Tuesday, November 26, 2013

And... we're done!

Rather abruptly, perhaps, but I'm laying SOTW to rest to see if maybe expanding my focus will be a good idea. I do plan on continuing to focus on music as much as I can, but you can read my writing on this and plenty of other stuff now at scottowilliams.com

See ya real soon!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Does it Rock: Lorde, "Royals"

While Lorde's debut hit single may not, strictly speaking, be my thing, I respect it. It's a concerted effort to do and be different, and to make something good and distinct. It follows along the thread of recent years that saw Florence and Lana del Rey emerge, proving the market for female singers who succeed purely on vocal talent and songcraft, without as much fidelity to traditional instrumentation as an Amy Winehouse or Adele. (The threads are related but different.)

The song was just on the brink of being done for me, when something odd happened. I heard it out in the world. I was sitting in a waiting room, with the muffled sound of a Top 40 radio station playing elsewhere in the building. I was hearing some pop song or other - I think it was the one Ellie Goulding did with Calvin Harris but I'm not sure. I think Ellie's got a fine voice, but that song is not much for me. And then this one came on after it and I felt myself nodding my head... yes. It had gotten into my skin to where I could go without hearing it again ever and be very happy, but to hear it out there in the world (as opposed to at work, where it plays every 6 hours on schedule) was so palate-cleansing.

That's when I realized the value of songs like these, songs that are clearly different from run-of-the-mill pop songs, but become grating after a while anyway. At the very least, they break that monotony, and they sound way better because of it. I will never reach for Lorde over the new Arcade Fire album, but waiting to go into an office, amongst a string of otherwise undistinguished tunes, it's a welcome respite.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

R.E.M.: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage (1982-2011)

We can take as a given that there are a lot of great songs on R.E.M’s two-disc retrospective, which has seen considerable airplay on my iPod since I picked up a copy late last year. They were around for 29 years, frequently touted as one of the best and most popular alt-rock bands for no less than a decade of that, and cranked out a series of singles from 1987 through the mid-90’s that reads like a murderer’s row: “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine.)” “The One I Love.” “Stand.” “Orange Crush.” “Losing My Religion.” “Everybody Hurts.” “Man on the Moon.” I don’t have to sell these songs to you, or expound about their qualities. If you know them, you know whether you like them. They comprise an amazing, individualistic, diverse discography of singles in and of themselves. Their fifth album, Document, came out the same year I was born; these songs have literally been in the background of my entire life. I have a strange affection for “Shiny Happy People,” as much as certain parties hate it (even within the group, I hear.) This goes back to when I was in grade 5, and I heard it on an episode of “Beavis & Butt-head,” and I then taught it to my friends as simply going “Shiny happy people / Shiny happy people, baby / Shiny happy people / Shiny happy people, baby...” endlessly. I wasn’t even that far off. My version might be better. My point is that R.E.M., when the spotlight was on them for that certain period, between Document and the departure of Bill Berry due to health issues in 1997, took the opportunity to lob some of the most incredible singles to hit the Top 40, which endure today. So for that reason alone, getting all these songs gathered together in one place, this album is probably already worth your time and money. (Hint: You can buy it for only ten bucks at the store where I work.)

The set is also a great opportunity for casual listeners like me to delve deeper into the back catalogue, with a significant portion of Disc 1 devoted to the pre-Document years, where the band first became college darlings. What I kind of expected was a slow ramp-up in quality, an attempt to find the template that netted them success, a band emerging from obscurity to distinguish themselves. But really, it’s pretty damn great from the word “Go.” Sure, the early ones carry a different weight to them. Michael Stipe’s vocals are shyly mumbled and obscured, awash in jangling, cascading guitars and propulsive pop rhythm, with a shadowy, nervy mood cast over the whole thing... but right from “Gardening at Night,” they are a great band, and a damn unique one whose songs don’t seem to have lost any lustre in age. Hearing them pretty much all for the first time in the 2010s, I hadn’t quite heard anything like them before. It was a “Holy shit, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore” moment for me. They didn’t need to come of age: they were maybe even just a little ahead of their time. They have a great measure of “down to earth” and “sweeping grandeur” that just marks them in their early form as a great thing apart from other things. My particular favourites are “Radio Free Europe,” “Driver 8” and “Life and How to Live It.” A lot of what made those later singles great is present here, but it’s in embryonic, uncultivated form. Undiluted, even. If there’s only subtle developments between tracks at this early stage, it sets off a great deal of diversity in those later songs, where they made sure to pursue some new idea or angle with each major song.

The part of the set that examines their major label hit years also treats us to a great few tracks I had not had the fortune to encounter before. The wry “Pop Song 89,” the fun “Get Up” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” and the deadly yearning of “Country Feedback.” Hell, this era is so prolific for the band that they had to leave out a few notable charting singles, like “Drive” and “Bang & Blame,” which I think is fair game. The particular ones I know to be left out have not been worn by time as well as most of what’s included.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The “hits” peter out somewhat early on the second disc (I would say the last bona fide was “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” also the last representation of the band as hard-rocking for a while.) This allots a great deal of real estate to a period that the band might be tempted to disregard altogether. Instead of merely concentrating hard on the boom years, the set goes an extra mile and cherry picks fairly evenly from the band’s later years, doing a good deal of rehabilitation on a series of albums that never had much public traction. “New Test Leper” and “Electrolite,” both from the last Bill Berry album, are both mature, contemplative, downtempo tracks. They may not be there to get the party started, but it sees R.E.M. leaning into their reputation for sensitivity and intelligence, and coming up with winning results. “The Great Beyond,” from the Man on the Moon soundtrack, is a mini-masterpiece of wonderment at the universe, and “Imitation of Life” nearly rivals it. The band shows off their gift for inventive sonic textures and poetic lyrics. On “Leaving New York,” their particular brand of shy, self-effacing, circular atmospherics proves useful in evoking the tragedy of 9/11 without ever explicitly memorializing it. Considering the album that contains it, Around the Sun, is considered the band’s worst, this is a shockingly great song. Disc 2 also treats us to “Bad Day,” a fleshing-out of an 80’s outtake that later became, in a roundabout way, “End of the World.” Just like that, the juice is back: the venomous "Living Well Is The Best Revenge," the playful "Supernatural Superserious," the utterly airborne "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter." The latter is one of three tracks bestowed from their final full album, Collapse into Now, which seems to indicate a partiality. Also included are the melancholic "Oh My Heart" and the tense "Uberlin," all latter-day highlights. Three previously unreleased songs round out the set. "A Month of Saturdays," I think, shows their dry sense of humour again, and you would be hard pressed to engineer a better closing bookend than the mesmerizing "Hallelujah" or the absolutely 100% stunning "We All Go Back To Where We Belong."

Fans will like it for the way it captures the narrative of the band's beginning, middle and end. New or casual fans will be attracted to the depth and breadth of songwriting quality that rings throughout. People who are, for whatever reason, opposed to the willfully difficult nature of the band, will probably just have to go on with their lives, although I have to believe there is something on this album that will resonate with them. They are that good.

I don't have any great insight as to what this band really was, or what spurred them to create all these amazing songs. I'm just as baffled by what they were capable of now as when I only knew 9 or 10 of them. They just seem like a restlessly creative band of smart, sensitive dreamers who loved music and wanted to make the best possible versions of it that they were capable. They were exceptional when they were underground, they were working on their own level when they were pop icons, and they continued to push themselves when they had faded. That last era is of the most interest to me, because it seems like they struggle, sometimes, with understanding who they were supposed to be, as a lot of great bands do. Surely there were missteps, and if the wide net cast over their final 15 years is an indication, a lot of them, but there are those diamonds in the rough, especially at the end of the set. From beginning to end, they were onto something, something all their own. I can't understand the mindset that creates "Gardening at Night," "Orange Crush" or "Uberlin," all these songs when I examine them seem to have come from another universe. But they've been so deeply ingrained in ours, just by lasting this long, that we take for granted that this is just what music sounds like sometimes. Sometimes we know the songs, but we forget to listen to them. Putting it all together, you really see what a body of work it is. "Definitive" is really the word for this one.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Metric, "Wanderlust" (feat. Lou Reed) & Gorillaz, "Some Kind of Nature" (feat. Lou Reed)

I think one of the interesting things about Lou Reed is that, in recent years, he just seemed to turn up wherever he felt like. His list of guest appearances includes Gorillaz, Killers, Bruce Hornsby, Kevin Hearn (of BNL) and this neat track with Metric. I like to think he just wandered the countryside, visiting recording studios, popping in to see if anyone wanted to collaborate. And while this may have led to the much-disdained Lulu album with Metallica, it was still an interesting way to close out one's career.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bonus Content: Paul McCartney & Bruce Springsteen Live

I don't really have much to say about this, and I don't really have to. Sometimes when I look up videos for the site YouTube serves me things that don't really go anywhere, but I would like to give the thumbs up to anyway, so this video of Paul McCartney onstage with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band is gonna sit here anyway just radiating awesomeness.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Paul McCartney: New

This doesn't exactly sound like a veteran's album, although there aren't many who have been around the pop game longer than McCartney so I guess he's setting the pace about how good you can be 50 years into your career. You expect sappy old man music, but this isn't it by a long shot. The litmus test I have applied to New is, "What if this were the debut album from some other artist?" Discounting the defensive-reflective "Early Days," you could almost buy into it. And this hypothetical artist would be onto something. He would be lauded for getting to a Paul McCartney-like sound while also adding something new into the mix: as someone with an advanced knowledge of pop songcraft and the way things used to be/ought to be, but with their own spin and atmosphere. That's what gets me. There is a safe way to "do Paul McCartney," a certain way we expect our rock vets to comport themselves. And maybe there's some of that here: a good-natured safeness creeps in at times...but by and large it's almost daring how nakedly poppy it is. We're talking full-bodied, all-rhythm, hooky wall-of-sound classic pop. Not in a cloying way, either, but a real brassy one.

Paul McCartney has not reinvented himself by any stretch. When you've been around this long, and have done that much that is so varied, it's really just a question of which aspects of your style are you going to present at any given time? What you don't really expect, at least not right out of the gate, is an opening track like "Save Us," a buzzy, bracing, breakneck rocker that reminds us that yeah, "Cut Me Some Slack" happened. He's well aware of his toolkit, and he's not afraid to mix and match that kind of growling guitar with his quirky self-harmonizing on "Alligator." There are tracks like the Brian Wilson-like title track or "Early Days" that celebrate and acknowledge the past, and then there are ones like "Queenie Eye," which are just fun. There's an abundance of songs that sound like a way forward, like the thumping electronic "Appreciate," the grooving "I Can Bet" or "Road," which sounds lightly Arcade Fiery. Whether your enjoy this album or not, you can't accuse it of trying too hard to rehash past successes. It wins or loses on its own merits, here and now. The win column, though, for me goes on and on. "Everybody Out There," sounds like a mid-era Beatles tune covered by a modern band. "Looking At Her" is just nuts.

It announces right up front that Paul McCartney is not just interested in putting us through the paces of "being Paul McCartney." He wants you to remember that he is Paul fucking McCartney, and he has forgotten more about writing awesome music than most people ever learn. Every single type of song conceivable, he's already done. Even amidst today's diverse and experimental crop of indie popsters, one of the biggest compliments you could level is still "Hey, that sounds like something Paul McCartney did." So presented here, to take or leave, is what Paul McCartney is doing. Writing Paul McCartney music for 2013. He manages to avoid being stuck in his ways, while showing the virtues of the first principles. There are flaws if you look hard enough for them, and sometimes it feels like the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, for the most part it works within his strengths, and it's nothing I wouldn't forgive when I'm having a good time. Believe me, I'm no blind devotee: I wasn't going to like this album just because it existed and applaud Paul for just getting up in the morning. I had no intention of even checking it out until I started reading the reviews.

Albums like these are fascinating cases to write about. It's won't win new fans, and it's not designed to appeal to old ones per se, just to wake them up, to test them and see if there's room in their hearts to grow along with him. Maybe, in fact, it's for me, the 26-year-old avowed lifelong Beatlemaniac and music nerd, who wants to see what the old fella has left in him. I return to my original premise. As a Paul McCartney album in his overall discography, it's somewhere in the middle, sure. As a Paul McCartney album in 2013, it's great. If it were the same album by a new 26-year-old artist, you'd think he was a damn genius. So there's that.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cover: Charles Bradley, "Stay Away"

Charles Bradley spent years as a James Brown impersonator ("Black Velvet,") toiling in obscurity before being discovered in Brooklyn and signed to the Daptone label, who are bringing the Stax sound into the 21st century. He released his first album in 2011 at age 63. Dude's got some pipes. But the last thing I would have expected to see included on his debut album was a cover of a comparatively obscure Nirvana song.

I mean, look at the clash of styles. The other cover he chose for this set was the lyrically straightforward and directly sentimental "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young. Great tune, and the combo makes a ton of sense. But by imbuing Kurt's free-associated, oblique and angsty lyrics with a blaxploitation groove lends it an added level of danger, a certain mystique -- not that Nirvana's music is lacking danger and mystery. Her, it drones and echoes out: Stay / Stay away! Instead of a petulant "get back," is becomes a real serious warning. I don't know where the idea for this came from, but it is right.