Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

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Sharon Jones, Leadbelly, and Why Most Soul Music Sucks Now

Let’s be clear at the outset here: I do not think Sharon Jones is any part of the reason why most Soul sucks now. To the contrary, if today’s shitty teenage Soulsters took a page from Jones’s playbook, I’d be as happy with Soul music as I would be if Otis Redding was still alive. (For the record, that’s pretty fucking happy)

The fact that I know going in what every Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings record is going to sound like has, so far, never diminished my enjoyment of those records. The obvious reason is probably that Sharon Jones has the best set of Old School Soul Pipes this side of Bettye LaVette (if you don’t know who Bettye LaVette is, stop reading this right now. Get up from your desk. Exit your cubicle. Head for your nearest music store. Realize, after a moment, that those don’t really exist any more. Get back to your cubicle. Sit down. Open a new tab in your browser – you can keep this tab open, but you can’t continue reading yet – and download, legally or less-than-legally, Bettye LaVette’s music. You are now a better person and therefore good enough to continue reading this little spiel about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and the second most obvious reason is that the Dap-Kings, though I have no idea what a Dap-King is, play some straight up funky soul music to underscore Jones’s crooning, strutting, and squawking.

Another reason I always love Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is that they sound the way R&B and Soul sounded when it was good. I’m sorry if you think the shit that passes for Soul now is even remotely soulful. Perhaps you should go back and listen to Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and then maybe you’ll recognize that R. Kelly, Mariah Carey, Joss Stone, and everyone of their ilk should be jailed for crimes against truth and beauty (thank you for that phrase, Mystery Science Theater 3000′s Kevin Murphy. I give credit where it’s due and Mr. Murphy wrote the plain truth in A Year at the Movies when he asserted, “Kevin Costner is a cultural criminal and ought to be locked up for crimes against truth and beauty”). I’m not one of those old, half-dead assholes who thinks that all old music is great and all new music is bad (it wouldn’t make much sense to have a music blog on the internets if I was so in love with the past) – plenty of old stuff that old people revere is patently awful. Like Kiss. Fuck Kiss. And fuck Elvis Presley while we’re at it. If he’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it only proves that monarchies are bullshit (Leadbelly was the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and I’m not saying that out of some unfounded belief that Elvis was a racist [I have no idea if he was or not]. I’m saying it because there are literal tons of rock songs that simply would not exist were it not for Leadbelly’s blues. I’d argue that the musicians who influenced Elvis owed a tremendous debt to Mr. Ledbetter as well. If you’ve never listened to Leadbelly, get some of his stuff from the internet when you’re done getting Bettye LaVette’s stuff). Where was I? Oh yeah – I don’t think that the only good music was made years before I was born, but in the case of Soul/R&B music, something is often missing: soul.

Sharon Jones sweats soul and then pours that Soul-Sweat into every single note she sings, which is not nearly as disgusting as it sounds. Take her new album, I Learned the Hard Way. Whether she’s admonishing her dude (“I Learned the Hard Way” and, well, most of the tracks), defending him to her moms (“Mama Don’t Like My Man”), or praising a god I don’t believe in (“Call On God” – it’s available on the “bonus version” of I Learned the Hard Way that you can get from E-Music. This version is worth getting because “Call On God” is really fucking gorgeous), Jones’s voice is strong, clear, and – thank goodness – never auto-tuned. Too much of the so-called Soul music I hear today is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay overproduced, from the instruments to the vocals to the trite label-supplied lyrics. Even Alicia Keys, whose music I like (I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that), would benefit tremendously from taking all the fucking computers and bullshit out of the studio and recording something with a real piano and her voice and nothing else. I don’t know if the modern Soul nitwits think all that hyper-produced nonsense and uber-vibrato singing sounds modern or what, but it ends up all sounding the same (i.e., like shit).

Some folks might be tempted to argue that Sharon Jones is simply repackaging the past in a gimmicky, perhaps even cynical attempt to sell us our own record collections all over again. To these folks, I offer this simple, elegant counterargument: shut the fuck up. Okay, seriously though: we already know that all Western music is somehow derivative of the music that came before it. The Beatles took from the blues and those guys took from slaves in the fields who blah blah blah and so on until you get back to Fuckrock the Elder, whose wailing entertainments knocked ’em dead at the Neanderthal sock-hops even though discerning cave people recognized his stuff as highly derivative of Glugnuts the Hideous’s early experiments in atonal rape-grunting. So, at the end of the day, you have to listen to the music itself and decide (for yourself only) if it’s the real thing or not. This can be hard with old-school music like Sharon Jones performs. But here’s a tip: if the music waters down the style of which it is derivative, it’s probably crap. Take, as an example, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Setzer has apparently made it his life’s mission to water down old, soulful swing music so that your parents can reminisce about music they never danced to at parties they never attended*. One of the unintentional results of this is that Louis Prima’s surviving family members are legally allowed to kill Brian Setzer (the government has been trying to keep this a secret for years because there’s nothing bureaucrats love more than a banal, watered down distillation of something that was once vibrant and beautiful). If you stack Sharon Jones and her Dap-Kings up against, say, Otis Redding, I think you’ll find the two fit fairly well together.

But you can find all this out for yourself by listening to I Learned the Hard Way, which you should do once you get through your Bettye LaVette and Leadbelly homework. Your work is cut out for you. Get to it!

*How do I know your parents aren’t cool? I just know. Accept it. It’s not your fault.

How Much Surfer Blood is Enough for Your Vampire Weekend?

This year’s hyper-sylized critical darlings? A Florida band (one strike against them) named Surfer Blood (two strikes), whose debut album is called Astro Coast (three strikes). Rather than evoking Graceland-era Paul Simon (*cough* Vampire Weekend *cough*), Surfer Blood has been compared to Dinosaur Jr. (I don’t see it), Built to Spill (still don’t see it) and Blue Album-era Weezer (kinda see it). Surfer Blood mostly reminds me of what I thought Wavves would sound like before I discovered that Wavves sounds like a steaming bucket of monkey shit. And a couple of their songs remind me of Vampire Weekend-era Vampire Weekend.

The song titles on Astro Coast are mostly appalling. I propose a new law: the song titles on your guitar rock record cannot contain the following words: “riffs,” “vibes,” and “harmonix.” Make that three more strikes (“Floating Vibes”, “Neighbour Riffs”, and “Harmonix”) against Surfer Blood.

Two out, bottom of the ninth, Surfer Blood. What have you got that’ll send this thing into extra innings?

Don’t get me wrong (or do): Astro Coast is not horrific. It might not even be bad. It’s got strong melodies (“Harmonix” sucks, though, mostly because it strongly – excessively, even – features, well, harmonics. For those of you who don’t play guitar, you play harmonics by resting your finger over the metal fret and plucking the string. It’s amusing the first few times you do it, but it’s really dumb to try to build a song around them. Unless you’re Sonic Youth) and catchy riffs (even the offensively titled “Floating Vibes” is pretty catchy). I dare say Astro Coast is mostly fun when it’s not making possibly ironic nods to actual surf rock (as on the too long at two minutes “Neighbour Riffs” which loses two points for featuring “Riffs” in the title and pretentious use of the British spelling of “neighbor”).

Vocalist John Paul Pitts certainly recalls Rivers Cuomo a bit (in a good way – my problem with Weezer has never been Cuomo’s voice. It’s the increasingly shitty and stupid songs he writes), especially on “Twin Peaks,” which is a simultaneous homage to David Lynch and not getting any. At least I think it is. Pitts also reminds me of Drummer’s Jon Finley, although Astro Coast doesn’t quite rise to the surprising excellence of last year’s Feel Good Together (which was only surprising because Drummer sounds like a joke: a band made up entirely of guys who play drums in other bands, including the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, who is the bassist for Drummer). When his voice isn’t overly soaked in reverb (As a fan of My Morning Jacket, I know I run the risk of hypocrisy here. Let’s just say some guys sound good that way and some guys don’t. Jim James sounds good pretty much any old way and Pitts wears the reverb thing thin pretty quickly), Pitts sounds pretty good.

Though deserving of the praise it has received for guitary goodness (Pitts’s vocals haven’t gotten rave reviews in the press, but I really like his voice), Astro Coast feels pretty unsurprising and downright lightweight in terms of songcraft. I can appreciate writing instrumental parts first and then writing lyrics but, if you’re gonna have a singer, why not have something for him to say? Other than the loosely narrative “Twin Peaks,” most of what Pitts sings feels either a) like a joke (“Catholic Pagans”) or b) totally secondary to the mostly guitar-driven atmospherics of the songs (most of the other tunes). “Slow Jabroni” is especially torturous in this regard because it doesn’t even bring the thunder on guitar until its last two minutes (the song is six minutes long, so that’s a very bad thing indeed), which is when the vocal melody actually approaches beauty before the instruments freak out ever so slightly for the final thirty seconds. The song meanders more than it should and that’s actually an appropriate description of the album – there’s lots of good stuff buried underneath some mediocre-to-bad stuff and it makes for an infuriatingly uneven listen. If Surfer Blood trimmed some of the fat off of Astro Coast, it could be brilliant. And thin. I guess Astro Coast is an album in dire need of gastric bypass surgery.

And that’s what makes Astro Coast so frustrating: it’s really fucking good when Surfer Blood is disciplined enough to keep their shit together for a whole song. Although it’s dangerously over the six minute mark, “Anchorage” is a real highlight – it welds catchy, rhythmic riffs to what is probably Pitts’s best vocal performance of the album. It fades out right as it gets indulgent and manages to hold the listener’s attention for the entire song with out irritating at all. Perhaps “Anchorage” will be the jumping off point for the next Surfer Blood record and that record will be what I wanted Astro Coast to be. God help us if the first four minutes of “Slow Jabroni” are the blueprint for their second album.

Despite two six minute jams, Astro Coast is brief enough that its flaws don’t manage to totally undermine its finer qualities. But when I think of the other, better music I could be listening to – that Surfer Blood reminds me of (Sonic Youth, Drummer, early Weezer) and that has come out this year alongside Astro Coast (I’ve already mentioned a lot of these albums this week. They were made by the National and all those other bands I won’t shut up about but also by Laura Veirs and Frightened Rabbit and Titus Andronicus and Ted Leo, the latter two being especially relevant because they made focused, kickass guitar albums that had more going for them than just loud guitars) – I don’t get a great urge to revisit Astro Coast. If atmosphere and loud guitars do it for you, you’ll probably disagree with me and love Astro Coast until death do you part, but I’m already betrothed to better stuff. Call it high standards if you want – I call it good taste.

Pretty Fly for a Dead Guy

Whenever a dead guy releases a “new” album, I think people have a moral duty to heap upon it every ounce of skepticism they can muster. Honestly, for me, posthumous releases are met with immediate scorn and derision and they have to work their way past that before I can enjoy them. Why? Because, even if a posthumous release contains “Never before heard” material, you may not be hearing the songs exactly how the artist wanted to present them. Maybe their surviving family and friends have a fair idea what the artist was going for, but you can’t be 100% sure. Now, only getting 85ish percent of an artist’s vision isn’t going to keep me from checking out a posthumous release, but it’s a strike against them. The biggest concern I have with the postmortem album is  that, by purchasing an album after the artist is dead, I am basically tossing money into the yacht fund for unscrupulous family members, former bandmates, or both.

On the other hand, who doesn’t want more music from their favorite dead artist? I mean, I’ll be honest with you, if you release tapes of Joe Strummer singing folk songs in his living room, I’ll snap them up like they cure impotence. Which they probably will.

Which brings us, more or less, to the “new” Jimi Hendrix album, Valleys of Neptune, which has been meticulously packaged by his little sister Janie, with help from John McDermott (who wrote extensive liner notes) and Eddie Kramer. To her credit, Janie Hendrix has done an admirable job over the years removing hackneyed posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums from the marketplace. On the day Valleys of Neptune dropped, her Experience Hendrix company reissued the four studio albums Hendrix authorized during his brief life. So Valleys comes from a reasonably solid place of credibility and, while it contains songs you’ve heard before, they are versions that have never been released and are, mostly, taken from sessions that Hendrix was using to retool and improve some of his older songs (although the version of “Red House” that appears on Valleys of Neptune is, to my ears, vastly inferior to the version that appears on Are You Experienced?).

In fact, Valleys of Neptune does a really excellent job of shining light on Jimi Hendrix as a creative studio musician. Towards the end of his life, Hendrix booked studio time in many of the cities in which he was playing and used that time both to develop new songs and tweak old ones more to his liking. This, of course, means there may be reels and reels of stuff yet to come from Experience Hendrix and that, of course, may have diminishing returns.

But the key question with any album by any artist, living or dead, is “Is it a compelling listen?” Well, if you never liked Jimi Hendrix before, Valleys of Neptune won’t win you over. And if you did like Jimi Hendrix before, like I did, Valleys of Neptune will prove a fairly enjoyable listen (although I get antsy by the time “Red House” rolls around) and, if nothing else, it will make you want to hit John Mayer in the face with a shovel (as if any thinking person needs another reason to want to hit John Mayer in the face with a shovel). Why? Because Valleys of Neptune will remind you just how amazing a guitar player Jimi Hendrix was – it even casts a shadow on my enjoyment of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music (only a little) because it illustrates the large debt Vaughan owed to Hendrix. And if you connect the dots, you see that Mayer is a watered down imitator of Stevie Ray, who was something of a Hendrix impersonator (though a fairly superb one. And, before SRV fans send the hate mail, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the debt that both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan owe to slide guitarist Elmore James). This is not to cast derision on Stevie Ray Vaughan, but to cast it on John Mayer. In light of Jimi Hendrix’s recorded output, one should see Mayer on the level of a bad Elvis impersonator – he is to music what Kirsten Dunst is to acting (and if you think Kirsten Dunst is a great actress, I want whatever drugs you’re taking).

Among the Hendrix songs I’ve never heard before, my two favorites on Valleys of Neptune are the title track and the scorching “Hear My Train A-Comin'”, which is a stunning, visceral blues number on a par with the version of “Red House” that doesn’t appear on this album.

I have, really, only two complaints about Valleys of Neptune, neither one of which could be addressed by Janie Hendrix, unless she has a time machine that I don’t know about. The first is, as I believe I’ve mentioned, the inferior version of “Red House” and the second is that Hendrix recorded Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” as an instrumental track. It is evident that Jimi Hendrix was probably the best guitar player ever (your Satrianis and Vais and whatnot are not even in the same league, shredders. Henrdrix had soul. “Here My Train A-Comin'” blows every Joe Satriani track ever straight out of the water. Period.), but I have long lobbied to have him remembered as a really great singer. Listen to “Little Wing,” which is – again, obviously – a stellar guitar track, but his vocal performance on that song is really beautiful. No one is going to say that Hendrix doesn’t hit “Sunshine of Your Love” out of the park musically, but I would have loved to hear a recording of him singing the song as well.

In the end, you may be helping Janie Hendrix send her kids to college by purchasing Valleys of Neptune, but it remains a posthumous release that actually manages a lot of dignity and lacks any whiff of cynical exploitation. The woman seems genuinely concerned about preserving her brother’s legacy as a musician, and I’m saying that as a guy who derided the existence of this album from the first moment I heard about it.

How to Cringe for Forty Minutes Straight

I’m going to be 30 next month. I wasn’t quite a teenager when Pearl Jam’s Ten came out and their music resonated very strongly with me. At the time, I thought, “This is my music. I will love this music forever.” And I still love a lot of Pearl Jam’s early stuff (Vs. is flawless), but I’ve approached their last few records with a mixture of trepidation and skepticism. Early reviews of Backspacer (their new album, available semi-exclusively at Target. They made a deal with the indie shops to release the album as well, which has muddied the debate over whether or not the Target deal was a 100% dick move, but I know this much is true: 1992 Eddie Vedder would never have done that, and was probably missing more meals than 2009 Eddie Vedder) seemed to suggest that Pearl Jam had begun to rock again. My hopes, because they’re stupid, soared.

I think one question can help us narrow down whether or not you’ll like Backspacer. At first, the question will seem unrelated, but I’ll tie it all together with, to borrow a phrase from my (dead) hero George Carlin, my usual flawless logic. Here’s the question: Are you going to watch the Who perform at the Super Bowl halftime show? Subquestion within a question: are you going to watch it enthusiastically? Sub-subquestion within in a question: Really? Everyone in their right mind loves Who’s Next and would love to have a time machine so they could go back and see the Who play live. But do you really want to see Roger Daltrey (whose hopes were clearly dashed – he didn’t die before he got old) and Pete Townshend stumble about on stage in front of… of who, exactly? They sure as fuck won’t be playing with Keith Moon and John Entwistle, so why should I care? Pearl Jam is not quite that advanced a case (i.e., all of Pearl Jam’s most stable lineup is still living), but here’s what I’m getting at: the great albums of our youth may be great forever, but the bands that made them might not be (might not be. Some bands/artists can age amazingly gracefully – I’ve trotted out examples all over this blog in the last year and a half, so I’ll let you fill in the blanks on your own) and we’re doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that they are.

Backspacer makes me cringe from start to finish, resulting in a roughly forty minute frowny-face. Pearl Jam still sort of recognizes the essential elements of rock ‘n’ roll, but Vedder’s lyrics have gotten at least half-stupid (“I’m gonna see my friend & make it go away”?! Also, he rhymes “everything” with “friend” by pronouncing it “every thin”) and it feels like Pearl Jam has devolved into awesome guitar solos surfacing in the middle of a sewage leak. Yes, Pearl Jam’s two guitar players, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, are still the best part of the band. It’s just not enough any more.

Over the last several albums, Eddie Vedder has relied more and more on what I call his Screamy Voice. Vedder has a pretty nice baritone but these days, he’s singing like he resents it. Even the croony tunes on Backspacer are now augmented by a reedy, nasal twang – the kinda thing coffee house dudes add to their notes to let you know that they’re being soulful (this absolutely ruins “Just Breathe” for me by belaboring its rather obvious melodic hook. It’s a shame, too, because “Just Breathe” is one of the two songs on this album that I could nearly like). Seems to me that Vedder used to have a better grasp of when to growl and when to actually sing.

I’d be remiss in my disappointment with Backspacer if I didn’t devote some attention to its lead single, “The Fixer.” It’s Pearl Jam’s poppiest single to date (maybe “Last Kiss” comes close), which wouldn’t be so bad if “The Fixer” wasn’t so…well…dumb. “When something’s gone/ I wanna fight to get it back again” sings Vedder, like a guy who just wants to help you out, man. The intention is laudable but the phrasing is lazy and here’s why: you should be specific about what you’ll fight to get back when it’s gone. For instance, the Third Reich is gone. I wouldn’t fight to get it back but, within the context of “The Fixer”, Eddie Vedder will. “Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah,” (that’s the chorus!) sing the dancing Nazis. Am I really suggesting that Eddie Vedder would fight to bring back Hitler? Of course I don’t think he’s a fascist, but I agree with George Carlin’s assertion that “the quality of our thoughts is only as good as the quality of our language” and the quality of Vedder’s language on “The Fixer” is somewhere between poor and embarrassing. Please see me after class, Eddie.

Vedder and company sound like they’re having fun on Backspacer and I don’t want to begrudge them that – in the past, they’ve had a tendency to sound like they weren’t enjoying the hard work of being rock stars. But the fact remains that, if Backspacer is Pearl Jam letting their hair down and having a good time, maybe some sticks need to be reinserted in some asses – I mean, Ten was nothing if not a Very Serious Album (honestly, some of it was melodramatic) but the music was kick ass. I just listened to “Alive” a minute ago (I need to take breaks from Backspacer at this point) and it still works wonders for me. But I’m not having a helluva lot of fun listening to Backspacer. Instead, I’m having doubts about why I ever liked this band in the first place. Of course, I still have their old stuff to remind me of the power they used to have. I’m not sure where Pearl Jam lost it, but it’s definitely gone now. (Will you fight to get it back again, Eddie Vedder? I sincerely hope so.)

So what now? There are plenty of people out there who will watch the Who on Super Bowl Sunday and tell everyone how amazing their performance was (probably some of the same misguided souls who dug the epic fail parade that was the Cream reunion concert). But there are people like me who will listen to their recordings of “Baba O’Reilly” and recognize that the guys performing on the TV are merely a joke about a formerly amazing band. And there are people out there who can still defend Pearl Jam no matter how bad they get (these people are enablers of Pearl Jam’s worst tendencies and I wish they’d stop) and those people will find some way, dog knows how, to love Backspacer and call it a triumph. This Rolling Stone review (and the comments below it) will give you a picture of what I’m talking about. Not that Rolling Stone can be considered credible these days. Any publication that will list fucking Stadium Arcadium as one of the best albums of the decade is not to be trusted.

Welcome to My World

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If you listened to Naturally, the 2005 release from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, you heard Lee Fields on “Stranded in Your Love.” And if you didn’t listen to that album, what the hell is wrong with you? In an era of computer-generated pseudo-soul, Sharon Jones is bringing back the old school with a vengeance, picking up a ball that was dropped when Marvin Gaye died (perhaps this ball was buried with him and Ms. Jones dug it up and ran with it. This metaphor is getting icky – moving on). And Lee Fields is running right along with her, which is fitting since she was discovered while singing back-up for Fields in the 1990s.

Fields has been doing this funk/soul thing for a long time (he cut his first record in 1969. He was pretty inactive throughout the 1980s, and I’d like to think it was out of disgust), which may be why his new album, My World, sounds so deliciously old school.  And being a member in good standing of the old school lends a lot of credibility to this album. I mean, it would be preposterous if someone like Justin Timberlake tried to put out something like My World (yet I do not think it would be preposterous if Cee-Lo tried to); this is grown-up soul, and there’s no gimmicks. No one is gonna mistake My World for the kitschy throwback stuff of, say, the Brian Setzer orchestra. Lee Fields is the real shit, and he’s simply making the only music he knows how to make. For those of us who have been dying for a slice of real soul here in the 21st century, Lee Fields is also providing us with a hot, buttered mug of awesome with a side order of hash browns (sorry; I haven’t had breakfast yet). As far as I’m concerned, he and Sharon Jones could tour the country forever, holding old-timey revivals but with less religion and more ass-shaking music. Or they could both make an album with Danger Mouse – it’ll be a brilliant disc and, somehow, EMI will keep it from coming out. Just you wait.

My World would be right at home between your Otis Redding and Sam Cooke records, but it rides a heavier, funkier rhythm – which you can credit to drummer Homer Steinweiss and bassist Quincy Bright who, along with their fellow Expressions, provide a solid instrumental groove over which Fields deftly struts and wails. In other words, My World can be summed up in three words: “The. Real. Shit.” Every single teenage r&b diva you see on American Idol owes a considerable debt to the music of people like Lee Fields and the only way they can ever possibly repay it is to stop what they’re doing right now, go home, and get jobs more suited to their talents. Like maybe clerking the night shift at the 7-11.

Granted, Fields’s stuff will come off as a bit cheesy to some (for instance, on “Ladies,” he actually mentions “sugar and spice/ and everything nice), but good funk and soul has always been a bit cheesy. “Try a Little Tenderness” is cheesy as hell, but it is also phenomenally badass. If you don’t think so, Zombie Otis Redding and I would like a word with you.  (Zombie Otis Redding only knows one word: “Braaaaaiiiiins.” But even undead, he’s still got one of the all-time great voices.) Fields and the Expressions are on a mission to get heads nodding and possibly also to get bras unhooked. That’s what this music has always been about and I’d be hard-pressed indeed to object to that. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon (that’s never happened before, certainly not here at Bollocks!), I’ll say this: maybe today’s kids can conjure up that lovin’ feeling while Rihanna prattles on about her umbrella (ella ella ella ella – seriously, that’s really fucking annoying. But that doesn’t mean you had to hit her, Chris Brown. That’s dirty pool no matter what), but I’ll take Lee Fields and Sharon Jones and that old school stuff every time. Even the instrumental tracks on My World (there are two and they are excellent) have an organically sensual vibe to them that I just don’t find in the drum-machine propelled pop/soul that’s so popular today. Not that I’m trying to get these over-produced kids to round up some session musicians and attempt something like My World; they would fall flat on their faces if they did that. The fact is, Lee Fields (and this is true of all the great soul singers) possesses the right mixture of sorrow, joy, lust, faith, and plain ol’ grit to carry an album like My World. You forgive the cheesier moments because the album is pretty much a wall-to-wall groove.

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine someone disliking this record. Soul may not be your cup of tea or whatever, but if you’ve ever liked chill-ass music, you’d do well to check out My World. Some people might dislike how old it sounds or how cheesy some of the lyrics are, but anyone who puts it on, pumps up the volume, and lets the beat roll is in for a good time. After wallowing in mediocre indie for the last week, My World has provided me a refreshing blast of funk and soul to haul my ass up out of that rut. Stephen Malkmus once observed (I’m paraphrasing here) that he tries never to spend more time reading about music than he spends listening to it and I’ve worked hard to listen to more music than I read or write about (not bragging, but it’s no mean feat). It’s albums like My World that make that effort worth it and remind me why I love music to begin with.

The Best Albums of My Life #13: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

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Billy Corgan, America’s most defensive musician, once opined that nobody wakes up humming a Pavement song. This was in response to Pavement’s “Range Life,” wherein Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus says he “could really give a fuck” about The Smashing Pumpkins. Oh, and according to Wikipedia (they’re citing a biography of Pavement), Corgan threatened to yank Smashing Pumpkins from the headlining slot of Lollapalooza 1994 if Pavement was allowed to play. So Corgan has always been a good sport with a great sense of humor.

But enough about Billy Corgan – not just in this post, but in general. Enough about him. Let’s talk about Pavement, specifically Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I have this habit with books, movies, and music where I take stock of shit that I’ve listened to/read/seen, and try to fill in the gaps,  i.e., I look at so-called “important” albums/books/films and try to judge them for myself. This yields terrific results sometimes (like with Citizen Kane – that movie is really fucking good) and horrific results other times (like with Lawrence of Arabia; it’s all right, I suppose, but it could be an hour and a half shorter and seeing Alec Guinness in olive-face to be an Arabian prince is really embarrassing), especially when it comes to music. Just the other day, I was checking out Black Flag and Minor Threat because they’re kinda important bands and I’ve never listened to them before. Let me tell you, if you’ve had a bad day, you can satisfactorily remedy it with Black Flag’s Damaged or Minor Threat’s Complete Discography.

So that’s how I found Pavement. A couple years ago, I was trying to satisfy my musical desires with an emusic account (an endeavor that ended in mega-frustration because I want a download service that lets me get whatever I want and Emusic wants to suggest shitty alternatives to bands I like) so I was trying to think of important bands I might’ve missed somewhere along the line. Behold, y’all, I found Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, one of the nicest slices of 90’s rock there is, though I’m pretty sure none of its stellar tunes made it on VH1’s 100 Best Songs of the 1990s. This could be an administrative oversight or (more likely) it could be VH1 actually knows fuckall about great music.

The album opens with the “Silence Kit,” which contains a line that is either “don’t take your grandmother’s advice about us” (I just looked that up) or “don’t take your grandmother’s advice about Usher” – it’s hard to tell and I prefer the latter interpretation because I like the idea that the world is populated with grandmothers who have lots of advice regarding Usher. Listen to the song and decide for yourself. But, either way, “Silence Kit” lets you know what you’re in for on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: loose and melodic guitar lines and catchy vocal melodies galore.

Oh, and an instrumental that is allegedly a tribute to Dave Brubeck. That’s what I like about this album, though – these guys were (and are) clearly capable musicians, despite being labeled as “slacker rock”, who could create catchy tunes that sounded a lot more effortless than they probably were.

And the lyrics are pretty good too. On “Elevate Me Later,” Malkmus sings, “I’d like to check out your public protest/ why you complaining?” and then later mentions that there’s “40 different shades of black”. “Stop Breathin'” features the line, “Write it on a postcard: ‘Dad, they broke me'” and of course, there’s “Range Life,” where he sings of Corgan’s band “I don’t understand what they mean/ and I could really give a fuck.” Apparently, that’s all it takes to get BC mad enough to risk disappointing thousands of his fans (as if his last few albums haven’t done that already – zing!). Although, lyrically, “Unfair,” might be my favorite song on the album because of this series of lines: “We got the hills of Beverly/ let’s burn the hills of Beverly/ Walk! with your credit card in the air/ swing it round just like you just don’t care/ this is the slow, sick sucking part of me”. For someone like me, there’s a lot to like about all of that.

I liked Crooked Rain a lot the first time I heard it and I only enjoy it more every time I listen to it. At the end of the day, that’s the criteria for any album to be considered one of the best released in my lifetime: how often do I really listen to it? Do I wake up wanting to listen to it? The reason London Calling is my favorite album ever is because I don’t pass a week without listening to it. That’s why some people might be irked by what’s absent from my list at the end of the year – there are a lot of “great” albums that came out in my lifetime that I never listen to (like Let It Be by The Replacements – it’s a good album, but I hardly ever listen to it). Since talking about the best anything is purely subjective to start with, I want to at least do people the favor of hyping albums that I really listen to; albums that form the soundtrack to my life, in a sense. I get songs from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain stuck in my head all the time (I guess that makes me nobody to a certain pretentious asshole Who Shall Remain Nameless), and I have days where I just want to listen to that album one or two times, and that ranks it pretty highly in my personal pantheon of awesome albums.