The New Releases Shelf: Everything Now

arcade fire

When I first heard songs from Reflektor, the fourth album from Arcade Fire, I was left a little cold. The long run-up to that album, the Montreal band’s follow-up to the surprise Grammy winner The Suburbs, doled out songs one by one. The strategy was meant to tantalize, but it did the material a disservice. Individually, the track could seem muddled, aimless, overburdened by a seeming attempt to present a sonically different identity for the band. Together, though, they cohered into something grand and complicated. Emboldened by success, Arcade Fire was intent to keep growing, evolving, challenging.

I shared this observation as acknowledgement that I consider my initial reactions to Arcade Fire music to be a little suspect. With each new release, there are mysteries afoot, and, more than any of their contemporaries, Arcade Fire is a band that operates with a stealthy ingenuity. While they have a flair for opening salvos — whether advance singles or opening tracks — that fiercely demolish expectations, their clearest, more enviable skill is a level of musical craft that seeps into the psyche. Their music lasts.

Everything Now is Arcade Fire’s fifth album, and it has already stirred some of the predictable commentary about unwanted shifts in sound. To my ears, it takes no more dramatic of a step than any of its predecessors. It draws on an expands on the clamorous electronics of Reflektor, just as Reflektor took and transformed the fevered propulsive energy of The Suburbs, and that album was an understandable next step from the complex layering of Neon Bible. Only someone who hasn’t sampled the band since the days of their debut, Funeral, should find the sound of Everything Now jarring.

And when Everything Now is at its most grand and grabbing — at its most immediate — it is as good as all of those terrific earlier albums. The title cut sparkles with Abba-esque pop flair, driven by dreamy swirls bracketing an exuberant chant, like it’s just waiting for the modern equivalent of Olivia Newton-John roller skating her cares away. The lyrics are less celebratory, sketching out an existence of helpless consumption that bludgeons the soul, that friction is part of what makes the track strong. There are similar gratifying contradictions on the skittering “Creature Comfort” and the air disco of “Electric Blue.” The lyrics can get a touch too leaden, burdened by ill-conceived melding of the literal and the coyly cryptic, but the band’s showmanship provides a good enough disguise much of the time.

Although I’m inclined to give the band quite a but of latitude, there are stretches that come across as half-baked or otherwise poorly thought out. “Chemistry,” with its odd Reggae-tinged beat, plays like an experiment that no one involved had the nerve to veto, and and the double dose of “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” misguidedly marvels at the different ways the second word can be pronounced and the altered meanings that come with the shift. It’s presumably meant to be cheeky, but it winds up merely dopey, the intellectual posturing of a teen who thinks they’re the first to discover a philosophical pun.

There’s fine material on Everything Now. Arcade Fire is likely awash in too much creativity to turn in a true dud — at this point, at least — but the new album is the first to suggest they can stretch little notions too far, until they snap and recoil back to leave a nasty welt. I thought bits and pieces of prior albums were drab until they eroded my resistance, so gradual forces might also be at play here. What’s different is that I’d occasionally found passages of the earlier albums drab, and Everything Now sometimes crosses over to grating.

Maybe I’m judging too quickly. I’ve been mistaken before. It’s time to live with Everything Now, holding out hope it will win me over. It’s got a tougher task than I ever would have expected.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 8

8 blinded

8. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me with Science”

Ray Milton Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1933. A sound engineer by training and by trade, Dolby spent the early nineteen-sixties working as a technical advisor for the United Nations, lugging recording equipment around India and surrounding areas. As he trundled through long bus rides, he turned over a problem in his head. What steps could be taken, he wondered, eliminate the hiss that invariably marred tap recordings? As he told it, the solution struck him on one of those journeys. Split the recordings into two separate channels of varying volumes, and the hiss would drop away. His idea worked, and, within a few years, the engineer launched an eponymous company, making the Dolby name synonymous with high-quality recordings.

Around the time Ray Dolby was traversing South Asia, Thomas Morgan Robertson came into the world, in London. A jet-setter in his boyhood, due to his Oxford professor father’s archeological excursions, Thomas found his calling in youth choirs, eventually teaching himself various instruments and joining his first band at the tender age of fifteen. In no time at all, he decided to drop out of school and pursue music full-time, eventually securing a spot in Bruce Woolley’s band Camera Club. Thomas Robertson decided to adopt a stage name. Since he was constantly tinkering new electronic tricks in making his music, he settled on a name that represented technological advancement in recording. He became Thomas Dolby.

According to Dolby — meaning Thomas rather than Ray from here on in — the success of “New Toy,” a song he wrote for Lene Lovich, convinced him that he was a strong enough crafter of music to go out on his own. His earliest attempts at securing a record deal didn’t go well, an Dolby eventually took a lucrative gig playing with Foreigner. He took the earnings and started his own label, Venice in Peril. Through that endeavor, Dolby finally got his deal with a major label, signing an agreement with EMI that included an advance to make his first album.

Part of the advance went toward an intricate digital synthesizer that Dolby referred to as a “wave computer.” Mostly, though, he called it Henry. With his electronic boon companion, Dolby worked in the material that made up his debut full-length, The Golden Age of Wireless, released in 1982.

Since Dolby felt like a technological pioneer with his various gizmos, he toyed around with an image of himself as a mad scientist, playing amidst test tubes in a sterling white lab coat. The field of music video was emerging at this point, leading Dolby to adapt this persona to the form, sketching up an idea for a faux silent film adventure that suited the part he was already playing. “I thought I could do a silent film with a soundtrack,” Dolby later said. “I was being identified as a bookish geek, so I decided to embrace it. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna be a geek, I’ll be a cool one. I need a hot Japanese lab assistant and a nice, vintage motorcycle.'”

After the music video concept was in place, Dolby set about writing an accompanying song. He started with a title he thought would work nicely: “She Blinded Me with Science.”

“I very often come up with the title first,” Dolby explained. “I have a notebook filled with potential song titles, and I work backwards from there. I visualize an empty stage with a spotlight, and a guy walks into the spotlight and starts to sing a song called ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’ What does it sound like? What’s the groove? What are the words? What’s the chord sequence? I fill in the blanks from there, and it becomes like a crossword puzzle.”

In the case of “She Blinded Me with Science,” the pop music charts argue that Dolby’s puzzle-solving worked. The track is by far his biggest hit, making it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Dolby’s only song to register in the U.S. Top 40 — and enduring as the unofficial theme song of all things even mildly scientific in the world. Dolby has been game about the song’s long reach — performing it alongside the likes of Buzz Aldrin, for instance — despite his conviction that it’s one of the most frivolous works he’s ever created.

“When I play it now, I still get a big kick out of it,” said Dolby. “I mean, I’m perfectly proud of the song, and it’s got a great groove and loaded with hooks. And when I play, it’s iconic, I think, for many people. Especially people who were around the first time. It makes people very happy.”

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive — Five for Friday, Let’s Put on a Show! edition

roxie

On this Saturday, I am giving myself over to the cultural sensation of our time. so I reach back to the little diversion I once cooked up (or co-opted, anyway) for a weekly bit of relief at the end of the working week. Five for Friday entailed a music list of five entries — usually songs — under a theme and an invitation to others to chime in with their own selections. As I did in the most recent instances one of these quintets was excavated from the archive, I created a YouTube playlist that includes my five selections and all of those offered up by others (often more cunning and inventive than me) in the comments. This particular exercise took place over ten years ago. Bear that in mind when listening through. If I repeated it today, I’ve no doubt my extended crew of collaborators would have stocked the list mightily with Hamilton songs. 

Five Great Songs From Musicals

1. “Roxie” from Chicago. I’ll ‘fess up right now that my exposure to musicals on the stage is limited to some college productions, so even though we’re talking about a song that’s been famously performed by Broadway babies like Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking, it’s Renee Zellweger I hear in my mind’s ear when I think of this song. Despite the fact the Renee seems to engender a lot of animosity from some, I think she’s a spot-on perfect Roxie Hart and the neediness, aggression, rickety showmanship and bravado of the character all come through in her performance of this song. To me, the songs in a musical need to be sung well, but they need be acted well, too, and that’s beautifully accomplished here. And there’s no way I’m going to pass up the opportunity to quote the line I never get tired of: “And Sophie Tucker’ll shit I know/To see her named get billed below/Roxie Hart.”

2. “Wig in a Box,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I find the film thrilling for its daring and the terrifically bold performance of John Cameron Mitchell in the lead role. As much as I like all of the songs, the designated showstopper is indeed the one that wowed me the most upon initial viewing and still the one that will make me stop everything to listen to it if the CD is spinning in our household. The slight, sly vocal gymnastics Mitchell employs through this song are wonderful.

3. “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from “Red, White and Blaine” in Waiting for Guffman. Just as “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” in A Mighty Wind manages to preserve the comic, mocking tone while still standing apart as a sweet little song in its own right, this simple duet between Corky (Christopher Guest) and Libby Mae (Parker Posey) always disarms me with its genuine charm. “A penny for your thoughts/A dime for your dreams/Would a bright, shiny quarter/Buy a peek at your schemes.”

4. “I’ll Never Tell” from the “Once More, with Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the middle of Buffy‘s run, it was a given that episodes that credited series creator Joss Whedon behind the keyboard and the camera were episodes that were going to be infused with a different sort of creativity, even brilliance. This is last of those episodes, wherein well-established sci-fi/comic-book geek Whedon revealed himself to be, above all else, a musicals geek. The beauty of Buffy was that anytime you wanted to try something different, you just had to have a demon show up in town with powers that suited your needs. If you wanted to have an episode with no dialogue, just bring in a demon who steal people’s voices. If you want a musical episode with your characters singing and dancing…

In particular, Whedon’s love for Sondheim’s wordy playfulness pops up in many of the songs, including this one, a duet between Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caulfield) in which the engaged couple reveal their hidden fears about their pending marriage in song. It’s also the place where Whedon lets his deconstructionist tendencies flow most freely. For example, one character interrupts the other mid lyric and is chastised with “This is my verse, hello!” And how do you not like a song that includes the line “She eats these skeezy cheese that I can’t describe.” My god, I wrote a lot on that one song. The sad thing is, I could write a lot more. I’d best keep the next one short.

5. “Singin’ in the Rain” from Singin’ in the Rain. Maybe the single greatest movie scene ever.

One for Friday: The Weakerthans, “Tournament of Hearts”

weakerthans

One of the gifts of discovering a deep and abiding love of music right around the time a necessary transition to adulthood looms is the sudden access to a dazzling universe of sonic art that can provide a vocabulary of self, set to a fierce backbeat and slashing guitar chords. When I was still struggling to articulate who I was at my spinning core, I could find songs that resided close enough to my internal self that they were like displaced autobiographies. When I played them—especially as part of a radio playlist—they were declarations of identity.

As my journey of existential restiveness progressed from the urgency of youth to the shrugging casualness of middle age (presumably soon to the panicky regrets connected to looming mortality in old age), I found less need for songs that mirrored my state of mind. That’s a good thing, especially since there aren’t that many rock ‘n’ roll songs about what a pain in the ass it is to refinance a mortgage. But I can readily place myself back in the eddy of teen (and post-teen) angst when the right song comes along. “Tournament of Hearts,” by the Weakerthans, is the right song.

The emotional crescendo of the lyrics involves climbing atop a table scattered with empty beer bottles to yell out a lament of personal inadequacy. While that blast of  could have been enough, the song is spotted with details that were poignantly familiar from my time growing up in the Upper Midwest: the 50/50 raffle, the gathering hall filled with farmers, the thought of trekking home on snowy roads. (The Weakerthans were Canadian rather than, say, Wisconsinites, but, hey, they’re basically the same.) Even the bit about peeling away at the label on a beer bottle is spot-on.

Released in 2007, this song wasn’t there when it spoke directly to who I was. But I remember well enough to make “Tournament of Hearts” resound.

Listen or download –> The Weakerthans, “Tournament of Hearts”

(Disclaimer: Unlike other entries in this series, I believe the album that houses this song, Reunion Tour, is available for purchase from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. So let the sharing of this mp3 be encouragement to go out and buy the full release rather than encouragement to be a cheapskate about it. And buy a few more records while you’re at it. Your soul will glow a little brighter. Although I believe this humble act of sharing should fall under the tragically eroding concept of fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

My Writers: Lester Bangs

bangs

When I arrived at college, it took me some time to use the university library for academic purposes. That’s not wholly accurate. I spent an adequate number of hours in that bulky building partaking in endeavors that were associated with assignments, whether researching for papers or claiming a quiet cubby to study for a looming exam. But my strongest memories revolve around the times I stalked the stacks in search of books that would never have made their way into the local library of the small Wisconsin town I called home during my high school years. One of the first tomes I sought out was a compendium of the writing of Lester Bangs.

This was 1988, well before Bangs was immortalized on film in a beautiful performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but in the wake of him being memorably namechecked in R.E.M.’s monumental “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Bangs, who died in 1982 at the tender age of thirty-three, was already a mythic figure. He famously (or infamously) wrote about rock ‘n’ roll music with an opinionated fervor that was too challenging for Rolling Stone. The venerable magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, fired Bangs over a scathing review of a Canned Heat record, which only cemented the writer’s legend.

By the time I picked up the collection of Bangs’s reviews, entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, I’d already been reading rock reviews with a mortifying intensity for years. Accordingly, I knew the names of many rock writers, mostly in the Rolling Stone stable — Anthony DeCurtis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh among them — but aside from a couple of artist preferences, I couldn’t identify distinctive traits associated with any of them. They represented a monolithic example of how to write about rock and pop.

Bangs was different, immediately and immeasurably. I disagreed with some of his opinions — sometimes vehemently — but I recognized that they were written with a headlong urgency, a haphazard freedom that could only be indulged by someone with a vivid command of the language. The rock writing I to which I was accustomed was comparatively dutiful and serene. That writing was, in short, antithetical to the raucous rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll itself. Bangs was different. He channeled the tense exuberance of the music he loved and transformed it into words on a page. Other writers might have been better at describing how a song sounded, but Bangs was peerless in describing how it felt. Other writers strained to make rock ‘n’ roll into art. Bangs knew it was better, brighter, rawer, realer if the music was met as something more primal.

Some writers I emulate and some I adore. Bangs is one of those writers who I simply stare at his words, agog that the mechanics of assembling ideas and tapping them onto a page can be accomplished in quite that manner. I could never do that. I’m glad someone could.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Chin Up, Always Up

Today’s political news wore me out. That’s happened a lot in 2017, but today miraculously delivered a whole other set of devastating blows. I’ve been struggling through much of the afternoon and evening to figure out which of the frivolous topics I favor would be appropriate for this space, and I’ve got nothing.

So I cede my little corner of the digital world tonight to a fellow with a fine message and, for me, a familiar last name

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 9

9 driver

9. R.E.M., “Driver 8”

According to guitarist Peter Buck, no song better epitomizes the early era of R.E.M. than “Driver 8.” Released, in 1985, as the second single from Fables of the Reconstruction, the band’s third album, “Driver 8” was the chiming brilliance of the band’s music, rendered in just over three minutes.

“The chord changes, melodies, and harmonies are very representative of what we were doing then,” Buck later reflected.

Before long, Buck even felt it too clearly represented the R.E.M. sound.

“I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep,” he told Rolling Stone, in 1991. “I can write ‘Driver 8’ every day of the week. We all can. In rehearsal, it’s always easy to fall back on a mid-tempo, minor-key rock thing. And we try not to rely on that.”

The actually songwriting that led to “Driver 8” didn’t take place during a band member’s slumber, but it did come together with relative ease. In the liner notes to the R.E.M. “hits” collection Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, Buck recounted how the song had its genesis in the casual creative sessions he undertook with drummer Bill Berry while the two were living together in a dumpy apartment building primarily populated by troubled souls in the midst of the transition process out of group home environments.

“I remember Bill came up with the verse to ‘Driver 8,’ and after he showed it to me he said, ‘I need to run to the market, I’ll be right back.’ I think he went to get some beans or rice or something,” wrote Buck. “In the meantime, I came up with the chorus and the intro riff. Bill came back in about five minutes, and it was done. So I played it for him and he went, ‘Alright, that’s great!’ Bill was totally excited.”

When it came time to build out the lyrics, the song seemed to draw its perspective from one of lead singer Michael Stipe’s chief fascination at the time: the American storytelling culture in the South.

“I was fascinated by the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on these legends and fables to the grandchildren,” Stipe said.

Perhaps part of the reason Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables, for those looking at side two) is so awash in melancholy Southern lore is the displacement the members of R.E.M. were reportedly feeling while recording their third album on the other side of the Atlantic. After working on their first two full-lengths much closer to home, the band went to London’s Livingston Studios to work with the legendary producer Joe Boyd. By most accounts, the experience wasn’t a happy one. A certain pining for home seeped into the grooves of the record.

“It’s a very wistful, nostalgic thing,” bassist Mike Mills noted. “Like trains—when you think of trains in the night, that tugs at your heart a little bit…. The songs remind me of sitting in my room, fixing to go to bed, and hearing a train a few miles off.”

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.