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.