Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections On The State Of Music In 2011

or Why I Cannot Learn To Stop Worrying and Love Spotify

"It takes effort and most things, the more it hurts, the more it means…"
Frank Chimero commenting on The Tree Of Life

As true rock journalism has been replaced by blog/internet culture (which explains the ascendancy of the shoddy, short-sighted, pot-shot criticism of Pitchfork and their ilk) that seems to exist without correlation to rock history or lineage, it is as if many of the current rock “journalists” are so consumed with the post-modern tendency to simply link references rather than analyze with intelligence. It seems they cannot, or will not invest in the process of thoughtfully considering the work they are attempting to criticize beyond the most superficial of connective elements (again I’m looking at you Pitchfork).

Perhaps this tendency to connect rather than analyze is due in part to the entire catalogue of recorded music literally becoming available at your fingertips. This unprecedented access brings with it a wholly modern problem – access without filter; without a way to navigate this bottomless pit of history the rock journalist of today can merely attempt to connect like-objects in an attempt to plot a course in the wake of the collapse of the music industry. This is why I cannot learn to stop worrying and love Spotify—the discrepancy between access and education, breakneck opportunity and analytic understanding is staggering.

Yes, it is a dream to be able to access anything in the realm of music, but what are we losing? Unfettered musical access at the speed of light often causes surface dismissal, on-to-the-next-thing, shallow interaction (the topic of recent book TheShallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains). Rock criticism has now become similar to Tumblr, but for music—a rapid succession of images that “look” significant or rather become symbols for significance rather than doors to deeper, more meaningful interaction. In short, many members of youthful audiences can discern what significance “looks like”, but cannot elucidate why those images/peoples/texts/musics are actually significant. Imagine if you applied this method of criticism to other forms of art: if art history courses were only constructed as Tumblr-style image sequences without discourse and crucial support/contextual information; that the annals of film were only a series of YouTube clips; that the vast history of literature were only brief sentence summaries or worse, context-free quotations (this already is the only way that most young people interact with the classics—through Tumblr-loaded quotes or Disney-fied movie versions).

This lack of context positions all works of art to be of equal value as seen through the lens of an endless succession of quickly viewed/listened to works; the truly substantial and the commonly mediocre become indiscernible in the anonymous rush of material hissing past at hurried speeds. We are at the top of the ladder in our ability to access, but without means of navigation, we are kicking out the rungs beneath us. This can only end in a culture of art that is repetitive, unoriginal, and worst of all, cliché.

It is this superficial contact that I am attempting to make a plea against—in every area of art, be it literature, painting, film, design, or music. If venues like Spotify or Rdio are used in the right way—as modern conduits to connect us to the art we listen to, to contemplate, to investigate, to discuss—then they are certainly a positive. This screed may come across as the ranting of an old-timer, claiming that things were better “back then”. To be clear, I am no luddite; I am an avid user of Twitter, Tumblr, Blogger, etc. But I fear that for those listeners who are at the outset of their formative listening experiences and critical listening development will not gain the ability to analyze, but rather to only be able to at best connect-the-dots, and at worst—never develop the ability to “listen” at all. 

SIDENOTE: I just want to publicly request that David Bowie shake free of his early retirement and get back into the ring this year. This is my biggest hope for the new year—Bowie, come back—we need you now more than ever.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2011 – Extended Selections

So every year I make additional selections by offering several awards outside of the "official" ballot. Here they are, my extended selections.

Holocene – Bon Iver
Listened to this song sitting in the window overlooking Old Town Saginaw when I got back from the hospital the morning my brother died. Seared into my soul forever.

Walk – Foo Fighters
Runners Up: Shake It Off – Florence + The Machine, Midnight City – M83, Discoverer – REM, Lonely Boy – The Black Keys, The Death of You & Me – Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, The World Is Yours – Glasvegas

SONGS OF THE YEAR (30 great songs, in no particular order)
We Are Augustines – Headlong Into The Abyss
Chelsea Wolfe­­ – Tracks (Tall Bodies)
Papercuts – Charades
Glasvegas – Whatever Hurts You Through The Night
The Horrible Crowes – Sugar
M83 – Steve McQueen
Zola Jesus – Collapse
The Black Keys – Little Black Submarines
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds – (Stranded On) The Wrong Beach
Dirty Beaches – Speedway King
The Twilight Singers – The Beginning of the End
Girls – Vomit
M83 – Wait
Foo Fighters – I Should Have Known
Florence + The Machine – Only For Tonight
Chelsea Wolfe – Movie Screen
The Horrors – Changing Rain
Wild Flag – Romance
Glasvegas – The World Is Yours
I Break Horses – Hearts
We Are Augustines – Chapel Song
The Horrible Crowes – Behold The Hurricane
Wolf Gang – Lions In Cages
M83 – Reunion
Zola Jesus – Lick The Palm Of The Burning Hand
The Horrors – Oceans Burning
PJ Harvey – The Last Living Rose
Arctic Monkeys – She’s Thunderstorms
REM – Discoverer
Florence + The Machine – No Light, No Light

Badlands, Dirty Beaches
Redundant to bring this up again, but it really is fantastic. Check it out.

Lonely Boy, The Black Keys
In a weak year for the dying artistic genre known as the music video, this one was perfect.

Beady Eye—Different Gear, Still Speeding.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, is a bigger Liam Gallagher fan on this planet than I am. And that’s not to say that that this album is bad—it’s just sort of…meh. I really like Beatles & Stones and The Morning Son but otherwise it’s kind of forgettable.
RUNNER UP: Glasvegas, ///Euphoria Heartbreak\\\ Repeat all of the above commentary for Beady Eye but insert the word Glasvegas.

The breakup of REM, obviously.

Back & Forth: Foo Fighters
This Foo Fighters/Dave Grohl/Nirvana doc does everything a great rock film should do—
RUNNER UP: From The Sky Down: The Making of Achtung Baby is also pretty great, but I wanted more.
SIDE NOTE: I also really liked Stones In Exile about the making of Exile On Mainstreet and Lemmy, concerning the handsome and debonair Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. 

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

Ok, so it's really fifteen. But it was a really strong year so I went with more than ten.

15. Wild Flag—Wild Flag
The sound is the blood between me and you

Rock and roll is alive and well and living in the hearts of these four women. Killer top to bottom.

14. The Black Keys – El Camino
But everybody knows / That a broken heart is blind

Loving it, but since it just came out I haven’t been able to spend the kind of time with it that I need to.

13. The Twilight Singers—Dynamite Steps
All come alive in the present tense

The disappointment was in the buildup; the promise of Dynamite Steps was too great, as word of a new Twilight Singers album, following one of the best albums of the past decade—Powder Burns—would also feature Gutter Twin Mark Lanegan as well as erstwhile genius (and personal guitar-god) Nick McCabe of the Verve? The lure proved too much. Instead of an epoch-defining work, Greg Dulli and Co. return with another excellent album of noir rock. 

It’s tough to call this a disappointment, as it truly does have its moments (like the Song of the Year contender The Beginning of the End), but considering the buildup, it was hard not to feel a bit letdown. Again, that isn’t to say I don’t love this album, because I certainly do.

12. We Are Augustines—Rise Ye Sunken Ships
Well call the police, go ahead call your shrink / Call whoever you want but I won't stop the car

I love albums that have a good story behind them, and this one is a doozy. From Paste Magazine’s review:

Jim, the brother of lead singer and songwriter Billy McCarthy, had a very troubled past. Since high school, he lived in homeless shelters and on the streets of California after succumbing to excessive substance abuse. He was also committed to psychiatric hospitals on multiple occasions.

Jim eventually used a knife to attack a worker in a shelter where he was living. He then found himself in prison and diagnosed as a schizophrenic, unfit to stand trial and too dangerous to stay with the general public…For four years, Jim remained in solitary confinement, his only escapes being small stints at more psychiatric hospitals…While staying at one, he overheard he’d again be relegated to solitary confinement…He panicked…Then hanged himself.

Their mother, also a schizophrenic and addict, came to a similar demise. Lying on a cot in a homeless shelter, she overdosed on sleeping pills and cocaine…Next to her bed, she had scribbled two things on the back of a business card from a local mortuary: her children’s names…Billy, Jim and their sister never knew their father.

The funny thing about this album, one sprung from so much darkness, is that is sounds mostly triumphant. Though it does trail off a bit, a more honest group of songs you will not find this year.

11. Dirty Beaches—Badlands
Speedway / It's taking over me

Badlands sounds like it was unearthed from beneath the garbage barrels behind CBGB’s, the mutant offspring of a late night jam session between Suicide, The Cramps, and Elvis singing lyrics written by Charles Starkweather in an alley somewhere in my dreams. Very, very hard to leave this out of my top ten.

SIDE NOTE: This is the best album cover of the year, by far. To fully experience the album as it was intended, pick it up on vinyl like I did. Pressed on white wax, the grime sounds like a demented symphony, and the noir-ish photography provides ample evidence for the need to continue producing tangible packaging.

10. Bon Iver—Bon Iver
…and at once I knew I was not magnificent

Another tenderly brilliant album from Justin Vernon, Wisconsin’s most famous cabin dweller. The blatant Peter Gabriel-ism is a bit concerning to most, but since I actually like Peter Gabriel (and am not afraid to admit it) I am OK with it. 

Of anyone on this list, I think his next album will have the highest stakes (so to speak) of his career. 

09. The Horrors—Skying
The moment that you want is coming / If you give it time

Another set of gorgeous, post-punk warbles. The law of diminishing returns does govern this follow-up to my 2009 Album of theYear, Primary Colours, but it is still a strong batch of high quality, billowy, psych.

08. Chelsea Wolfe—Apokalypsis
We could be two straight lines in a crooked world…

Chelsea Wolfe snuck onto the musical landscape by releasing her debut album The Grime and The Glow in the final week of 2010. I discovered that album in late spring, and spent a considerable portion of the summer of 2011 playing Halfsleeper on repeat late into the night. Her follow up—Apokalypsis—was released in September and is an absolutely white-nuckle, horror movie scary collection of feral doomfolk. In a good way. 

This album has an atmosphere that is totally exclusive to anything else put on wax this year. Listening, you can almost smell the smoky haze of incense burning at some ancient, biblical rite taking place, being presided over by a feral priestess that may or may not be PJ Harvey. It kind of reminds me of the atmosphere created on the title track to the first Black Sabbath album, if that helps describe the late night, bizarre environment constructed here. 

I found myself in the month of December basically playing Tracks (TallBodies) on repeat, hypnotized by it's repetitive spell.

SIDE NOTE: Try as I might, I could not find this on CD or (extremely) limited LP, as it was mostly a digital only release. A sign of the times I guess.

07. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Self-Titled
Build a little fire where it’s cold…

This is the best album of the year while you are listening to it. Nothing makes you feel this good—so good that it feels like a collection of Be Here Now B-sides, which is the ultimate compliment I can give it. I ask you to listen to this record, and take a moment to appreciate the level of traditional English-with-a-capital-E songwriting here, as nobody else does this anymore. 

A dying art to be sure.

06. Foo Fighters—Wasting Light
I never wanna die / I never wanna die / I'm on my knees / I never wanna die…

Are Foo Fighters the last straight-up rock and roll band in the mainstream left in America? I must admit that the placement of this album was significantly influenced by repeated viewings of the extraordinary documentary Back & Forth. The album, like the documentary that chronicled its creation, is a look back in order to forge a new path forward. Many of the best songs here—Dear Rosemary, I Should Have Known, Bridge Burning, Miss The Misery, Arlandria, and the spectacular Walk—all deal with the subject of reflecting on past losses, past mistakes, past failures as a way to appreciate what you have now, today, in the present. A song like I Should Have Known is given incredible gravity not only by the subject matter—not being able to stop someone you care for from self-destruction, one of which is explicitly Kurt Cobain—but through the inclusion of Krist Novoselic (performing for the first time with Grohl post-Nirvana) and Pat Smear (now back in the fold as a full time member) a resonance that supersedes the Foo Fighters as a musical entity. 

Few albums are as life-affirming as this set from Grohl’s Army, and that alone set Wasting Light apart from most of the pack this year.

05. Florence + The Machine—Ceremonials
And would you leave me / If I told you what I've become?

Blown away by the power of her talent. Lyrically, musically, and vocally this album is phenomenal – I was totally caught off guard by Ceremonials. Superb in every category. Calling her a force of nature is not mere hyperbole, she seems to exert powerful sway over the elements. 

04. M83—Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
I woke up stronger than ever…

Epic in the best sense of the world, this sprawling shoegaze/technopop extravaganza should come with a map. Huge in sound and scope, this album steps forward from 2009’s John Hughes inspired masterpiece Saturdays=Youth. Should M83 mainman Anthony Gonzalez have decided to prune this back to a single disc, it certainly would have fought for Album of the Year. But forget about all that, just take it as it is – a bittersweet mix of upbeat heartfelt symphonies dedicated to the loss of innocence and youth. 

Beautifully confidant.

SIDENOTE: If Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was released when I was 22, it would have been the soundtrack to my life. Every song sounds like a movie. Also, I highly recommend seeing them live. They are absolutely massive live.

03. The Horrible Crowes—Elsie
If you should go there before I do / God's gonna trouble the water

This side-project from Brian Fallon (who may be my favorite young songwriter in America) reaches into areas of lyricism undiscovered in his day job as Gaslight Anthem’s director and guiding force. Elsie seemed to get better and better with each and every listen I gave it. An album about loss, in it's many forms. 

SIDE NOTE: You know when you lose your objectivity about quality because you feel so close to a work? This album has served as my companion through the long hours of grief in the wake of my brother’s death last August. I spent every available minute driving the backstreets of South Carolina in September and October listening to this album and I will always have a hard time listening to it.

02. Zola Jesus—Conatus
Cause it hurts, yes it hurts to let you in…

An operatic goth/synth/dance/dreampop tour de force. The Goth Queen of Madison, WI takes on a broad range of subjects and moods here; fitting for an album whose title—Conatus—is latin for moving forward. Conatus is a major leap ahead in terms of songwriting, production, and instrumentalism from her brilliant twin 2010 EP’s Stridullum and Valusia. The best compliment that I can give this is to say that it is a complete work, a true album in the sense that each song is sequenced with precision, and work as links to a whole. 

Heroic, picturesque, heart-wrenching, strong.

01. PJ Harvey—Let England Shake
Goddamn Europeans! / Take me back to beautiful England…

Not her first reinvention (my favorite would be the now over 10 years old, still phenomenal Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea) but certainly the most convincing and total, Let England Shake is a brilliant treatise on post-WWI Britain. It is of the utmost importance that artists continue to challenge their audience with complex, confrontational, or uncomfortable material and Harvey has found inventive and distinctive ways to do this since the early 90’s. Even in a very, very strong year for female artists, Harvey continues to be in a class unto herself.

SIDE NOTE: I find the current pre-eminence of PJ Harvey as an influence on contemporary, female based "rock" to be truly fascinating, as it is difficult—nearly impossible—to imagine much of the significant female work at present without her influence. A brief look at my Top Ten Albums of 2011 exemplifies this – Chelsea Wolfe, Florence + The Machine, Zola Jesus, and countless others bear her distinctive mark. It’s as if her particular brand of intelligent, literary, visceral rock and roll has aged with such formidable significance and dignity that what was once periphery has now become central to the post millennial, post collapse-of-the-music-industry, post rock-as-cultural-force, post rock-is-dead musical landscape (this same observation may also be applied to the work of Nick Cave). I am not certain why this is, but I think it is a worthwhile discussion to cultivate.

Top Albums of 2011 – 25 To 15

OK folks, it's that time again. Time for the Madison Institute of Musicologists to convene, place their ballots, and select their Top Ten Albums of 2011. As usual, I will be offering an extended version of the ballot. As this was an especially strong and competitive year, I have decided to include a full list of the Top Twenty-Five Albums of 2011.

More to come. So without further ado, here we go:

25. Diego Garcia—Laura

24. The War On Drugs—Slave Ambient

23. Papercuts—Fading Parade

22. The Kills—Blood Pressures

21. The Raveonettes—Raven In The Grave

20. Radiohead—King of Limbs

19. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart—Belong

18. Chapel Club—Palace

17. Girls—Father, Son, Holy Ghost

16. Glasvegas—///Euphoria Heartbreak\\\

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Top 20 Stone Roses Songs

The Stone Roses are one of the greatest bands of all time — this is fairly indisputable. Their recent resurrection is as improbable as it was amazing. More on this at another time.

For now, here is my Top 20 Stone Roses Songs of All Time, in honor of their return.

20. What The World Is Waiting For

19. Here It Comes

18. Standing Here

17. Fool’s Gold

16. How Do You Sleep?

15. Sugar Spun Sister

14. Standing Here

13. The Hardest Thing In The World

12. Mersey Paradise

11. Waterfall

10. She Bangs The Drums

09. Going Down

08. All Across The Sands

07. Made of Stone

06. Sally Cinnamon

05. Ten Storey Love Song

04. I Wanna Be Adored

03. Love Spreads

02. This Is The One

01. I Am The Resurrection

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top 25 Characters On The Wire

There are two types of people—those who have seen The Wire and know it's the best show of all-time, and those you haven't seen it yet.
—Tim Speaker

One of the many reasons why my favorite (and best) show of all time is The Wire are the characters. Fully three-dimensional, real characters either based on factual individuals, often played by non-actors, or amalgamations of real-life people, the characters on The Wire move far beyond any film or television series in terms of truth.

Most shows have a character, or a few characters, that keep you coming back. Yet when I thought to put this list together, I immediately thought of over 30 characters that I loved off the top of my head. I cannot imagine being able to do this with any other show. And that alone says alot for the quality of the acting on The Wire. Also, I had to leave out characters that I loved or felt were brilliant, in order to limit the list to 25 (sorry Herc, Prezbo, Clay Davis). This is astounding for a television show.

Here it is, my Top 25 Favorite Characters On The Wire:
25. Slim Charles
24. Carver
23. Chris Partlo
22. Snoop
21. Poot
20. Cutty
19. Brother Mouzone
18. Randy
17. Marlo Stanfield
16. Bunny Colvin
15. Dukie
14. Michael
13. Kima Greggs
12. Bodie Broadus
11. Wee Bey
10. Wallace
09. Proposition Joe
08. Lester Freamon
07. D’Angelo Barksdale
06. Bubbles
05. Avon Barksdale
04. Bunk Moreland
03. Jimmy McNulty
02. Stringer Bell
01. Omar Little
I know it's cliche to like Omar the best, but the brilliant Michael K. Williams portrayal of him is simply electric. He owns the screen every second he is on it, regardless of who he is sharing it with.

And fans can find a great home here, at

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Deus Ex Machina Releases First Book, Typically Brilliant

I love Deus Ex Machina. I love their bikes. I love their bicycles. I love their posters. I love their gear. I love their website. I love their branding. I love their spirit. I love their photography.

I do not love their prices, but that is more a personal problem (I'm broke as a joke) than anything they are doing per se.

And now? They release a new book via Blurb called The Temple of Enthusiasm and it's what you would expect - brilliance dripping from every page, and a drool-festival for a cover. Amazing. The problem? It's $146 dollars!

Oh well. I can dream right?

Buy one here. Check out Deus Ex Machina here.

Lines & Lives Of The Face Opens In Tryon

Last saturday I had the good fortune of being included in a brilliant show of portraiture at the Upstairs Gallery in Tryon, NC. What an amazing space! I was blown away by the great work by the artists involved, and the subtle curation by Nancy and Margaret. Truly a superb space operated by wonderful people. Tryon is this cool little mountain town (which there are tons of great ones in NC) where Nina Simone was born, and her monument park is directly across the street from the gallery - so cool.

David Slone - a fellow Art Bomber - was also included in the show, and created the above video to capture a glimpse of the show.

Check it out. The show runs through November 19th. More information at the Upstairs Gallery.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Postmodernism Film Is Clarifying

Postmodernism is one of those slippery terms to define. Want some clarification? Check this film out to coincide with the exhibition. Superb.

More information here.

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 4

For What The Breakup of REM Means, Part 4 we turn to guest blogger Pete Fahndrich. World traveller, shepherd of lost bands/albums/artists, President and Founder of the Madison Institute of Musicologists, and one of the best people you could ever have the good fortune to know, Pete "gets it" and is the only person I know who is as hungry for music as I am, and is willing to talk about it endlessly.

We are Soul Brothers of Musicology, so it is with great pleasure that I bring you his 31 Years, 31 Songs for our old friends REM. I cannot think of a more fitting way to close this series of REM posts than with the selections and memories of someone so specially tuned to REM's greatness. So enjoy...


31. How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us - New Adventures in Hi-Fi
30. Green Grow The Rushes - Fables of the Reconstruction
29. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite - Automatic For The People
28. I Believe - Life’s Rich Pageant
27. Radio Free Europe - Murmur
26. Electrolite - New Adventures In Hi-Fi
25. Bittersweet Me - New Adventues In Hi-FI
24. Finest Worksong - Document
23. Feeling Gravity’s Pull - Fables Of The Reconstruction
22. Sweetness Follows - Automatic For The People
21. Imitation Of Life - Reveal
20. Pretty Persuasion - Reckoning
19. What’s The Frequency Kenneth? - Monster
18. Perfect Circle - Murmur
17. At My Most Beautiful - Up
16. Half A World Away - Out of Time
15. Try Not To Breathe - Automatic For The People
14. Don’t Go Back To Rockville - Reckoning
13. Daysleeper - Up
12. The Great Beyond - Single
11. Begin The Begin - Life’s Rich Pageant
10. Driver 8 - Fables Of The Reconstruction
09. Talk About The Passion - Murmur
08. Leaving New York - Around The Sun
07. Fall On Me - Life’s Rich Pageant
06. Man On the Moon - Automatic For The People
05. Country Feedback - Out Of Time
04. So. Central Rain - Reckoning
03. Nightswimming - Automatic For The People
02. Cuyahoga - Life’s Rich Pageant
01. E-Bow The Letter - New Adventures In Hi-Fi
28. Is because of Mary
27. Is for dropping the needle on the first REM album and hearing this come out
22. Is for my cousin Peter Thomas and driving on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago
19. Is for the big deal Monster was when it came out my first summer in Madison
17. Is because Mike Mills convinced Michael stipe the Beach Boys were worth checking out
08. Is because I wish I didn’t have to
03. Is for the college nights in Madison when we did and for Jereme
01. Is because I could never get past this song

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 3

OK, as promised, for my continuing series What The Breakup of REM Means, Part 3, I present my list of 31 Songs For 31 Years. My 31 favorite REM songs, in honor of their 31 years together.

Enjoy. Oh, and hey, what are some of yours?


31. Find The River – Automatic For The People

30. Belong – Out Of Time

29. Daysleeper – Up

28. Try Not To Breathe – Automatic For The People

27. Orange Crush – Green

26. Electrolite - New Adventures In Hi-Fi

25. Talk About The Passion - Murmur

24. Don’t Go Back To Rockville - Reckoning

23. Harborcoat - Reckoning

22. The One I Love – Document

21. Catapult – Murmur

20. Superman - Life’s Rich Pageant

19. So. Central Rain – Reckoning

18. At My Most Beautiful – Up

17. Feeling Gravity’s Pull – Fables of the Reconstruction

16. Driver 8 - Fables of the Reconstruction

15. Leaving New York – Around the Sun

14. Let Me In - Monster

13. I Believe – Life’s Rich Pageant

12. Bittersweet Me - New Adventures In Hi-Fi

11. What’s The Frequency Kenneth? – Monster

10. Fall On Me – Life’s Rich Pageant

09. Radio Free Europe – Murmur

08. Sweetness Follows – Automatic For The People

07. Begin The Begin - Life’s Rich Pageant

06. E Bow The Letter – New Adventures In Hi-Fi

05. Drive – Automatic For The People

04. Leave - New Adventures In Hi-Fi

03. Finest Worksong – Document

02. Country Feedback – Out Of Time

01. Nightswimming – Automatic For The People

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 2

This is Part 2 of my series, What The Breakup of REM Means.

These are a collection of random thoughts, memories, and observances about REM.

The first CD I ever purchased was Out Of Time and Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits from Meijers on Gratiot in Saginaw MI with money from mowing lawns. Thusly, Radio Song was the first song ever played on CD on my stereo. This is me.

Country Feedback is the exact same song musically as Revival by Soulsavers. Both of these songs are incredible. Don’t die without having played them both on repeat.


Nightswimming still has the unique power to make me cry - sometimes. Nightswimming can make me happier than any song ever - sometimes. Nightswimming always makes me swoon with nostalgia, even the first time I ever heard it. Nightswimming is a different song every time that I hear it, and touches places inside me that nothing else does.


I always loved REM, but when I saw Tour Film on VHS at my friend Chris Gober’s house – he projected it on his living room wall and hooked up speakers to the TV, cranked them up to 10 and let it rip - it blew me away. Many of these songs immediately became my favorites due to the film. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s as good a concert film as has been produced. And the black and white cinematography is simply stunning.


REM were the closest thing Americans ever had to The Smiths. We are not likely to hear their kind again. This is a BIG statement, but think about it – if REM had split in 1997 this statement would be much easier to agree with.


John Paul Jones wrote and conducted the symphony on Automatic For The People. This unlikely collaboration created some of the most heart-wrenching music ever recorded.


For a long time in the late 80’s and early 90’s I thought Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant were a couple. This was not an uncommon belief amongst my friends and I. Oh, how naive we were back then.


I always loved how they put “Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe” in the credits to their music. It seemed like such a unified group, a four-legged table like U2 or The Smiths or The Stone Roses. This was proven astoundingly accurate during the last 14 years of their career.


It was the first warm day of spring of my Sophomore year. That first day of sun is like heaven after long cold winters in Michigan, when everything suddenly comes back to life. I was at my friend Rod Huyett’s house in Mt. Pleasant, MI. We set up two amps outside, plugged in a Rickenbacker for him and a Les Paul Special for me, and I learned my first ever chords to What’s The Frequency Kenneth? To this day that widescreen, fuzzy, skuzzy opening riff always makes me feel warmth and rejuvenation and optimism and absolute like the first day of spring.

SIDE NOTE: Those chords were too tricky for my unlearned hands, so we played Down By The River by Neil Young for about 8 hours straight instead. Truth.


When Stipe’s voice jumps an octave for the line “leave it, to leave it all behind” in the song Leave, I can physically feel my chest tighten like when you slam on the brakes and the seatbelt seizes your chest, and my entire body shudders.

This is a power found only in music.


One of my best friends – Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers – went to the University of Georgia in the few years before Murmur, and saw REM play at campus bars and parties countless times. Michael Stipe’s sister was in one of her drawing classes, and Jo Carol drew Michael’s portrait when he would model for her.

SIDE NOTE: Her roommate dated Herschel Walker during his Heisman campaign and she was a student during their National Championship season – which pretty much means she was at UG for all the best things that have ever happened there, in the entire history of the university.)


Many of the best REM songs are truly cinematic, widescreen affairs (Leave, Bittersweet Me, Leaving New York, all of Automatic For The People) while simultaneously feeling confessional and near. This is something only the truly great bands achieve.


The recent 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind reminded me of how important REM were at that time. From late 1991, through to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in the spring of 1994 was an incredibly exciting and confusing time*, and Kurt and Eddie Vedder both sought advice and support from whom they considered to be their heroes, and Michael Stipe was very publicly involved in assisting Kurt after his heroin overdose in Rome. This memory brought up a couple of interesting points, that:

1. There was a vital, significant correlation between the mainstream explosion of “alternative” music of 1991 and the trails blazed to that mainstream led by bands like REM and U2, who were still considered “alternative” at the time. I highly doubt that America could have been able to accept the bands of this movement without the groundwork laid by their 80’s precursors.

2. The relationship between REM and (someone like) Nirvana is most likely imperceptible to someone who is 20 years old (or an adolescent listener, or even a contemporary audience) because to their ears, REM is either sunshiny pop (Shiny Happy People, What’s The Frequency Kenneth?) or kind of sappy and overblown (Everybody Hurts), or vague moral and religious dilemmas that they don't seem to understand (Losing My Religion). Either way this connection is completely lost to them, and maybe for all time.

SIDE NOTE: This perception was fostered during REM’s lost years, the final 14 of their career, when their intent and message no longer received a mass audience, especially with listeners under the age of 30.

*From late 1991 through 1994 was the a thrilling time to be coming of age, as it felt like my generation took over and overthrew all that came before. It is often said that the 60’s was really only a few years, from 1966 (Revolver, Dylan goes electic) to1969 (Altamont) and the same can be said for the 90’s – the 90’s were only from 91-94 (the release of Nevermind to Cobain's suicide). Just as the "60's" were not Connie Francis and Pat Boone (though they sold heavily too), the 90's were not Limp Bizkit and Backstreet Boys and all the other garbage that filled the rock n roll vacuum post 1994.

SECOND SIDE NOTE: Yes, I realize I’m beginning to sound like an old Vietnam Vet – “you weren’t there maaaan…”.


REM’s last American Top 40 singles were What’s The Frequency Kenneth? And Bang And Blame from Monster in 1994 and 1995. It makes sense, but I did not realize this until now.


Perhaps the closest thing we have to REM in today’s musical landscape is The National. I would like to publicly challenge them to take the next step and formally pick up the flag flown by REM.

Matt Berninger I’m calling you out.


In 2009 I selected Automatic For The People as the #10 Album That Defined My High School Experience. Here is what I said at the time: "When I first heard Nightswimming, I knew there was a world somewhere so different, that would suit me if I could only get there. I wanted (want) to live inside that song".


Yes, REM should have broken up in 1997. But that doesn’t make their passing any easier now. In fact, it makes it possibly more difficult. Because now they are gone, we can love them again, miss them, appreciate them for all that they meant to us and will always mean to us, and recognize how they changed American culture in a real way in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This recognition was exceedingly difficult to maintain as they released a string of mediocre albums (yet with killer lead singles – Leaving New York, Living Well’s The Best Revenge, Discoverer – due must be given to these, because those are great singles) as persistent reminders of how “lost” they were following Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. With each release I fell into a familiar cycle – hope that they would make that one true, last brilliant album based on said killer single, then utter disappointment upon the release.

But now we can love them again for all they are and were, because that is what endings do.

SIDE NOTE: This is much the same occurrence I observed when Michael Jackson died – all of a sudden there was this crazy outpouring of love for a man that was nothing short of monstrous, a likely pedophile who had disconnected from his public long before. Upon his death it seemed that he could be loved again, not for what he was when he died, but for who he had been, the Michael Jackson of his audience's youth, rather than the fiend he had become. It should be noted for clarity however, that REM did not become an awful thing as Jackson had, but merely a mediocre, rudderless ship, and for a band that had so often charted territories of Greatness, this would not do. However, both REM and Michael Jackson were instantly beloved in death.


And Finally...REM are gone, but their legacy lives on in a million ways, from the current Indie scene to the 80's underground, to the 90's era of grunge. They live on in their fans, in the ways they influenced their ethics and general understanding of the world.

Thank you REM, for all you have meant to me, my youth, my young adulthood, and today.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wood Type Revival Is A Worthy, Beautiful Place

You know all those beautiful old wood types that don't exist in any digital format that you seen in old specimen books? What if you could have some of them, digitized and ready to use in your contemporary Adobe environments? What if?

That was the question that several brilliant graphic designers asked when they started a Kickstarter campaign last year to create the Wood Type Revival. Now that the generous support of backers from Kickstarter have made this idea a reality, you can visit the site to download formerly unavailable antique faces, in digital form.

Born out of Kickstarter: Wood Type Revival is printing rare historic wood type, and turning it into digital fonts for modern designers.

Go there now - support this beautiful idea made real.

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 1

By now you have heard I'm sure about the breakup of REM. For me I have had differing emotions about this everyday since. Sometimes these moments are totally opposite one another.

Over at the brilliant and essential The Ever Circling Skeleton Family, some of those tangled emotions have been distilled in a superb post discussing the staggering song Country Feedback:

I think it’s a song like this, like “Country Feedback,” that highlights a part of R.E.M.’s contribution to music, life, everything. I think I’ve said it before even on this page. But there that song is, mammoth, untouchable. Completely inscrutable, but also the most welcoming and understandable set of emotions put to words. Resignation, weariness in a set of words, in every note, every repetition of that chord sequence. But then that resignation and weariness is informed by what could only be love. And that’s all from a line like “you come to me with a bone in your hand.”

Michael Stipe heard characters in his band’s songs, found those characters, became them. For three minutes at a time, he was someone else, and when we listened, we knew those characters like old friends.

The way this band worked together to allow that kind of, I don’t know, magic was amazing. I’m excited, in a way, for the rest of the week, because I’ve already read some great pieces about the band, and I’m sure there’ll be a few more. I’m going to be thinking about it, certainly.

But “Country Feedback.” Just watch that video, and you’ll be devastated by it. The moment for me, in that particular version (from the “Road Movie” tour film), comes around 4:48, when Michael Stipe just sits down on the stage, letting the song flow around him. He’s done his part in that story. The shot of his profile with the projected house in the background is perfect and beautiful.

And now I’m sitting here thinking of a friend who just died, prematurely and tragically, and remembering that this song hinges on the line “it’s crazy what you could have had.” It’s a sad case of “song meaning something different to you” as there ever could be, I guess.

Well, I need this.

I need this.

This, is extremely accurate. Look for What The Breakup of REM Means, Part 2 in the next few days, and a Part 3 featuring my Top 25 REM Songs Of All Time. In the meantime, enjoy listening to their old albums. I am.