Tag Archives: Out of Time

Bad first songs

OK, “bad” is hyperbole in most cases here, but go with me.

A bad opener is a much rarer beast than the bad last song, at least among albums that are any good. Most artists seem to be better at recognising the best place to start than the best place to end. Nonetheless, missteps happen; some of the records I’d count among my very favourite have opening tracks that don’t quite get things rolling.

Asked to name a favourite band, I’d plump for the Beatles. Asked to pick some favourite songs, or albums, the Beatles would figure highly. But – controversial opinion alert – they weren’t always the best judges of how to get start their albums off.

Revolver has been the consensus “best” Beatles album for about 20 years, and it’s probably true that it contains the highest concentration of fantastic songs on any Beatles record. While the album is such a monolith in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that I can’t imagine any other song plausibly taking its place, Taxman has always felt like one of its weakest tracks for me. It’s full of interesting bits – the jerky, stop-start rhythm, McCartney’s bass playing and guitar solo – yet it never quite coheres into a song I find myself compelled to listen to. And while acknowledging that a 95% top rate of tax is pretty eye-watering, it’s not like the Beatles were short of cash at the time, so I can’t bring myself to care all that much for Harrison’s plight.

It wasn’t just Revolver, though. Sure, the title track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does important work in establishing the concept of the album as a whole, but it doesn’t much flatter the band. By the middle of their career, the Beatles had lost some of the dynamism and power captured in their early recordings (I’m talking strictly as players here), and there is, as Ian MacDonald observed, something about their attempts at heavy rock in the second half of their career that calls to mind a middleweight puffing themselves up in an attempt to pass for a heavyweight. Magical Mystery Tour‘s opening title song, meanwhile, is similarly unsatisfying, partly because its lyrical idea is so shopworn, and partly because there’s not much melodic development.

But let’s leave the Beatles so I can put the boot into another one of my very favourites, Joni Mitchell.

For the Roses is a pivotal and somewhat underrated album, one that is very close to my heart. It’s certainly a transitional piece (it came out between Blue and Court and Spark and shares characteristics with both), but it has a character of its own, and four or five songs that are genuine career high points. Yet its opener, Banquet, is one of Mitchell’s least successful songs: a shrill, irritating melody and a series of overwrought metaphors. I nearly always skip it. Like Taxman, which feels weak as soon as Eleanor Rigby starts, Banquet is shown up by the brilliant second track, Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

Many people would argue that Rainy Day Women gets Blonde on Blonde off to a shaky start. Me, I’m always happy to hear it. For me, the weakest Dylan openers are Desire‘s misbegotten and botched Hurricane and Nashville Skyline‘s godawful version of Girl from the North Country, a duet with Johnny Cash that brings out the worst in both singers. I’d actually prefer the album to start with Nashville Skyline Rag, which is hardly earth-shattering, but is a great deal of fun. Mel nominated Oh Mercy‘s Political World, too – I don’t know the album that well but it’s sure no Where Teardrops Fall.

Any discussion of good albums with bad first songs has to include R.E.M.’s Out of Time and its opener, Radio Song, which features a cameo from KRS One. While it has a certain goofy charm, I don’t think I could argue with anyone who suggested that the album would be better if it started with its second track, Losing My Religion. I asked my colleagues Sara and Nick to give me a couple of suggestions for bad opening songs on good albums: they both said Radio Song. So there you go. It’s unanimous.

Steely Dan’s seventies records have maybe five lacklustre songs between them, but would anyone object too strenuously if I cited Katy Lied‘s opener Black Friday as probably the album’s weakest track? Its shuffle groove is just a bit pedestrian. I almost always start listening from track two, the wonderful Bad Sneakers.

Among lesser known but, to me, very important albums, the two albums that Belly released in the 1990s, Star and King, both start with tracks I’ve never much cared for. Puberty, which begins King, just sounds messy and unfinished, and Someone to Die For, from Star, while explicable from the point of view of having what’s ultimately a slightly weird and creepy album begin with something weird and creepy, has always felt too obvious an attempt at spookiness to me; what’s so compelling about Star is that even its pop songs are a bit off-kilter. Track two, Angel, just sounds like a much more natural opener, and more representative of the band generally.

Of course, some bands have a knack of aceing it. But that’s another post.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

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25 Years of R.E.M.’s Out of Time

Let’s break up the drum posts with something different. I’ll be back next week with more underrated drum tracks.

Spin CDs send me an email every day, a little round-up of new and upcoming stock. Their algorithms have done their job well; there is, for instance, a Grateful Dead live album in almost every email (amazingly, a different one nearly every day). Right now they’re hawking the new 25th-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

We’ll skip past the 25-years stuff, as no one needs another one of my wistful gee-how-did-I-get-to-be-in-my-mid-thirties disquisitions; it’s probably only been half a dozen posts since the last one. But I will say this, Out of Time is a pretty formative album for me.

I bought it with paper-round money in, I think, early 1995, when the record was about four years old. I’d liked every song I’d ever heard by R.E.M. and while I knew more songs from Automatic for the People (Drive, Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite were all big enough hits in the UK for me to have heard them on the radio), I wanted a copy of Losing My Religion, which I knew, but not well; I guess I’d started listening more to the radio in the time between the releases of OOT and AFTP and had started to pay more attention to finding out which artists responsible for songs I liked.

Buying an album for £12.99 when you earned a tenner a week* was a big deal, so every time I bought a record, I played it to death, and didn’t purchase anything without a lot of forethought. I came to be familiar with every note of Out of Time, and it had a huge and lasting impact on my sense of what an album could be.

Out of Time stretched in all kinds of directions. It took the listener on a journey, one with unexpected digressions and tangents. The bassist sang two of its songs (one of which – Near Wild Heaven – had the temerity to be a single), while Endgame was a quasi-instrumental with a lyricless Michael Stipe vocal. Opening track Radio Song had an unlikely guest appearance from KRS One (it’s not widely loved, but I’ve always liked how they sound like they’re enjoying themselves). Low was stark, minimal and tense – not much more than Stipe’s voice, some muted guitar chords and Bill Berry’s congas. Shiny Happy People was, well, you know what it was (and I like to think it was on some level a parody). Losing my Religion was one of the great singles. Half a World Away and Country Feedback were the album’s sad, confused heart. Out of Time was by turns goofy and dark, happy and sad; up and down, high and low.

I didn’t understand when hearing it as a 13-year-old that few albums actually worked like this, that most strive for a streamlined consistency in which all the songs are good in essentially the same way. I imagined that R.E.M. were working to a formula other bands also followed. Not so. Twenty-five years later, I hear Out of Time‘s uniqueness, and love it all the more.

There’s a two-part documentary on BBC 6 Music at the moment (thanks to Sara for alerting me to it), narrated by long-time friend of the band Billy Bragg, with contributions from Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe and producer Scott Litt. Well worth a listen if you’re a fan.

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*I was a teenage guitarist in a band, so I needed to pay for my share of rehearsal-room hire costs and buy new strings, cables, etc. We practised more or less weekly (not that you’d have been able to tell), so typically I could afford a new record once a month.

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 2

Previously — our author hears What’s the Frequency Kenneth by R.E.M., wonders what the hell it all means

R.E.M., it’s safe to say, had not gone collectively mad. Several things had happened since Automatic for the People. The band had decided that, if they were going to tour, it might be good to have some bigger, louder, more arena-ready material to take with them. Bill Berry in particular had been keen to make a louder record after Out of Time, but all their strongest material was acoustic, so they recorded that instead and didn’t tour behind the album. This time round, though, he was insisting the band plug back in and turn it up. Finally, and here we’re into the realms of speculation, the emergence of Nirvana et al. over 1991 and 1992 had created a very different environment to the one in which R.E.M. had last been a working ‘rock’ band; this one was more sympathetic to them, indeed looked to them as inspiration, and they likely felt eager to align themselves with it. That Cobain died in the middle of the Monster sessions doubtless put a crimp on this, but it seems reasonable to guess it was part of their thinking when they began.

Monster‘s basic tracks were cut by Scott Litt and David Colvin on a soundstage in Atlanta, with overdubs added at Criteria in Florida, Ocean Way in LA, and Kingsway in New Orleans. This was a big-budget, protracted process, and the finished album suggests a degree of overthinking. A natural response to the idea of a making a road-ready rock album would have been to cut the album essentially live, add just the minimum of overdubs, and mix it so that the vocals were perhaps a touch sunken in, with the bass and drums forward and the guitars (maybe one each side to reflect the fact that the band would tour with a second guitarist) left to glue everything together.

That’s not quite what Monster is. The guitars, on the louder tracks, are thrust to the very front of the mix, making the rhythm section sound tiny in comparison, and leaving Stipe near inaudible. The latter is not a big deal; R.E.M. had made a lot of records at the start of their career where Stipe’s vocal was low in the mix and there’s plenty of precedent for low-mixed vocals in rock, from prime-era Stones onwards. But a rock album where the bass and drums aren’t providing the tracks’ energy and ‘push’ is not likely to be wholly satisfying. Now, whether Litt and the band decided to spotlight Buck rather than Berry because the latter’s drum tracks didn’t quite come up to snuff or (more likely) because they ‘big guitars’ was the fashionable thing to do, who can say. Litt, in any case, is not a producer noted for his work with heavy bands. But it’s noticeable how much more depth and power the drums have at the start of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (track 4) than they do on the previous three songs, simply because they’re not competing with a big wall o’Buck.

So the sound of Monster isn’t that of a straightforward rock album. But neither are the songs straightforward rock songs, in either form or content. Many critics of R.E.M. have noted that their songs often lacked really strong choruses, a strange quality given that this band was once arguably the biggest in the world. This observation is overstated on the whole, and it misses the point that R.E.M. songs work by the accretion of one small hook after another, rather than by having one big killer chorus (although they’ve done that too on occasion). But Monster does have a few songs that seem to deflate a bit they get to the chorus; Star 69 and Bang and Blame are the biggest offenders, the latter really suffering because of how promising the verse is.

That’s not true of all of its tracks, though. If Monster is, Kenneth apart, better in its softer moments (I Don’t Sleep, I Dream; Strange Currencies; and Tongue, a falsetto soul ballad that succeeds in spite of the fact that Stipe is not Al Green), its last third is its strongest. I Took Your Name, with Stipe’s arch Iggy Pop-as-corporate-drone vocal, takes the sawing tremolo guitar from Crush With Eyeliner but puts it to more intriguing use, without Thurston Moore stunt casting; Let Me In – the band’s Kurt Cobain tribute – has a beautiful, incandescent distorted guitar sound and Stipe’s most plaintive and emotionally direct vocal on the record; Circus Envy thins out the guitars and lets Bill Berry push the song on, which challenge he responds to; and album closer, You, combines a thumping floor-tom rhythm with a throbbing D-minor guitar drone and an eastern-tinged riff, finishing the album on an ominous, ambiguous note.

Monster functions as a conceptual unity, too, with song after song about the nature and fluidity of identity and sexuality, Stipe’s lyrics often seeming to run counter to the music, so that one seems to be a commentary on the other. It’s worth bearing in mind the difficulty of the task Stipe was faced with in writing lyrics for a rock album after two widely praised but often sombre and meditative records. The band may have been able to take a cue here and there from their contemporaries, but Stipe couldn’t have borrowed another writer’s idiom (whether that writer had been Eddie Vedder, Thurston Moore, Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, or anyone) without it being utterly crass and inappropriate. He had to define his own themes and style for this record, and he more or less completely succeeded. That was no small achievement.

Yet Monster will forever be known as the record that second-hand shops won’t touch; the record that 4 million people bought and 4 million people sold back. It wasn’t the triumph that Automatic was, and it’s not as various as New Adventures in Hi-Fi (on which, as a bonus, the band does sound more like a band), but it deserves a way better rep than it currently has. There probably won’t be too many ‘Monster at 20′ retrospectives this year, but if there are, let’s hope they give an undervalued and brave record a fair shake.

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This is a picture of Michael Stipe and Cher – does there have to be a reason?

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 1

I’m old enough that I can remember the original releases of albums that are now marking their 20-year anniversaries. Some of you reading this will no doubt be thinking, ‘Cry me a river, Mr So Deep’. And sure, we all hit that point eventually, but it doesn’t make it any more welcome.

I remember Monster coming out. I remember What’s the Frequency, Kenneth, too. I’d liked everything I’d heard by R.E.M. up to that point (the singles off Automatic for the People and Out of Time, plus, I later surmised, Stand, Orange Crush and The One I Love, since I recognised those songs when I first heard Document and Green in their entireties), so I was expecting more of that nice big-hearted acoustic rock music, music that was sometimes whimsical, sometimes solemn, but that pulled off the trick of being emotionally generous without being drippy, and tuneful without being trite.

Instead I got a shaven-headed Michael Stipe bouncing around while gabbling a – to me – incomprehensible lyric centred around a repeating question that I couldn’t answer (being 12 and British, I hadn’t heard the Dan Rather story, or of Dan Rather himself) over heavily distorted guitar chords.

Had R.E.M. gone collectively mad? It seemed a legitimate question to ask.

At 12, I hadn’t heard much alternative rock music, and Kenneth seemed harsh and impenetrable. What rock music I’d heard was, I guess, older 1970s stuff (Queen, maybe) or glossy 1980s LA metal. The former tended not to feature great big walls of rhythm guitar, out of which details struggled to make themselves known; the latter kept its distorted guitar tracks under control and never let them tread on the vocals. So Kenneth was initially an alienating and — later, for the same reasons — fascinating artefact to me. It was still recognisably a pop song, with little hooks that got into me and wouldn’t go away (the ‘uh huh’s; Peter Buck’s extreme tremolo guitars in the choruses), but it took time to reveal itself to me; there are still lyrics I’m unsure of. A month later, Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol came out, shortly after that I heard my brother’s copy of Nevermind for the first time and suddenly distorted guitars seemed to be everywhere in my life.

This is the result of having been a bit too young when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out – the real era of the loud guitar had been and gone already. My first exposure to the music of Nirvana came when they played a clip from Unplugged on Top of the Pops the week Cobain killed himself, so I hadn’t initially associated Nirvana with heavy rock music. Really.

I started playing guitar — rather, I started saving up to buy a guitar — after a friend of mine showed me how to play the Teen Spirit chords. At that point I became a self-defined fan of US rock above and beyond any other kind of music. But earning £11 a week from a paper round, records also had to be saved up for (or scavenged from the library) so what I chose to purchase had to be something I was confident I’d really like. The works of Nirvana first, those of R.E.M. second. I felt I could trust these guys not to let me down.

Monster would have been the third R.E.M. album I got my hands on, after Out of Time (for Losing My Religion) and Automatic. Piecing together what biographical info I could, I surmised that the band had been around 10 years or so already and had influenced bands like Nirvana, who in turn seemed to have influenced Monster. Nonetheless, the jump from Find the River to Kenneth seemed big. Monster was an album that took a long time for me to work out.

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R.E.M. in 1994. New looks for Mike Mills and Michael Stipe; Bill Berry the same as ever; Peter Buck with worse hair and more beer