Category Archives: Music Review

The Cardigans-Life (1995)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal album. The musical definition of “cute”. I melted.

Note: This review is of the original Swedish edition which is 11 tracks. The international editions are a hodgepodge of this material and songs from Emmerdale.

Let’s start by saying this: this may be the most perky and positive album ever made. Intended as a concept album of sorts, (and it isn’t really, even the band has admitted so) Life displays The Cardigans much as they were on the debut Emmerdale, but with a massive increase in confidence. This is evident in every single track, in every single sugary melody and every little knowing wink at the listener. Life has all this plus just the right amount of quirk to make it pulsate with energy.

Emmerdale had an incredible darkness amidst the sunny melodies that really made the material work. Life has none of this. Instead this element has been completely dropped in favor of songs that attempt to be the dreamiest, happiest, most melodic things you’ve ever heard in your life. And they come damn close. From the opener “Carnival” (which may be about the catchiest pop confection ever created) to the unexpectedly majestic “Daddy’s Car” (who thought going for a joy ride in your dad’s car could be so wistful and romantic?) and the cheeky “silent bit” in “Closing Time”, (Listen closely) Life wraps around your brain like a giant vat of hot chocolate.

The video for “Carnival” encapsulates all of this in one charming little bit of fluff.

I told you. It won’t leave your consciousness for quite some time. The things I got stuck in my poor roommate’s head.

This attempt to do an album which essentially was a bit of sheer whimsy is one of the finest pure pop confections ever. I am not using the term confection loosely. This is candy for the ears. Once again, Nina Persson sounds like an angel. The catchy melodies and hooks never let up with the performances being even tighter than the debut. The production is absolutely first rate and actually achieves a timeless quality that also belies the fact that most of the Cardies albums were recorded on pure analog tape goodness.

The artwork and cover really set up the album you’re about to jump into. Each of the band members is featured in a photo that portrays a 60’s magazine-styled portrait (See? The album title was pretty clever.) and how can you possibly not get sucked in by a gorgeous little ice skater? The insert also features the most spunky CD art and info page I’ve ever seen.

Ironically, for a record meant primarily as a joke, this album made an impression on listeners in Sweden, Europe and here in the States (though in truncated form, see below) but became a massive chart topping hit in Japan. And I do mean massive, as in Beatlemania-style hordes of screaming young girls and the whole nine yards. This attraction is easy to discover, tearing yourself away is the hard part. Now I’m healthily obsessed. There is a word that consistently comes to my mind when listening to these records. That word is a wondrous exclamation of “damn!” in a moment of complete disbelief at just how good this is.

Bleebeedeeboom. (Yes, I still have no idea how to say/pronounce or at all spell the bit in “Pikebubbles”;)

EDITIONS: Here’s where it all gets a bit complicated. The album is an 11 track little perfect confection. This was released in Sweden and Japan. When it came time for the UK and European release, some idiot thought it would be a good idea to insert tracks from their debut record and create a new hybrid for markets that hadn’t likely heard of the band before. Thus the UK edition drops three songs in favor of five from Emmerdale. These have several differences, with “Rise & Shine” being the later re-recording, “Celia Inside” being a different edit, and “Hey! Get Out of My Way” is a different edit and mix. The vinyl LP version of the album is this UK tracklisting. Sad, but I still lust after it to get all that analog goodness.

The US edition drops the same songs plus a fourth and inserts six songs from Emmerdale and a bonus track “Happy Meal”, which is a different mix and vocal take of “Happy Meal II” found on their next album First Band on the Moon. Weirdly the inserted songs are otherwise untouched. If the US and UK markets had followed the Japanese edition, none of this would be an issue. (The Japanese versions eventually added all the inserted Emmerdale tracks at the end as a bonus.) Fortunately for those like myself who couldn’t afford or find one of these imports (and believe you me the original Swedish CD is impossible to find), Minty Fresh records included the cuts songs from the US version on a bonus CD with their release of Emmerdale. Unfortunately, this was only in the initial pressing runs, and if you buy an expensive copy now ($17 for a CD? From 1994? WTH?) it does not feature the bonus disc. So I waited to find one with the bonus disc or to find an 11 track copy, all the while looking sadly at the US one sitting on my shelf that I refused to play until I listened to the original album proper.

During this time, Universal Japan released a new copy pressed on Super High Material. SHM is a new plastic derived from the type used to make LCD TVs and reputedly allows for the data to be better read by a laser, and thus improves sound fidelity of a CD. This technology is only available and use din Japan, and is in turn quite expensive. This  quickly went out of print, but I’m happy to say that after some tests of my own, the SHM process is merely nothing more than a marketing push. The data remains the same and there is no difference between an expensive SHM CD and a standard Redbook edition of the same title.

Finally I came across a copy of Emmerdale in a used bin a few weeks ago that did feature the Life songs disc. This prompted my massive Cardies revisit and I made a custom disc just for the original 11 song album. I’m glad I did. This is an incredible joy.

 

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Filed under 4 stars, Immortal albums, Music Review, The Cardigans

The Cardigans-Emmerdale (1994)

Don’t let the cute dog and sunny hill fool you…

3.5 stars out of 4. Sonic bliss. But where’s the coffee gone?

Let me start this review by saying that I freaking love this band. I freaking love their sounds, their quirkiness, that Scandinavian darkness and their desire to not simply repeat themselves. Typically regarded as a 60’s throwback group responsible for that song (“Lovefool”, which is still brilliant), The Cardigans began their existence with records that were tremendously bright sounding…at first glance only. Underneath the sunny and jazzy melodies is this dreary pulsing utter depression. The sheer juxtaposition of a sweet shell and an absolutely bittersweet center makes these early records candy for both heart and mind. As I (and eventually my college roommate) quickly discovered.

When was the last time that depression could be so warm and fuzzy? Emmerdale creates this surprisingly cozy mood that subdues ones disbelief and allows for the morose lyrics to to be touching in their frailty. I’ve found that it really hasn’t left my head for nearly a week, much like their other albums.It kinda invites itself over for a while and slowly but surely moves in for an extended stay. Very extended.

Of course, it helps an album if these words are sung by…ummm how should I put this…an angelic voice. I could write for ages about the open sounding production, stirring melodies, warm sounds, inventive guitar, jazzy drumming, constant battle between light and dark but the big enjoyment factor is Nina Persson’s stunning vocal presence. These records just scream to be played on large headphones so that incredibly beautiful voice just wraps around your brain amidst the fun, playful and slightly quirky music. Seriously. This is mouth dropping open stuff.

Part of the fun is this dark quirky humor that defines the band’s early work. Combine this with the fact that some of the band were huge metal fans, and you get the result of a cover of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. Not the first thing you’d expect this band to be covering, but a sure sign of their farther-reaching-than-you-would-think impact. (Their version of “Iron Man” on First Band on the Moon is similar-completely weird, kooky, and probably my favorite cover of all time due to its sheer slaphappiness.)

In short, the Cardies debut record is a surprisingly strong work that is a very natural sounding experience and quickly exceeds their unfair twee throwback labeling. Great performances and great melodies abound that go much farther in today’s oversampled world where we are completely starved for any sort of melody. It’s really the perfect record to curl up with, drinking old coffee late in the afternoon on another wasted day, basking in the final rays of the sunset. This is a joy to review. Morose yes, but somehow still fresh and semi-hopeful.

I want the sun to bleed down.”

EDITIONS: Pretty easy on this one, as it is a CD only release in all territories. The US edition was released in 1999 by Minty Fresh Records, and originally featured a 4 song EP* which was merely the four songs omitted from the US edition of the followup album Life. Reportedly this has been left out of modern pressing runs of the CD. *I recently utilized this to recreate the original 11 track Swedish version of Life, so it is possible to actually hear the album proper instead of the versions made for different territories.

*I incorporated these into the US edition and was able to recreate the Swedish version by substituting the US added tracks in favor of these four.

Note: Ironically, the very week I pick up this first album (Finally!) and acquaint myself with it and the original version of the followup, the band announced their first tour and gigs in 7 years, playing my favourite record Gran Turismo start to finish but only in Sweden, Norway, Russia and Japan. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Music Review, The Cardigans

Foo Fighters-There Is Nothing Left To Lose (1999)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal album and one of the finest of the 90’s.

This is the best album by the Foos bar-none. If there is ever a single reason for Dave Grohl’s continued work in music post-Nirvana this would be it. The reason why this record works? Brace yourself cause it’s pretty simple.

This record is simply three guys jamming together in a Virginia basement. The writing is top notch and there is no filler whatsoever unlike every other Foo record which is almost guaranteed to have one filler track somewhere. It just grooves along and has a vibe unlike any of their other records.

They threw out the heavy production and the new lineup of guitarist/singer-bassist-drummer put their heads to lock into a single groove. That’s all this record is. A declaration that they want this band to work and that they don’t give a damn how they do it. And they threw out all the company execs and made the thing themselves. The addition of Taylor Hawkins gives the sound a freshness not heard before and it locks into a vibe that never dies.

From the initial warning blare of “Stacked Actors” to the tired yet defiant close of “M.I.A.”, TINLTL never lets up it’s unbelievably strong lineup of tunes. Start to finish both musically and lyrically this record is something to rock out to and something to curl up with as the sun sets on yet another day. Their third effort has all the strengths of their two previous albums. All of the reckless energy and inspiration of the debut is here, along with the quality production and fleshing out of the sound that was on the follow-up. Sure, they might have added more members and changed the sound again after this record, but the Foo Fighters would never be as honest and direct as this.

TINLTL is melodic. In fact, Dave himself has later said that it is entirely based on melody. Maybe this is why it plays so well. It is one of those very admittedly few records that can be played at almost anytime in life. Once you crack it out again, it’s really hard to believe how good this thing is. In addition to the rockers and the massive singles (in ’99 you heard these almost daily.) there are some really great slower songs that seem to be nothing but melody. The referential “Ain’t it the Life” and the gorgeous “Aurora” reveal this softer side of the band and reiterate how much heart is behind this stripped down record.

It’s this stripped down quality that I like most about TINLTL. Not stripped down technically, but a stripping away of unnecessary elements and additions in order to just get back to the music itself. This stuff just flows out of that basement and through your speakers as if you were standing outside the windows in that summer when the band was recording. It’s effortless.

“It was all about just settling into the next phase of your life, that place where you can sit back and relax because there had been so much crazy shit in the past three years. At that point it was me,Taylor and Nate and we were best friends. It was one of the most relaxing times of my whole life. All we did was eat chilli, drink beer and whiskey and record whenever we felt like it. When I listen to that record it totally brings me back to that basement. I remember how it smelled and how it was in the Spring so the windows were open and we’d do vocals until you could hear the birds through the microphone. And more than any other record I’ve ever done, that album does that to me.” -Dave Grohl in an interview with Kerrang magazine, 2006.

With all of the hoopla about the Foos making their last album (Wasting Light) all analog and in Dave’s garage, I was fingers crossed for another great record like this one. But even with Butch Vig manning the boards, it isn’t the same. TINLTL is like lightning in a bottle. For those who get it, it’s a tonic from all of the cynicism that goes with modern music and is totally deserving of it’s Grammy for Best rock album.

The cover and artwork backup the heart and meaning of this album. The cover is a grainy B&W photo of the back of Dave’s neck where his new band logo tattoo is displayed as a badge of honor. Tired but still breathing and alive. Oh, and full of barbeque too. (The band would barbeque outside every day after recording.)

EDITIONS: For years we’ve lived with the CD, which sounds okay for the time. There is some loudness compression but nothing near giant brickwalled limiting. then there’s the long out of print vinyl that’s been on my wishlist for years. But all the user reports are that the sound quality is absolute crap. So I turned to looking for an even rarer EU pressing which might have had better sound. Never found one and really didn’t feel like dropping around $100. So we now come to to the new vinyl reissue by Legacy cut by Chrirs Bellman. All of the catalog Foo albums have been reissued on vinyl by Legacy in inexpensive renditions all cut by Bellman. They kept the price down by not reproducing all artwork interiors, using inexpensive lighter oversized cardboard and keeping all the vinyl regular 120gram weight instead of opting for heavier 180 gram. The result? Everything a vinyl reissue should be and damn good. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and proclaim this to be the best non-audiophile label reissue I’ve ever come across. For me and many other vinylphiles the price of a reissue is always looming in our decisions on whether or now to purchase. All of these reissues are in the $20-30 price range (and around $15-20 for the single disc S/T) spread across two LPs and are pressed extremely well. I ordered this LP from Amazon for $20 and it arrived dead quiet right out of the box and even includes a voucher for an MP3 download. There is no downside to this reissue and I intend on picking up the rest of the series based on this LP alone. Details come out of the songs like never before, like on the opening of “Learn to Fly” there’s a tambourine!

It’s just so refreshing to be able to buy a cheap vinyl reissue that isn’t mastered from a limited CD master, pressed badly, damaged, warped, noisy, overprocessed and actually sounds like a vinyl record should.

And to top it all off, for once a modern record that has no real sibilance on my system. I use a standard Shure M97-xe at this time, and even though it does a decent job with sibilance, modern records have massive amounts of hissing s’sssss that come into my ears. (Notably the Foo’s own Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace ironically) But this has none of that. Unbelievable just how plain freaking awesome this is.

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Filed under 4 stars, Bands, Foo Fighters, Immortal albums, Music Review

The Who-Quadrophenia (1973)

5 stars out of 5. Immortal album. Pete Townshend’s masterpiece performed and fully realized by The Who.

Sadness, pain, youthful ambition, teenage and young man angst, Mods, Rockers, nostalgia, depression, alienation, unrequited love, anger, loathing, self-hatred, realization but ultimately Quadrophenia is about incomprehension.

Four individual themes comprise the backbone of the album, each representing a band member. The four standing in for a physical representation of a quad, thus quadrophonic. This is no simple matter of an album being mixed for multichannel sound. These four themes become motifs incorporated into the lead character of Jimmy. They comprise the different aspects of his personality so that Jimmy becomes a quasi-amalgam of Pete, Roger, John and Keith in addition to a throwback to their youth. And it isn’t that each was simply assigned to a person. Each was a relatively accurate description of the band member and comprised an element of Jimmy’s psyche. The idea of a band creating a focused single sound now becomes something more than simple performance and storytelling.

These themes are:

  • A tough guy, a helpless dancer. (“Helpless Dancer” – Roger Daltrey)
  • A romantic, is it me for a moment? (“Is It Me?” – John Entwistle)
  • A bloody lunatic, I’ll even carry your bags. (“Bell Boy” – Keith Moon)
  • A beggar, a hypocrite, love reign o’er me. (“Love Reign O’er Me” – Pete Townshend)

This is a story told through feeling, abstract thought and events rather than relying on straight lyrical storytelling. Although this last element is actually present the lack of reliance represents a massive creative growth from Tommy, incorporating the new musical strength gathered on Live at Leeds, the abandoned Lifehouse project and the furious intelligent roar of Who’s Next. Quadrophenia is typically referred to as a “rock opera”. But it isn’t. (Rock opera is a stupid term anyway. This labeling kept me from listening to Tommy for ages.) It’s a collection of events that happen to one Mod boy with his inner self represented by word and music. One could argue that this is a natural extension of the moments in Tommy where the deaf dumb and blind boy cannot connect to anything in the outside world but can find things inside himself.

The story as-is roughly follows this path: (Sourced from the well done Wikipedia page, as I couldn’t write a Quadrophenia summary that was under 10,000 words.)

From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrophenia

  • “I Am the Sea/The Real Me” – The opera opens with Jimmy Cooper’s introduction with his four personalities. The listener then gets a quick look at his visits to a psychiatrist, his mother and even the local vicar. Mental security is unfortunately not obtained by the protagonist.
  • “Quadrophenia/Cut My Hair” – Jimmy recalls an argument with his parents that culminated in his leaving home. We also hear a news broadcast mentioning riots in Brighton between the Mods and the Rockers, events at which he was present the previous week.
  • “The Punk and the Godfather” – Jimmy goes to a rock concert (Supposedly The Who themselves). He queues up, pays his money and then decides he is going to see the band backstage as they come out the stage door. Sadly, the group is rude to him. He realises that there is nothing really happening in rock and roll; it is just another thing in his life that has let him down.
  • “I’m One” – Jimmy contemplates how he has not really got much going for him, but at least he has the Mod lifestyle.
  • “The Dirty Jobs” – Suitably disenchanted with his former “religion”, he gets a job as a dustman. Unfortunately, his extremely left-wing views are not appreciated by his workmates and he is forced to pass on to greater things.
  • “Helpless Dancer/Is It in My Head?” – The listener gets a real look at where Jimmy’s aggression comes from, as he switches into one of his multiple personalities (The Tough Guy). Jimmy has a conscience that bites fairly deep. His frustration with the world only makes him angrier than he already is. The listener sees that he also possesses self-doubt; he worries about his own part, and feels that his outlook is clouded by pessimism.
  • “I’ve Had Enough” – Jimmy finally snaps when he sees the girl he likes with one of his friends. In a desperately self-destructive state, he smashes up his scooter and decides to go to Brighton where he had such a good time with his friends chasing Rockers the week before (as recited through the news broadcast earlier in the story).
  • “5.15” – This song recites Jimmy’s train journey down to Brighton, sandwiched between two city gents and notable for the rather absurd number of amphetamines he consumes in order to pass the time. He goes through a not entirely pleasant series of ups and downs as he contemplates the gaudier side of life as a teenager.
  • “Sea and Sand/Drowned” – Arriving at Brighton, Jimmy’s mood heightens. He talks about the rows at home and is a little sarcastic as he recalls the evening on the beach with his former girlfriend. The Mod scene is already falling apart and all he can do is stay in Brighton just to remember the days when the Mods came to Brighton; it was only three weeks ago, but he is already living in the past. It is here that Jimmy contemplates killing himself by drowning in the water.
  • “Bell Boy” – He meets a former Ace Face who now holds the position as a bell boy at the very hotel the Mods tore up. He looks on Jimmy with a mixture of pity and contempt. The two argue, as Jimmy feels the Ace Face has “sold out”. Jimmy is now feeling that everything, even the Mod lifestyle, has let him down.
  • “Doctor Jimmy” – Jimmy begins to damage himself so badly on drugs and alcohol that he gets to the point where he is so desperate that he will take a closer look at himself. This part of the story shows the lunatic within him. The chorus line “Doctor Jimmy and Mr. Jim” is an ambiguous reference to “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde“, which closely links to the multiple personality theme running through the story.
  • “The Rock/Love, Reign O’er Me” – Jimmy steals a boat and takes it to a rock in the middle of the sea. Here, when he comes down off his high, he finds the boat has drifted away and that he is now stranded, alone and forgotten. As a storm rages around him, Jimmy has an epiphany. After all the different people he has been, he finally knows for sure who he is: “himself”.

The band is ferocious as usual, but carefully restrained so that the performances become almost titanic. This goes especially for Keith Moon, whose drumming becomes so marked in depth that his pounding becomes a thunder of toms. Just listen to his use of the toms and hi-hat and you can hear a definite difference in his playing technique. In addition he blends in the snare and cymbal effortlessly so that his drumming both propels and blends into the sonic landscape. Townshend’s ferocious guitar fades in and out of the acoustic riffs being ripped out. John Entwistle is almost invisibly guiding the band.

Roger Daltrey’s vocal is the most emotional on any Who record. It’s honestly his greatest performance.

Then we come to the cover and packaging. The original LP was in a gatefold that housed an entire photo book inside. This book of photos chronicled and accompanied the entire story of Jimmy in grainy, stark black and white.  The full image and size of the book (nearly as big as the 12″ LP) really add to the overall experience and give a visual to go along with the highly detailed material.  The photo that features the band coming out of the Odeon seems to correlate that they are the band Jimmy is disappointed in. The cover is stark, simple but revealing of the band’s construction and influence on Jimmy. (Their heads are in the mirrors of the scooter, perhaps a reference to the Tommy cover?) It is an ominous thing to behold, just as the album itself hits you on the head with a concrete block on the first listen. Then you get to the rear cover with an empty sea in B&W surrounded by the title on all sides. And at the bottom is Jimmy’s motor scooter sinking into the ocean.

I’ve never really listened to much of anything post-Quadrophenia because it didn’t seem like the same band. In recent interviews, Pete has said something similar because after Quad, many things changed. They really weren’t firing on all cylinders like the 65-73 period. This isn’t to say that their 74-82 material is bad, but it certainly is the work of different people at different stages in their lives. (And material that needs reconsideration, myself included.)

The mixing of this album has always been a source of contention. As per the album’s title, the intent was to mix and release this record in quadrophonic sound. (4.0 channel) This was such a new and innovative technology at the time that it was still in the early process of becoming readied. Unfortunately the band’s record label had sided with an inferior technology and the quad mix that was produced didn’t meet anyone’s expectations most of all Townshend. So, the engineer and Pete hurriedly cobbled together a plain stereo version that was released in 1973. This is what we’ve listened to all these years, and honestly it gives the album character. All of the great Who albums have been partial failures in some way. This is what makes The Who more human, because they can fail and because they can screw up  allows the music to seem all the more real to the average listener. It is the attempt to do something different that becomes important, and not the definition of the project.

The sound of the record floats in and out of the inter-song ambient pieces filled with sound elements of the crashing waves and rain combined with the four themes which we are teased with just as if they were in our own minds. The original mix is better in this state because it suggests at quadrophonic but isn’t. This stereo image with added elements thus suggests to the listener the state of being “bleedin Quadrophenic”. (Source: original LP liner story.) It flows as a cohesive whole from Side to side, LP to LP. And once finished, you only want to begin again and drown. In cold water.

Quadrophenia is just as if not more relevant today than when it was originally released. Perhaps this is because it so deeply connects with the emotion of the listener. In an increasingly homogenized and digital world, Jimmy seems more like a real person than a nostalgic agonized Mod. Quadrophenia is the definitive album of teen angst and rebellion because it doesn’t make itself to be anything than honest. It accurately reflects the individual ups and downs of being at that stage in your life and all of the insecurities that are included along with the emotional baggage. And they never truly go away. Thus, Quad is one for the ages. It is everything learned, experienced and conceived by Townshend from Tommy and Lifehouse combined with the get it done survival aspect of Who’s Next with the primal frustration of Live at Leeds.

Throw your scooter into the sea and lie on The Rock to watch your life bleed away time.

Love Reign O’er Me.

In 1996, the album was remastered for the band’s full catalog reissue. This was released as a two disc CD with notable sonic “improvements” most notably clearer and more upfront vocals. While this may have pleased Roger, it doesn’t have the same character of the original album. In addition, there is decreased dynamic range and several of the original effects have been changed or replaced altogether.

As you may have guessed this review was brought on by the release of the Director’s Cut boxset this week. The set features a newly remastered mix, Pete’s original demos, a nice hardcover book, 8 songs mixed in 5.1 surround but ultimately is just as pointless as last year’s Live at Leeds mega boxset. The album is a new version of the remastered album, horribly compressed as far as audio fidelity is concerned. So that’s out. The demos are a great bonus, but the big draw of a surround mix after 38 years of waiting is limited to only 8 songs. Why you ask? They could only find 8 multi-track master tapes! The book is nice, but ultimately this is an overpriced wasted opportunity. And I still want it. Fuuuuuuuuuuuu!

Nothing beats the original UK Track LP A-1 B-1 stamper 1st pressing. There are needledrops of the UK that are heavenly. The US original and German Track pressings are close but not equal. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs did a Gold CD version, and there were 180 gram and 200 gram LPs by Classic Records. I haven’t heard the Classic, but I’ve heard some of the MFSL. To my ears, I side with the original issues and my glossy near mint German Track is the best thing until I get a UK original of my own. This German LP was the first I ever bought. Years ago, I didn’t even know Quadrophenia except that it was a Who album. That dark ominous cover just spoke volumes and I had to have it. $15 for one of the immortal albums. Skip the Director’s cut, and save your $130 for a UK Track original.

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Filed under Immortal albums, Music, Music Review, The Who

R.E.M.-Reckoning (1984)

5 stars out of 5. Immortal album.

L:

Reckoning is essentially like living in the South on a good day. Bright yet reticent, forceful yet moody, R.E.M.’s second LP diversifies the sound of their debut without ever straying too far from what made us love them in the first place.

The producing team of Don Dixon and Mitch Easter returned and it was decided all around to try and match more of what the band’s live sound was and not polish all the material in the studio. In essence, the band wanted to maintain the spontaneity of the way they tore through songs with reckless abandon onstage. This makes Reckoning far more accessible than Murmur on first listen, but it isn’t any bit more decipherable.

The murk of the band’s sound was changed around a bit when the producers decided to record the album binaurally. (Meaning that two simultaneous recordings are made of every single part. this usually is done through a device made to house dual microphones in the general idea of recording sound the way it would be heard by a human head.) This gives the album an almost out of body feel that splendidly contrasts with the parts that rock harder.

R:

This whole record has a darker feel than Murmur, and for one that was trying to sound more like live sound that seems a bit odd at first. However, you begin to realize that this is a band still learning the studio and recording process and just beginning to grasp at their own meaning. Reckoning becomes a fitting title because you read all sorts of things into the songs but overall you get the sense it’s about coming to some kind of realization. The alternate “File under Water” title (which was only along the spine of the original LP) is a more cryptic message, as if someone was trying to say: this record is figuratively drowning under water.

There are many bare emotional moments on the album that further the reckoning theme. Instead of simply cranking out Murmur II or delving into whatever the record company wanted (the label did want more commercially oriented material.) R.E.M. buried their heads in the sand and did just what they thought they should do. In “Camera’, the vocal is so full of utter anguish that the song becomes a sort of eulogy to emotion.

This is a more confident and more emotional album than its predecessor, and truly an unforgettable timeless classic. Michael Stipe is just as indecipherable as ever. The jangly punchiness of their earlier work is still here but coated in this “watery” murk.  (listen to “Letter Never Sent”) Of course the murk has an air about it due to the recording process used. The detail and soundscape are wider but the focus more narrowed.

The cover art by Howard Finster features the song titles flowing at various stages of this twirly line thing…which I always took to be some sort of snake. Now I realize it’s more like a flowing river or body of water with the songs listed randomly so that the idea of ebb and flow sinks in. It’s a map. Clever.

My favorite track on the album is both the closing song and the most expressive of the album’s theme: : “Little America” is short, quirky, punchy, meandering, and nonsensical.

Jefferson I think we’re lost.”

EDITIONS: As with all of the IRS era R.E.M. material, the original US vinyl is the best sounding version available. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs made editions of Reckoning and Murmur that used the original master tapes. These have a great deal of low end and bass that isn’t present on any other release. Many claim to prefer these editions. I personally didn’t like the way that the sound was changed on Murmur, but Reckoning doesn’t sound as different on the MFSL release.  In any case, these were released on 24 carat Gold CDs and vinyl and like all older MFSL titles went quickly out of print. They fetch quite substantial prices used.

The original IRS LP issue was pressed on Quiex vinyl. When holding this type of vinyl up to a light it will be a transluscent color. This album has been known to show up as brown, purple and green.

Also, the Columbia Record Club pressing is quite good, but sadly lacks the little musical interludes between some of the songs.

The original stock IRS CD is good, but sounds more like it came from an EQ’d tape copy meant for cassettes (A common practice in the earlier days of CD’s). The 1992 EU only IRS Vintage Years Edition sounds nearly identical, but features some pretty hard to find B-sides and covers. This series added some rarities to each IRS era album, but nearly all of these bonus tracks were later collected on the single release In the Attic. The Reckoning CD has a few that aren’t there, so it’s still worth a purchase if you should come across one. Plus it has in my opinion the best version of “White Tornado”. (Originally a B-side from the UK Superman single) It absolutely “crushes like a grape”* the version on Dead Letter Office.

The Deluxe Edition 2CD unfortunately suffers from the Loudness Wars and is a bit compressed. It isn’t a bad job, but still lamentable that it happened on an album where sound is absolutely key. the bonus disc has a live show from the era, and while the show is quite good, the sound quality is about equal to what bootlegs of the same show sounded like.

There was also a simultaneous 180gram vinyl release of the remastered album, but I’ve never tried it and there are no reviews of this particular pressing.

*-quote from Eponymous liner notes.

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R.E.M.-Murmur (1983)

Immortal album-5 out of 5 stars…but you didn’t need me to tell you that did you?

The biggest surprises going straight from Chronic Town to Murmur are the sheer amount of self-assurance present on this debut LP and a sense of disconnected melancholia. Not to mention the murk. Starting this record is diving headfirst into the trestle on the front cover. You get buried in its murkiness.

(Side 1): This album version of “Radio Free Europe” lacks the immediate punch of the original Hib-tone version, but is essential to establishing Murmur‘s odd blend of passion and mysticism. “Pilgrimage” is a two headed cow. “Laughing” is precisely that. “Talk About the Passion” grows on the listener, especially the line “Not every one can carry the weight of the world”. “Moral Kiosk” picks up the pace with…well what exactly is so much more attractive in a Moral Kiosk? Who knows? Freaking great bits of nonsense for 3:32. “Perfect Circle” is absolutely gorgeous. Whatever it does actually mean (if there is one) it generates such a sense of elegiac loss that it breaks you up for the end of Side 1.

(Side 2): “Catapult” is another great song that has no possible defined meaning. “Sitting Still” is one of the best things ever penned. “9-9” is gloriously conversation fear complete with one of the most beautiful guitar sounds ever: Peter Buck’s angry plucking in the verses. “Shaking Through” is the musical equivalent of its title. Literally, that’s what always sprung to my mind. MUSICAL INTERLUDE (remember these? I miss R.E.M.’s) “We Walk” is a marvelous semi-march about something. Then you have those combustion sounds occurring marvelously throughout. They’re actually slowed balls on a pool table. “West of the Fields” is a great song that the band had recently re-discovered on their Accelerate tour. This closer has a real sense of menace that foreshadows the dirges of “Oddfellows Local 151” and “I Remember California” but with a great back beat and a truly knockout bridge section that I’m still trying to decipher.  “The animals. How strange. (or housetrained?) and I got nothing else…..but neither does Michael…. 😉

The production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon recorded and mixed the band just as they wanted to sound. It’s this particular brew of folk, punk, geekiness, silliness, melancholy, pretension that comes across with an eager desire to be played repeatedly. This is why we fell in love with their sound.

These early albums are such polished versions of their best live-polished tunes. With R.E.M. it has always been about the whole sound-not just the poem or story set up by the lyrics. You yourself have to make up your own interpretation. It’s your responsibility not the band’s.

EDITIONS: Let me say this, if there was any album to ever get on its original vinyl LP…this would be it. Murmur was one of my first ever vinyl purchases (To be exact-Wax n’ Facts in Atlanta many many years ago.) and when I bought the standard CD later on I was stunned to hear differences. Even to my young untrained ears something was missing. What was missing was depth, dynamics, punchiness, bass, high end-all the life and murk I had so adored was just stripped away.

First CD I ever got rid of. Gladly.

In 1992, all the IRS era albums were released in Europe with bonus tracks as “the Vintage Years” collection. These bonus tracks are compiled from B-sides and live recordings that are mostly available elsewhere-especially on the R.E.M. In the Attic compilation which is essentially all of the bonuses on one disc. (Save for a few still randomly on some of these reissues.)

In 1995, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released their editions of both Murmur and Reckoning on 24 carat Gold CD and LP. Their mastering used the original master tapes with no messing about. The resulting releases had a tremendous increase in the bass and low end. They said that they were stunned as much as we were. They just put in the source and simply were bowled over by how much had not been in the original release.

To give an example of how much additional low end and bass are present in the MFSL editions, simply play Murmur with the bass knob turned up all the way. It’s really that substantial. Personally I’m not really a fan of it, but am glad it’s out there. (If this much additional information is turned up in MFSL’s upcoming vinyl reissue of Lifes Rich Pageant then I will be beyond happy. That is an album which needs a bit more detail.)

The original IRS LP went through two different editions. The first was no# 70614 in 1983. Later in early 1984 the second edition no#70014 was pressed due to a higher demand for the album. The albums are identical except for the catalog number. Both are Sterling cuts pressed on translucent brown virgin vinyl. (Again, it might be Quiex vinyl but I’m not sure.)

In 2008, Murmur was released as a Deluxe Edition with brand new remastering and a bonus live show from the era. It was also quietly released as a remastered 180 gram LP. The remastering was essentially a balance between the original mix and MFSL sound. Unfortunately both the remaster and live show suffered from compression for the current market. (Search: Loudness War) I already had the live show on a bootleg copy and to my ears it actually sounds better than the official version. This was the first in a series of reissues for all the IRS albums, and unfortunately all have suffered from brickwalling compression-most notably on Fables of the Reconstruction.

To end on, I still play air guitar/drums to this record. I can’t help it.

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R.E.M.-Chronic Town (1982)

Immortal EP-5 out of 5 stars

Ahh..here we go. This is an EP which took everything that was established in music…and simply threw it out the window. This is just a recording of four guys who decided, “hey what the heck let’s do what we want” with all the reckless abandon of a record store clerk. (Oh wait, Peter Buck was one. Go figure. 😉

What Chronic Town does so well is convey this sense of dreamlike mesmerism. Although the band name was just picked at random out of a dictionary, it fits like nothing else could. Sure, at this point R.E.M. was playing anywhere they could and earning all of the wondrous perks of constant low-end touring, but their early recordings have this odd dichotomy between jangling, punchy rhythms and almost a hibernation trance. It’s as if we’re all falling into REM sleep while listening to these records. Or maybe I’ve just put way too much thought into these things and should shut up and review the record.

For the record: I don’t claim to understand or know what Michael Stipe is meaning or saying. It’s just better that way. Don’t try it otherwise, you’ll end up missing the song and making your head hurt.

(Side 1) CHRONIC TOWN:If the opening of “Wolves, Lower” doesn’t grab you in any way…then I have no hope for you at all. “Gardening at Night” has an almost detached feeling, as the vocals have a slight echo which further displaces them from the punchy instrumental. (I think I might like the different vocal mix a bit more.) “Carnival of Sorts” is a semi-ode to hoboes jumping boxcars. And for some reason you kinda want to dance about.

(Side 2) POSTER TORN: “1,000,000” features more unintelligbleisms with the repeated refrain “I could live a million years” jumping out at the ears as the only really clear line you can make out. “Stumble” is about stumbling through the yard….and teeth…sorta.

In essence what you hold in your hands is the band discovering recording, the studio and its uses, effects, and in a sense what their recorded output should or would be. Here they were free to experiment and discover exactly what they wanted to do on a record. So they stumbled through the yard some more. The hiss at the opening of “Wolves” is mirrored by the hiss at the end of “Stumble” so that your journey is circular and you end where you began with maybe some further glimpse into what the hell it all means. Or not.

Doesn't Peter look nice and creepy?

Note: never try to clarify early period R.E.M. lyrics with internet searches. You spend your time either laughing or being pissed at what people come up with.

EDITIONS: you get a choice between CD, Cassette and LP. I first heard the cassette after picking it up in a cheapy bin. And let’s move on because if there’s anything I hate it’s bad EQ’d tapes….the CD edition is contained on the CD release of Dead Letter Office. And while it may be the easiest way to obtain these tracks, you get no CT artwork and lose all of the punchiness and depth that makes this recording so special. Skip it.

So…moving on to LP. My favored copy is the original IRS label pressing. There were three versions, one is the very original with custom gargoyle labels and then the second more mass produced issue with just the standard silver IRS label. The third has no barcode on the back, IRS labels and is on regular black vinyl. The second one is what I have and they seem to be the same pressing, just different labels. The first two are pressed on translucent brown vinyl (Just hold it up to the light to see what I mean!). It may be Quiex vinyl, but no one’s ever confirmed it. However, it plays dead quiet and is one of the best sounding LPs I own. (Along with all the other IRS R.E.M. albums)

There was a new pressing for Record Store Day a few years back on clear blue vinyl. It’s a faithful reproduction, but both the artwork and sound lose detail from the original. It’s a nice collectible, but just save your $ and go for the original. (Check your local record shop or ebay, they usually turn up in the $10-15 range)

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