Quick Review (LP): The Unforgettable Fire by U2

U2
The Unforgettable Fire
Island; 1985

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "A Sort of Homecoming", "Pride", "Wire", "Bad", "The Unforgettable Fire"

No spoken words, just a dream…

NOTES:
– This was their Kid A moment, an attempt to completely re-define themselves in a manner that could potentially alienate their core fanbase. 
– A record that is simulatenously beautiful and bloated, wrought with meaning and somewhat meandering, a blockbuster and a headscratcher.
– No one can front-load a record like U2.
– The great moments (tracks 1,2,3,4,7) are great enough to lift the tide, and all of the non-great moments sort of drift by in a pleasant Eno-ish experimental haze anyhow.
– I like what Bono has to say about the album: "The Unforgettable Fire was a beautifully out-of-focus record, blurred like an impressionist painting, very unlike a billboard or an advertising slogan." I’m not entirely sure that this means they weren’t just lazy and/or indecisive, but after a lot of years of being unsure how I felt about this album, I now really like it. It’s especially fitting for overcast spring days.
– "A Sort of Homecoming" marks a complete change of direction for U2. Mullen and Clayton do great things rhythmically. It’s also one of my all-time favorite U2 songs.
– "Elvis Presley and America" is perhaps the most indicative of where the band was at with this album. They seem to have been willing to follow their muse just about anywhere, and this particular track is an improvisation over the slowed-down backing track of another song.
– I like the fact that these songs are said to be about things that they aren’t really about, ie "The Unforgettable Fire", "Bad".
– I also like the fact that this record was intended to feel unfinished. Additionally, Eno’s made a good call by having Clayton and Mullen dial it back a few notches. That creates the sonic soil for The Edge and Bono to do their thing.
– My estimation of this record keeps improving. It’s pivotal, mysterious, and never completely gives it self away.
From Pitchfork, an excellent review: "The first song on 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire is called "A Sort of Homecoming"– not just "A Homecoming". And that shade of uncertainty– that "sort of"– is key. Compared to U2’s first three albums– and almost everything that has come afterward– The Unforgettable Fire is marked by a sketchy in-between-ness that works as a gracious foil to the the band’s natural audacity. It’s sort of stadium rock, sort of experimental, sort of spiritual, sort of subdued, sort of uncharacteristic, sort of brilliant, sort of a classic." 
DELUXE EDITION FAVES: "A Sort of Homecoming (live)", "Love Comes Tumbling", "The Three Sunrises", "Bass Trap", "Disappearing Act". This is the band’s best b-sides era. The four I’ve listed here are truly excellent, and any serious U2 fan should be familiar with them.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): War by U2

U2
War
Island; 1983

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "New Year’s Day", "Drowning Man", "Seconds", "Two Hearts", "40"

NOTES:

– I’ve always thought the drums sounds like CANNONS on this record. I love Steve Lillywhite’s production.
– "40"…A brilliant way to end an album. One of the great closing tracks.
– "The Refugee" is the only significant misstep on the album, and even then it’s a big cheesy goof of a song that has the potential to be a lot of fun live. It sounds very dated.
– One of the best album covers ever. Pure poetry.
War can safely be called U2’s "heart-on-sleeve" album. Witness "Like A Song…", which is quite possibly the most intense track the band has ever produced. "A new heart is what I need/O God make it bleed!"
– My only significant gripe with this record is that it is so intense that anything in the way of a sense of humor or lightness seems completely removed. I’m sure that’s the feel they were going for (after all, war is hell), but the result is that for a great record, it is not very suitable for repeated listening. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is not exactly delightful in the way that The Joshua Tree or Achtung, Baby! is. This was the pinnacle of U2’s early sound, and it was a wise move to leave the intense, "Love and Peace or Else" phase behind them.
– U2 definitively makes the case here that they had what it would take to become the biggest rock and roll band in the world. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year’s Day" are both wonderful in every way imaginable.
– "The newspaper says it’s true/We can break through/Though torn in two/We can be one." That line always leaves me speechless.
– "Drowning Man" is a beautiful, austere change of pace. Just great.
– DELUXE EDITION HIGHLIGHTS: "Endless Deep"

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

My review of Boy by U2
My review of October by U2

Quick Review (LP): October by U2

U2
October
Island; 1981

My Rating: C- (40/100)

Best Tracks: "Gloria", "October", "Tomorrow", "I Threw A Brick Through A Window"

NOTES:
– Some of it feels a bit directionless, though not awful, only as if the band is trying to find its way ahead but not having much success. ("I Threw A Brick…")
– The Edge’s guitar sounds great as always, especially on "Gloria" and "I Threw A Brick…"
– Conceptually at least, it is one of their best – the problem is apparently that Bono lost his lyrics and had to improvise a good bit. Witness "With a Shout (Jerusalem)" which is lyrically woeful.
– "Tomorrow", with its insistent refrain, probably captures the spirit of this album best, and is certainly one of the band’s best early tracks.
– In retrospect, this album fits nicely into early U2’s catalog, forming an interesting arc in terms of theme (Boy – coming of age; October – spiritual longing; War – faced with harsh reality; UF – re-embracing hope in spite of reality).
– "Scarlet" is a perfect example of the meaningless sort of excess that they’d often include in early albums, "passage" pieces that really do nothing for the record as a whole except slow things down and dull the effect.
– All in all, it’s pretty amazing the band was able to recover from such a big sophomore slump.
– Adam Clayton looks RIDICULOUS on the cover. Just sayin.
DELUXE EDITION HIGHLIGHTS: "Trash, Trampoline, and the Party Girl", "Gloria (live)"

ATTRIBUTES:
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Consistency (3/5)
Concept (5/5)
Songs (2.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Boy by U2

U2
Boy
Island; 1980

My Rating: B+ (79/100)

Best Tracks: “I Will Follow”, “Twilight”, “An Cat Dubh”, “Out of Control”, “Electric Co.”

U2’s debut is both desolate and muscular, with huge doses of the boyish optimism that would send them out of the stratosphere in the years to come. This is their “coming of age” record. Conceptually, it’s one of their best LP’s, and although not well known, it features some of their best early material.

NOTES:
– “I Will Follow” is one of the band’s best opening tracks. Gotta dig the glockenspiel.
– The whole album is shrouded in a sort of dark and unfathomable mist, sort of this unsettling weirdness in the background.
– “Shadows and Tall Trees” reminds me of early Cure.
– “An Cat Dubh” is one of the best things they’ve ever recorded, without a doubt.
– As immediate as the record is, it’s also quite atmospheric and dreamlike (“Another Time…”)
– For me, “Stories for Boys” is the thematic heart of the record.
– The cover is brilliant. Minimalist, but full of wonder and depth.
– Steve Lillywhite’s work with U2 is some of my favorite.
DELUXE EDITION HIGHLIGHTS: “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” (one of The Edge’s best guitar riffs), “Touch”

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

Quick Review (LP): Teen Dream by Beach House

Beach House
Teen Dream
Sub Pop; 2010

My Rating: A+

Tracks: “Walk in the Park”, “Zebra”, “Used to Be”, “Take Care”

Thriller. Born In The USA. Rumours. There is a short list of albums that are amazing both as cohesive artistic statements and as collections of pop classics. Who would have thought that, in 1991, three knuckleheads from the Pacific Northwest with only one sloppily recorded sludge-rock effort to their credit would rise into that category with a gleaming collection of 12 odes to teen angst? Well, I was just as surprised to find Beach House ascending into that hall of greatness with their third album, Teen Dream. All of these songs would stand as great singles in and of themselves, but strewn together as a collection they make for one of the greatest rock records in recent memory. While the standards for these songs have been set with these recordings, I can’t help but wonder what tracks like “Walk in the Park” and “Zebra” would sound like stadium-sized. I’m not asking Beach House to go all U2 on us or anything, but then again, if Radiohead and Springsteen can pull of rock and roll glory in super-sized settings, then based on the strength of the songs on this album, Beach House can too. Teen Dream is probably the first great record of this decade.

Daytrotter session
Pitchfork review
Paste review
Myspace site

Tracknotes: “Lemon” by U2

Big Lemon Of U2’s albums, the record that has grown on me most over time is undoubtedly Zooropa. The record that nipped at the heels of the classic Achtung Baby!, Zooropa was heavily steeped in a European irony that made it, in terms of U2 albums, almost inaccessible to American audiences. After all, the debut single from this album was “Numb.” But there are some great tracks on Zooropa (“Stay (Faraway So Close!)”, “Somedays Are Better Than Others”, “The First Time”), and chief among those is the epic kraut-pop of “Lemon.”

  • This song has a great back story. At one point in the early 1990s, a relative sent Bono an old home movie of his mother wearing a lemon-yellow dress as the maid-of-honor at a wedding. Bono was extremely moved by the footage of his deceased mother as a young woman, and the song is about the power of images to stir our memories and our emotions.
  • The video is intended to mimic the first motion picture ever created, a “moving picture” of a rider and horse by a man named Eadweard Muybridge.
  • The lyrics are deeply stirring: “She is the dreamer/She’s imagination/Through the light projected/He can see himself up close.” In my opinion, with this track U2 nailed the paradox that they were trying to capture in the 90’s, that of the extreme humanizing and de-humanizing effects of technology.
  • The guitar sound is amazing. The Edge apparently stumbled upon a gated guitar effect that went perfectly with a drum and bass pattern that he’d put together in the middle of a tour. Still, I think the piano interlude makes the song. It adds the “sehnsucht” to the track that is the key to any great U2 song.
  • All in all, this is one of my favorite U2 tracks. The unique sound of the song, the watery guitar effects, the gorgeous melody, the backstory – it all combines to make classic U2, and one of the most innovative pop songs I’ve ever heard.

Late Greats: My Favorite Tracks from Michael Been of The Call

michael been I can’t remember the last time an artist’s death struck me as deeply as the loss of Michael Been of The Call. I guess I can attribute it to several factors: Been’s incredibly human, affecting delivery; their status as a “never-quite-was” band; the fact that they had only hit their stride with 1990’s Red Moon and then called it quits; but most of all his music. I suppose I feel that the humility and emotional depth of the band’s music serves as a sort of antidote for the trite product that we often label “music.” I don’t intend to look down on anyone, but Been was a bird of a different feather from your average pop star, both then and now. No one wrote or performed songs quite like Michael Been.

So I guess what I want to do here is run through a few of my favorite tracks, tracks that reach a little deeper into The Call’s back catalog, and give a little more exposure to this man’s beautiful music. I hope his memory lives long – I think he was a sort of under-recognized treasure to the world of music, an artist who never fit any particular mold but made great music that was completely true to his own vision. So enjoy the clips…

”Red Moon”
Although this track is certainly not typical of The Call’s sound, it’s just beautiful. Been paints a lyrical picture that seems to follow a man through the stages of his life, dressing it in a simple song that almost comes off as a lullabye. And I guess that’s what I love about this track – it’s almost as if Michael is addressing the song to a child, a subtle admonition to take nothing that comes in this life for granted.  “A warm wind and a red moon and the world goes by…”

”What’s Happened to You”
Michael takes a cue from Van Morrison on this gorgeous track, the opening cut from Red Moon. Notably, he’s joined on the chorus by Bono, who (thankfully) lets Been take the lead. The track seems addressed to someone who has emerged into joy from a deep darkness. This is the sort of track that you can’t help but sing along with, and Been masterfully plays the song leader. “Did you see some great vision/Did you finally break through/Did you shake the foundations/What’s happened to you?”

”You Run”
”…but you can’t escape the reach of love.” I wonder how autobiographical this particular track is, especially coming just on the heels of the intensely dark Into the Woods. Again, the intensity and immediacy of Been’s vocal delivery makes for sonic gold.

”A Swim in the Ocean”
The Call uncharacteristically took a shuffling blues approach on this track, employing a poor man’s music style to deliver a rebuke to the wise of the world. They prove their musical flexibility, giving me one more reason to lament the fact that they didn’t continue into their second and third decades.

”I Don’t Wanna”
This is perhaps Been’s most powerful vocal performance. There is a point in this song where he sounds like he might just come apart at the seams. I can only imagine how transcendent it would have been to see this song performed live. I get chills just thinking about it.

“Become America”
This song was actually recorded as part of the band’s attempted comeback in the mid-90’s. There is a sort of heartland quality to this track, with Been delivering a spiraling lyric that seems to lift America up to the Almighty, asking for mercy for all her sins.

”Uncovered”
I can’t think of a more fitting way to say goodbye to the man. There is something so final and vulnerable about this track. There’s really no use describing it in words – it simply must be heard. The closest touchpoint is Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms”, but just listen already…

There’s plenty more goodness to “uncover” with The Call. While most of their LPs are out-of-print, if you like what you hear, you can purchase mp3s through Amazon, and most of their old records and CDs can be found in hard copy via eBay.

So long Michael. Rest in peace…

Worth Shouting About: “Every Breaking Wave” from U2

U2’s last LP, No Line On the Horizon, was a little bit disappointing to me. I really liked “Magnificent”, but that was about it.

That being said, I really like this new track (“Every Breaking Wave”, via Stereogum):

So Bono, if you are listening (and I know you are), more like this please.

Worth Shouting About: Free EP from Follow The Train!

The Great Disturbance EP

Well that’s just too cool — the apparently re-united Louisville space-rock powerhouse Follow The Train is giving their 2005 (out-of-print) EP The Great Disturbance away for free on their newly re-vamped website. So give the second track, “Wake Up”, a listen below, and then head on over and download some costless goodness. And while you’re there, you may as well pick up Mercury or A Breath of Sigh, excellent releases in their own right…

If you’ve never heard Follow The Train, you’re in for a dose of anthemic, dreamy rock that is part-U2, part-Pixies, part-Afghan Whigs, and part-Cure. That is to say, there is a late-80’s indie throwback feel to their work, a sound I’m happy to hear making a resurgence in their little corner of the music world. Enjoy!

Download Follow The Train’s Great Disturbance EP for free.

Listen to “Wake Up” by Follow The Train:

Tracks of the Decade: “Lost!” by Coldplay

“Lost!”
by Coldplay
from VIVA LA VIDA OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS (2008)
Coldplay shot to international super-stardom like no other band this decade, simultaneously wooing legions of adoring fans and generating scores of vitriolic detractors with the memorable and tuneful songs of Chris Martin. Most have cited the omnipresent “Clocks” as Coldplay’s contribution to the decade’s musical canon in a sort of cynical one-off (“Oh yeah, there’s Coldplay too”), grudgingly acknowledging its brilliance because even the losers get lucky sometimes. Me? I’ll go with “Lost!” The breathtaking spiritual center of the band’s masterwork VIVA LA VIDA, Martin scored an iconic hit with the track in the vein of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” U2-esque histrionics may abound in Coldplay’s catalog, but Martin’s pathos ring true in this case. The song can be construed at once as pleading denial, optimistic cry in the dark, or prophetic warning. For its universal grandeur, the lyrics are simply brilliant. Lines like “Just because I’m losing/Doesn’t mean that I’m lost” are simply spine-tingling, yet the one that sticks with you is the off-handed denouement “I’m just waiting til the shine wears off.” Conceptually, “Lost!” wins out over Arcade Fire’s “Intervention” for the use of church organ here, succeeding on the souls lifting to heaven front where “Intervention” succumbed to mockery. One of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, “Lost!” proves with finality that Chris Martin is a songwriting and conceptual force.

lost“Lost!”
by Coldplay
from VIVA LA VIDA OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS (2008)

Coldplay shot to international super-stardom like no other band this decade, simultaneously wooing legions of adoring fans and generating scores of vitriolic detractors with the memorable and tuneful songs of Chris Martin. Most have cited the omnipresent “Clocks” as Coldplay’s contribution to the decade’s musical canon in a sort of cynical one-off (“Oh yeah, there’s Coldplay too”), grudgingly acknowledging its brilliance because even the losers get lucky sometimes. Me? I’ll go with “Lost!” The breathtaking spiritual center of the band’s masterwork VIVA LA VIDA, Martin scored an iconic hit with the track in the vein of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” U2-esque histrionics may abound in Coldplay’s catalog, but Martin’s pathos ring true in this case. The song can be construed at once as pleading denial, optimistic cry in the dark, or prophetic warning. For its universal grandeur, the lyrics are simply brilliant. Lines like “Just because I’m losing/Doesn’t mean that I’m lost” are simply spine-tingling, yet the one that sticks with you is the off-handed denouement “I’m just waiting til the shine wears off.” Conceptually, “Lost!” wins out over Arcade Fire’s “Intervention” for the use of church organ here, succeeding on the souls lifting to heaven front where “Intervention” succumbed to mockery. One of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, “Lost!” proves with finality that Chris Martin is a songwriting and conceptual force.