>Album Review: "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" by R.E.M.

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Evocative stuff.

(Yes, another really late update. And it’s not even a requested review. JUST DEAL WITH IT.)

I’m glad I have now heard New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I guess I have Mr. Adam Spektor to thank for that – if he had not generously given me this album as a Christmas gift, there is a decent chance that I would not have ever listened to it, at least not for a long time.

Why? Well, I couldn’t stand Monster after its first two tracks, so I was under the impression that after 1994 R.E.M. just decided to completely lose it for a good decade or so until Accelerate came out last year. Yeah, I knew “E-Bow The Letter,” and that was kind of a cool song. Yes, I had heard positive reviews, but I heard plenty of positive reviews for Monster too, and well… y’know. So I was wary of New Adventures, and rightly so.

There are some traces of Monster present in this album. I’d say that I could comfortably divide most of Adventures‘ tracks into two categories: Monster-esque tracks with better production, and pretty old-school R.E.M. tracks updated for the 90s. Naturally, I enjoy the latter more, but the rockers here are surprisingly cool and much more enjoyable than the glam-macho confusion found on Monster; songs like “The Wake Up Bomb,” “Departure” and “Binky The Doormat” are nice riff-driven rockers, despite some unusual spoke-sung Michael Stipe vocals. “Undertow,” despite having some weirdly funky bass-driven opening that I’m not in love with, features a killer anthemic chorus. And “So Fast, So Numb” and “Low Desert” are a couple slower rockers on Side Two that really grow on you, despite being not quite as distinctive as the previous tracks.

But the pretty songs, man – that’s where it’s at. Thank God R.E.M. ditched the lame “alt-rock” of Monster for this one; beautiful songs like “New Test Leper” and “Electrolite” are good reminders of why people love R.E.M. in the first place. “E-Bow The Letter” features Stipe’s least obnoxious spoken-word vocal delivery on the album, with a Patti Smith guest vocal that lends it a sweet, mysterious air. I also love the slow, moving “Be Mine,” which despite its over-five-minutes running time always lifts my spirits when that lovely chorus hits. Even the more unusual songs, like the creepy opener “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” and the instrumental “Zither” are very enjoyable. This is a much, much more amiable R.E.M. than on Monster and, presumably, the non-Bill Berry albums that proceeded it.

Yes, Michael Stipe’s occasionally-awkward vocals sometimes bring the album down a bit. But he also sings quite a few of these songs in a low croon, which I have always really liked. New Adventures in Hi-Fi, to me, is a very confident, solid R.E.M. record. As it should be – I mean, at this point, they had tried everything they could to create their own sound for the 90s (folk-pop on Out of Time, dark-contemporary on Automatic, fuzz-alt-rock on Monster); it’s only appropriate that, by the middle of the decade, they had finally figured things out. It’s a shame that Bill Berry had to get all brain-frozen right after and move to a farm or something! Man, things got weird. But I haven’t heard much of R.E.M.’s stuff between New Adventures and Accelerate, so what do I know? They could all be underappreciated masterpieces for all I know.

My advice: if you want a good estimation of what R.E.M. were driving at in the 90s, New Advenutres is a decent place to start. Nothing shocking, nothing new. But solid! A little long, though. If you have the patience to sit through all seven-and-a-half minutes of “Leave,” you are a better man than me.

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>Requested Review Revue: Todd Rundgren Three-Pack

>Let’s cut down to the chase: when it comes to this blog, I have been a lazy, silly bastard in recent weeks. The last time I actually, you know, wrote something for this blog was before Christmas. Now, I could cop out and say that I was kickin’ back for the holidays, but hey – we’re almost two weeks into the new year, and I’ve still only been making comics. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love making comics for this blog, but let’s be honest – you’re not here for a bunch of rough comics drawn by somebody with no art skills whatsoever. You’re here for some reviews! Some opinions! Some TEXT!!

But hey, school is starting again soon. I am feeling more active. As such, I will take on a review requested by fellow blogostar Adam Spektor (UPDATE YOUR BLOG, you bastard!) in an attempt to revitalize my record reviewing spirit. Adam threw a lot of albums and artists out there, one of them being 70s writer/singer/producer extraordinaire Todd Rundgren. And I have three of his peak-era albums, all released one right after the other – so why not review all of them? Hey, let’s do it.


1971: Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren

Don’t let the goofy picture of Todd hanging himself at the piano fool you – this album is, compared to Todd’s later stuff, pretty mellow. The title is appropriate, since this record is mostly a showcase for Todd’s softer, low key side. I have to admit, some of those said ballads sound a little samey, and Rundgren’s unusual sense of humor does not crop up often enough to provide a counterbalance to said samey ballads.

But hey! The ballads are lovely! Classy, early 70’s singer/songwriter pop. I enjoy them. “Denny & Jean,” “Wailing Wall,” “A Long Time,” “Boat On The Charles,” “Be Nice To Me,” “Hope I’m Around” – lovely. The kid’s got talent. And hey, the songs that AREN’T ballads are awesome! They lend the album some much-appreciated diversity: “Long Flowing Robe” is an uppity pop song; “Bleeding” and “Parole” are groovy rockers; “Range War” is a goofy little ditty; and most notably, “Chain Letter” is an almost Hey Jude-esque piano superballad (not a REGULAR ballad, see) with a very pretty extended coda. Top notch.

If you’re used to Todd being a goofball, you might not love this one. If you’re a fan of his songwriting, you’re right at home here.


1972: Something/Anything?

Ahh, the masterpiece. This double album, in all honesty, is practically all the Todd you need, giving the listener a generous helping of every facet of his personality (noticeably missing: his prog/freakout Utopia side, but whatcha gonna do?).

Like any good double album, Something/Anything?‘s four sides each have their own distinct theme. Side One, called “a bouquet of ear-catching melodies” in the liner notes, is Todd Rundgren at his most pop, consisting of six songs that would fit right in on early 70’s AM radio (including maybe his biggest hit, the Carole King-esque “I Saw The Light”). Side Two is the “cerebral side,” in which more lovely pop songs (“Saving Grace,” “Marlene”) share space with some more out-of-left-field numbers (the funny “Song of the Viking,” the lazy “The Night The Carousel Burnt Down,” the spoken-word “multimedia piece” “I Went To The Mirror”). On Side Three, “the kid gets heavy,” and we’ve got more great pop songs (“One More Day,” the marvelous power pop of “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”) plus some neat hard-rock numbers (“Black Maria,” “Little Red Lights”). And Side Four, which Todd decided to dub a “pop operetta” (“…that kind of thing being very popular nowadays”), is actually a series of varied pop/soul/rock songs performed by a live band, featuring more great pop songs (his other huge hit “Hello It’s Me”), soul (“Dust In The Wind”, “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me”), glammy rock raveups (album closer “Slut”) and some wonderful nigh-scatological goof songs (“Piss Aaron” and “You Left Me Sore,” the latter being one of the classiest, funniest VD songs I’ve ever heard). It’s one big, fat poptastic trip.

I love this album. Not gonna lie. “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and “Hello It’s Me” are two of my all-time favorite pop songs – kind of a mix of Big Star with 70’s soul. The funny songs are funny, the rockin’ songs mostly rock, and hey, even the liner notes rule – the way Todd transcribes the silly studio chatter of side four and tries to script it as an actual operetta, complete with character names, is funny enough to buy both CDs. Don’t be stupid! Get it.


1973: A Wizard, A True Star

WHOA. Whoaaa hoho. I don’t know, Todd.

Todd’s perverse side – which popped up occassionally in Something/Anything? – is all over the first side of Wizard. Sure, we start off with the space-pop of “International Feel,” a cover of Peter Pan’s “Never Never Land,” and the cool “Tic Tic It Wears Off” – all of which are only about a notch weirder than the weirdest of Something/Anything?. After that, though, YIKES.

Side One basically turns into a parade of apparent attempts to shed his mainstream audience that bought his last few records on the strength on “I Saw The Light,” featuring a bunch of interconnected one-minute freakouts. You’ve got nutzoid cock-rockers (“Rock ‘n Roll Pussy”), bizarre sound collages and/or instrumentals (“Dogfight Giggle”, “Flamingo”), accordion-driven dirges (“Zen Archer”), creepy pop ditties (“You Don’t Have To Camp Around”) – all ending with a twisted reprieve of “International Feel” (called “Le Feel Internacionale”). Side Two lets up a bit, offering up some classic Todd piano-soul (“Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel,” “Just One Victory”) with some slightly twisted bits (“Does Anybody Love You?”, “Hungry For Love”) and a NUUUUUUTTY doo-wop/soul medley that you can either love or hate.

I don’t listen to this record too much – for me, it’s just a little TOO bizarre. Side One of this record goes above and beyond in terms of nasty performance art; it’s honestly what I expected Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk would sound like before I actually listened to it (not that I’m knocking Tusk – it’s a great album, I just don’t think it’s all that weird). It’s a twisted, unsettling piece of work, and I just don’t know what to think about it. Side two has some great songs, but also feels pretty disjointed. I don’t know. I can take or leave this one. But it’s compelling, I’ll say that much. There’s a lot to hear on this record. But most of it isn’t classic Todd-pop. It’s kind of like the anti-Ballad. Prepare for it.

That’s all the Todd I can muster for tonight, folks. Buy his stuff! Better yet, buy some of his stuff for me. I’ve had the same three albums by him for the past two years.

>Comic/Requested Review: "All Hail West Texas" by the Mountain Goats

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Requested by Ben Vigeant, some weeks ago. He wanted it done in comic form. I don’t know if he was joking or not, but either way, I have obliged him with this crappily inked, obnoxiously rough notebook comic. CONGRATS BEN.

Regular, TEXT album reviews will come soon, I assure all of you. I know I have been lazy lately. Call it a post-holiday creative funk.

Oh, and here’s another gag comic just in case you REALLY missed me.