Music review entries

August 27, 2005

Did we miss anything?

5 out of 5 stars

It had to happen. Most people who know me are probably aware of my rather over enthusiastic love of R.E.M. and any regular readers of my blog can't have failed to notice 2 overly long gig reviews and numerous references. However I felt the need to write something more substantial, and a 3 hour car journey has provided just the inspiration.

I've always loved Murmur, however it wasn't until this afternoon that I realised just how great this album is. I like all of R.E.M.'s albums and they are the only band that I can honestly say that there are no songs on any of their records that I dislike, so you could be forgiven for thinking that my claim of how great this album is is biased and simply a result of my enthusiasm. But re-listening to the album twice in a row it really hit me just how important this record is to music in the last 20 years. The fact that 2 books have been written about it and it recently featured at number 87 in Uncut Magazine's list of the 100 greatest icons not just in music but in film as well is testament to its importance in modern music. I'm not sure how long this entry will drag on for but I have quite a lot to say so I apologise in advance if this becomes self-indulgent and turns into an entry which is only of interest to me but hopefully this won't be the case.

First off I can't understand how anybody, music lover or not, doesn't like R.E.M. There are people who describe them as boring or depressing or unoriginal. If you are reading this and any one of those things applies please do yourself and me a favour and go out and buy this album. People who think that this band make depressing music are severely mistaken. Whenever I ask why I get the usual answer of "well Everybody Hurts is a really sad song" or something like that. I just find this incredible. Besides the fact it is one of the most uplifting songs ever recorded it isn't really representative of R.E.M.'s catalogue. As for being boring and unoriginal, again listen to Murmur; it is clear that it has many influences and imitates several other pre-existing sounds but it also creates much that is new and has itself been much copied. Just listen to the Bloc Party album, try and isolate what is original about that album and then go and listen to Murmur and you'll find exactly the same thing. This album is the blueprint for all the current indie bands, whether this is direct influences (Elbow cites Murmur as a major source of inspiration) or simply through the evolutionary processes that result when a good idea is taken and developed. Listening to this album today made me realise just how 'new' it sounds.

Before I continue I must make it clear that Murmur is not my favourite R.E.M. album, that honour goes to Out of Time, but I do think that it may be their best and certainly their most important. Let’s begin with a bit of history. Great albums always have good stories behind them and this is no exception. Four young guys with vastly different backgrounds and birthplaces converge on the college town of Athens, Georgia. Peter Buck meets Michael Stipe whilst living in a derelict church and working in a local record shop where Stipe buys all of the records that Buck had set aside for himself. They become friends and decide to try and write some songs. Stipe can’t play an instrument and Buck is no expert on the guitar but they manage a few simple compositions. Meanwhile Bill Berry and Mike Mills are busy hating each other; Berry the local bully to Mills's nerd. Until the moment that is when they both unknowingly show up to a jamming session with a mutual friend, at which point they develop a firm friendship. The two duos play in various groups (Mills and Berry in a band with Police drummer Stuart Copeland’s brother Ian) before a mutual friend introduces Buck and Stipe to Berry. Stipe likes Berry’s eyebrows so asks him if he wants to form a band. Berry agrees as long as Mills tags along. They agree until they meet Mills who is too drunk to stand up. Eventually they do rehearse together, the drummer and bass player being clearly more experienced than the singer and guitarist and the band make their debut under the name The Twisted Kites on 5th April at the birthday party of the same friend that introduced them. The set includes at least 8 original songs and cover versions such as Patti Smith’s Gloria, The Velvet Underground’s There She Goes Again and The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. They are a huge success and start playing the local bars in Athens and in December 1980 support The Police. They eventually manage to record a debut EP and a single which they use to market themselves; by this time they are a big hit as a live band and Chronic Town the EP is an underground hit, especially in England. The band is finally signed to IRS after record company boss Miles Copeland does a swap with his brother Ian. Miles signs R.E.M., as they had now become, and Ian signs the all-girl group soon to become known as the Bangles. With influences ranging from The Sex Pistols to Abba via Patti Smith, Television and the Beach Boys and with over 40 original songs already written the band enter the studios and this is what resulted:

The album begins with some almost inaudible crashes, thunderclaps and radio feedback which gradually get louder before Berry’s metronomic drum beat of Radio Free Europe erupts along with Stipe’s mumbled vocal: ‘Beside yourself if radio’s gonna stay’. It is clear from the very start that every instrument is treated with the same emphasis. The drums and bass are brought up in the mix, and the vocals and guitar are taken down so that everything plays on the same level. This album more than any other uses the voice as an instrument, many of the lyrics being almost inaudible, flowing in and out of the guitar licks and drum beats. It is the perfect opener, and why? Because it’s so restrained. This could easily be a thrash rock record replicating the violent energy the band unleashed on stage. But what makes this band so special is that right from the beginning of their career they fail to fall into any of the traps that so many other bands have fallen into when trying to record songs that they have perfect on the stage. Those bands in effect go into the studio and record a live album; the problem being that all of the energy is in the performance and not on the record. With this band all of the energy can be heard loud and clear right from the word go. They hit the perfect middle ground, this is not a live album which loses all the energy nor is it overproduced to the point where the excitement is lost (the first Smiths album is a distinct victim of this; the original demos producing a much better collection of recordings than those eventually released).

A discordant piano can be heard accompanied by distant, distorted and echoing vocals as Stipe repeats ‘Take a turn / Take our fortune’ in the introduction to Pilgrimage. As the volume grows another couple of tricks are pulled out of the bag. One of the most effective techniques employed on this album is the doubling of instruments. The discordant piano begins playing a six note sequence. This same six note sequence is picked up by the bass, the two instruments being indistinguishable. The drums come in filling the spaces in the music and as Stipe begins singing Buck’s guitar also plays the same six notes in time with the bass and piano creating one huge rhythm section. The verse as a result is quite sparse however this makes the chorus extremely effective; heralded by Berry’s double quick drumming the piano, guitar (Buck switches to acoustic for the chorus) and bass split apart producing a chorus with incredible depth and subtlety before once again reverting back to the six note cycle. It is a very unusual song and probably my favourite on the album.

Next up is Laughing the most conventional track so far. Beginning with a winding bass line and almost reggae like drum beat the song builds throughout getting apparently louder and more complicated. The opening three songs demonstrate the diversity that is to follow on the record, this song conforming neither to the straight forward rock of Radio Free Europe nor the strangeness of Pilgrimage.

The next trio of songs continue in a similar way. Talk About the Passion begins with a trademark Buck guitar arpeggio (the influence of Byrd Roger McGuinn showing through). Again Buck switches guitars for the chorus. For the fist time the drums are relegated to their usual position of providing a rhythm. The album appears to have finally settled on a ‘sound’. Until, that it the opening of Moral Kiosk, one of the strangest cuts on the album. The discordant guitar chimes are joined by a suitably wild bass line whilst the drums and vocals whirl through the gaps. As the song approaches the chorus the most incredible moment on the album occurs. Whilst Stipe sings ‘So much more attractive / Inside the moral kiosk’ the song achieves brilliance by enabling the listener to hear a melody that none of the instruments actually play. The drums tap out the rhythm between which the guitar and bass play amazingly complimentary parts which somehow create a third series of notes which fit between the notes the two guitars are playing. It lasts no longer than a couple of seconds but it is spellbinding.

The final song of the trio (and of side A if you have a tape / vinyl) is Perfect Circle. The first, and only, true ballad on the album. Every aspect of this song combines to create a perfect song. A song written by the drummer! How many bands can claim to have a legitimately equal division in song-writing credits between its members? Well this one can. Again the doubling of instrument, this time two pianos played simultaneously by Mills and Berry form the basis of the song. Berry tells how during a tour he was looking out of the venue at twilight and watching some kids playing the last game of touch football before dark and the moment brought him to tears. He asked Stipe to convey this moment when writing the lyrics and as Berry says “There’s no football in there, no kids, no twilight, but it’s all there.” Unlike most of the other songs on Murmur the lyrics are up front in the mix and are fairly intelligible which is a bonus since they are the best set on the record.

Then there is Catapult, possibly the weakest song on the album. It isn’t a bad song, just ordinary, although the guitar part during the bridge is another great musical moment on the record. Next up is another trilogy of songs; Sitting Still, 9–9 and Shaking Through. Sitting Still is another highlight of the album. It is an up-tempo rocker and probably the song that could be said to be most ‘typical’ of the album. It has mumbled lyrics, a strong, clear drum part and jangly guitar. Only the bass part deviates from the norm, providing a much punkier, straightforward backbeat than elsewhere on the album. The chorus is sung with such enthusiasm by Stipe it is difficult not to sing along and the backing vocals provide tight harmonies.

9–9 is the strangest song on the recorded by some length. All of the instruments seem to be playing totally separate parts which if heard individually would seem impossible to fit together. Yet it works. The stop/start of the verse giving way to a more even flow during the chorus. The vocals are perhaps the most indistinct on the album. It is songs like this and Moral Kiosk that Bloc Party could easily pass as their own. Shaking Through is another up-tempo song that shares many similarities with Sitting Still.

Between this song and the next there is a short musical interlude which neatly separates the previous three serious songs from the song that is to follow. We all know that R.E.M. can do pop very well. Shiny Happy People is so bubblegum that the band themselves have disowned it. Stand and Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight are two other radio-friendly tunes which the band wrote with their tongues firmly in their cheek (during their world tour in 1989 Stipe introduced Stand by placing it alongside the theme tune to Chariots of Fire as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written by man). We Walk is a lot of fun. Its playful guitar part is complimented by the simple lyrics. It is a relatively forgettable song but serves to break up the seriousness of the rest of the album and demonstrates a clear sense of fun before the finale, another fast rocker called West of the Fields. All of the instruments propel the listener through the song to the chorus, the lines being shouted by Stipe and echoed by Mills and Berry. An uplifting middle 8 returns us to another frantic verse and final chorus which ends on a hanging note doubled by the guitar and an organ. It is a great way to end the album and as with almost all of the R.E.M. albums that followed leaves you wanting to go straight back to track one and start all over again.

Everything about the album is special. The album cover is mysterious; an area of land in Georgia covered in kudzu; a Japanese weed that spread at lightning speed. The track listing on the back of the vinyl is out of order and the type face difficult to read. When IRS asked for a lyric sheet to be included, Stipe took his favourite lines from songs, some of which weren’t even on the album and arranged them in the form of a paragraph and presented them to IRS who decided a lyric sheet was not needed after all, beginning a tradition that continued up until 1998’s Up. The videos that the band were forced to make to accompany the singles are extremely oblique; if they were going to have to make videos they wanted to make them their own way and not pander to the marketplace. In fact everything about Murmur is geared away from the mainstream. The band wanted commercial success but only when the public were ready to receive them and as a result they lost none of their integrity and were able to make great records which sold reasonably well with very little pressure from the record company.

Nothing like this album existed in America at the time. In 1983 the era of punk was over and the American music industry was swamped with British synth-pop bands like Haircut 100, the Human League and Soft Cell. Murmur (an appropriate name given that at least three of the songs on the album deal with trouble communicating and the lyrics themselves are mainly murmured) filled a gap in the music scene both in America and in England. Joy Division had come and gone, U2 had not found their feet yet and were still trying to put their own spin on the Joy Division sound and the Smiths (the British equivalent of R.E.M. critically, culturally and musically) had yet to reach their full potential. This album became the only real alternative to the dying days of disco, the new wave and the new romantic, synth-pop movement. It was indie and there was very little else around like it at the time. This is the music that the Kurt Cobains and Eddie Vedders of the world were listening to and were inspired by. Only now is its influence really being felt as bands like Coldplay, Elbow, Wilco and Idlewild amongst others cite R.E.M. and particularly Murmur as major influences. In my opinion it still stands (alongside the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa) as the most important rock album of the 80s coming as it did at a time that was crying out for experimental, energy filled music to fill the gap left by punk.

So I would suggest you follow the link above and buy yourself a copy of the album to sit on your shelf alongside your copy of Automatic for the People (which you bought when it came out), Monster (which you bought under the mistaken opinion that this was a stagnant and unexperimental band, expecting Automatic vol.2, and as a result only played it once) and Greatest Hits (which isn’t). Sorry to take up so much of your time and consider yourself informed.

June 06, 2005

Maximo Park – A Certain Trigger

5 out of 5 stars

One of the things I love (or is that love to hate?) about the music industry is their continued ability to latch on to the next-big-thing and stick with it just long enough for a wave of better bands to slip under the radar. The Bloc Party album was the darling earlier this year, and quite rightly, it being one of the best albums out so far this year. Since then there's been the Kaiser Chiefs (an excellent album that i haven't played for weeks and, surprisingly, am not missing in the slightest) and the Bravery, both decent bands but in terms of enduring quality probably not contenders for the 'best album of the year' stakes no matter how much fun they are. As a result of these albums, plus the return of such chart-friendly though frankly rubbish acts such as The Stereophonics and Feeder, smaller bands such as Nine Black Alps, The Departure, the Paddingtons, Tower of London have been virtually ignored by the record buying public. For me this has both positive and negative aspects. Firstly I feel sorry for the acts who don't get the exposure, but I am simultaneously smug at being able to talk to my friends back home about bands and have them not know who I'm talking about. Every now and then a band comes along that deserve to be huge but deep in my heart I want them to remain my little secret; as a result no radio overkill, no stragglers who pretend to have known about the band since they formed and no selling out. Sadly I think I might be too late for Maximo Park.

I won't try to pretend that I was there from the start although there are certain people who can probably say that. But I was still there way before the album came out. I'm not entirely sure how much exposure Maximo Park are getting on national radio, certanly their album wasn't in the Top 40 last week, however it can't be long before they skyrocket because this album is superb. On first listen you hum along trying to second guess where all of the songs are going and almost every time you fail. The singles 'Apply Some Pressure' and 'Graffiti' are the obvious highlights on first listen but this is only because you have heard them before. Once it's been through the player once play it again straight away. After 2 listens 'Graffiti' suddenly disappears from the album; I tend to skip it, I've got a bit bored of it. It''s taken 3 weeks for it to finally sink in but here goes:

'Signal and Sign' begins with a drum beat that sounds a little bit like Fleetwood Mac's 'Tusk' accompanied by a 'Dont Fear the Reaperesque' guitar riff. But then the heavily accented vocals burst out and the song becomes something totally different. It is the perfect opener setting up the stop-start, organ filled rock that is to follow. In a 'playing-it-safe' kind of way the two big singles are up next. 'Apply Some Pressure' is simply incredible. Maximo Park have perfected a structure which splits many of their songs in 2; you get a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus, a second chorus, a chorus, a second chorus and then the verse again so you basically get 2 songs in 1; a very good song building into a great one that stands up to at least 9 weeks of continuous listening. The album version is marginally different to the single version but this is a bonus. Then there is Graffiti, a great song to sing along to or to hear on a night out. Extremely catchy as well. For me it doesn't stand up to as much repeated listening as a lot of the album but then I have been playing it to death for weeks. Probably the album's selling point and it just shows how good an album it is that it is far from the best song in the collection.

'Postcard of A Painting' is a very minimalist song. At 2:15 it doesn't have a great deal of time but manages to say a lot. It has some great lyrics and is just a gnerally good song bridging the gap between 'Graffiti' and current single 'Going Missing' which sounds almost like a rewritten version of Apply Some Pressure, having the same type of structre. But it isn't. Which is good. Another catchy song which starts out being one thing and then turns into something else.

Although a very good album up to this point it is with 'I Want You To Stay' and the two song which follow it that the album really heats its peak. This song is incredibly subtle and as a result it's magnificence isn't immediately apparent but the lyrics are particularly well crafted, particularly the refrain "Nothing works round here / Where cranes collect the sky". With the following song, 'Limassol', the record moves up a gear and it is perhaps for this reason that 'I Want You to Stay' appears to have been overshadowed. 'Limassol's' frantic guitar grabs you by the collar and is the musical equivalent of a ride on the Waltzers; out of control one moment and then suddenly slowing for a refrain that sounds almost like Ocean Colour Scene but cleverer. The highlight is the moment when the song builds into a cacophony of noise before the riff breaks out and tears the song apart again. Blinding.

Then comes 'The Coast is Always Changing'. At first this sounds like the most poppy song on the record, the guitar chimes sounding worryingly familiar, until the first chorus. The melodies in this song are just amazing. This song again uses the 'Maximo Park Song Structure' (see Apply Some Pressure) to create what is at the moment my favourite song on the album and one of the best tracks of the year so far. It sounds so sentimental and heartfelt without sinking into cheesiness in any way. Truly brilliant.

The next three songs change the tone once again. 'The Night I Lost My Head' is two minutes of upbeat songwriting that is for me the weak point of the album. Not that it's a bad song it just doesnt really go anywhere, the only time that this can be said in this collection of songs. 'Once, A Glimpse' pulls it back on track with it's frantic chorus and Whipping Boyesque guitar sound, without pausing for breath.

"Now I'm All Over the Shop" begins by sounding like the most unacomplished piece of songwriting on the record until about the 5th second when it all makes perfect sense with another magnificent refrain which again turns into a rip-roaring chorus. Rapidly becoming one of my favourite tracks on the album.

The penultimate song, 'Acrobat', is far and away the most untypical track in this collection. It basically involves what sounds like a synthy sound wash and drum machines over which the vocals are spoken, apart from the beautifully incongruous chorus "I am not an acrobat / I cannot perform these tricks for you". It sounds like a cross between Air and R.E.M.'s song 'Airportman'. The only complaint here is that it should be the last song on the album. Not that 'Kiss You Better' is a poor finale, which in some ways it is, but the pacing of the record has been changed so impressively by 'Acrobat' that it is difficult to get back into the flow of the uptempo guitars for little more than two minutes, even if it is the most lighthearted cut on the album. It is highly enjoyable but should probably have been slotted earlier on in the record; it ends too suddenly.

This album is a fantastic piece of work and a brilliant debut. Whereas The Bravery and the Kaiser Chiefs appear to have very little potential for progression Maximo Park look set to be around for a while. Five stars may be slightly generous but four sars would be harsh. If you like this album I would suggest R.E.M. debut album Murmur, the drumming and melody patterns are quite similar in style if not entirely comparable.

One tip for the future. Get ready for The Five O'clock Heroes. Hopefully they have an album coming out sometime this year and if the two singles that have already been released are representative of the album then it's going to be amazing. And since we reviewed their first single on RaW a month before it was released I can say that I was there at the start. Let's hope they live up to my expectations. But until then there's Maximo Park and in my opinion this is the best album so far this year.

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