Initial Reactions (2012): The Walkmen, Saint Etienne, Great Lake Swimmers

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

The Walkmen – Heaven [B]: From the big croon to the arpeggios to the vintage equipment, there’s much to love about The Walkmen, but it’s time they got difficult. Heaven is a good album, but it’s not a great one, and given that it’s their 6th or 7th in 10 years, that tells me that they need to tear it up and break it down. Maybe not all bands go through the mid-life artistic crisis, but I’m a fan of The Walkmen, and I happen to think they would benefit from one.  ("Line By Line", "Song For Leigh")

Saint Etienne – Words and Music [B]: The first 2 tracks are brilliant, a music lover’s manifesto, but despite a winning concept, it’s an early peak and a steep descent. Dig that cover though, great idea!  ("Over the Border", "I’ve Got Your Music")



Great Lake Swimmers – New Wild Everywhere [B]
: I wonder if "New Wild Everywhere" is an homage to REM’s "Near Wild Heaven." After all, much of the album reminds me of Stipe & Co.’s middle period, i.e. stripped back loveliness. From the lush strings of Miranda Mulholland to the easy-does-it earnestness of Tony Dekker pleasantness abounds, but I wish the band would inject more fight and angst into these tunes (except the title track, it’s perfect). As a wise man once said, a little pain never hurt anyone.  ("New Wild Everywhere", "On The Water")

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LP Review: Murmur by R.E.M.

R.E.M.
Murmur
IRS; 1983

My Rating: A (92/100)

Best Tracks: "Radio Free Europe", "Laughing", "Talk About the Passion", "Catapult", "Sitting Still"

Not with a bang but a murmur.

TRACK NOTES

"Radio Free Europe" (5/5)

  • One of the best rock and roll tracks ever.
  • One of the great things about this track is the diverse instrumentation that sort of hides in the background.
  • Also, the tempo is fixed from the sloppy 7" version.
  • This is what it feels like to ride a rock and roll wave for a few minutes.
  • Witness.

"Pilgrimmage" (4.5/5)

  • Murky.
  • "Two-headed cow"???
  • Cool use of the vibes in the background.
  • You know, Berry’s drum beat almost sounds techno. Weird.

"Laughing" (5/5)

  • Pretty acoustic work.
  • That’s a gorgeous melody.
  • This is an archetypal Stipe "mumble-core" cut. Does he ever even sing the word "laughing?"

"Talk About the Passion" (5/5)

  • The "other" hit from the album.
  • I love how the music gets all clean at the chorus.
  • Excellent bridge on this one. Sort of psychedelic.

"Moral Kiosk" (4.5/5)

  • OK, now we’ve got some post-punk.
  • Mills’ background vocals on the chorus sound weird.
  • Brilliant bass work by Mills too.

"Perfect Circle" (4.5/5)

  • I think this one really foreshadows the sound of Fables.
  • Pretty piano.

"Catapult" (5/5)

  • "Did we miss anything?"
  • Love the guitar/bass interplay on this song.
  • Marr/Rourke ain’t got nothin’ on Buck/Mills.

"Sitting Still" (5/5)

  • This was the b-side to the "Radio Free Europe" single.
  • It’s one of their brilliant early cuts. Amazing chorus.

"9-9" (4/5)

  • The only "not great" track on the album
  • But it’s still really good post-punk.

"Shaking Through" (5/5)

  • Do Stipe’s lyrics make any sense here? Are they even intelligible?
  • Amazing melody again.
  • Nice fade-back funk piece on the tail-end.

"We Walk" (4.5/5)

  • If nothing else, catchy and fun.
  • Sounds like someone fell when they got up the stairs onto the landing.

"West of the Fields" (4.5/5)

  • Another cool post-punk cut.
  • Maybe not QUITE the closer one would hope for, but still pretty great.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Murmur states the obvious: REM was destined to be a great band. You hear it in Stipe’s soaring and fluid vocal melodies. You feel it in the precision and angularity of Buck’s and Mills’ playing. You find it in the songs, which sound effortless and organic but never overwrought or immodest. These guys were CHANNELING something back in the early 80’s.
  • Murmur cuts against expectations. It definitely rocks, but it’s also muddy and unyielding. For every "Radio Free Europe" you get a "Pilgrimage", for every "Catapult" you get a "Perfect Circle." The record sounds like the kudzu on the cover looks. Both REMs are present here: the rock band that would fill arenas and the artsy troupe that would be the face of the alternative nation. 
  • You won’t find many records from 1983 that don’t sound dated. Murmur goes beyond that though, into the realm of timelessness that only a few bands have ever achieved.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.71/5)

Quick Review (LP): Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.

R.E.M.
Collapse Into Now
2011

My Rating: C- (42/100)

Best Tracks: "Uberlin", "Oh My Heart", "Blue"

Let’s just call it: R.E.M. has not been the same, nor ever will be again, without Bill Berry on drums. It’s been 5 albums now, and we can argue that every album released with Berry was good, if not great, if no classic. Every album since his departure has been mediocre if not boring. How do we explain this? Not sure. After all, Berry was only the drummer, and not really known to be the band’s chief songwriter. But I suspect it has to do with band chemistry. R.E.M. was always that 4 man troupe, and it’s arguable that the real R.E.M. ceased to be without him. So that’s what I’m sticking to. Bring back Berry or call it a day. Or just completely reinvent yourselves like Dylan.

NOTES
– Will they ever embrace their pre-major label sound again, or have they decidedly left it behind?
– The problem may be with Stipe, who’s lyrics are a little too poppy, a little too obvious. It’s as if around Document he decided it was time to leave the "murmur" behind.
– It’s true they are borrowing from a lot of old ideas, it’s just that all of the old ideas happened in 1991 or later.
Matt LeMay summarizes the shortcomings of this record well: “This album is host to more such complexity than anything since 1998’s Up– but Collapse Into Now still sounds like the work of a band caught between old habits and new adventures.” Also worth reading is the paragraph where he details the retreaded material on this record.
– His list could go on. "Me, Marlon Brando…" recalls "Monty Got a Raw Deal." 
– It almost sounds as if they are giving up and just saying, "Look, you want the sound of old REM, here’s some old REM for you."  What they really need at this point is a late career version of Fables, a dark and completely otherworldly record, an idiosyncratic and arcane concept album.
– "Blue" is at least interesting, if not really a great song. Honestly, I’d love to hear a completely weird REM album of dark, downtempo tracks like this.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (3.5/5)
Concept (3.5/5)
Consistency (3/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Songs (3/5)

My review of R.E.M.’s Murmur|
Career in Brief: REM’s IRS Years

Quick Review (LP): The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

decemberists king is dead The Decemberists
The King Is Dead
2011

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All”, “Rox In The Box”, “January Hymn”, “June Hymn”, “Dear Avery”

Were it not for the bleating timbre of Colin Meloy’s voice, I’d probably own every Decemberists record. Surely there has to be a better way to create a hybrid of Morrissey and Stipe, no? As for this here slab o’ wax, while it’s certainly no masterpiece, it’s nonetheless an exceptionally strong set of songs, featuring all of the things that folks have loved about The Decemberists from the beginning. There are a few instances where it seems they might be loafing – “This Is Why We Fight” for instance – but otherwise The King Is Dead finds the band embracing Americana, with several of the tracks getting help from the vocals of Gillian Welch (who I hope has learned a thing or two from Master Meloy’s productivity, ahem). While there’s nothing so lovely as “The Engine Driver” (though the pair of hymns come close) or as soaring and accessible as “16 Military Wives”, this is a well-rounded folk-rock record that will please fans of The Decemberists and might even convert a few Welch fans.

Random observations:

– “January Hymn” recalls the pastoral college rock of late 80’s / early 90’s REM, and even The Smiths
– “Dear Avery” reminds me of Fleetwood Mac

Wikipedia article
AMG review
Metacritic reviews
Pitchfork review

Worth Repeating: Keith Phipps on Unintelligible Lyrics

Great article by Keith Phipps over at the AV Club blog on unintelligible REM lyrics:

“Yet to see Stipe’s lyric laid out without any ambiguity, even for just one song, felt a bit like a shock…He sometimes sounds less like an active participant in the recording than a spirit haunting the song. It’s often not clear what he’s singing, and when the words are discernible they’re evocative fragments and not fully developed thoughts: “Lighted in a room.” “Calling on, in the transit.” “So much more attractive inside the moral kiosk.” They’re confounding. And perfect. And much of the pleasure comes from not quite understanding them.”

Read the whole article here.

And an early performance of “We Walk”:

REM: Out of Time (1991)

REM
Out of Time; 1991
Warner Brothers
My Rating: 90/100
REM apparently spent three years exploring their options. After producing six albums in as many years, the band catapulted into the national spotlight in a big way with OUT OF TIME. It also marks a huge stylistic shift for the band, featuring a far more acoustic delivery and incorporating rootsy instruments like the mandolin, accordion, and symphonic string arrangments. Although it is common practice to slam this album for its cutesy excesses (witness the silly rapping on “Radio Song” and the delightfully annoying “Shiny Happy People”, both of which are actually decent songs), it’s the lesser known tracks that really shine. While “Losing My Religion” was the song that redefined the band’s sound, “Belong” and “Texarakana” both came out of left field and stand as huge artistic leaps for the band. “Near Wild Heaven” jangles its way into a masterpiece of nostalgic pop (featuring lead vox from Mike Mills), while “Me In Honey” features an irresistibly soaring chorus and classic REM riff. All in all, what’s not to like about this album? It may not be their most influential or the one that all the cool kids talk about, but I can’t think of another time when REM made such irrepressibly joyful music. In a world of pretense and image, OUT OF TIME stands as REM’s boldest musical statement, and one of the most consistently delightful records in the history of rock and roll. OUT OF TIME? Try timeless.
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Tracks:
1. Radio Song (4/5)
2. Losing My Religion (5/5)
3. Low (4/5)
4. Near Wild Heaven (5/5)
5. Endgame (5/5)
6. Shiny Happy People (5/5)
7. Belong (5/5)
8. Half a World Away (5/5)
9. Texarkana (5/5)
10. COuntry Feedback (4/5)
11. Me In Honey (5/5)

OutOfTimeCoverREM
Out of Time; 1991
Warner Brothers

My Rating: 90/100

REM apparently spent three years exploring their options. After producing six albums in as many years, the band catapulted into the national spotlight in a big way with OUT OF TIME. It marks a huge stylistic shift for the band, featuring a far more acoustic delivery and incorporating rootsy instruments like the mandolin, accordion, and symphonic string arrangments. Although it is common practice to slam this album for its cutesy excesses (witness the silly rapping on “Radio Song” and the delightfully annoying “Shiny Happy People”, both of which are actually decent songs), it’s the lesser known tracks that really shine. While “Losing My Religion” was the song that redefined the band’s sound, “Belong” and “Texarakana” both came out of left field and stand as huge artistic leaps for the band. “Near Wild Heaven” jangles its way into a masterpiece of nostalgic pop (featuring lead vox from Mike Mills), while “Me In Honey” features an irresistibly soaring chorus and classic REM riff. All in all, what’s not to like about this album? It may not be their most influential or the one that all the cool kids talk about, but I can’t think of another time when REM made such irrepressibly joyful music. In a world of pretense and image, OUT OF TIME stands as REM’s boldest musical statement, and one of the most consistently delightful records in the history of rock and roll. OUT OF TIME? Try timeless.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)

Tracks:

1. Radio Song (4/5)
2. Losing My Religion (5/5)
3. Low (4/5)
4. Near Wild Heaven (5/5)
5. Endgame (5/5)
6. Shiny Happy People (5/5)
7. Belong (5/5)
8. Half a World Away (5/5)
9. Texarkana (5/5)
10. Country Feedback (4/5)
11. Me In Honey (5/5)

REM: Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

REM

LifesRichPCoverREM
Lifes Rich Pageant;  1986
IRS Records

My Rating: 83/100

REM Begins Again

Following on the heels of the band’s first major misstep, PAGEANT is the album where REM starts to find some muscle amidst all the jangle. Whereas the band once relied on propulsion to drive many of their songs home, they slowed things down a bit here, combining huge choruses with slower tempos (“Begin the Begin”, “Cuyahoga”) to produce their most confident sounding record yet. This was the album that proved REM could be superstars, as evidenced by the classic status afforded to “Fall On Me,” which prefigures future REM classics like “Losing My Religion”, “Man on the Moon”, and “Everybody Hurts.” That’s not to say that REM slows everything down here – “Hyena” and “These Days” are just as fast-paced and visceral as anything on the band’s first three LPs. But this is the record where REM began to distance itself from even the best and brightest of 80’s college radio, and laid the foundation for its future success.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4/5)

Tracks:

1. Begin the Begin (4.5/5)
2. These Days (4/5)
3. Fall On Me (5/5)
4. Cuyahoga (5/5)
5. Hyena (5/5)
6. Underneath the Bunker
7. The Flowers of Guatemala (5/5)
8. I Believe (5/5)
9. What If We Give It Away? (5/5)
10. Just a Touch (4/5)
11. Swan Swan H (4/5)
12. Superman (4/5)

REM: Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

REM
FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION
IRS
MY RATING: 49/100
FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION is the album where REM almost lost their way. After the early triumphs of CHRONIC TOWN and MURMUR, the band made some slight adjustments to their formula and delivered RECKONING, a good album with some great songs in its own right, but for the most part a re-tread of familiar territory. So while it’s no wonder that the band went way out on a limb here, it’s also pretty amazing that they end up surviving their own resplendent failure. The album opens in extremely unorthodox fashion with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” It’s sort of ugly, to be frank, but the band manages to pull it together and eek out a decent track. Elsewhere, “Driver 8” and “Life and How to Live It” are winners, and “Can’t Get There From Here” is worth a mention as well. Other than that, there’s not much. The band sounds bored on the latter half especially, and the ornate melodies and instrumental interplay of their early work are simply absent. Thankfully, the band would later their way ahead on LIFE’S RICH PAGEANT and knock it out of the park on DOCUMENT. I’d recommend skipping the album and downloading the tracks mentioned above.
TRACKS
1. Feeling Gravity’s Pull (4/5)
2. Maps and Legends (3.5/5)
3. Driver 8 (5/5)
4. Life and How to Live It (5/5)
5. Old Man Kensey (3.5/5)
6. Can’t Get There From Here (4/5)
7. Green Grow the Rushes (3/5) – 7 Chinese Bros.?
8. Kohoutek (3/5)
9. Auctioneer (Another Engine) (2.5/5)
10. Good Advices (2.5/5)
11. Wendell Gee (3.5/5)FABLES OF THEREM RECONSTRUCTION

FablesREMREM
Fables of the Reconstruction; 1985
IRS Records

My Rating: 49/100

FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION is the album where REM almost lost their way. After the early triumphs of CHRONIC TOWN and MURMUR, the band made some slight adjustments to their formula and delivered RECKONING, a good album with some great songs in its own right, but for the most part a re-tread of familiar territory. So while it’s no wonder that the band went way out on a limb here, it’s also pretty amazing that they ended up surviving their own resplendent failure. The album opens in extremely unorthodox fashion with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” It’s sort of ugly, to be frank, but the band manages to pull it together and eek out a decent track. Elsewhere, “Driver 8” and “Life and How to Live It” are winners, and “Can’t Get There From Here” is worth a mention as well. Other than that, there’s not much. The band sounds bored on the latter half especially, and the ornate melodies and instrumental interplay of their early work are simply absent. Thankfully, the band would later their way ahead on LIFE’S RICH PAGEANT and knock it out of the park on DOCUMENT. I’d recommend skipping the album and downloading the tracks mentioned above.

TRACKS

1. Feeling Gravity’s Pull (4/5)
2. Maps and Legends (3.5/5)
3. Driver 8 (5/5)
4. Life and How to Live It (5/5)
5. Old Man Kensey (3.5/5)
6. Can’t Get There From Here (4/5)
7. Green Grow the Rushes (3/5)
8. Kohoutek (3/5)
9. Auctioneer (Another Engine) (2.5/5)
10. Good Advices (2.5/5)
11. Wendell Gee (3.5/5)

One of the greatest rock tracks of all time…

Wish I could’ve seen these guys back in ’83, but I was 4…

R.E.M.: Reckoning (1984)

RECKONING (1984) – 8: RECKONING was REM’s quick follow-up to
their debut. The band didn’t make any huge stylistic leaps here.
In fact, RECKONING might easily be written off as an album of
leftovers and re-treads if the songs weren’t so solid. While
half of the songs only achieve moderate success, the other half
register as certified classics. “Harborcoat” kicks things off in
righteous fashion. Full of intricate guitar and bass interplay,
their is no question that the band has coupled their unique
sound with more robust songwriting. “7 Chinese Bros.” and
“Pretty Persuasion” are other excellent examples of the band’s
ability to craft college rock genius. However, it’s “(Don’t Go
Back to) Rockville” that really stands out among the bunch,
truly setting the band’s country undertones to the forefront and
giving REM its first road song. For the most part, an enjoyable
and worthy record.
TRACKS:
1. Harborcoat (5/5)
2. 7 Chinese Brothers (5/5)
3. So. Central Rain (5/5)
4. Pretty Persuasion (5/5)
5. Time After Time (Annelise) (3.5/5)
6. Second Guessing (3/5)
7. Letter Never Sent (3/5)
8. Camera (3/5)
9. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (5/5)
10. Little AmericRECKONING (1984) – 8: RECKONING was REM’s quick follow-up to
their debut. The band didn’t make any huge stylistic leaps here.
In fact, RECKONING might easily be written off as an album of
leftovers and re-treads if the songs weren’t so solid. While
half of the songs only achieve moderate success, the other half
register as certified classics. “Harborcoat” kicks things off in
righteous fashion. Full of intricate guitar and bass interplay,
their is no question that the band has coupled their unique
sound with more robust songwriting. “7 Chinese Bros.” and
“Pretty Persuasion” are other excellent examples of the band’s
ability to craft college rock genius. However, it’s “(Don’t Go
Back to) Rockville” that really stands out among the bunch,
truly setting the band’s country undertones to the forefront and
giving REM its first road song. For the most part, an enjoyable
and worthy record.
TRACKS:
1. Harborcoat (5/5)
2. 7 Chinese Brothers (5/5)
3. So. Central Rain (5/5)
4. Pretty Persuasion (5/5)
5. Time After Time (Annelise) (3.5/5)
6. Second Guessing (3/5)
7. Letter Never Sent (3/5)
8. Camera (3/5)
9. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (5/5)
10. Little America (3/5)
REM_Reckoning_coverR.E.M.
Reckoning; 1984
IRS Records

My Rating: 8/10

RECKONING was REM’s quick follow-up to their debut. The band didn’t make any huge stylistic leaps here. In fact, RECKONING might easily be written off as an album of leftovers and re-treads if the songs weren’t so solid. While half of the songs only achieve moderate success, the other half register as certified classics. “Harborcoat” kicks things off in righteous fashion. Full of intricate guitar and bass interplay, their is no question that the band has coupled their unique sound with more robust songwriting. “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Pretty Persuasion” are other excellent examples of the band’s ability to craft college rock genius. However, it’s “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” that really stands out among the bunch, truly setting the band’s country undertones to the forefront and giving REM its first road song. For the most part, an enjoyable and worthy record.

TRACKS:
1. Harborcoat (5/5)
2. 7 Chinese Brothers (5/5)
3. So. Central Rain (5/5)
4. Pretty Persuasion (5/5)
5. Time After Time (Annelise) (3.5/5)
6. Second Guessing (3/5)
7. Letter Never Sent (3/5)
8. Camera (3/5)
9. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (5/5)
10. Little America (3/5)