Album Review: "Don’t Stop The Music" by Robyn


Taste doesn’t make sense. I didn’t care about Body Talk Pt. 2 even a little bit the first time I heard it in September. I was on a big Kylie Minogue kick at the time and Robyn was such a critics’ darling that I barely gave her the time of day. My cynicism got the better of me, you see. “Oh, a Snoop Dogg cameo,” I sniffed. “How droll.”

I did get over this attitude, eventually. Thankfully. My buddy Rick Joyce pushed me to give Body Talk another shot, and of course I realized that “In My Eyes” and “Hang With Me” were great and that my first listen-through was some kind of strange fluke (I’ve still never liked “Criminal Intent” but it didn’t even make the full Body Talk album so maybe I shouldn’t care). Then I made the discovery that Robyn had sang a song I was in love with when I was 12 years old and I almost wept. Suddenly I was all on Robyn’s side, which is a silly and embarrassing thing to admit – that I could only appreciate Robyn’s merits after realizing her tenuous connection with an era of pop music I grew up with. In one second I went from viewing her as “some singing lady I do not know anything about” to some kind of 90s teen pop survivor in the same vein as Justin Timberlake. It’s enough to make me warm up to anybody. I have a weak brain.

I have been putting off this review for months now. I’m beyond sick of it and I’ve barely even started writing it yet. It started off as a straight-up Body Talk review until I realized that writing another Body Talk review would be a waste of everyone’s time, but that was only the half of it – the truth is that I like Body Talk so much that the idea of explaining its appeal is intimidating to me. But it’s worth a shot.

Robyn is unique to me because she deals in vulnerability and genuine human emotion, something that is rare in modern dance pop. Most dance pop stars either take a stab at profundity and fail miserably, or just don’t give a shit. Lady GaGa (who Robyn has been wrongly compared to by critics over and over again) is all about spectacle and razor-toothed confidence; Kylie Minogue’s Aphrodite is designed to be the Ultimate Never-Ending Dance Party Full Of All The Beautiful People (UNEDPFOATBP). This is all well and good, but Robyn deals in the same sounds and still manages to come across as relatable, which is strange. I am not usually “the guy” to pour over lyrics but my favorite songs on Body Talk – “Dancing On My Own,” “Indestructible,” “Hang With Me,” “Time Machine,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” etc. etc. – marry impeccable club-ready dance beats with complex, vulnerable, self-defeating lyrical themes so effectively that it is almost perverse.

What I mean is, “Dancing On My Own” is maybe the most effective anti-dance dance song released in a long time. It is a song about sitting alone in the club feeling like garbage and not enjoying yourself while the object of your affection is with somebody else, just barely out of your view. That’s it. “Call Your Girlfriend” starts with “call your girlfriend / it’s time you had the talk,” an opening couplet so striking and upfront that I can’t imagine it coming from anybody but Robyn. Can you imagine Katy Perry opening a song like that? With two lines that push you into the most painful emotional territory imaginable right from the get-go? Even the Max Martin-penned “Time Machine,” with its bombastic hey-chant superchorus, is all about regret. Doing shitty, shitty things and never being able to take them back. If you can’t relate to songs like these then we are just very different people.

This is why Robyn’s more attitude-driven songs never clicked with me as much – they feel like a front. A defense mechanism. Or maybe I am just too weak of a human being to connect with them. I imagine there are people who can relate to a line like “you should know better than to fuck with me” but I’m not one of them. Maybe I’m not supposed to relate to it?

So that is what I have to say about Body Talk. Maybe it is time to talk about Don’t Stop The Music, a Robyn album that I like but don’t have nearly as much to say about. I wanted to do the responsible thing and talk about a Robyn album that isn’t Body Talk, which I accomplished soundly by talking about only Body Talk for seven straight paragraphs. EXCELLENT WORK.

Don’t Stop The Music sounds like more of a standard 2002-era pop album. Clearly the aggressive-yet-vulnerable Robyn persona has not fully taken hold yet, and wouldn’t until her 2005 self-titled album. But there are hints, the most obvious one being “Should Have Known,” which popped up in re-recorded form on Robyn but made its first appearance here. Its dejected, defeated tone sounds like an obvious antecedent to most of Body Talk, but it eschews drama for a more introspective morning-after approach. But some of Music‘s charm comes from songs that would never appear on a modern Robyn album, like the gosh-darn adorable ballad “O Baby” or the hushed fidelity ode “Blow My Mind.” I remember not caring about the last four or five songs on it, though. The last time I listened to it.

Oh well. The bottom line is that the instantly relatable themes that made Body Talk so appealing to so many people is not present in Don’t Stop The Music, but if you have any interest in Robyn as a persona it is worth seeking out. It’s as transitional as transitional records get, nestled between her producer-controlled teen pop phase in the late 90s and her independent resurgence in the mid-2000s. It’s probably the last album she put out explicitly tailored for a then-dwindling teen pop audience.

Do you get the feeling that this review was headed in a potentially interesting direction? Fancy that. I don’t know what happened. It’s late.

>Album Review: "Collapse Into Now" by R.E.M.


There are a few things I need to say about this new R.E.M. album. Here are those things:

1) I am glad I listened to it all the way through more than once or twice before I decided to sit down and review it. If I hadn’t I would have been all “BUUGUHH IT’S NOT AS GOOD AS ACCELERATE BUHH BUHUHGGUH”

2) It’s not as good as Accelerate.

3) More than one record reviewer has referred to Collapse Into Now as their “comeback album,” as if they hadn’t said the exact same thing about Accelerate three years ago.

4) More than one record reviewer has referred to Collapse Into Now as either a sign of R.E.M. finally returning to their former glory, or as a disappointing mediocrity compared to their ’82-’92 classic period. I even recall somebody saying “I’m sick and tired of all these so-so R.E.M. albums!” What these people need to understand is that R.E.M. are a group of 50-year-old men. Their status as trailblazing alternative jangle-men is way, way behind them. If you are expecting them to record a Document or even an Out Of Time again, you’re fooling yourself. You need to gauge your expectations. Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy.

5) These are some of the worst song titles in the history of anything. “Mine Smell Like Honey”? “Oh My Heart”? “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”? “It Happened Today”? “Discoverer”? “Every Day Is Yours To Win”? I mean – this isn’t – I don’t know.

6) There are some pretty dumb, dumb lyrics on here! And they are impossible to ignore.

7) Michael Stipe’s been sporting a straight-up beard recently. Is it weird that I kind of love Stipebeard?

No. I don’t think it’s weird.

OK I think the “list bit” has run its course. The truth about Collapse Into Now is that it is a pretty solid R.E.M. album despite some stupid lyrics and boring ballads. It mines their past discography just as much as Accelerate did, but it lacks that album’s off-the-cuff energy and affability. You can hear them trying a little harder here, is what I mean. You can tell that the confidence boost from Accelerate‘s positive critical reception pushed them into trying to make an “important” album. They’ve also thrown some Peter Buck mandolin back into the mix in a clear attempt to recapture that Automatic For The People magic that does not really work. “Uberlin” is nice, but “Oh My Heart” is another awkward “Swan Swan H” retread and “Me, Marlon Brando” is pretty dull. And despite being an obvious attempt at re-creating “E-Bow The Letter,” “Blue” could have been a pretty effective piece of sadness if not for Stipe’s completely terrible spoken word poetry oh my GOD MAKE IT STOP.

But here’s the thing – the fast-paced jangly “rockers” on this album are good. Very good! This does not make even a little bit of sense. 50-year-old men should not be this good at writing catchy little rock songs, but man, they still got it! Despite having the world’s worst title, “Mine Smell Like Honey” is wonderfully catchy and features some never-not-great Mike Mills backing vocals, while “Alligator” and “That Someone Is You” are at least Accelerate-worthy. “Discoverer” is a solid “Finest Worksong” remake, “All The Best” would fit in pretty well on New Adventures In Hi-Fi and “It Happened Today” features some painfully gorgeous harmony vocals in its last minute or so (despite having what my friend Rick referred to as a “ridiculously 90s Sister Hazel-esque chord sequence,” which is totally correct).

I did notice – are Stipe’s vocals awkwardly buried in a good chunk of these tracks, or is it just me? You can really hear it on “Discoverer,” especially. It was the first thing that hit me when I previewed some of these songs for the first time. Strange, considering how up-front and strong his vocals were on most of Accelerate and Live At The Olympia. You think there’s something going on, there? Was that a conscious decision, to de-emphasize the vocals? Or maybe he’s losing his voice or something. I don’t know.

Bottom line: Collapse Into Now is exactly the kind of album I would expect from R.E.M. at this point in their career. To expect anything more from them is wrong. If they continue to churn out records of Collapse Into Now-level quality for the rest of their existence, I will be perfectly happy. If not, well, that’s fine. They could retire for all I care. They’re a bunch of middle-aged men who have already made a bunch of great, great albums. They don’t need to do anything else. If they want to keep recording music, well, god bless ’em.

Still not as good as Accelerate, though.

>Album Review: "Urban Hymns" by the Verve


I have no idea if anybody reading this post now has been following this blog since the early, mostly forgettable days of 2007 (if you haven’t then you are better off for it, certainly). If you have, you might remember an old New Radicals review in which I referred to Gregg Alexander’s songs as “Big Important Anthems,” a descriptor that I thought was a real hum-dinger at the time. But in retrospect the term is much more appropriate in describing another hallmark of the ever-optimistic late 90s: The Verve’s Urban Hymns.

For god’s sake – Urban Hymns!! That is the actual name of the record. Richard Ashcroft is wearing a bucket hat on the cover. This might be the most intensely late-90s alt rock product ever conceived.

I have no idea why I am writing about this record. Besides nostalgia, of course. I bought Urban Hymns the weekend after my 18th birthday alongside Pinkerton. The latter hit me hard as a vulnerable teenager and has only built in reputation since, becoming my personal adolescent-idiot-bible every time I come back to it. Urban Hymns, on the other hand, has not aged quite as well and I kind of forgot about it for a few years after I graduated high school. But now I view it as kind of a strange predecessor to my eventual (and very brief) obsession with Britpop during my freshman year of college, even if it isn’t a particularly Britpoppy record.

Hey! Did you know that 1997 was apparently the Year Britpop Died according to most renowned music historians? Oasis put out that big fat cocainey mess Be Here Now and everybody simultaneously realized they were a bunch of cockmen. Radiohead did OK Computer and the Verve did Urban Hymns which precluded the mellower British sounds of Travis and Coldplay. Blur fell in love with Pavement alla the sudden and did “Song 2”. None of this is important.

What do you get with Urban Hymns. You get a bunch of heavily-produced 90s ballads about drugs probably, sharing album space with some vague psychedelia and some attempts at “rocking” that are not particularly thrilling. Not to mention way, wayy too long – “The Rolling People” and “Come On” are not nearly good enough to justify 7 and 15 minutes, respectively. Good lord!! Urban Hymns suffers from that unfortunate 90s tendency to fill up 80 minutes of CD space with a bunch of 3-minute tracks stretched out to 5 or 6 minutes each, making for a needlessly overlong behemoth (see also: Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, R.E.M.’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi).

But I would be a bona-fide lying man if I told you the ballads on here do not turn me into a blubbering fool every time I play them. The impact of the big hit “Bittersweet Symphony” has kind of dulled over time for me, but hey. “Space And Time”? “Lucky Man”? “The Drugs Don’t Work”? “One Day”? Hoo-jeez. You would be hard-pressed to find alt-rock ballads more expertly manipulative. Big Important Anthems that make you want to hug a man hard. If you don’t have a nostalgic connection to this kind of music like I do you might just think it’s a load of syrupy bullshit, and you would probably be right. End of review.

I have been living in Chicago for almost a year now. I just recently got a job, so. Now I’m stuck here. Don’t think that I’m bitter about this, because I am a happy happy man, having a job that involves me getting paid. This is nothing but good. But I hate listening to music like this because all I think about is home. Of course, there’s nothing left for me at home now besides my family – all my friends are off doing better things, and good for them. After I moved back home after college I had a boring job for a year and never left my house, and I was miserable. But fucking music like this, it makes me feel like there is something left back home, and I am abandoning it every second I am not there. It’s stupid, stupid. A total lie. Why would I put myself through this??

It’s trash. Manipulative garbage. You’re better off with Coldplay. Fuck you!!

i am never going to write a decent review ever again

>Album Review: "See You On The Other Side" by the Mercury Rev

Some part of me thinks that if had I heard The Soft Bulletin for the first time at age 23 instead of age 18, it would not have affected me nearly as much as it has. A small part of me, at least. I don’t think that many people would call Bulletin a “teenager album,” but as the record I held nearest and dearest to my heart during the summer before I left home for college – a summer that really felt like the LAST SUMMER of my ENTIRE LIFE – The Soft Bulletin became an aural document of every terrifying emotion I was feeling at the time, amped-up and blown apart for maximum impact. In layman’s terms, that one album turned a pretty lackluster transition from one boring school to another into The Biggest Fucking Thing Ever, and every time I hear it I feel like I’m experiencing all those confused, stupid emotions all over again. There are very few records that hit me at the right place and the right time like that one did.

But that’s the thing, see. Right place, right time. I get the impression that if I heard it now I’d be all like “Oh, this is pretty cool!” while preferring to champion lesser-loved Lips albums like Zaireeka or Hit To Death In The Future Head. Not to mention the unfortunate trend of fair-weather Lips fans shrugging off most pre-Soft Bulletin Lips albums as if they were part of some kind of regrettable “early period,” or the fact that the Lips themselves would indulge in obnoxious quirky cuteness shortly after Bulletin‘s success. Had I not been an impressionable youngster in need of some Big Emotional Drumming during an awkward and vulnerable period of transition, I might have felt about The Soft Bulletin the same way I feel about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea – “It’s good, but it’s not a masterpiece, people.”

Why am I even thinking about this. I am thinking about this because I have been listening to the Mercury Rev, a band that is so much like the Flaming Lips that you might even be inclined to call them their “sister band” if they weren’t a bunch of dudes. Not only did they share personnel (Rev lead singer/songwriter Jon Donahue was the Lips’ lead guitarist on In A Priest Driven Ambulance and bassist Dave Fridmann produced pretty much every great Lips album you can name), but they even had similar musical “arcs” throughout the 90s. Both bands started off the decade as druggy-pretty noise rockers, cleaned up their sound a bit after losing one of their key members midway, and ended the decade as ambitious big-hearted sweet-rock balladeers. Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs is pretty much their Soft Bulletin, only released a year earlier, and I feel the same way about it as those previously listed “masterpiece” albums – it’s good and pretty and nice, but I’m not goin’ nuts. I can easily say that I prefer the Rev’s earlier, noisier records, back when “other vocalist” and primo weirdo Dave Baker was still in the band.

Which makes it all the stranger that See You On The Other Side, the first Rev album released after Baker’s departure from the band in 1995, has become my most-listened album by these guys. Is it my favorite? I don’t know. It’s considered by most critics to be a decent but awkward transition between their noisier stuff and their cleaner stuff, so maybe my penchant for bucking mass critical opinion is getting the better of me. But it’s a mostly lovely and fascinating listen – especially considering that it was released in ’95, a few years before the Lips would indulge in these sorts of Brian Wilson-y pretty sounds themselves. Considering how close these two bands were, I have no doubt that Other Side was an influence on what would eventually become Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin.

What See You On The Other Side lacks is the full-blown “wall-of-sound masterpiece” production that Deserter’s Songs and The Soft Bulletin were going for, but that’s actually kind of an asset here. A big part of Other Side‘s charm lies in its humility and subtlety – its big, emotional moments build gradually, and never feel cheap. It also isn’t above incorporating noisy rock guitars into the mix, an element both bands would willfully abandon by the end of the decade – as pretty as “Empire State” and “Sudden Ray Of Hope” are, it’s kind of exhilarating to hear both of them ending with chaotic bursts of feedback. Other Side‘s worst songs are the ones that eschew subtlety for a more obvious approach – “Young Man’s Stride” is straight-up hard rock, which just sounds dopey and unconvincing in the wake of all this good-natured prettiness, while on the other hand “Everlasting Arm”‘s overly precious Pet Sounds approach pushes dangerously close to Polyphonic Spree territory. It’s a testament to the quality of the album that neither song is bad, necessarily – just kind of awkward.

But then you have a track like “Racing The Tide,” my favorite on here, which takes a line as simple as “I’m so close / I’m almost inside” and turns it into a gorgeous, immaculately-produced indie rock anthem, full of gentle guitars and violins and trembly multi-layered Donahue vocals. And right when you think it’s over, it bursts into “Close Encounters Of The Third Grade,” featuring hip-hop beats and wailing female backup vocals that are so wonderfully 90s dated they make me want to cry. I mean this as a compliment.

(Worth mentioning: the album came out in 1995, when I was actually IN third grade. Coincidence? Yes.)

Oh, did I mention the big key difference between the Flaming Lips and the Mercury Rev yet? I don’t think I did. The Mercury Rev are big sappy romantics – or at least Jon Donahue is. With Dave Baker out of the picture Donahue was finally able to indulge in all of his sweet romantic fantasies, and See You On The Other Side was the immediate result. Which is why you’ve got a track called “A Kiss From An Old Flame” on here. It’s a more significant difference than you might imagine – can you think of a single Flaming Lips love song that isn’t completely fatalist and depressing? Can you?? The Rev have none of that. No sad creepy darkness. Just love. Which is why I don’t think I’d be able to handle their later stuff. I’ve heard they got even sappier after the new millenium, but I haven’t heard any of those records yet. I’m rambling.

I’ve long forgotten how to end music reviews.

Good night.

>Album Review: "Aphrodite" by Kylie Minogue



A memo to 90% of modern indie bands making feeble, “post-ironic” attempts at dance-pop: Kylie Minogue has you beat. By a long shot. This is everything pop music should be – over-the-top synths, insistent beats, cliched lyrics, and overwhelmingly catchy hooks. With Minogue there’s no hint of the obnoxious self-awareness that poisons so many wannabe dance bands circa 2010. No painful falsettos, no “hilariously quirky” 8-bit sound effects, no pointlessly wordy lyrics – just simple, fun pop music. Minogue isn’t putting on an act, here; this is what she does, what she’s always done. And she does it well.

Kylie Minogue has been recording pop music for a solid two decades, and she is somehow recording music in her 40s that is substantially better than anything she did in her 20s. Which is kind of ridiculous, when you think about it; she’s like a bizarro Madonna, or something. Before this year’s Aphrodite, I had only (VERY recently) heard a couple of Minogue’s other records: 2000’s Light Years and 2001’s Fever, both chock-full of fantastic millennial disco-pop that I felt guilty having missed out on for so many years (as a self-proclaimed connoisseur of early 2000s pop, this was especially hurtful). These records made two things abundantly clear: one, Kylie Minogue knows good pop music; two, Kylie Minogue cares about making her records consistent, which isn’t even necessary. She could’ve just put out a bunch of great singles and filled the rest of her records with filler pap like every other teen pop act out there, but instead Light Years and Fever are so impressive front-to-back that even the lesser tracks feel like they belong.

Aphrodite continues this trend, but things are a little different. As great as Light Years and Fever were, they indulged in over-the-top campiness so thoroughly that they came perilously close to ironic jokiness (Light Years especially). I don’t get that vibe from Aphrodite; it sounds more forceful, more committed. Not to mention that it’s less of a disco record and more of a synth-pop one, which I guess is emblematic of the year it was recorded. Where Light Years came out during the “DISCO IS COOL AGAIN!” era, Aphrodite is here in the midst of the “80s DANCE IS COOL AGAIN!” era, so it treads dangerous ground. A cynic might accuse Minogue of playing catch-up with the likes of Lady GaGa and La Roux, and they may be right. But it doesn’t matter, ’cause Aphrodite is better than both.

Oh ho, I could prattle on and on about the songs this record. I could! So I will. I love Aphrodite because it does not waste a second. The first word you hear is “DANCE,” and it does not let up from there. “All The Lovers,” “Get Outta My Way,” “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)” – impossible not to dance to. You will dance to them. If you think you won’t, you are wrong! “Everything Is Beautiful” you might not dance to, though, because it is a ballad. But you might anyway. “Better Than Today” is a great pop song. Even if a couple tracks during the second half aren’t as good as the rest, the record ends with “Looking For An Angel” and “Can’t Beat The Feeling,” two of the best tracks here. It’s 43 minutes long and nearly flawless. You can’t ask for anything more from a pop album.

Honestly, Aphrodite is nothing new or shockingly original. It probably could have been recorded a decade ago. And nobody’s saying Kylie Minogue is a fantastic vocalist or anything – I imagine her cutesy cooing is probably really annoying to some people – but she knows how to deliver these songs, and that’s all that matters. I won’t deny for a second that my intense love of this record isn’t completely personal; Aphrodite embodies all of the great dance music I grew up with, delivered without apology or condescension. It gives off that irresistible feeling of the perfect all-night party, one that could never possibly exist. In layman’s terms, I feel like this record was made just for me, and that is a feeling that cannot be taken for granted.

OK, I feel like I’m losing myself here, so how’s this for a comparison: Aphrodite is like if the Backstreet Boys’ last record didn’t completely suck after the first four songs. Because I know all of you out there spent $19.99 on a copy of that record immediately upon its release, and as such know exactly what I’m talking about.

Right? Right! Wasn’t “PDA” such a stupid fucking song?? I knowww.

>Album Review: "Fables Of The Reconstruction" by R.E.M.



Oho, so here I am, writing about R.E.M. again. I have been listening to so SO much new music recently, and yet all I have to show for it is a review of an album – and a band – that I have loved since the beginning of time. Way to work outside of your comfort zone, Rose.

But I have an excuse! Today’s record, 1985’s Fables Of The Reconstruction, was just recently re-released – and, thankfully, it is getting a whole slew of long-deserved positive press. This is good news, considering that Fables tends to be the one early R.E.M. record that is continually ignored, even by diehard fans; not only was it sandwiched uncomfortably between Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant, but the band was not at all happy with the record by most accounts, and fans decided to follow their lead by not even bothering to hear it. Which is pretty dumb, when you think about it. Didn’t XTC hate Skylarking for a while? Like, their most celebrated and beloved album? Yeah.

Bands are stupid.

Guess R.E.M. got over it, though, considering that they perform Fables tracks in concert all the time now. So we can all stop being so dumb. Fables holds a unique position in R.E.M.’s discography for a few reasons: one, it’s the band’s first concept album, with a set of songs exploring legends of the rural South; two, it’s the last album of R.E.M.’s elliptical early years, before Lifes Rich Pageant turned them into an arena-rock band; and third, it’s possibly their darkest album, the inverse of Reckoning‘s summertime-fun college rock. The latter point is probably the main reason so many people have trouble with Fables – it takes the least accessible traits of R.E.M.’s first two albums and magnifies them, pushing Michael Stipe’s vocals even further back into the mix and drenching every track in moody guitar murk. Just a comparison of opening tracks makes these differences clear: where Murmur and Reckoning kicked off with radio-friendly college rock anthems, Fables opens with the clangy guitars of “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” a song so unfriendly it sounds almost like it was designed to push the listener away.

This was my Fables dilemma, for a while. Lifes Rich Pageant has long been my favorite 80s R.E.M. record, and Fables is almost its exact opposite in every conceivable way; I just didn’t know how to approach it. But Fables is a record that rewards (or, in some cases, requires) multiple listens, revealing itself to be possibly R.E.M.’s finest exercise in establishing mood and drawing the listener in. Individual tracks might not be as catchy or ingratiating as Murmur‘s and Reckoning‘s, but neither of those records could boast a sound as all-engulfing as “Maps And Legends”‘s foreboding jangle, or “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”‘s disarming chorus. If Reckoning felt like a lovely drive through the neighborhood, Fables feels like a dirt-road slog in the dead of night, where everything is obscured and nothing is certain.

But despite all that murkiness, this is still an early-period R.E.M. record through and through, full of gorgeous melodies, Peter Buck guitar jangling and Mike Mills/Bill Berry harmonies. Most fans probably already know “Driver 8,” even if they haven’t heard Fables – it’s one of their best and most popular early singles – but there are so many worthy album tracks here it’s ridiculous. My personal favorite, “Green Grow The Rushes,” is one of Peter Buck’s finest moments, a winding tapestry of folk-rock guitar beauty. It’s got an environmental message, but one so thoroughly packaged in melodious songcraft that it never comes across as preachy or obnoxious – it’s a should-be R.E.M. classic, is what I’m trying to say. The dramatic echo of tracks like “Life And How To Live It” and “Good Advices” give the record a palpable sense of energy (the latter featuring the immortal Stipe lyric “When you meet a stranger / look at his shoes / keep your money in your shoes”), while “Kohoutek” and “Old Man Kensey” revel in that creepy Old South vibe. And, of course, there are the two great tracks that are completely at odds with the mood of the record: the goofy horn-driven “Can’t Get There From Here,” the earliest inkling that R.E.M. actually had a sense of humor, and the understated country ballad of “Wendell Gee” that closes the album on an unusually friendly note.

Oh, also worth noting: if you love Mike Mills counterpoint harmony vocals, Fables is going to make you a very happy man. They are all over this fucking thing. “Can’t Get There From Here” is maybe the best example, but “Maps And Legends” and “Wendell Gee” benefit greatly from his presence. God, I love that guy.

Man, there is no better time to get into Fables. It is an excellent portrait of a band at the peak of their powers, delivering one more moody masterpiece before diving headlong into the mainstream. I wouldn’t recommend it for newbie R.E.M. fans – it’s a little too uninviting – but dedicated listeners have no excuses. Give in.

To close things out, here’s a fun live performance that answers the eternal question: “What if R.E.M.’s classic, outspoken anthem ‘Fall On Me’ sounded like a track from Chronic Town?” Here is your answer:

>Album Review: "Broken Bells" by Broken Bells


ring them belles

I have always been a Danger Mouse fan. I have never been a Shins fan. So when I heard that Danger Mouse recorded an album with the Shins guy, I was all like “ehhh I dunno, man” and decided not to listen to it.

But then I listened to it and realized that, hey, it’s pretty good and I like it! Man, what a twist.

See now, I was embellishing a bit when I said “I have never been a Shins fan.” What I meant to say was “I heard a few of their songs here and there, wasn’t crazy about them, and made a concerted effort to not bother with any of their studio releases as a result. Also, fucking Garden State, jesus christ.” Which, you know, is a completely unfair judgment. And now I’m thinking – if James Mercer is just as bearable on all those Shins albums as he is here, maybe I should give them a chance? Yes. Maybe I should.

I mean, I could say Danger Mouse is the only reason I like this record, but that wouldn’t be right either. Mercer’s voice is all over this thing, for one. I always pinned Mercer’s vocals as too introverted and dull for my tastes (“New Slang,” for one, which features one of the most bored vocal deliveries I have ever heard), but on Broken Bells he really sounds like he cares, which is a definite plus. He and Danger Mouse make for a surprisingly compatible duo: Mercer writes a bunch of pretty, mournful low-key tunes, and Danger Mouse bathes them in the atmospheric electronics that are his signature. The best thing I can say about Broken Bells is that it reminds me of my personal favorite DM production, Gorillaz’ Demon Days; like that album, it indulges in a sweet electronic haze, but doesn’t sound meandering or self-indulgent.

At least, for the most part. Some of the songs on Broken Bells‘ second half don’t thrill me too much (a little too Shins-y, I guess?). But there are a lot of cool things going on here. My personal favorite track would have to be “Your Head Is On Fire,” which somehow manages to evoke all the splendor of a Pet Sounds instrumental without being completely obnoxious, a nearly impossible feat nowadays. There’s also the cool dark electronics of “Vaporize” and “October,” the expansively pretty opener “The High Road,” and “The Mall & Misery” which manages to beat Phoenix at their own sordid little pop-rock game.

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to Broken Bells‘ big hit single, “The Ghost Inside,” which I was not fond of upon first listen but I now accept as a decently funky track. Here is my thing: I have a real problem with indie rock white dudes trying to be funky. I think it is a stupid, obnoxious trend that needs to end as soon as possible. Not that I don’t think white dudes can be funky – if the Bee Gees can, who can’t? – but in recent years it sounds to me like a mocking, self-important stab at relevance by a bunch of clueless white-boy Prince fetishists. It’s silly, empty posturing. So when I first heard Mercer’s over-the-top falsetto on “The Ghost Inside,” my immediate reaction was to pause the track, rest my face in my hands and squeeze until I went numb. But soon I realized, hey! It’s pretty much a Gorillaz song! And that falsetto, Damon Albarn does that a whole lot, doesn’t he? So it would be pretty hypocritical of me to demonize “The Ghost Inside.” It’s good, and it’s the only song on here featuring Mercer’s funkmaster highvoice, so I can’t get too mad at him.

So there you are. I like Broken Bells. You will, too, if you like Danger Mouse. And the Shins, I guess. I wouldn’t know.

As for the “I hate funky indie rock dudes,” that is a subject that will pop up again in the near future, I can assure you. Whether you like it or not.