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: Plans by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Plans
Atlantic; 2005

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Soul Meets Body", "Summer Skin", "Different Names for the Same Place", "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"

TRACK NOTES

"Marching Bands of Manhattan" (4/5)

  • Quite a bit poppier from the outset.
  • So are there marching bands in Manhattan that are regularly out and about? Kind of like Treme, but in Greenwich Village?
  • A bit dull, when it all comes down to it. Would have liked a song with a heartbeat to open the album.

"Soul Meets Body" (5/5)

  • Great tune, which the production wasn’t so airy and pure.
  • But still, pretty much a perfect melancholy pop song.

"Summer Skin" (5/5)

  • Amazing feel. The song just hangs there like a big grey cloud.

"Different Names for the Same Place" (5/5)

  • Love this one.
  • Feels like a cloud and rainy afternoon in the city.

"I Will Follow You Into The Dark" (5/5)

  • Good grief, Ben writes some dark love songs.
  • "Last dance with Mary Jane/One more time to kill the pain"
  • Really, great tune, and a changeup for Death Cab.

"Your Heart Is An Empty Room" (4.5/5)

"Someday You Will Be Loved" (4/5)

"Crooked Teeth" (4.5/5)

  • Sounds like The Kinks circa VGPS.
  • Catchy.
  • "No you can’t find nothing at all/If there was nothing there all along"

"What Sarah Said" (4.5/5)

  • "It came to me then/That every plan/Is a tiny prayer to Father Time"
  • Again, depressing (but a little happier than "A Lack of Color!")
  • Very pretty.

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" (3.5/5)

  • Directionless.

"Stable Song" (4/5)

  • aka "Stability"
  • Beautiful anyway you slice it.
  • Still, it’s a rehash, and feel like this could have been grander, considering that amazing melody. (Even some strings!)

ALBUM NOTES

  • As much as I hate the production on this record, Gibbard is at his peak in terms of songwriting.
  • If Transatlanticism was their Document, then this is their Out of Time (minus their "Shiny Happy People", which will never exist for Death Cab).
  • Why is this a point of departure for a lot of Death Cab fans? Is it the fact that it’s on a major label, or is it something else?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.46/5)

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): Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Love Is Hell
Lost Highway; 2004

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "This House Is Not For Sale", "Wonderwall", "The Shadowlands", "English Girls Approximately", "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home"

Slows things down, starts to find his way.

NOTES

  • Strong opener with "Political Scientist." Amazing lyrics.
  • Great atmosphere on this record. It’s a rainy day record, but its still got a big rock sound.
  • Love that guitar riff on "This House Is Not For Sale." Slowing things down helps quite a bit.
  • "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home" is a fantastic jangle-pop track. Seriously, it’s worthy of early REM, and that’s saying a lot from me.
  • The story goes that Adams’ version of "Wonderwall" is so good that Noel Gallagher just gave it to him one night. It’s solid, but I still prefer the Oasis version.
  • Good grief, "The Shadowlands" is gorgeous. One of his best.
  • "I See Monsters" has an amazing sound. It points towards some of the work he’d do on Cold Roses.
  • "English Girls Approximately" is a great little love song that I’m sure has launched a thousand mixtapes. The explosions of guitar echo at the end are the perfect way to close the track.
  • Not every track is brilliant, but even the lesser ones are pretty good. A major and much needed recovery from the disaster that was Rock N Roll.
  • The lushness of this record is one of its most appealing aspects. It’s very acoustic and lovely and ornate, jangly and hyper-melodic. I’m thinking it’s a masterpiece.
  • Overall, I think this record makes the case that Adams is a visionary, though an inconsistent and undisciplined one. Maybe he is more of a reckless genius?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

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

Career-In-Review: The Smiths

the smiths Overview
I like to think of The Smiths as Britain’s answer to R.E.M. After all, The Smiths released the “Hand In Glove” single right about the same time as R.E.M. released Murmur, and both bands feature ridiculously influential boy-wonder guitar players and controversial anti-frontmen. Unfortunately, The Smiths were never quite able to gel personally and artistically the way R.E.M.’s core members have over the years (it all might have been different if Andy Rourke had covered “Monster Mash” at the end of Strangeways, eh?), and the band died after four or five incredibly productive years.

The Smiths only released four proper LP’s (not gonna cover any of their live releases), and they never really made a defining statement in that format, which is unfortunate, especially for a band that was otherwise fantastic. For my money, I recommend beginning with the Singles compilation. While it is apocryphal, it’s pretty much a great listen from start to finish, and allows you to get a good feel for what The Smiths are all about. Their catalog of singles and toss-offs runs deep though, and in this age of MP3 downloads, there’s probably a couple of CD-R’s worth of great tracks in addition to the stuff on Singles to feast upon.

My personal favorite aspect of The Smiths’ music is Johnny Marr’s layered and luscious guitar playing, but there is no denying that The Smiths would not be The Smiths were it not for the utterly unique vocals and persona of Stephen Morrissey. Additionally, the work of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce often gets overlooked, but tracks like “This Charming Man” bear testimony to the fact that they were far more than bricklayers in the band’s creative endeavors.

Five Track Intro

1) How Soon Is Now?
2) This Charming Man
3) There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
4) Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
5) Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

Studio Albums and other selected releases (*** = recommended album)

The Smiths (1984) — B — After releasing a couple of classic and hard-hitting singles, the band dials it back a few notches for their full-length debut. Spotty and uneven, but holds a few highlights. (R: “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Still Ill”) (see my original review)

Meat Is Murder (1985) — B — The first definite sign that when it comes to albums, The Smiths didn’t quite get it. Not bad, but its Morrissey at his most obnoxious, and the title track is ridiculous. (R: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”) (see my original review)

The Queen Is Dead (1986) — B+ — Almost a classic, but it suffers from poor production. Features a number of “might have been great” tracks. (R: “Cemetry Gates”, “I Know It’s Over”) (see my original review)

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) — B — The best side of vinyl the band ever committed from “Rush” to “Stop Me” – all down hill after “Last Night.” (R: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Girlfriend In A Coma”) (see my original review)

Other recommended tracks: “These Things Take Time”, “Sweet & Tender Hooligan”, “Half a Person”, “Please Please Please…”, “Wonderful Woman”, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”

Wikipedia article

Quick Review (LP): The Smiths by The Smiths

thesmiths The Smiths
The Smiths
Rough Trade; 1984

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Reel Around the Fountain”, “You’ve Got Everything Now”, “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, “Still Ill”

The problem for The Smiths is that they were a great singles band, perhaps the best of the 80’s. As a consequence, their debut at times feels padded around the tracks that preceded the record, the classics “Hand In Glove” and “This Charming Man” and the great “What Difference Does It Make?” These tracks are pop supernovae, and everything that surrounds them pales in comparison, but not necessarily for want of brightness. Opener “Reel Around The Fountain”, as well as the propulsive “You’ve Got Everything Now” reveal quite a different side to the band, and the album’s second half is nearly perfect. As a debut, this one feels a lot like Murmur, plaintive out of the gate rather than charging. I’d argue that if they’d left the singles off of this, they might have achieved a masterpiece. Instead, they created an interesting debut, but one that is ultimately forgettable.

AMG review
Wikipedia article
BBC review

Quick Review (EP): The Years by Memoryhouse

Memoryhouse
The Years
Arcade Sound Ltd.; 2010

My Rating: A

Best Track: “Sleep Patterns”

Debut EP’s have a long and storied history. I count among my favorites REM’s Chronic Town, Voxtrot’s Raised By Wolves, and Fugazi’s self-titled debut. I think it’s perhaps the best way for a new band to introduce its sound to the world, because the EP length leaves us well-informed but thirsting for more. Additionally, most bands, in their first year or two, have not really achieved what can be called a fully-formed sound. Arcade Fire is a good example. Their first EP, while decent in its own right, comes nowhere near the epic glory of their debut LP. All of this is to say that I think Memoryhouse has released one of the best EP’s of the year with their debut, The Years. It’s short even for an EP, only 4 songs in all, but we have here a reasonable introduction to what can be expected from the band in the future. “Sleep Patterns” is the obvious standout, a lo-fi pop noir hybrid of Beach House and Joy Division, and “The Waves” is a quick interlude of New Age electronica. The other two tracks are solid as well, and given the fact that the EP is free, I expect the band to gain a significant following from it. I question whether they can pull off a really solid LP though. Bands with this sort of sleepy sound generally approach terminal attention around track 8 (witness: Boards of Canada), so I for one am hoping for a long career of lengthy EP’s. Still, if Tortoise can do LPs, why can’t Memoryhouse? We’ll see what they come up with.

Download it for FREE here
Pitchfork review
Band Myspace page
WeAreBandits.com

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”:

5 Things: “Found Out About You” by Gin Blossoms

5 Things I Love About “Found Out About You” by Gin Blossoms:

***WARNING: CRAZY FLASHY STROBE STUFF GOING ON HERE***

1. THE JANGLE SOUND: That’s the best Buck-riff since “The One I Love.”
2. THE ADOLESCENT PATHOS: “Whispers at the bus stop/I heard about nights out at the school yard/Found out about you…”
3. THE VOCALS: Robin Wilson unleashes a powerful lead; his dynamic range is really something.
4. THE ANGUISHED NOSTALGIA: Something about the band’s sound brings back fond memories of the past, but then you listen to the lyrics. This is some dark stuff…
5. THE TORTURED GENIUS: This track was written by Doug Hopkins, along with the band’s other early hit “Hey Jealousy.” Dude was a songwriting prodigy who left us too early, and this one proves it.

What do you love about “Found Out About You?”