Feb 9 2022

Album Review: R.E.M. – Murmur (#MWE)

R.E.M. is a band whose discography I’ve always wanted to tackle, and now that I’m writing more, it’s something I’ve resolved to complete this year. But now that I’ve officially started, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to top their debut. Murmur is marvelous, melodic, and moving – a historically important album that deserves all the accolades, then and now, for pushing forward a burgeoning new genre just outside of the zeitgeist.

The world’s first taste of R.E.M. was “Radio Free Europe,” what is regarded today as a classic in the world of so-called college rock and one of the touchstones of the sound that morphed into alternative rock and then indie rock. It’s a punchy, highly danceable track; the more midtempo, melodic “Pilgrimage” follows. By this point, two songs into the Athens band’s debut album, we are grabbing ahold of the formula that would make them so important to rock music. Peter Buck’s guitar jangles alongside Michael Stipe’s puzzling, mysterious lyrics, and these are a one-two punch of distinctiveness. But the backbone of Murmur is the soaring melodies provided by bass player Mike Mills, as well as the steady in-the-pocket rhythms of Bill Berry. Backup harmonies from Mills and Berry also give Stipe’s slightly-buried croon a major shine, which didn’t sound as confident as it would become over the next decade.

We hear Mills grab hold of the spotlight in “Laughing” with a strolling Rickenbacker bass line reminiscent of more goth-focused bands of the time like Bauhaus and New Order, before a plucking acoustic guitar takes us back into R.E.M.’s more pastoral territory. “Talk About the Passion” has such an introspective, wistful melody, it sounds like the band is wise beyond their years. Those paramount backup melodies show up again on the hook for “Moral Kiosk,” including some militaristic chanting in the pre-chorus. The band dives into a more contemplative mood on the simple, pretty, piano-based “Perfect Circle.” Later on, things get almost jovial with the skipping “We Walk,” followed by “West of the Fields,” a driving upbeat track that closes the album.

The unsung heroes here are producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, who reportedly let the band roam free over the tracks. Easter almost didn’t get to work with the band on Murmur; however, after botched sessions with Stephen Hague, who resorted to adding keyboard parts to songs without the band’s knowledge, a change was made. The listener will immediately notice a lack of synths, computer enhancements, or self-indulgent guitar solos. R.E.M.’s recording decisions, then considered stubborn, actually lift the album out of the decade it was made. This attitude prevailed throughout the band’s career and explains why their music has aged so impeccably.

What better place to start than at the beginning? I gotta say, I’m thrilled to dive deep into the rest of R.E.M’s output. Apparently the band only improved their sound over time, but it sounds like a complete statement on their debut Murmur, a pivotal record in the moody, introverted sound of alternative rock.

Score: 9/10

Jul 13 2011

Disappointments/Overrated Albums of 2011 So Far

The Disappointments:

Washed Out – Within and Without

Ernest Greene has made the age-old mistake most sophomore slumps make – he has focused too hard on form, and not on content. Abandoning the sharp pop of the impressive Life of Leisure EP for a bland, boring follow-up, Greene has created a sleepytime comp, but not in a good way.

Tyler the Creator – Goblin

Never since the invention of the good ol’ Internet/blog hype machine has an artist been so lauded and built up to impossible expectations, only to release an irredeemably bad album and lose all that praise.  I mean, man.  What a terrible record.  No one has fallen harder than Tyler the Creator.  At least, not yet.

The Strokes – Angles

This album is a giant mess, with the exception of exactly three songs. Possibly worse than not living up to hype (see above) is watching an established band return after a long hiatus and produce what is arguably their worst effort yet.  We all know the first two can’t be beaten, but it would’ve been nice to see these guys try.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

It is apparent that, well inside their comfort zone, Radiohead have settled into trading in hooks for ambient experimentation and a lack of depth or cohesion.  There is nothing memorable here; the group phoned it in for their first mediocre album since Pablo Honey.  Perhaps this is a transformative period, and we can all look back and laugh at this stepping stone record.

REM – Collapse Into Now

At least Radiohead was progressive – most REM albums are always claimed to be a “back to basics” or “return to form,” but this time it’s for real.  Unfortunately, Stipe, Mills, and Buck forgot to bring the sharp melody and memorable kick back from 1995, and the result is somewhat dated and underwhelming.

The Overrated:

James Blake – S/T

This is a noble debut from an up-and-comer; it shows promise, warts and all.  Apparently the critics didn’t notice most of the album is not necessarily songs, but experimental sound and structureless production.  Maybe in the future Blake can rein it in and produce an album worthy of all the praise it’s getting.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

I guess I’m missing something here, but the sheer uninspired tone of boredom Vile likes to deliver his songs in is just grating to me.  I don’t pretend to understand why this album has received the unjust praise it’s received.

Foster the People – Torches

It’s Maroon 5 trying to replicate the hits of MGMT.  It’s repetitive.  Its success is uncanny and undeserved.  “Pumped Up Kicks” is the prime example for an album of one-note structure beating you in the head until it’s stuck in your brain.  Just because you can’t stop singing it doesn’t mean it’s good.

Juliana Barwick – The Magic Place

I have to give credit here – what Barwick has tried is pretty creative.  The main instrument here is layers of Barwick’s haunting voice, and the result is original and intriguing.  Unfortunately, it’s also frankly boring, especially for an entire album.

Bon Iver – S/T

There’s just not enough here to warrant the praise this sophomore slump has been receiving.  I feel this is a transitional album, that Vernon just needs to get his creative juices flowing again, instead of letting the celebrity status take control and half-ass a disc that only picks up on the last two tracks.

Apr 1 2011

Quarterly Review – January-March 2011

Once every three months I list the best of what I heard in albums/songs/remixes for the quarter. I do this to personally keep up with all the awesome music I hear, as it ultimately helps me at the end of the year when I do my overall listing for the previous twelve months. I also do it to introduce you cool cats to tunes you may have missed independently.

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Mar 30 2010

Review: One Wolf – One Wolf II: Secret of the Wolf

One Wolf II: Secret of the Wolf by One Wolf (unsigned, 2010)

Two years ago, when Daniel Markham split from Waiting to Derail, he changed direction completely.  He formed One Wolf, making a remarkable transformation from Whiskeytown alt-country to REM-influenced, Western-tinged rock.  Much like the local peers in Thrift Store Cowboys, Markham had come into his own, producing what could only be described as the sound of Lubbock.  Markham’s skill in pop craftsmanship was honed, but the lyrics were more introspective, the songs slower, sadder, and slightly more rock and roll than country.  It was an audible representation of West Texas; Buddy Holly would’ve been proud.

And now, with One Wolf’s sophomore release, Markham and the boys have done a 180…..again.

I spoke with Markham many months ago during a podcast interview for the now-defunct KTXT-FM.  Some favorite influences of his at the time were Nirvana, REM, Deadsy, and Starflyer 59.  So what’s the new One Wolf record sound like?  All of the above, and more.  In a word, it’s a lot LOUDER.

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Mar 23 2010

Goodbye to The Future of Rock and Roll

None of you reading will even come close to understanding what this means to me, except for maybe my former KTXT cohorts (and fellow WOXY peers).  I just finished listening to an archived mp3 I kept of Bakerman’s final words before WOXY-FM went dark in 2003.  I was listening that night, and, like today, I wept tears for the staff, listeners, bands, and friends who had lost their cool older brother – the one that introduced them to so much cool music.  I was only in high school, and I had only been listening to 97X for maybe two years – but, man, what a great station.

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