The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: r.e.m.

Album Review: R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now [Warner Bros.]

The story of R.E.M. has reached an impasse. Fifteen albums in, and nobody can agree on the worth and vitality of this band anymore. Everyone looks back fondly at “The I.R.S. Years” and the first half of the Warner Bros. years, where the band was prolific and innovative and equally young and vibrant. Yeah, they made mistakes too, particularly in the early 90s with a couple records known as “Out of Time” and “Monster”. One thing that most R.E.M. fans can agree with though is that 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was their last great record before entering into about a 10 year period you could call the dark ages. By that point, the band had been around for over 16 years and things were bound to give out sooner or later. It’s telling that they only released three albums of new material in the ’97-’07 period and most of the rest of that time was not spent on the road touring. The guys had clearly gotten bored with making music and spending time with one another, so they got involved in other projects for awhile and also ran into some health problems. Despite these setbacks, they never officially broke up, though Bill Berry did quit the band right at the start of that tumultuous period in 1997. Anyways, after the slow motion daydream that was 2004’s “Around the Sun”, R.E.M. came surging back in 2008 with the motivated and revitalized “Accelerate”. Plenty hailed it as the band’s first great record in over 10 years, with some even reaching as far back as ’92’s “Automatic for the People” as a reference point. But was it REALLY that good? Is it possible that at the first sign of a spark, people overreacted and thought they saw a wildfire instead? This is where the rift occurs – from those that truly believe R.E.M. has course corrected and returned to the path of righteousness and others that feel this 30+ year old band will never, ever come close to their peak form again. Though they’d never outright say it, listening to their new album “Collapse Into Now”, the unofficial statement from the band seems to be, “does it even matter”?

For those that thought “Accelerate” was a late-period fluke of energy from an otherwise lifeless corpse of a band, R.E.M. immediately slaps you in the face with the charging single “Discoverer” to start “Collapse Into Now”. Where Michael Stipe gets the nerve to think that shouting out the song’s title over and over again makes for a grand chorus is a little lost of me, but at the very least it’s easy to sing along to and remember. Peter Buck’s guitar work is delightful as well, and if you don’t over-analyze it the track turns out to be rather solid. “All the Best” appears to both directly and indirectly challenge critics that think the band has nothing left to offer. “It’s just like me to overstay my welcome,” Stipe sings just before launching into the chorus with a mission statement to “show the kids how to do it fine”. The man speaks the truth, for as these guys are slowly becoming the middle-aged godfathers of rock, they are proving they can still write a bunch of solid songs that are better than a lot of what’s out there today. Unlike the last record, “Collapse Into Now” is not packed to the brim with high energy rock tracks. The band takes more of a cue from their early 90s classic records by weaving in some more acoustic numbers and gentle touches of mandolins and other instruments they’ve briefly used before. “Uberlin” is a lovely acoustic cut with an “Automatic for the People” vibe shimmering off of it complete with those essential Mike Mills backing vocals. The mixture of horns, mandolin and accordion on “Oh My Heart” makes for one of the most beautiful R.E.M. songs in a long while, and Stipe’s pleading vocal is also one of his best. Similarly, the crunchy, muscular guitar work on “Mine Smell Like Honey” combined with the fun energy and catchy chorus make for an excellent single that may even best some of the great moments on “Accelerate”. For no apparent reason Peaches makes a guest appearance on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”, a bouncy and shredding track that bears a similar silliness to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” both in the lyrics and in the way Stipe sort of sing-speaks his vocals. It could get annoying if R.E.M. did songs like this on a regular basis, but since they don’t it’s a welcome bit on this record. The punk rock vibe of “That Someone Is You” holds a lot of weight for a late album cut, but it wouldn’t have to if the lyrics were better. The line, “pull me up and out of cartoon quicksand” isn’t terrible, but slapping together phrases like “And with the fury lock of Sharon Stone “Casino”/”Scarface” Al Pacino/’74 Torino/I need someone else to make the first move” makes little sense other than to try and pull off a clever rhyme.

What’s not clever is the seriously painful chorus of “It Happened Today”. A mid-tempo acoustic track with lovely flourishes of mandolin, there’s a lot to like about the song, but when Stipe dispassionately sings the lines “It happened today/Hooray, hooray/It happened/Hip, hip hooray” it rings about as untrue as “Shiny Happy People” did 20 years ago. Eddie Vedder also makes a guest appearance in the last half of the song, pushing some really gorgeous backing vocals and harmonies that virtually erase the bad taste the chorus leaves in your mouth. A similar thing takes place on “Every Day Is Yours to Win”, where the instrumental complete with twinkling xylophones and Mills harmonies are very nice but just about everything else isn’t. Sounding lovely can only sustain you for so long, and when there’s not a whole lot in the way of forward momentum or variation on your melody combined with lyrics that unlike the title are NOT winning, you’ve got problems. And if you want to talk about the worst offender and least essential track on the entire album, “Walk It Back” should very much be walked back to the shallow grave it rose from. It’s like the piano ballad slow version of “Discoverer”, where the chorus is yet again just the song title over and over again. The verses though are special themselves, with gloriously average phrases such as, “What would you have had me say/instead of what I said?” and “Where would I go, how could I follow that/except to do what I did”. The song is about regrets and wishing you could have avoided what turned out to be a bad situation, but clearly by allowing this song on the album the band did not take their own advice. The song that may get the most complaints from people, but perhaps also equal amounts of praise from others, is album closer “Blue”. Hazy and distorted electric guitar mixed with slow acoustic strumming forms the instrumental base for the track, but it’s more wallpaper for a Michael Stipe spoken word poetry reading with blushes of guest star Patti Smith’s singing. Yeah it’s weird and if you’re not in the mood it’ll gladly rub you the wrong way, but it’s also the only song on the record that takes any real chances. It very well could have found a home on “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” back in the day where it would have blended in nicely rather than stick out like a sore thumb here. The good news is that it is the last song on the album, so if you don’t want to listen to it ever again, just hit the stop button early.

The album’s title “Collapse Into Now” is part of that spoken word bit that Stipe does on “Blue”, but the phrase itself is a strong microcosm of what this record sounds like on the whole. Listening to “classic” R.E.M. from the 80s and early 90s, you understand how the band was one of the unofficial founders of the alternative rock genre. They helped to develop the sound that so many other bands still copy even today. With the healthy mixture of the harder rocking, faster songs and more subdued ballads, “Collapse Into Now” sounds like the band knows exactly what’s worked for them in the past and worked hard to try and recreate it. The thing about reviving your older material is that it continues to sound dated, even though you’ve made it in the present. Yeah, at any given moment on this new record you’ll think about how that one song feels like a “Life’s Rich Pageant” era song or another might very well have been on “Murmur” or even “Monster”. It’s nice to know that R.E.M. can still crank out songs like that, and good ones at that, but where’s the originality? Where’s the innovation? “Fables of the Reconstruction” was such a vital album in 1985 precisely because it was something different and exciting. “Collapse Into Now” pretty much only looks backwards, preying on your nostalgia for a band that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Maybe that’s what brought them out of their downward spiral though – the relief of the pressure that exploring new sounds and territory brings with the thought that you really can go home again. R.E.M. no longer needs to be this vital, alternative rock-creating force, but instead just a band that likes making music together. If it’s enough for them, hopefully it can also be enough for us.

Buy “Collapse Into Now” from Amazon

Album Review: The Decemberists – The King Is Dead [Capitol]

One has to wonder – did somebody tell The Decemberists that they’d gone off the deep end, or was it a conclusion they reached themselves? Their last album was 2008’s “The Hazards of Love”, and it was a long-form rock opera filled to the brim with shape-shifting characters and a plotline so confusing that frontman Colin Meloy seemed to have a tough time explaining it. Even the record before that, “The Crane Wife”, was largely a storytelling affair taken from an old Japanese folk tale surrounding a crane that turns into a woman. If, upon reading this, it all sounds quite preposterous, that’s because it is. That, and epically pretentious when placed amid Meloy’s florid and ten-dollar-word lyrics. Despite this, the music continued to be decent, if not somewhat excellent, which in turn is probably what saved the band from becoming outcasts by much of their highly loyal fan base. What built that fan base in the first place almost exclusively came from the band’s first three records, which largely consisted of sharply written and concise but instrumentally dense pop songs. There were characters even back then, tales of chimney sweeps, gymnasts, ballerinas, thieves and sailors, but they were all confined to their own songs rather than an entire album. So whether or not there was an intervention or perhaps even some pressure from their record label, The Decemberists are back with a new record, and this time they’re going old school. The band took in a steady diet of R.E.M., moved onto a farm, and brought in legendary singer-songwriter-pinup Gillian Welch for an assist. Oh yeah, and R.E.M.’s own Peter Buck dropped by to provide some additional inspiration as well. The final product is “The King Is Dead”, out next week and showcasing a leaner, cleaner and outright different version of The Decemberists than we’ve seen in quite some time.

The very first thing you hear on “Don’t Carry It All”, the opening track on “The King Is Dead”, is a harmonica. To my knowledge, The Decemberists have never used harmonica before, and it throws you off balance almost immediately. That plus an acoustic guitar and it’s like a quick trip back to Neil Young’s “Harvest” days. The gently sawing fiddles and some vocal harmonies push an alt-country/Americana vibe that much more, but yes, with Peter Buck playing on the song there’s a little bit of R.E.M. sound in there too. Buck’s acoustic guitar work is a whole lot more distinctive on “Calamity Song”, a track that would be perfectly at home on a record like “Fables of the Reconstruction” were you to hand over the vocals to Michael Stipe. To put it another way, The Decemberists sounding like classic R.E.M. is by no means a bad thing. Some piano, more acoustic guitar/harmonica and the country staple slide guitar pop up for the ballad “Rise to Me”, which is eerily reminiscent of late 60s/early 70s material from The Band. By this point, it’s pretty obvious that not only have The Decemberists vastly changed their style from their last two albums, but have also provided a healthy variation on their earliest, more poppy fare. Granted, a nearly solo acoustic ballad such as “January Hymn” comes across like a less wordy version of “Red Right Ankle”, but the distinctly Americana angle at which the band is approaching their new material is surprisingly refreshing. Peter Buck makes one last appearance on first single “Down By the Water”, which bears a sonic resemblance in many respects to R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, albeit with a lot more harmonica and strong backing vocals courtesy of Gillian Welch. Speaking of Welch though, she does backing vocals on seven of the album’s ten tracks and in turn provides her own interesting twist to everything she touches. Case in point, “All Arise!” definitely sounds more like a Welch song than a Decemberists song as the fiddles, banjos and Old West-style piano sound like they’d be right at home amid a barndance. “This Is Why We Fight” is probably the closest the band comes to sounding like their old selves, in a good way. Chris Funk is back tearing up the electric guitar, and there’s a certain brash, almost anthemic feel to the song; an energized call to arms that was missing up until that point. It only figures then that the album ends on the very next track, “Dear Avery”. Thankfully it continues the long-standing Decemberists tradition of ending strong, in this case with a gorgeous acoustic ballad that holds strong ties to Fleetwood Mac. Just the acoustic guitar and organ would have been good enough to call the track a success, and you could take or leave the slide guitar, but it’s the rich harmonies that go even further beyond just Welch’s voice that bring out the song’s best qualities. It comes across like a fitting coda to a record that seems to hold surprises at each and every turn.

There are some issues with “The King Is Dead”. First and foremost among them is Colin Meloy’s dumbed-down wordplay. It’s annoying when he uses too many words that require a dictionary to understand, but that’s also part of what makes his writing so distinctive. If he can keep the challenging vocabulary to a happy medium level where he doesn’t go overboard with it, more power to him. Meloy still throws out a few magniloquent words when he’s feeling up to it, as “loam” and “conjure” and “culverts”, but ultimately there’s a paucity of them. Saying “On a winter Sunday, I go/to clear away the snow/and green the ground below” is pleasant but seems like anybody could have written it. On the plus side though, that provides more of an opportunity to focus more on how the songs are arranged and also calls to attention Meloy’s vocal performance, which is stronger than ever, perhaps to prove his mettle in face-offs versus Gillian Welch. On the instrumental side, the alt-country/Americana genre has been around for a long time now, and similar to the lyrics it’s tough to make an impact unless your songs are really special. The Decemberists prove they’re up for such a challenge with this record, but just barely miss their ultimate goal. To put it another way, such a valiant effort makes “The King Is Dead” a very, very good album that wants to be great. Still, it’s a huge step back upwards and forwards for the band, both reviving the strength and good will they earned on their pre-“Crane Wife” albums while also trying to expand their sound to new areas. It may not be the best thing they’ve ever done, but it’s close. At this point, close equals highly satisfying. More than anything though, it just feels great to have The Decemberists back on the right track, whatever track that might be.

Stream the entire album at NPR (limited time only)

Preorder “The King Is Dead” from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén