Thursday, June 5, 2008

R.E.M. Greek Theatre Berkeley 5/31/08

Ok, let’s just get the unpleasant stuff out of the way right off. One of the big draws for me for last Saturday’s REM concert was the opening act, The National. Considering how perfectly great REM was that night, it is probably quite silly in retrospect, but I might have skipped this tour altogether if The National hadn’t been on the ticket. I was disappointed. Not that the guys from Ohio by way of New York didn’t play their hearts out. At least I THINK they did…

It was bound to be an uphill battle anyway. With two opening acts, their set had to start a little after six in the evening. At an outdoor venue, that has to be a little like playing at someone’s picnic – not exactly designed to induce excitement. In addition to the broad daylight, only about half the sold out show’s audience had showed up by then. Since the Greek only holds about 8000, it looked pretty sparse out there. At one point, Matt Berninger meekly thanked the crowd for “coming out early”.

But all of that could have been overcome. It could have been, if it wasn’t for the absolutely horrid sound, at least from where I was sitting. Who did their soundcheck? Whoever it was, they should be boxed soundly about the head and ears. Or maybe they already had been – repeatedly. That would go some way toward explaining why the sound was so awful. They started their set with Start a War, the first song I fell for on their excellent album, Boxer, and immediately went into my next favorite, Brainy. What you could hear of Matt Berninger’s slopey baritone was even better, more exciting, than the recorded versions. They ended with Mr. November from Alligator. Matt’s stage presence was barely discernable through the washed out sound. The vocals were way too low in the mix, the violin wasn’t mic’d properly, the overall quality was garbled. It broke my heart. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but I know at least half of the going-grey, Birkenstock-wearing, Berkeley-ites in the audience would have been sold, if only they could have actually heard the music.

Up next, Modest Mouse was achingly boring, if completely inoffensive. I was looking forward to getting a new take on a band that, so far, has not caught my imagination. Johnny Marr is touring with the band, which should have been a good sign. But the live set was strangely flat. The band made a big racket, with an impressive group of players, including two drummers with full traps. But there was a sameness to all the songs and no real audience engagement. I took the opportunity to wait in line for the toilets and check out the overpriced concert tees.

And then…

I used to love REM and then I didn’t. And then I wondered what the hell had gotten into them. When Accelerate came out, I was skeptical. I listened… I liked it… I liked it enough to fork over a hefty price and drive six hours to see them.

Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin, and Scott MacCaughey put on a fantastic show. As soon as they appeared from the wings, I knew we were in for a fun night. Michael Stipe greeted the crowd, saying, “This night is for you, and we’re glad to be here to share it with you”. That summed up the night, really. An appreciative crowd was treated to almost all of Accelerate with the rest of the set weighted heavily with songs from Chronic Town to Monster.

Stipe is an exciting performer and a charmer from the stage, the band rocked, the songs were a good mix of college and Top 40 hits. Well, I could have done without Losing My Religion, but that’s just nitpicking. The entire performance was just great.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth – The third song of the night got us all up and singing along. Michael sounded great, the band was tight and powerful.

Wolves, Lower – The opening riff clued me in that something special was happening. Somehow it was more muscular without losing its lo-fi mystery. Is that the key to the ‘new’ REM?

Electrolite – I never thought this was a top tier REM song, but its bouncy pop energy was tempered with the aggressive attack the band brought and it was perfectly placed in the set to vary the mood and sound. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Orange Crush – Holy Mother of God. Always a favorite of mine from Green, this rocked like I had never imagined it could. Michael with his bullhorn, the band raging, Mike and Peter’s backup vocals gliding over it all – the crowd was electrified.

Supernatural Superserious – By the time the encore rolled around, the crowd was more than willing. When Michael sang the first phrase, “Everybody here…” it seemed everyone there believed he meant us.

Driver 8 – One of my all-time REM favorites and it was lovely.

I think I love REM again.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley 1928-2008

A quick post in memoriam to Bo Diddley, one of the founding fathers of rock. Maybe you know the name, but never really heard the music. Maybe you don't have any idea who he is. Maybe you have loved his music for years. No matter what, if you've ever listened to a rock song, you've been touched by his magic. From Buddy Holly, to The Rolling Stones, to anyone who ever picked up a guitar to play some rock 'n' roll, the echo of his syncopated beat and throbbing tremolo will last forever. If you Google his name, you can find any number of places on the Web to read about his life and his legacy. I'll just post one of his great numbers, Roadrunner, and say... Bo, you'll be missed, but never forgotten. Even by those who never heard of Bo Diddley.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Deconstruction

I am not usually prone to deconstructing the lyrics of pop songs. The craft of presenting a fine pop song includes melody, instrumentation, vocal style, production, and many other elements, lyrics being just one part of the equation. And I can fully appreciate a song with lyrics like:

My baby does the hanky panky
My baby does the hanky panky
My baby does the hanky panky
All night long

Yeah, not much more to say… Put just about any lyric in front of the right jangly garage band sound and you've got a winner in my book.

On the other end of the spectrum, lyrics at their best describe a specific and sublime human experience. Reducing the lyric of a lover’s lament to something like, “It’s about this guy and he really likes this girl, but she’s not really into him,” doesn’t really add much to the body of human knowledge.

My apologies to the late Joseph Campbell, but as far as I understand it, his main idea was that there are some central human truths that are unknowable and inexpressible except through metaphor and myth. He was speaking of why all cultures have religions, but perhaps it is also true that poetry, and by extension lyrics, can sometimes reveal a tiny little corner of Truth with a capital T that can’t really be further clarified.

But sometimes, I just can’t help it. That moment when a song that seemed completely opaque or much too simple starts to give up its secret is, for me, one of the great pleasures of being a listener.

Recently I purchased Heretic Pride by The Mountain Goats. There are a number of fine songs on the album, all of them lyrically interesting. One that at first seemed just pretty and sad, but later revealed a fuller meaning, is Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident.

Slumped up against the sink
Hair plastered to her cheeks
Marduk t-shirt sticking to her skin
Refugee from a disco in old east Berlin

Weightless, formless
Blameless, nameless

Stray syllables were gurgling
From her throat one at a time
Face hidden from my view
I let myself imagine she was you

Only weightless, formless
Blameless, nameless

And when I washed my hands
I ran the water hotter than I could stand

Half rising to a crouch
Sinking back down to the floor
In you’re walking keep your head low
Try to leave no traces when you go

Stay weightless, formless
Blameless, nameless

Obviously about a woman somewhat worse for wear half passed out in a men’s room somewhere. But when I really heard for the first time the line - I let myself imagine she was you…

Ahh, he imagines a moment of intimacy with this woman, or he imagines the woman in his life as this vulnerable stranger. Neither the woman slumped on the floor nor the ‘you’ he is speaking to are literally weightless. He means that the life, the past, the meaning of the woman in the Marduk tee has no weight or significance to him, the shape of who she is doesn’t exist for him, he has no shared history with her and has nothing to blame her for, he doesn’t even know her name. And in a moment of weakness, he is drawn to that. To cleanse himself of a feeling that hovers between guilt and disgust, he washes his hands in water that burns.

The loveliness of those few lines became so clear to me in that one little moment, I almost cried. Realizing all the emotion and experience compressed into those few simple lines put me in awe of the craft of the songwriter and of the human capacity for expression and understanding. And that is what it is all about.

There's plenty more to this song, but take a listen for yourself. And don't miss the comic book promo for the album.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I Dropped My Lollipop in the Dirt

Lust Lust Lust - The Raveonettes 8.5/10

I admit to being smitten with noise, fuzz, crunch and feedback. But as in all things, there are ways to do it well and ways to do it poorly. The Raveonettes do it well, very well. Sometimes dreamy and sometimes steamy boy/girl vocals mostly about... well, lust... float above or trade the spotlight with crashing noise and fuzzed out guitars. But it isn't just noise for noise's sake. Here the washes and walls of feedback propel the melody and provide the tension to raise the pretty and sometimes silly lyrics to the level of an immediate emotional rush.

You Want the Candy sums up the direction of most of the album. The pop/noise mix makes the comparison to Jesus and Mary Chain apt, but if the Reids were dipping in The Beach Boys' lyrical well, The Raveonettes have gone straight to The Archies. But it bops and pops and the fuzz dirties everything up until the whole thing sounds sexy as hell.

The other tracks are perhaps less "bubblegum gone bad", but this isn't an album to listen to for its searing lyrical insights. Aly Walk With Me succeeds as a droning love song to a real or imagined absent lover with heartbreaking, if somewhat ear-shattering, feedback playing off sad-sack vocals. Dead Sound is the heaviest on lyrical content, but its charm lies mostly in pretty harmonies and echoing bright guitars and keyboards juxtaposed with walls of fuzz and static, finally all crashing in on each other.

Blitzed draws more from some secret cache of surf pop that several bands seem to be tapping into lately. While perhaps not a standout track, the simple little riff that lays its foundation is enough to make you feel nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. Sad Transmission is underlaid with a teched out hand-clapped beat that would have felt at home in a 1963 girl group release. In fact, almost every track is some kind of reference to something that is in your musical subconscious or even conscious. Not just J&MC, but stuff from The Ronettes to Velvet Underground to Suicide to your favorite trip-hop to some forgotten film noir soundtrack. But Lust Lust Lust doesn't really sound derivative.

It sounds like dirty fun.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Why Are You Blogging This?

The purpose of this blog is to write about music. I am not a music critic, I don't really consider myself very good at writing about music. I am not a musician - I just dabble. My talent is listening to music.

So what does a listener do with all the collected thoughts, emotions, images, anecdotes, and opinions? Blog. Of course. What does this listener listen to? Although I am not genre specific, I will seldom be listening to the latest Top 40. I've been listening to music since I was a little wisp of a thing... that's me over there with my Raggedy Ann. I am old enough to have loved Elvis, and to have been blown away by The Beatles, but my passion is new music. My tastes run to all things indie/alternative, to folk and all the freaky and electronic things one can do to folk, to noise in all its forms - from the ear-splitting to the soft gauzy wash to the beeps and blips of outrageous fortune, to the psychedelic and even, on occasion, to the proggy. I will sometimes take a notion to spend my days with Dance or World or Jazz, but mostly the airwaves around me are filled with rock and pop music.

A word about pop music. Pop is not a dirty word. That is something I had to come to grips with and I now embrace the word and all of its connotations. From Abba to the Zutons, there is delicious goodness in pop. I often refer to things others call rock or post-rock or indie (or one of the bizillion other genre tags that float through the ether) as simply pop. Don't be offended... pop is good, pop is great. Except the pop that is awful. But I'm sure we'll get to that, too.

I be off now to do some listening... I'll return soon with some thoughts, opinions, recommendations, and who knows what else.