Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Goodbye Bloggers, Hello Wordpressers

Whoa hey! Where are the updates! Whatever happened to the Sean Rose!

Well... life happened.

Or, more accurately, Wordpress happened.

Yeah! That is the link to the new blog. Update those RSS feeds cuz this one is gonna be a dead duck. If you've been holdin onto this Blogger business thinking I had given up on reviews, not so! I've been updating semi-consistently since July and I just plum forgot to mention it here. Whoopsy-boop.

I will miss Blogger. I will. Despite all the horrible spam comments that somehow won't slow up even after putting in a captcha, I will miss this hallowed ground. I maintained a blog on this thing for a solid 5 years. I was 18 when I started this thing. Blogger has housed some of my most startling, embarrassing growing pains as a writer, and I will never forget that.

Good news is that every music review I have written since I was 18 can be found on the new Wordpress blog, for better or for worse. Everything that I found too non-music related - or simply too embarrassing - did not make the cut, but if you're sadistic you can still find them here in all their awkward glory. You can also continue to freely comment on my old Robert Christgau post, which has been consistently getting comments for the past three fucking years and currently shows no signs of slowing (you can also find it by googling "robert christgau is an idiot," which is no small feat).

What else. I'm kind of starting to update my Tumblr again so check that out here. The Wordpress blog might not look great for a while, but I assure you I am workin on that. Hm.

That's it, I guess! Sleep sweely, sweet Blogger. Thnks Fr Th Mmrs.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Just Fucking Give Me An Album To Review Already

Oh boy! It's all come down to this!!

So I've decided to start taking requests for album reviews again. Aren't you excited?? Oh man I bet you are excited.

I'm not going to lie to you - I am only opening up requests again for purely greedy reasons. I am out of ideas for reviews and want people to throw a bunch of new music at me so I can get motivated to write some posts that are not completely fucking boring. I am currently in a situation where I kind of don't know what I want to write about anymore, so here it is, your chance to mold this dying blog into thine own image.

Whatever the heck you want, man. Gimme an album and I'll review it here. That is the name of the game. What am I doing?? I'm doing nothing. I'll review your fucking album. I've done this a couple of times before so most people who read this blog probably know the drill, but just in case here are some basic ground rules:

-Albums only. I am not doing song reviews or discography reviews or anything like that. I like albums and only want to review albums right now. EPs count because why the heck not.

-Don't expect me to like / dislike whatever you request. It's gonna just be my opinion and that's it! I'm fulla opinions, you better lookout, oh MAAAAAN

-Don't request your own music. It is impossible for me to say this and not sound like a dick, but it has to be said. I have gotten a pretty surprising amount of people asking me to review albums by their own band the last couple times I opened up requests, and I just can't do it and will never do it. It's nothing personal - I just don't feel comfortable doing it, at all. Never have. I would either end up chickening out and not writing an honest review out of courtesy (which nobody wants), or give a too-honest review and feel like shit about it. So just to make it clear: even if you tell me you really want me to review your own music and that you want my honest opinion, I am not going to do it. I'm sorry and I love you.

-If you are requesting an album that is hard to find, please send it to me or provide me with a download link. This is pretty basic and has never been a problem before, so I probably don't even need to mention it. You guys are cool.

-I might not get to your request at all. The last time I did this I reviewed every album that was requested of me, in the order they were requested. I am not going to do that this time. It's gonna be all willy nilly. Sorry fellahs! Hearts were made to be broken!!

-Please request solo albums by former boy band members. Just fucking do it. I'll do it. I want to do it. I want you to ask me to do it.

-Please do not be upset or surprised if I only review boy band solo album requests and ignore all other requests. About a 65% chance of this happening.

-Please do not be upset or surprised if I only review boy band solo albums of my own choosing and ignore all requests. About a 71% chance of this happening.

OK that's probably it. If you want me to request an album, post it in the comments for this post. Or email it to me at spydabass@gmail.com. If you wanna post it on Facebook or tweet it at me that is mostly ok, but harder for me to keep track of. The comments page here is way easier for me. So be a bro and THROW YOUR MUSIC AT ME. MY STATUS AS A MUSIC WRITING GUY DEPENDS ON IT.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Album Review: "Screamadelica" by Primal Scream

This week I was most definitely going to write a review of a couple Robyn albums simultaneously but right now I'm not doing it. This is because I don't want my Robyn review to be terrible, which is what it would likely be if I tried to write it in state I am currently in. So what I'll write instead is a review of this album I liked a lot in college and that I'm pretty certain I already wrote a review for a couple years ago for a blog that is not this one.

Let me relate, to you, a story. I look back on my first year of college with an irrational wellspring of fondness, but the truth is that at the time I was not in good shape. I was out of my element, see. I was surrounded by a large group of young people (my age, obviously) who drank and smoked and had sex and went places at night. I did none of these things in spades. I didn't go out to a college party until a few months into my first semester, and even then I detached myself so thoroughly from the proceedings that I'm sure I just came across as a sheltered dweeb. The first college party I remember attending consisted of me ambling around outside of a log cabin in the middle of the woods while a party raged inside. I don't remember exactly why I didn't go in - I think I was too scared. Or nervous. Or waiting for a friend of mine to come outside and recognize me. Either way I ended up hanging around outside for a little over half an hour before I finally turned around and left. I walked through the woods and back to my dorm and fell asleep. Parties did not get much better for me over the next year.

I don't know why I'm talking about any of this. But I know that I was listening to Scremadelica a whole bunch during this time. To put it bluntly, Scremadelica was the sound of the incredible party I imagined everybody else was having that I was never having, ever. Which might explain why it appealed to me so much then and why it still appeals to me now. It is the same reason dance music in general has been an obsession of mine since I was a kid - because it represents the fantastic, utopian never-ending night out I always wanted to have, the one that deep down I still kind of hope I'm going to have, every time I go out. With every stupid fiber of my heart. But of course it has never happened and never will happen.

So I guess in a way I - and everybody else , for that matter - should hate albums like Scremadelica for infecting us with this obnoxious impossible fantasy. Because the truth is that nobody is having as much fun as I think they are. Most people are bored most of the time and listen to records like Screamadelica for the exact same reasons I do - so they can feel like they are the kind of person who would take ecstacy and go to clubs on Saturday nights.

I'm painting Screamadelica as the ultimate escapist fantasy. Which it isn't, and I apologize. I'm not sure why I'm writing all of this about Screamadelica and not about that last Kylie Minogue album, which is probably one of the most effective pieces of dance-floor fantasy ever released. This would also be a pretty excellent place to segue into a Robyn review, if this were a Robyn review. Her style is almost anti-escapist, you see. But this isn't a Robyn review, so I'm not going to waste your time with that now.

Either way, it is hard for me to write critically about a record like Screamadelica because it evokes a time and place so strongly for me that I can't imagine I would see it the same way you would. If I heard it for the first time today I would probably never listen to it again. I have almost no desire to seek out anything else Primal Scream has ever done for this very reason. The Beta Band's Three E.P.s occupies a similar place in my mind, which is why hearing their next couple records for the first time recently did almost nothing for me. You're expecting to replicate that memory, the same feeling you got listening to these records when you were 18, but it's not going to happen. Too much to live up to.

Having said all of this, "Loaded" is most likely the greatest song ever recorded.

Monday, March 14, 2011

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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Album Review: "The King Of Limbs" by Radiohead

I like Radiohead. I wrote a thing about Radiohead once, but that was like three years ago so I would recommend you not click on that link I just took the time to link. I figure maybe I should tell you what I feel about The King Of Limbs because if I could single out one thing the internet is sorely lacking, it is opinions about Radiohead.

I haven't listened through King Of Limbs in a couple of days but I remember it being good to the ears. Right now I am listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac and I kind of don't feel like turning it off to listen to King Of Limbs again. So in summary, the new Radiohead album is pretty good, but not good enough to make you want to stop Tusk just to hear it again for review purposes.


Aha, OK! Just joshin ya. Hey! You remember how In Rainbows was kind of hushed and mellow most of the time, to the point where Sean Rose sorta didn't care about it for a while until maybe a few months ago and now he likes it a lot for the most part? King Of Limbs is kinda like that, only with a lotta less guitars. Less melodies, too. One might be tempted to label it a throwback to their Kid A/Amnesiac creeper-mood period, but that isn't quite the case here. King Of Limbs sounds different - the emotional stakes are lower, I guess. Yorke's vocals blend with the music more. Kid A was all about pushing the listener into despairing, uncomfortable territory; King Of Limbs just kind of sifts through you, to the point where you will probably not remember most of it until you have forced yourself to listen to it a few times. Give it a few gos. I am not going to deny that it is an album that sounds good, though.

I'm starting to realize that I am not very good at describing music at all. Kind of a problem when music is the only thing I feel comfortable writing about, correct?? "The drums are good." "Creepy electronics all over the place sound creepy." "I like the guitary guitars on this guitar-driven track." This is something I am going to work on.

You know what's a great song? "Give Up The Ghost." OOh, it's like Thom Yorke and Sean Rose are sitting alone in the woods together, reminiscing about our favorite Charlie one-liners in Two And A Half Men. Hey, "Separator," who likes that pretty blippy guitar line near the end?? That's the aural equivalent of Thom Yorke and Sean Rose sharing a chocolate malted at Margie's and imitating our favorite exasperated Jon Cryer facial expressions from Two And A Half Men's landmark third season. "Morning Mr. Magpie"? That's like a third joke about Thom Yorke and Sean Rose talking about Two And A Half Men.

OK, I just made a mistake and started reading that old Radiohead post I linked and I need to point something out before I forget about it. Because, seriously:

"...the fact that they're the choice 'progressive' band for Sublime-loving frat boys only makes matters worse."

Where in God's name did I get this from? What does this even mean? "Sublime-loving frat boys"?? Yikes. I must have been mad at somebody. I must have had a crush on a lady. Something was up. You have to understand - I like to make rash generalizations about things I know nothing about. So what happened here was, I probably saw an In Rainbows poster in the dorm room of some dude I wasn't fond of, and then I sat down and wrote a blog post about it. I was 21 when I wrote that, for Christ's sake! That's something a 16-year-old shouldn't write.

In conclusion, The King Of Limbs is the music album equivalent of Two And A Half Men's tragic cancellation. What else needs to be said?

Monday, February 14, 2011

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

Monday, January 24, 2011

Album Review: "Goat's Head Soup" by the Rolling Stones

Get this out of the way: anybody claiming that the Stones "lost it" after Exile is a liar who has probably not heard a single Stones album after Exile anyway. Goat's Head Soup is a terrible name for an album, with a fat-butt-ugly cover. There is almost no dignity in having to tell people that the lost gem in the Stones' catalog is called Goat's Head Soup, with a picture of creeper Mick Jagger bathing in mustard on the sleeve. Nobody would want to even look at this fucking thing, let alone pull the insides out of the sleeve and put in on a turntable!! But almost every song is gorgeous and it's a disservice, it is, to not give it a shot.

This is my post-college Stones album. This isn't a review anymore! It's me getting personal again because I don't want to write a review so you will have to accept this. If Exile was the rockin' frat party, Goat's is the hangover. "But the hangover was the second half of Exile!" you say. You're right! Good on you. OK. Goat's is the hangover of the hangover. Second half of Exile is the hangover at 9 A.M., Goat's is the hangover at 4 P.M., still lingering. The dull headache. It's time to stop writing like I'm 20 years old.

"Winter" is the most gorgeous song anybody could write! "Sliding out of perhaps the greatest winning streak in rock history, the Stones slipped into decadence and rock star excess with Goats Head Soup" what a load. Any record with "Winter" on it gets 4 and a half stars from me on principle alone. The rest of the tracks could be Cage The Elephant for all I fucking care. But somehow they aren't!!

" yet the extra layer of gloss brings out the enunciated lyrics, added strings, wah-wah guitars, explicit sex, and violence, making it all seem trippily decadent." Trippily decadent. "they cap off this utterly excessive album with "Star Star" how one man can generalize to such an incredible degree over and over again is astounding to me. There is nothing decadent about "Coming Down Again," or "Can You Hear The Music." "Silver Train" is just goofy, "Star Star" is funny! " And, it never feels more at home than it does at the end of this excessive record." You were on a deadline weren't you.

Mick Taylor was still in the band! Come on! The guy was THERE.

And on that note I have done absolutely the best possible job anybody could do of convincing the world of Goat's Head Soup's greatness. What's the secret to my success?? I've been listening to Rod Stewart's 1974 LP classic Smiler this whole time, the finest rock LP ever to grace this earth. Nothing gets me in "the mood" to "rock" some "roll" better than "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man" and "Dixie Toot." Just those two tracks - over and over again!!

Monday, January 10, 2011

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.