Sweetness Follows: R.E.M. Call it a Day.

In an announcement on their website, R.E.M. has decided to hang up their hats after 31 years of being one of the most influential American bands. The news of R.E.M.’s break-up saddened me in a way I hadn’t expected. I mean, there was no horrific accident, no one died. And then I came to a sort of realization: perhaps more than any other band – more than The Beatles, more than The Clash – R.E.M. really defined my formative years.

In 1987, when I was seven or so, my family got our first CD player. It was this big behemoth machine (that looked like this), and with it we had only a handful CDs: a couple of film soundtrack compilations (Star Tracks and Time Warp, specifically), U2’s The Joshua Tree, and R.E.M.’s Document. Document is probably the album that got the least amount of play from me, though my young ears loved the unbridled enthusiasm of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” but it would take me a few years to really sink my teeth into deep cuts like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “King of Birds.” Like many, I started to really get into the band through 1991’s Out of Time, an album that found massive success from the single “Losing My Religion.”

However, eight years prior to Out of Time‘s crossover success, R.E.M. made waves with their debut Murmur, an album so enigmatic and striking, it ranks as not only one of the band’s (many) crowning achievements, but one of the best albums of the 1980s. From there, the band had an incredible run, putting out one great album per year from 1983 to 1987 – Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document – before jumping to the majors with 1988’s Green; with each album, their sound got bigger, bolder, and more dynamic. Never a band to rest on their laurels, R.E.M. challenged themselves to explore new musical territories throughout the 1990s on Out of TimeAutomatic for the People, Monster, and New Adventures in H-Fi.

The 1990s is where R.E.M. really took hold of me. Automatic, Monster, and New Adventures are three albums I never wanted to be without. While other bands I loved came and went, or fell out of favour with me, R.E.M. were always there, always on. Though other bands like The Beatles, The Clash, U2, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and The Smiths had a profound effect on my life, it was R.E.M.’s albums I looked forward to the most. Michael Stipe’s obtuse and oddly personal lyrics spoke to me in ways I can’t really explain, and the result was empowering. I felt like R.E.M.’s music was mine. Their music consoled me, gave me hope. It’s as if Stipe’s words could say more about me than I could myself.

Between releases I would go back and get acquainted with their earlier albums, which soon I would obsess over too. I discovered brilliance of Murmur, the murky, quirky folk-rock of Fables of the Reconstruction, and the sheer brilliance of the timeless-sounding Reckoning (probably my favourite R.E.M. record). I wanted to hear it all. I could barely contain my excitement when they performed “The Wake-Up Bomb” on the MTV video awards before New Adventures came out. I spent much of my time and hard earned money tracking down singles so I could hear those B sides I read about in rock magazines (I scored big when I found the single for “Bittersweet Me” with a cover of “Wichita Lineman”). Even my one R.E.M. t-shirt was my absolute favourite. (this one actually, and I wish I still had it.)

After the drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997 (he had an aneurysm on the Monster tour), the band carried on as a trio, trying to reinvent themselves time and again on subsequent albums Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. At this point, R.E.M. and I drifted apart; I enjoyed much of Up, but I was left disappointed. And to be honest, I never gave Reveal or Around the Sun a fair shake. Yet, the band proved it was still capable of surprising, turning out a very good record with 2008’s Accelerate and reaching near-greatness with this year’s Collapse Into Now. It was with Collapse Into Now that I rekindled my love of R.E.M. (just ask the missus, I’ve been listening to them non-stop all summer). A flood of memories came back while listening to “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” as if I had forgotten exactly how much R.E.M. meant to me for so many years (I almost felt bad neglecting the band in recent years). Indeed, it is sad day to see one of the greatest bands bow out of the spotlight, but their incredible legacy will be remembered for generations to come.

[by the way, this is my favourite R.E.M. song]

On the Record: Butch Walker & The Black Widows – The Spade

In some alternate universe, Butch Walker is a critical darling and a household name. In our universe, however, he’s merely the former. Cutting his teeth with the hair metal outfit Southgang in the late 80s, moving to power-pop trio Marvelous 3 in the 90s, and graduating to solo artist in the 00s, Butch Walker has remained one of the best, most consistent American songwriters of his generation, and his sixth album, The Spade, continues down that same path turning out a contender for the best straight-up rock ‘n’ roll album of 2011.

Walker’s style may not have changed very much since his Marvelous 3 days, though the modern-sounding studio polish of Left of Self-Centered has been toned down, opting for a more “classic” sound that began with 2006’s (phenomenal) The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites. Where that album saw Walker and company high on T. Rex and glammed to the nines, The Spade is littered with a heavy 70s Stones vibe; tracks like “The Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find” and the album-closing “Suckerpunched” would sound at home on any post-Exile Stones record, while the sexy swagger of “Sweethearts” channels “Beast of Burden.”

Walker has never achieved the success of his peers and the artists he’s produced (he’s never cracked the Billboard 100), but that has never stopped him from making the best and catchiest rock music possible. First single “Summer of ’89” gleefully employs a “Whoa oh ho oh oh whoa!!” Def Leppard-like refrain while looking back at his youth. Elsewhere, Walker explores new musical territory with the folky “Dublin Crow” and manages to amalgamate John Lennon and Ben Folds on the upbeat and catchy “Synthesizer.”

 

 

Lyrically Walker explores the same territory of albums past – mixing poignant observations about lost souls and unrequited love with smirking wit – ett he does it in such a way that it never feels forced or stale, thanks to his enthusiastic vocal performances and the sheer tightness of backing band The Black Widows. It’ll be hard pressed to find a better rock ‘n’ roll record in 2011.

On the Record: The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul

When The Replacement jumped to Sire with the release of Tim in 1985, they had the hopes and critical praise to make them superstars, though it never materialized. 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me was met with the same hope, yet success never found the band. So for their third major label outing, the band pulled out all the stops. On first listen, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul is far cry from the band that released classic albums like Tim or Let it Be. Gone is the sharp and often times silly sense of humour. Gone are the sloppy punk outbursts like “Tommy Get’s His Tonsils Out.” Don’t Tell a Soul is sharply crafted, polished, and the sound of a band desperately trying to sell out.

Seeing other college rock acts like R.E.M. find success in the mainstream, coupled with the band members’ sobriety led to Don’t Tell a Soul‘s creation. This is college rock at its most calculated and commercial, but coming from one of the genre’s pioneers, it still feels a little more authentic. Taking the place of the ragged punk of earlier albums, there’s a new-found sense of maturity in Paul Westerberg’s songwriting (and for better or worse points toward his solo material). Tracks like “Talent Show,” “Asking Me Lies,” and “We’ll Inherit the Earth” show an awareness – be it of self, political, or environmental – previously not seen.

But make no mistake, the album sounds forced, though it it works the majority of the time. Driven by the want – no, sheer need – for success finds the band pushing harder to develop fully realized songs than ever before. In lieu of tossed-off covers like Kiss’ “Black Diamond” from Let it Be, there’s the delicate, almost waltz-like ballad “They’re Blind,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. You can hear the desperation and sadness in Westerberg’s voice on “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” “I’ll Be You,” and “Darlin’ One,” as if the album is the band’s last chance at some semblance of success. Indeed, Don’t Tell a Soul was the last full-band effort; 1990’s All Shook Down was recorded primarily by Westerberg and studio musicians, and is The Replacements in name only.

Although, the album is not entirely successful. Songs like “Back to Back” and “I Won’t” are pretty weak and fairly unmemorable. Yet, the album marks an important chapter in the band’s history that would eventually lead to the band’s demise. It may still divide critics and fans 20 years on, but it does have a handful of great tracks (I’ll also mention the single “Achin’ to Be”) and is worthy of being acknowledged in the band’s stellar discography.

45 rpm: “Akira” – Mishima

Taking their name from the Japanese poet/author/playwright/actor/filmmaker, Waterloo/Toronto-based band Mishima announce themselves with a confident swagger on their debut single “Akira.” With its immediate and rushing chorus of “ain’t nobody gonna slow me down!” the track is a synth-driven funk-workout that moves like a freight train. Reminiscent of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk,” “Akira” is a cool, cocky, 5 minute sexy dance party. Mishima will be playing at the El Mocambo in Toronto on August 12 with The Ascot Royals and Love Banshee.

45 rpm: “Daydreamer” – Menswear

During the heyday of Britpop, every week there were seemingly endless numbers of like-sounding bands coming out of the woodwork. Menswear were signed to London Records after only three (3!) shows, and their full-length debut, Nuisance, appeared in late 1995. They gained their share of notoriety and detractors by appropriating not only the sound, but the looks of their betters like Blur and Pulp (actually, lead singer Johnny Dean kind of looks like Elastica’s Justine Frischmann). The single “Daydreamer” may be derivative of these bands, but it’s undeniably brilliant. Despite making minor waves with other singles such as “Sleeping In” and “I’ll Manage Somehow,” the band faded into obscurity, and their 1998 follw-up, Hay Tiempo!, was released only in Japan. As it stands, Menswear hold a place as a punchy, 2-minute footnote in the annuls of pop music.

45 rpm: “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” – Coldplay

If you know me, you know I am not a fan of Coldplay and their brand of white wine/dinner party rock. I do not like Chris Martin’s “rock star” posturing and the fact that he’s married to Gwyneth Paltrow (who cannot cease to annoy me). So this is just an excuse to harp on them, really. This new single, “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” (which, as a friend and colleague pointed out, is a punchline in itself) from their forthcoming album sounds as though they’re continuing down the path of 2008’s Viva la Vida. Sounding like some amalgam of Joshua Tree-era U2 and Dream Acadamy’s “Life in a Northern Town,” the video for “Every Teardrop” has an appropriately 80s feel to it, intentional or not. The funny thing is, despite its calculated nostalgic sound and overwrought, goofy, cheeseball lyrics (“I’d rather be a comma than a full stop!”), it doesn’t sound half bad. Actually, it probably would sound pretty good on the radio in 1988 sandwiched between “Life in a Northern Town” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Alas, this is not 1988 and I do not listen to the radio, so I’ll probably forget about “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” and put some U2 and Dream Academy on my iPod.

45 rpm: “Go Home and Dream” – Trap Tiger

Southern Ontario thought-pop/indie group Trap Tiger released one of 2010’s most ambitious (and best) albums with Twisted Shapes. Even with their intricate arrangements on tracks like “Go Home and Dream,” the band never gets wrapped up in naval-gazing or showing off, always keeping a keen eye on their pop sensibilities.