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By Erik Hage

This month, a little mop-up on albums released so far in 2008 that need to be mentioned. First up, R.E.M.: What moves do they have in them after all these years? These are the godfathers of alternative rock, who started releasing important albums back when it was still called “college rock.” In my rural high school in the late ’80s, being an R.E.M. listener was either a mark of distinction or emasculation, depending upon who was viewing you. (Smiths albums, you simply hid.)

Early on, in the ’80s, R.E.M. seemed to construct their own mythology in songs that seemed outside time or place—forward-thinking but with ancient resonance. Later, they became this gigantic band, with sweeping gestures and U2-like ambition. Still later, after 1997, when drummer Bill Berry left, they became a sort of high-minded “concept” band on record, forgetting that, at their core, they had always been a band who rocked. (As anyone who has seen the feral intensity of their live shows will attest.)

Accelerate, released in April, tries to undo some of that and return to those rock roots. In ancestry, this album is closest to 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, which remains my favorite. With ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin and old guitar ally Scott McCaughey on board, the group offer a kiln blast of literate guitar scorchers: “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” “Man-Sized Wreath,” “Supernatural Superserious.”

Michael Stipe’s voice sounds big, primordial and dangerous again, and Mike Mills, the most distinctive backing singer ever, howls and whines like a cherub. Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey slash unspecifically, laying guitar heat everywhere. At times, it sounds convincing; at others it sounds calculated, like a group laying into it for dear life while spinning on the rim of obsolescence. Their best album in over a decade? Sure. Let’s leave it at that.

One of my favorite albums of the year so far comes from the Last Shadow Puppets, a side project between Arctic Monkeys leader Alex Turner and Miles Kane, a Liverpool musician from a band you’ve never heard of. Turner is a strikingly young man (he was born the year Lifes Rich Pageant came out) yet rhymes about affairs of the heart like a middle-aged intellectual attuned to Raymond Carver and John Cheever. (And that was just with the Arctic Monkeys.) On The Age of the Understatement, Turner and Kane luxuriate in sweeping, strings-buffeted chamber-pop that calls to mind the heyday of Burt Bacharach or the brief window of time in the mid-’60s when the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” was in the hearts of sophisticated lovers everywhere. But these pixie-voiced Northern Brits also make something unique, their collaboration bearing richest fruit in the distilled and perfect two minutes of “Standing Next to Me.”

Back to the Athens, Ga., oldsters: The B-52’s are back with Funplex, and there is something immutable about this band. They still sound like no one else and still sound the same: Fred Schneider’s gay carnival barker shouts, the H.R. Pufnstuf siren calls of Cindy and Kate, the wobbly guitars. The B-52’s don’t aspire to much more than making fun party music (completely lacking edginess and danger). This one, like all of the others, is a whole lot of fun and completely appropriate for the occasion. 30 years and counting, with trends having come and gone: God bless ’em.

In 2007, another enduring phenom, Nick Cave—who is also fun, in his own creepy way—returned to the dark and primitive sludge of the Birthday Party with his Grinderman side project. He maintains some of that savage edge with the most recent album with the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! There is some of the scalding edge of Iggy and the Stooges here (“Albert Goes West”), as well as some freaky horror music (“Night of the Lotus Eaters”). Elsewhere, there’s simply some trippy, groovy darkness (“Midnight Man,” which I swear has a faint echo of Duran Duran’s “Rio”). Not for the uninitiated, but for those keyed in to Cave’s gleeful blackness, it’s ambrosia.

During the Foo Fighters’ set at the recent Who tribute on VH1, Supergrass singer Gaz Coombes took over vocals on “Bargain” and just a-ripped it open. It reminded me to check up on what that other band from Oxford, England (not Radiohead), have been up to. Supergrass have been churning out ambitious, snappy fuzz-pop since 1994, and Diamond Hoo Ha shows them to be doggedly consistent: never blowing your mind, but remaining cheeky, hard-edged and smart. “Bad Blood” is tough and ragged, while “Diamond Hoo Ha” is a fascinating blend of crotch-rock wallop and complex dynamics.

Jack White’s Raconteurs possess the same contrast of brains and roughness. Those who thought the White Stripes svengali was just dabbling on the side for a one-off were wrong, and with co-conspirator Brendan Benson at his side, they’re back with Consolers of the Lonely. “Salute Your Solution” sounds like the Beastie Boys tackling Quadrophenia-era Who, and it really works. “You Don’t Understand Me” flips the tables: It’s a stadium-sized, eyes-scrunched-shut, ’70s-rock anthem. “The Switch and the Spur” sounds like it belongs on a lost psych-era rock-opera album, either the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow. (Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all night, pulling obscure references out of my ass. Please tip your waitress.) “Rich Kid Blues” is just crazy—it sounds like Southern rock during a psychotic breakdown. There’s so much scope on the album, it’s hard to take in. A double-live album would congeal things for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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