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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

Having lived through such fare as “Everybody Hurts” and the Icarus-bound attempts to become the American U2, it’s easy to forget what a mysterious and interesting band R.E.M. were in their nascent years. It was a group of strange contrasts: Peter Buck’s earthy, guy-around-town demeanor cutting against Michael Stipe’s cipher-like personality—with his ultra-serious, art- student pose, cupie-bow lips, and shoulder length curls. As a singer and lyricist, Stipe muttered esoteric platitudes through gravelly pipes, Mike Mills’ sunny counter-cries coming off like a clarion call. Underpinning it all was beetle-browed drummer Bill Berry, who seemed like a downhome Georgia boy, a real, ballsy rock drummer in the wrong band.

There was a tinge of Southern-gothic strangeness, something Americana (but not quite) about R.E.M. There was something kinda-sorta like the Byrds in Peter Buck’s hamfisted but just-right Rickenbacker arpeggios. And beneath all the jangle-pop charm lay stirring emotional resonance. Then there were the words. If you could decipher Stipe’s lyrics at all, they flooded your ear like cryptograms. Reckoning (1984), the band’s second album, came at you in its opening moments with: “They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off/A handshake is worthy if it’s all that you’ve got/Metal shivs on wood push through our back/There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads ‘re-act’” (from “Harborcoat”). It was clear though that the words had been laid carefully, stone by stone.

More so than its wonderfully murky and arcane antecedent, Murmur, Reckoning was an album about propulsion, about displaying the drive the band possessed live. But hampering the LP all of these years has been the tinny sound, which this deluxe reissue makes right. Pitchfork gave this rerelease a grade of 10 out of 10, and I imagine it is that cataclysmic if you’re a Twittering indie-rock fashionista who spends all day listening to Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio; otherwise, a more levelheaded perspective recognizes it as a slab of greatness on the way to the unremitting power of Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and Document (1987).

But the remastering gives it a new kick, infusing the burner “Pretty Persuasion” with the burst its always needed, and casting the burnished tones of “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” in richer light. The extras are interesting if not essential: a strapping 1984 concert from Chicago, the most interesting aspect of which is the inclusion of the tracks “Driver 8” and “Hyena,” which wouldn’t end up on record until 1985 and 1986 (respectively).

If this reissue pushes my nostalgia buttons because it reminds me of what R.E.M. used to sound like, Dinosaur Jr.’s new effort, Farm, sends me back to halcyon days because they haven’t changed the template at all. And on paper it’s not supposed to work: a cloudburst of guitar scrum with J Mascis’ voice creaking like a hinge through the songs, interrupted only by Mascis’ frequent, pealing forays into guitar-hero wankery. But it does work.

Back in 1989, Mascis had unceremoniously expelled bassist-songwriter (and eventual Sebadoh and Folk Implosion wunderkind) Lou Barlow from the group, but in 2005 the originals reconvened. 2007’s Beyond was terrific, and this is too—mostly because of Mascis’ downright soulfulness. Yes, soul; that’s what makes this stormy, dense alt-rock work. It’s there in Mascis’ wobbly but meaningful vocal delivery and in the way he squeezes every ounce out of his Fender Jazzmaster, jettisoning between roiling distortion walls and pointed, poker-hot leads and solos. The melodic burst of the opener “Pieces” is already classic Dinosaur Jr., but then Mascis lights off on a bright, skipping solo that takes it to exhilarating heights.

On the nearly eight-minute slow burner, “Said the People,” Mascis really displays the “soul” thing I’ve been talking about, with his most felt vocal ever on record and titanic solos that just keep cresting from emotional rise to emotional rise. I’m sorry: Did Wilco release an album recently? I must have missed it while listening to Farm—album of the year.

Young South Carolina singer-songwriter Trevor Hall has released a fine album as well (out July 28th on Vanguard). He sings in a groovy Jamaican-patois but somehow steers clear of the Jack Johnson-like blandness that afflicts so many of his ilk. Listening to his self-titled LP, which is fraught with themes of peace and cultural acceptance, I am reminded of artists such as Dave Wakeling (English Beat, General Public) and Peter Gabriel, artists who have blurred, blended, and ultimately dissolved musical color barriers on the way to crafting great pop songs. It’s no accident that this album’s great single “Unity” is a cowrite and performance with Hasidic Jewish reggae-rap-singer Matisyahu. The LP also has a grandiose, full production bed that showcases the pop-rock elements that reside in Hall’s muse, as evidenced by the powerful U2-like bombast of “Volume.”

Our final album, Grand Duchy’s Petits Fours, returns me a bit to the nostalgia trip, as it’s a collaboration between Pixies leader Frank Black and his wife, Violet Clark. (Clark has previously appeared on a couple of Black’s solo albums.) Here, Clark shares vocal duties with her more famous husband, and her influence brings aboard more synthesizers and electronic touches than Black would typically ever get near. All in all, though, the effort falls flat. The more grungy, rocking “Come On Over to My House” reminds me a bit of Toadies’ 1994 alt-hit “Possum Kingdom” (which, well, borrowed from the Pixies, so I don’t know what to do with that), while the throbby, electronica bed of “Ermesinde” simply doesn’t work with Black’s vocal approach. Clark adds a real Kim Deal-like give-and-take to the proceedings at times, but it just makes you pine for the real thing, while her Europop-isms simply seem way out of place.

 

 

 


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