But the guitars and vocals still ring, and the songs are actually best at their jauntiest. Justifies the instinct to call them a singular, affecting band.


Average White Band
AWB (1974)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * All-time fave Scottish funk band's best moments are mostly here; you don't need a greatest-hits. A fine party record if decades of radio overplay haven't worn you out on the singles. "Pick Up the Pieces" is still capable of bringing introverts back out onto the dance floor after a break.


Our Love to Admire (2007)


In retrospect, this isn't bad per se -- though that doesn't mean it isn't embarrassing, like someone proving that if you amped up the self-importance on their first two records just slightly you'd get a mortifying self-parody of generational Joy Division affectation. Lots of laughs here, beginning with "how are things on the west coast?", extending to the absolutely horrendous update to David Crosby's absolutely horrendous "Triad" ("No I in Threesome" is the actual title; the best song about group sex remains Curren$y's "Bring Her Home") and an amusing piece of abortive 2000s-indie history; they signed to Capitol Records to release this then were immediately, unceremoniously dropped. It almost feels like an act of sabotage, what with these bad threesomes, bad city symphonies, bad macho romantic demands. The quintessential post-Mike Love surfer jock album. Key lyric: "I haven't slept for two days / I've bathed in nothing but sweat."


Chuck Berry
One Dozen Berrys (1958)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Caveat: all of Berry's early Chess albums are a few classics plus a lot of filler, so if you're not already enamored of him and interested in hearing him noodle, this won't do much for you. It's inconsistent and lazy... and brilliant, raving up and goofing around and kissing off. Any album that boasts not just "Sweet Little Sixteen" (Berry's very best, a masterpiece of freedom and hero worship) and "Rock and Roll Music" but "Oh Baby Doll" and the marvelously witty "Reelin' and Rockin'" warrants forgiveness for the likes of "Guitar Boogie," or for the fact that two songs are the same performance played at different speeds (!). Best buried treasure: the hopping "It Don't Take But a Few Minutes," one of the best early Berry songs missing from The Great Twenty-Eight. An essential package for fans.


Kaki King
Dreaming of Revenge (2008)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Kaki King's largely instrumental releases differ by degrees in their approach and execution, but that doesn't mean they aren't all terrific. This is probably her best -- a vibing, whispering plunge into a warm Eno-like abyss that features some of the most idiosyncratic, graceful guitar playing on record. And on "Pull Me Out Alive," she proves as capable of an immersive and straightforward pop song (with words) as she is with crafting atmosphere.


Kaki King
...Until We Felt Red (2006)


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Slower, dirgier, weirder, longer, more sprawling, more elaborate, somehow even more of a trance. She also sings more, which isn't a bad thing. To be honest, these days King's music fits my lifestyle in a manner I can vouch for with few other performers. Absolutely can't get enough.


Kendrick Lamar
Section 80 (2011)

(Top Dawg)

RECOMMENDED * Before delving into the dense, extremely busy and complicated To Pimp a Butterfly, I felt I should get to know Lamar's very first record a bit better. The same mild criticisms that apply to most of his work already bloom here -- the music does bend and break itself based on where Lamar's preoccupied, constantly moving heart and mind are headed, which makes his work an unmistakable document of artistic brilliance but also hard (for me) to get lost in. His albums require intense concentration, not just to critique but to merely listen. He is major, and this is hardly a mere rehearsal for his later efforts -- already a master storyteller with almost overwhelming complexity. And so damn young here.


The Avett Brothers
Four Thieves Gone (2006)


RECOMMENDED * Played this expecting a challenge of my former convictions about this briefly beloved unit's agile, emotive upholdings of country traditions. But in fact it's actually quite engaging and soulful, a reminder that they weren't always toothless Rubinites. "Matriomy" is a good taste -- tough, uncompromised, tortured. The tortured part is what I miss in most modern country music, and honestly in the last couple of Avetts albums.


Killer Mike
PL3DGE (2011)

(Grand Hustle)

Good politics, good flow, shakier beats than later.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Avalanches: Since I Left You (2000)



Though a more nebulous entity at times, the Avalanches during the period when they recorded their first (and so far, only) album always primarily consisted of Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater; the two of them pieced together thousands upon thousands of samples to craft one of the most seamless cut-and-paste jobs in the annals of dance music. Since I Left You is a liberating, timeless delight that renders virtually every other entry in the mashup subgenre, including the famous ones, all but pointless. Its only serious peer is probably Moby's Play, which can boast nothing like its layered detail.

The album is divided into eighteen cuts, some short and some medium-sized, but more than most endless-disco records of its breed, it feels truly like one song with several interludes that build, fade and build again. It doesn't come off simply as a collection of beats and hooks that segue into one another but a more complicated overlay of themes, ideas, musical touchstones surrounding and laid atop one another, with an almost logical wisdom and precision -- there are recognizable songs being created, sure, but more than that what we have is a group of obscure tidbits melded into a larger whole with a specific ebbing, flowing mood. It's a party record -- really it's designed in such a manner that it starts when things are fully heated and eventually wanders out into a sweet, quiet abyss with the last few people left -- but it's also incredibly malleable, suited to an unknowable variety of moods and even dark nights.

Still, what the duo primarily communicate is real joy -- the album, the title cut, the mutation of it in "Stay Another Season" and the finale are all built on a simple concept of absolute, resonant personal freedom: "Since I left you, I've found a world so new." The quote is from a song by the Main Attraction; like most of the album's samples, it was little known prior to its use here. But when the unfettered, carefree weightlessness of that sentiment rings out, it signals an album that is to eventually feel like a vacation away from everything. Welcome to Paradise, indeed; in contrast to so many other records similarly formatted, this isn't merely about beats or prolonging a physical impulse. It's also lilting, nostalgic, sweet -- and a valentine to recorded music itself.

Part of the album's resonance -- and perhaps the reason it has only grown in stature since its release, with the populace awaiting with bated breath a follow-up release that may never happen -- is its use of the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic to create its settings and build to its crescendos. There is the wonderful moment with the muffled bassline of Madonna's "Holiday" bleeding through from somewhere in the distance, which perfectly captures the arm-waving drunken atmosphere of an effortless good time, but for the most part the album's effective because the Avalanches create excitement using acrobatic vinyl manipulation without falling back on cultural familiarity. Instead of being an actual party set, it's a sort of impressionistic variant of one, which hands it a remarkably durable "found art" element. Its freshness stands undiminished. Like any crate-digging DJ worth their salt, they can't resist the two most alluring oddities of the analogue era: easy-listening Beautiful Music and novelty records, both of which they make something of. "Frontier Psychiatrist" is the graveyard for all of the oddball comedy pieces they managed to find, but even it achieves by its parrot-scratching climax a sense of wonder.

The Avalanches may never move onward from this; half of the pair is now long gone in the frustration of endless legal hangups and false starts. A revolving door of other personnel creeps through their twenty-year history. There were remixes and EPs after this, spawning what may be the group's best song ("Everyday"); there were disastrous headlining tours that somehow seemed to invariably culminate in physical injury. But whatever the future may hold, a future that seems maybe permanently out of their reach now, Since I Left You is likely to always remain the most humane and therefore the best of all mashup records. Its fusion of mad genius and fat-and-happy relaxation is utterly irresistible.